When it comes to setting goals and trying to get better, most of us inherently gravitate towards effort. We think we just need to put forth more effort in order to succeed.
Effort is important. Without at least some effort any attempt at improvement will likely fail. But because most people only know effort-based execution, they can’t see the horrible limitations that are imposed if all we can do is give more effort.
In It’s Not About the Shark by David Niven, Ph.D., the author tackles this fallacy head on. He says, “Think about what every coach you’ve ever had has told you: Try harder. What every teacher you have ever had has told you: Try harder. What your parents, your boss, and Dear Abby told you: Try harder. It is received wisdom that the difference between winning and losing is effort.”
He goes to explain why, “But effort and incentives focus our attention on the problem at hand… And focusing on whatever problem we are having doesn’t fix the problem. In fact, high effort and high incentives make us more likely to get frustrated and less likely to persist.”
He says, “Focusing on a problem is an unproductive habit. But it’s a habit that draws us in, because problems are compelling.”
There is a concept in systems thinking called compensating feedback. Compensating feedback occurs when a system is moving in one direction and then seems to halt. The more of the force that is driving the system forward the more the resisting force that pushes in the opposite direction.
Most people that face compensating feedback try to out-work the problem and use effort to move them forward. But the balancing force gets more powerful instead of less powerful as it encounters increasing force.
Basically this can be thought of as trying to run through a brick wall. If we run for a mile and then run into a wall, it doesn’t matter how much harder we try to push through the wall, it won’t budge. We have to find another way around the wall, one that doesn’t just encompass pushing the wall over. But what do we say about high performers and those that will work harder and harder to see a goal achieved? We say they would run through a brick wall to get there.
In reality compensating feedback is best addressed, not by increased effort, but by figuring out what is driving the resisting force and then decreasing that force.
Example of compensating feedback
Niven gives the example of Urban Meyer. Meyer is an incredibly successful football coach but has had documented issues around working too hard. It got to a point where his hard work was actually starting to have a negative impact on his success. Working harder meant missing important parts of team-building, family life, and taking care of his health. When the balancing feedback loops started he couldn’t just put forth more effort and work harder to get past them. He had to decrease the balancing forces in order to move forward.
But it isn’t just famous football coaches that run into balancing feedback loops that start to hurt our chances of success. We all do.
We start to exercise to lose weight but the additional calories burned results in feeling more hungry than normal. The attempt to save money and buy an old car turns into a money pit to get it back on the road after it breaks down.
We stay late at work to finish a project and slowly it turns into staying late every night in order to keep up. We move up the corporate ladder by being willing to jump into every problem and help find a solution but suddenly our team is too big and we can’t do it all by our self.
Better ways to approach improvement
By using systems and habits to reach our goals we can start to use these systems thinking concepts to help us move past obstacles quicker and spin our tires less. It allows us to see these common pitfalls and gives insight into better ways to tackle issues. It doesn’t mean that we won’t run up against compensating feedback. It just means that we will hopefully recognize it sooner and then know the areas to attack to overcome it, instead of thoughtlessly using effort as our only way to improve.
At the core of the systems and habits approach to improvement is to slowly build new habits that drive you towards success. This often means starting slowly with small amounts of effort instead of expending all of your effort in the beginning, only to run out and not be able to sustain any effort to keep going.
By going slowly and shifting the focus to be on solidifying a new habit, what you are doing is using effort to keep going but not expecting effort to do it all. By initially taking very small steps, you increase the odds that you can keep going long enough to form a habit. Once it is a habit, then the driving force to keep going isn’t effort. Instead the autopilot kicks on and you keep going towards your goal without having to constantly think about it and constantly put forth the effort to keep going.
When sheer effort fails turn to systems and habits
If you are striving to reach a goal and find yourself in a position where effort alone just isn’t working, change direction. Instead of committing to long, grueling workouts a few times a week, commit to a very short, easy workout every day. Doing this, it will start to feel easy and automatic. It will be easier to keep going since each workout is short and easy.
Once you find yourself doing it without even thinking about it too much and doing it automatically, then start to use effort to increase what you are doing. Slowly increase and then systematize. Do that over and over and over.
It will take a long time but in the end you can significantly improve yourself in almost any area by using this approach. And once you accomplish your goal, you won’t regress immediately because the new habits will keep you going in the right direction.