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The Myth of Just Trying Harder

Strategies and goals

It’s a common idea in our culture that we can do better if we just try harder. And it’s true that the more times we try something, the more likely we are to succeed, so that’s useful. It’s also true that sometimes a person’s point of view can change, and they can find themselves much more driven to accomplish something they haven’t been able to do before, like the smoker who has a heart attack and finds her attention focused on getting healthy in a new and powerful way. Yet usually, “just trying harder” is worse than useless. Here’s why.

The idea of “just trying harder” assumes that a person wasn’t trying as hard as they were inclined to already. “Trying harder” is based on the idea that we have some power, some reserve of will, that we’re holding back and have simply not deigned to use, even though we could use it at any time we wanted. For most of us, in most situations, that’s not the case: we’re using all the motivation we can muster. Trying harder is a nice idea, but not something that is really going to emerge, because the next time we’re presented with the same situation, we’re likely to be about the same person with about the same priorities and about the same resources, following about the same habits for about the same reasons. All of which means that we can expect our results to be about the same.

Fortunately, there is another option. Instead of trying harder, we have the option of trying differently.

Trying differently means paying attention to different aspects of our situation, choosing to think different thoughts, and following different procedures. Here are some specific ways in which we can do things differently:

  • Mindfulness: When the problem situation comes up again, we take a moment to reflect on what we’re thinking, on what our values are, and on patterns we’re following.
  • Idea repair: This one goes well with mindfulness, and involves detecting and then repairing misleading and destructive thoughts when we allow ourselves to think them.
  • Planning: Planning how to act in advance, like setting aside extra time before leaving for an appointment to avoid running late, can provide options that under normal circumstances aren’t available.
  • Redirecting: When a problem situation comes up, instead of putting our efforts into trying to resist the behavior we don’t want, we can focus our attention on the behavior we do want, especially the positive things about it.

These aren’t the only approaches that can empower us to act differently, although they are some of the most useful. The key thing to take away here is that failure is often not so much a sign of weakness or limitation or of not trying hard enough as it is a sign that next time, another approach might make all the difference in the world.

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