Paradoxical Problems: When Hard Work Doesn’t Work


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.

57 thoughts on “Paradoxical Problems: When Hard Work Doesn’t Work

  1. Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.
    If your life strategies don't work anymore – acknowledge, change, adapt and move on as a wiser and more knowledgeable human being.

  2. It always depends on the problem. Like you have said, it really depends on the situation

    Thank you for making this video!

    Winny out… for now ?

  3. Much of the progress in the world came from innovation and creative thinking.
    Working smart, then, is the key and the basis to getting ahead in any arena!
    But couple working smart with working as hard as humanly possible.. And the results you get become astronomical… ??

  4. I remember B.H. Liddell Hart explaining how in strategy, the longest way around is often the shortest way there. He has a good point, as a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance.

  5. Trying harder is not always a good idea. That leads us to explore many other strategies to solve our issues. Be creativity in problem-solving. There are tons of methods out there. Do not always stick to one: working hard/harder.

  6. It's hard to accept because it takes a lot of energy and mental drainage to accept that we need to change what we do.

  7. ONE WAY…To increase your creativity is…
    Before you go to sleep at night, when you are just about to enter your state of unconsciousness, that last 5 minutes before you “cross the border”, what are you thinking about? If you want to activate your subconscious mind in a productive way, you should be picturing a particular OUTCOME that you want to manifest. When you think about this outcome, do NOT think about the “process” of achieving it, i.e. the “HOW”. Think only of the OUTCOME, i.e. the “WHAT YOU WANT”. Then, LET IT GO. Go to sleep. You’ve done your job. The concept is to allow your subconscious mind to “work out” the “how”. That is the job of your subconscious mind. When you include a possible “solution” in your thoughts, you will only transmit “static” to your subconscious mind because you are suggesting a single page and your subconscious has the knowledge of the entire “encyclopedia of knowledge” at its disposal. “Suggesting” a solution places limits and censors on a process that is most effective when your subconscious is unencumbered with boundaries. Less produces more in this case. TRUST THE PROCESS. Perhaps you’ve heard this before.

    Here’s something new (at least for me). My morning routine, after awakening from my beauty sleep (an oxymoron in my case), is to perform the necessary bodily functions and then flip on the TV and have a sports show I like play in the background. Usually, I am performing some minor household chores while I listen to the show. Other people might check their e-mail or listen to music upon awakening or check the weather… whatever, you get the idea. Anyway, later in the morning, I faithfully do my meditations in 3 parts. Part one is to give thanks (at least 20 reasons I am grateful), visualize my “goal” as already being accomplished, and, make sure to give myself a sincere smile in the mirror because of that accomplishment (thus creating BELIEF). Second, I put on the headphones and listen to meditation #1. Third, I listen to meditation #2. The whole “3 step process” takes about 45 minutes.

    Recently, one morning, I awoke too early to “get up” but wide awake and unable to return to sleep. I decided to alter my routine that morning and went directly to step one, giving thanks and visualizing my outcome. I followed this with my morning meditations. WHAT A SIGNIFICANT CHANGE! During this particular 45 minutes, ideas were bombarding my brain like crazy. I wrote them down in my notes immediately (do you WRITE your ideas someplace?). Wow!

    The next morning, I slept to my usual time but, I once again eliminated the “lag time” between waking up and doing my 3 morning steps. Again, the ideas flowed into my brain. SAME RESULT!

    One of my “mind flashes” was a story about Thomas Edison. I couldn’t remember when I first heard it or what the source was. As I remember the story, Mr. Edison would often stay late in his lab and fall asleep in a particularly comfortable chair that he utilized to do his thinking and problem solving. He would put some sort of a metal object on his arm or some other part of his body. He did this knowing that he was likely to fall asleep, and, as he shifted in his chair during his sleep, the object would fall, hit the floor, and make enough noise to wake him up. He made it a habitual practice to write down all the ideas that flowed to him at his moment of regaining consciousness. He credited this practice as the inspiration for many of his ideas. One of my mantras is: IT IS OK TO BE A COPYCAT IF YOU COPY THE RIGHT CAT. Sooooo….

    My conclusion is that the sooner you try and tap into your thoughts in the morning, the more productive you will be in recovering what your subconscious mind can contribute. It seems to work for both Tommy E and me. You may want to try it.

