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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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Resistance Really Is Useless: Why Willpower Isn’t About Fighting Ourselves

Strategies and goals

Here’s a common idea of what willpower is. Does it sound familiar?

You’re faced with a choice, like french fries versus carrot sticks or cleaning the house versus dropping onto the couch and watching TV. One of the choices is the one you’d like to actually do now, and the other one is the one you know you’ll wish you had chosen later. So a battle commences between the good choice and the bad choice, and according to this line of thinking willpower means using plain force of character to conquer the bad choice and make the good choice win.

The problem with the idea that willpower as a struggle against bad impulses is that it lines the situation up so that a lot of the time, we lose. People who successfully make the good choices, the choices that lead to long-term happiness instead of short-term pleasure, are not fighting those same fights and winning: they’re pulling the situation apart and preventing the fight from ever occurring.

Just how this works begins to come clear when we look at the kind of thinking that goes into each approach. Let’s take the example of cleaning the house versus watching TV. With the fighting approach, some typical thoughts might be “I really should clean the house, but I don’t want to. I just feel like flopping down on the couch and watching TV. But I need to clean the house! Then again, I’ve had a lousy day, and I deserve at a little rest …”

These kinds of situations lend themselves to generating broken ideas, which tend to derail good choices. Also, thinking about a good choice vs. a bad choice as a struggle tends to lead to focusing on the negatives of the good choice, which is exactly the reverse of what we want, because it makes it harder to care about the good choice.

What’s the alternative? Focusing on small steps toward and attractive things about the good choice. An example of a small step: “Maybe I could just start by putting the books away. That should only take a few minutes.” Something attractive about the good choice might be visualizing how it would feel to wake up the next morning to a clean house or thinking about what kind of music to play while cleaning the stove. Anything that makes the good choice more appealing, interesting, or absorbing, and anything that launches us down the path of starting to act out the good choice, makes the good choice noticeably easier.

It’s clear that as humans, we like to think about pleasant things and don’t like to think about unpleasant things. If we direct our energies toward thinking up pleasant things about the smarter choice rather than toward brainstorming the reasons we don’t want to take that smarter choice, not only are we much more likely to take the smarter choice, but it will be easier and less tiring to do so. This is part of what I talk about in my article “Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?” Willpower seems finite if it’s a force we have to bring to bear in fight after fight. If instead it’s a different way of looking at things, why should it ever get used up or diminished? In fact, the more we use willpower in the sense I mean it here, the better we get at it, and therefore the stronger the willpower gets.

In other words, instead of likening willpower to a muscle we tire out with use but build up over time, we might want to think of it more as a language we learn, as a skill that gets stronger the more we use it, without having to fight ourselves. After all, if we’re fighting ourselves, who is there to lose the battle but us?

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