There’s a simple psychological truth that
no one likes to hear: Some problems can’t be solved by trying harder.
9 times out of 10, The Rolling Stones have it right:
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you just might find you
get what you need.” In most areas of life, trying harder and applying
more effort usually leads to better results: Studying more for exams leads to better grades.
Running a little longer on the treadmill leads to better fitness.
Working a few extra hours leads to a bigger paycheck.
Having the difficult conversations improves the relationship.
Proofreading that report a second time leads to fewer errors.
The idea that more effort equals better outcomes is so baked into our culture that we’re
often not aware of how pervasive and influential it is.
For most of us, we spend most of our lives either in school or working. And in both these
environments, effort is not only enforced and encouraged, but it’s highly praised
and rewarded as well. In modern life, the cult of effort reigns
supreme. So much so that most of us think of the term
“Hard Work” as an intrinsic good — something that has worth for its own sake, regardless
of the outcomes it produces. This is a mistake. Imagine the following scenario many of us
have found ourselves in: It’s been a brutally long day, you’re
exhausted, and tomorrow is likely to be even tougher. You get into bed a little earlier,
hoping to catch an extra hour of sleep. And yet, despite your exhaustion, you’re
wide awake, mind running a hundred miles an hour across everything from the bananas you
forgot to pick up at the grocery store to the allocation of funds in your 401K.
You look at the clock, realize it’s been an hour, and you still don’t seem any closer
to falling asleep. Frustration builds, along with some fear of how tomorrow will go if
you don’t get some sleep. If you’re paying attention, thoughts like
these start swarming across your mental landscapes: Why can’t I just FALL ASLEEP! I wish my
brain would just shut off. The presentation tomorrow’s gonna be a disaster if I don’t
get some sleep. Should I take something to help knock me out? I knew I shouldn’t have
had that last beer after dinner. The fear and frustration are stronger now
and sleep seems even further away. Now a new emotion sets in: Panic.
What if there’s something wrong with me? It’s not normal to be this tired and not
sleep… Wait a second… How come I can feel my heartbeat? Is there something wrong with
my heart? Do I need to go to the emergency room?
Eventually, you do finally pass out. But no sooner than you do, it seems, the alarm’s
ringing and it’s time to get up. You glance at the clock and realize — you only
got 3 hours of sleep. This example illustrates a simple psychological
truth: For a certain class of problems, the harder we try the worse the problem becomes.
I call these problems Paradoxical Problems because our standard approach to solving them
only makes them worse. In the case of sleep, the more we worry about
not sleeping the less sleepy we become. When we worry, ruminate, problem-solve, and
generally expend mental energy trying to do anything, we signal to our brain to go into
work mode. And work mode (technically, arousal) is the exact opposite of sleep.
You can’t be aroused and sleepy at the same time.
And even though our instinctive response to any problem is to try harder (especially to
think harder), in cases like this, it only makes the problem worse. I used this example to illustrate how trying
harder to sleep paradoxically makes it less likely that you’ll get sleepy.
But the broader point is this: We need to come to terms with the idea that
trying harder is not always a good idea. While expending more effort, especially more
mental effort, is helpful in 9 out of 10 problems, we should accept the fact that this strategy
doesn’t always work. And in fact, it occasionally makes things worse.
The implication is that we ought to be more flexible with how we approach problems in
our lives and not instantly rush to start thinking and trying harder.
To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But sometimes life gives us screws.