    One more important point. Thoughts don't usually come to us fully formed. Most of the time it is necessary yo put the pieces together over time.

    Eli’s Dad

  8. If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
    If you're interested, my channel does animations to bring value on Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Stop by if you have the time 🙂

  9. For me working hard and smart really is the key
    Edit: i always think if there's a way to do a certain task with better results but with less effort. Sometimes there is, making working hard stupid.

  10. Hard work is great but will never beat "smart work"…People hire the most skill people to solve problems(plumbing, electric, car etc.)and solve them faster

    The question of life, stress, and work/rest cycles is not really about those areas until you answer:
    Purpose
    What am I created for? Are you doing that? Do you get enjoyment out of the hard work towards goals?
    Is what you are doing good for me, others, and society? Do you have a destination/dream/ vision you are working towards
    Most people get terrible sleep due to not fulfilling their purpose, bad eating/ sleep habits, and no real vision or goal

    When you sleep you should be so tired with excited celebration, all energy gone, fulfilled, and amazing sleep will happen

  11. One thing more important than trying harder is having the right strategy to accomplish her goal. ???

  12. Did you come up with this anedote trying to come up with a video idea for this week? 😉 Seems rather light on the examples. Good channel. Cheers.

  13. There have been many times where I just could not solve a problem, I'd work on it another hour, then two, three..nothing. I would "give up" and go home, sleep, and by "magic" wake up and know what steps I need to take to solve it! Sometimes you need to let you subconscious work on the problem.

  14. On the note of falling asleep, focused breathing has never failed me, and usually if my mind starts imagining a plot it quickly becomes a dream and I fall asleep, so I've begun (when I'm struggling to fall asleep) giving myself scenarios like "walking around rome" or something and just letting the dream begin.

  15. Applying this to my animations have really helped me out. Sometimes I spend like 8 hours on a scene and it ends up being crap. other times I spend like 2 hours and it turns out better.

  16. Nice Perspective. But the example could had been more interesting to nail the concept. You have raised my expectations for your videos basis your past work. Good Work though.

  17. All about the water, studying, working, exercising, staying away from the mainstream drinking culture, and eating right. However, brain re-wiring is best performed when everyone should at least have a day, let’s say Sunday, of rest.

  18. i always hated the notion that hard work for the sake of hard work itself is considered inherently good. It's so dumb

  19. "Prepare for none of it won't work" from the book obstacle is the way . The important is we do our best even it didn't work.

  20. Have a go. Put in the hard work & give it your best shot. The results are beyond your control. Yes, there are critics, but YOU know when you've done a good job. You can only do your best…what else is there? ..someone else's opinion? Surely you know your scene & what's best for you.

  21. I am engineer, and whole industries are paradoxical problems, as management is trying harder to solve problems while going in wrong direction, and more tools they "invent" to define and solve problems, further from solving problems they get.

  22. Love your page. Ever since I subscribed to your page my ideas have been cooking and live!!! Very inspirational and motivational. Helped my page a a lot!!!!

  23. Whenever I run into obstacles I flip through a page of Marcus Aurelius meditations. That book is like 2000 year old Book on CBT

  24. Alan Watts: Backwards Law: said something along the lines of: The harder you try to get something, the more it reinforces the fact that you lack it.

  25. The antidote to hard work is knowledge. Not college, just knowing how to go through life more effeciently.

    "Hard workers have hard lives" -Quote I made up

  26. Sometimes, trying harder makes you exhausted. You must find balance in all things but dont forget to staying calm and inspired in all endeavors in life.

  27. If the solution evades me I put the matter on my mental back burner. Not forgotten but not obsessed over either. Often the solution comes on its own within a few weeks.

  28. It took me 20 years to figure this out on my own. Wish you would've had this video to share 20 years ago.?

  29. It would be most helpful to get a few examples of OTHER problems that behave in the same way. Falling to sleep is kind of obvious.

  30. I think as we get older, we out grow worries. In other words, it's not worth worrying. I can see myself losing sleep when I was a young person, but now, more mature, nothing is worth worrying about.

  31. I worked so hard in my school work, i did more than10 hour days during my exams and i still did so awful. It was a moment of realisation for me, life is unfair

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