Stop Trying (So Hard)
:::Before you start reading, I just want to put out there that you might have some strong reactions to this post. That’s great! Emotional reactions are loud and clear information that let us know when something is touching upon our sensitivities and can invite further exploration. Please remember that everything I write comes from my own personal experience, as well as my experience working with others. I do my very best to be honest, clear and come from a place of love in my writing and work.:::
I work with people who are involved in the process of developing themselves by exploring a physical change process. That’s fancy talk for, I help people get stronger, leaner and more healthy; and while they do that they usually learn that the greatest change and the most valuable change happens between their ears.
All of my clients are amazing people. Each and every one of them constantly impresses me with their hard work, their dedication, strength and resiliency. They all have unique talents and skills and approach the change process in different ways. Some of them charge forward, steady as a glacier and others rush in, kick some ass, flounder a bit, right themselves and then continue. It’s different for everybody.
Every once in awhile a client will headbutt up against something really tough. It’s usually at the beginning of their process, before they’ve started to recognize their own resiliency, when they are still learning how to take charge of their own journey. This is when I most often hear it, this phrase I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks.
You might think, “that’s a positive, right? Don’t you want people to put in effort?” And of course I want my clients to direct effort into the actions that will positively impact their outcomes. But I don’t necessarily want them to “try.”
To understand what I mean, I think it can be helpful to look at this a few different ways.
First, let’s suppose you’ve got a ditch in your backyard you’re looking to fill. There’s a pile of dirt and rubble off to the side you can use as fill and a couple of tools. No time limit, and no one telling you what to do.
In one version, you look around and spot a giant boulder, one whole ton of granite, and think, “I’ll just push that in there and be done with it!” So you put your back to the boulder and grunt and curse and pop a sweat and of course it doesn’t go anywhere.
The next day I swing by and say, “How’s the ditch going?” And you explain that nothing’s changed and when I ask you why you tell me, “I’m trying!” You probably feel like I don’t understand all the work you’ve done, how hard it was, how sweaty you got, who do I think I am, anyway?
Scenario two: you pick up the shovel next to the fill pile, scoop up some dirt, walk over to the ditch and drop it in. Repeat. Six hours go by, 1/2 the ditch is filled in, you’re tired and call it a day.
The next day I swing by and say, “How’s the ditch going?” And you explain you’ve already got it half done! Now, you’ve got to go into work early tomorrow, so you won’t get to it again for at least another day, and even then you’ll only have an hour or two to work, “But,” you say, “I’m already so much closer to done and I think I’ll be almost finished by the end of the week!” We high five and you get me a lemonade.
In both versions of this story effort was made. In the second version “trying” certainly happened, and yet, no one made mention of it. And the reason is this: successful people don’t try, they do.
Now, here is one of the places I think hackles will raise for some. Bear with me.
Reflect on your life. You may be a college graduate or a parent or have started your own business or gotten a promotion in your field of work. Those are just a few of the things that are often considered to be “successes” in our culture, and of course there are not only others but there are many forms of success outside of concepts of accomplishment (like being a kind person, feeling satisfied with your life, loving who you are) that are just as important, if not more so.
Pick something that you have felt successful with, it could be big or small. Think of how you would describe that success, and in particular how you would explain what allowed you to obtain it. You might say that practice or resiliency or study or saving your money or showing up on time contributed to your success. But I’ll bet you a crisp five dollar bill that you wouldn’t say, “I tried!”
When we are successful, even if that success is only partial, we are more apt to reflect upon the things we did, the actions that we took, that contributed to that success. Is effort a part of that? Yes, but only in that the effort was applied to actions that specifically targeted the outcome we desired in a realistic manner. (In other words, chucking shovelfuls of dirt in a ditch instead of trying to physically move something that is so far beyond our capacity as to be laughable.)
When I hear, “I’m trying!” from a client I like to acknowledge that effort has been applied and then I like to ask two questions:
“What does that look like? In other words, tell me the actions that you tried.”
“What does that feel like? Describe how you felt when you tried those actions.”
Often, what I find, is that the actions that were attempted were outside of a client’s current capacity or field of knowledge and so were unable to be executed. And that always feels crappy.
So what this really comes down to is not that someone hasn’t been working hard, but that they need to work smart.
And that is simply a question of appropriate loading. When I am training myself or my clients in the gym I am very focused on the load, or amount of weight, that we are lifting. The weight should be enough that it requires the body adapt and become stronger over time, but not so heavy that it over-taxes the system and causes a breakdown of form, or worse, discouragement in the client. Getting stronger in the gym is not just about working harder, but about working smarter. One must be fully engaged (mentally as well as physically) in their efforts to ensure they are safe, efficient and effective. Often, in strength training or any other change process, all that needs to be done is to have the load adjusted to an appropriate amount in order to see results over time.
Because the truth about “trying” is that it allows you to give up. If we attempt something by only working hard, and not working smart, we become discouraged. Often this results from an unrealistic expectation of when we “should” be making progress (we think: shove the boulder in the ditch and be done with it right now). When things don’t happen when we expect them to we can just throw up our hands, say “I tried!” and give up on the whole thing.
But, smaller, realistic steps taken over the long term allow us to make appreciable progress and even take a break when needed or work around actually having a life. Some people think they need to be motivated in order to put in effort, however the reverse is actually true: action causes motivation. And that is because action compounds. A small step taken today can be the starting point for what we do tomorrow, and that step can be our start for the next day; in this way we make actual progress and encourage ourselves to continue on our path.
Now, I would ask you to reflect upon an area of your own life where you have attempted a change that hasn’t happened in the way you wanted, or perhaps something you’d like to change that you’re not sure where to begin with. Take a few moments to view this situation in a new light: maybe it is not that you haven’t been trying “hard enough” but that you haven’t found the appropriate loading for you.
How could you break down what you want to do into smaller and more manageable steps that will compound, over time, into the success you want? I would encourage you to pick the smallest, easiest step so that it doesn’t even feel like trying. Since change happens over time sustainability is one of the biggest determining factors of success. If you can’t continue to execute these actions in the long run you won’t reach your goal, or more importantly, be able to maintain it once you reach it.
When working with clients to design repeatable, sustainable actions, or habits, that they will use in their own change process I often encourage them to ask this question, “could a child do this?” If the answer is, “yes, easily!” then you’re on the right track! Pick a small, easy and sustainable action that you can repeat with almost no effort. When that action is so ingrained in your life that it becomes a habit, you are ready to push yourself a bit farther and refine your habit to increase it’s effectiveness. You can continue in this way infinitely, always getting 1% better every time that you engage in action (that’s a 100% improvement in 100 days, btw).
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Ready to start working smarter, not harder? Ready to stop trying and start choosing actions that you can repeat over time in order to make the changes you want?
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