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5 Ways Moderation Gets in the Way of Real Progress

Strategies and goals


I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of advice over time warning me not to push too hard at anything: “You have to ease into it” … “Moderation in all things” … “One step at a time.” It’s folk wisdom, founded in neither exceptional experience nor careful examination of the facts, and in many cases following it will ruin your chances at making any real progress toward your goals.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways that moderation applies. For instance, trying to pay a lot of attention to more than one thing at a time is a doomed approach to making big changes in your life. Also, it’s sometimes necessary to take things in steps for safety’s sake, like not trying to go directly from no exercise program to extremely intense workouts. Apart from that, it’s just plain bad advice, and there are five reasons that’s so.

1. The status quo likes to be kept
The habits you already have, the situation you’re already in, and the choices you’re used to making are deeply ingrained. We’ve piled on connections in our brains to strengthen certain behaviors–these are our habits–and those strong behaviors need a lot of effort to overcome. The people in our lives expect us to act certain ways and may get anxious or even interfere if we change, even if we change in a healthy way. Activities we’re not used to turn out to have complications we haven’t solved yet and requirements we didn’t know about. Even a body that’s used to maintaining or increasing fat stores has physical mechanisms to prevent losing those fat stores too easily. If we want to overcome these obstacles, the most effective approach is usually to push hard–not to try something small and see if it makes an impact, because often it won’t.

2. Habits form much more quickly when behaviors are repeated close together
I’ve mentioned in a post about habit formation that in a study designed to determine how long it took people to form new habits, the only people who were actually successful at forming new habits during the study period were those who repeated the desired behavior virtually every single day. It is possible to form a habit by doing something three times a week or every four or five days, but it will take much, much longer than if you do that thing daily, and the results will take much longer to show.

3. Intense work on a goal provides quicker rewards
One of the problems with trying to change habits or pursue a goal is that often it’s hard to see whether we’re making progress, and if so, how much. This can easily lead to discouragement and apathy. By contrast, if we throw ourselves into working on a goal, the results are faster, more dramatic, and more motivating.

4. Immersion fosters momentum, focus, and smarter choices
When we are very active with something, working hard at it, we become immersed in that activity: we think about it more, we tend to become more committed to it, and we become more aware of opportunities. We also create momentum. For example, a writer who writes every day doesn’t have to spend the first part of each writing session brushing up on what went before, getting plans back in mind, etc.: the memories of the work are fairly fresh and therefore more detailed and easier to access.

When we’re more involved in a goal and therefore thinking about it more, we also make more connections in our minds regarding the goal and think of more ways to further our intentions.

5. Hard work makes goals into rules
I’ve talked elsewhere about how rules promote better self-control. The short version is this: if you have a rule that you’re trying to follow, and if the rule is well-designed, then whenever the rule applies, your choice is both clear-cut and obvious.

Of course, having a rule doesn’t automatically mean you’ll follow that rule all the time, but it does make it much more likely than if you didn’t have a rule. Without rules, we tend to talk ourselves into sticking with the behaviors we’re used to more often, which is not an effective way to change habits or improve our lives.

Doing hard work on a goal every day takes a lot of the waffling out of choices about that goal. For example, if I decide to do 30 minutes of filing in my office every day until my files are pristine, then I never have to ask myself “Should I do some filing today? I don’t know … there’s so much other stuff I need to get done …” Instead, I simply ask myself when I’m going to start. A lot of the nonsense gets brushed aside.

Sound extreme?
Does this kind of no-moderation approach sound extreme? If so, you’ve understood me perfectly. Extreme effort has a much better chance of providing meaningful progress than trying to ease in slowly, and yes, it can be a lot to get used to at first. But if you’ve ever had trouble making real progress toward a goal, ask yourself how hard you’ve pushed. If you’ve tried taking it easy on yourself, consider trying again–and this time not holding anything back. For most of us, going flat out will result in some discomfort, but the same is true even of moderate approaches. With an extreme approach, much of the early effort will pay off even if things aren’t done perfectly, and you won’t be left wondering any more whether change is possible, because you’ll see the evidence in front of you.

Photo by renatela

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