The Effort Paradox and How to Achieve Your Goals
Is the effort worth the reward?
Why is it that if you let life run away with itself, you find yourself firmly treading on old ground year after year? Each year we have ambitious goals. We get excited by the very prospect of writing them down.
“to lose 14 pounds”
“to write a book”
“to cycle 200 miles”
Every January we pull out the pen and paper and ambitiously write down our 1/3/5 year goals. We listen to every bit of self-help we can get our hands on and conclude that we need to write down some S.M.A.R.T targets to get us through. On top of that, we need to visualise our goal state and really see the person we want to be. We plan our daily meditative practices along with our running schedule and we are set.
January 1st: We are raring to go. You can’t wait to get to the gym, start writing, to become the person we want to be. You hit it hard, you try, like really try. You feel like you are on the path to achieving your goals.
January 2nd — January 4th: The novelty wears off and you are sitting in the gym thinking “why do I bother, this is never going to work”. You feel your mood and ambition fading, you’re probably not going to stick with this.
January 6th-12th: You skip the gym, snooze the alarm, you haven’t written anything for the last 5 days. It’s hard to accept but you’ve fallen off the wagon.
January 21st: You’ve completely forgotten about those goals you wrote so hopefully 20 days ago.
This cycle is likely to repeat year after year if nothing changes.
Effort Seems Straight Forward
Water and electricity are the same in one respect. They both take the path or least resistance. Water won’t climb all the way up a hill if it can slip through a crack. And us humans aren’t too different from that.
Our paths normally involve a considerable amount of effort, effort that we conserve if we can.
Wake up and put on work clothes: effort = 2/10
Drive to work and concentrate on the drive: effort = 3/10
Morning meeting with no coffee: effort = 6/10
Working on your goals after work: effort =8/10
Naturally we conserve our effort or energy. Rewind a fair while ago and we would be taking shelter in caves. We would only go and explore if we knew that the risk was worth the reward i.e. we would be fairly sure we’d be getting some food for our expedition and not going to get killed. All it would take is a few times to come back empty handed and our survival would be in jeopardy.
That’s sort of how I think of life now. But we don’t risk our survival, we risk our reputation and self-worth, which in some respects, some people rely on for survival.
We weigh up the likelihood of things going well. We try with the goals we have set but after a few attempts and no indication of reaping any rewards, we give up.
The perceived effort does seem to be worth the reward.
In a promising study of Major Depressive Disorder there was evidence that one of the most noticeable markers of this disease was Anhedonia which is describes as ‘the decreased motivation for and sensitivity to rewarding experiences.’ I.e. the reward doesn’t motivate you to do the task. The prospect of the reward is the thing that keeps us going.
If you have ambitions of being a writer and you tried writing for 2 months with very few people noticing your work — you might be inclined to give up. The reward feels unlikely to be obtained. That itching feeling of not being good enough and being another writer that didn’t make it sinks in and you think you may as well revert back to what you were doing before. At least then you weren’t risking your reputation.
“If you don’t try anything you can’t fail…”
However the second part of that quote (that we often forget even exists) says:
“… it takes back bone to lead the life you want.” Richard Yates
We‘re good at ignoring that second part but it’s the most important part.
A Conflict of Interest
The trouble is writing a goal down is easy. It takes 20–30 minutes and it gets you in an elevated state. You feel hopeful and ambitious, you might even feel like you are chipping away at your goals by writing them down.
We are interested in creating goals, we are less interested in pursuing them.
The Paradox of Effort
What we fail to realise though is that effort brings value. According the the paper by Michael Inzlicht entitled “The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued” effort impacts reward. In so much to say that more or less effort can result in more or less reward.
Graph 1.0: The more effort you put in the more reward you get. It’s like trying your best to produce your best ever article, it then goes viral — you’ll be pretty elated. From www.millennialcareerhealth.com
And it’s true. If you put a lot of effort into something it feels more rewarding. Could it be true that you get more satisfaction out of an IKEA self-build unit than one that comes preassembled? Do you feel more satisfied after putting considerable effort into a workout over when we only put in half the effort. You feel satisfied with the reward of saving for something then buying it on a credit card and getting it the next day.
What I’m saying here is that we do tend to take the easy route, we are human and it makes sense for us to find efficiencies. However, you shouldn’t be scared of putting in the effort. You should though, be reminded that effort, in many cases, increases the reward.
My writing is a good example. I’ve spend the last 4–5 months writing most days which has resulted in about 170 ish articles over the last 150 ish days. It’s a lot of writing. But the moment one posts does well I’m elated — because I’ve put in a lot of effort to get this point. It might not feel as good if I had not put considerable effort in and something had accidentally gone viral.
Sometimes the effort is the reward.
We Need to Be Careful How Much We Reward Ourselves
In terms of our goals we can often fall into some easy habits.
Convince ourselves that we are going in the right direction even though we haven’t actually done any work (time spent thinking about your goals doesn’t count as working towards them).
Tell ourselves we need a better system. You tell yourself that in order to start you need to buy a new pair of trainers, a new computer, a better gym membership — again that’s not working on your goal.
We over reward ourselves, one run equals a slice of cake. Not a sustainable way to get to your goals.
One thing you need to make sure is that you are actively pursuing your goals. Not reading articles, thinking of systems, buying books etc. Actually pursuing them. That means if you have an exercise related goal — you need to exercise. If you have a writing related goal — you need to write. If you have a work related goal — you need to work.
Once we’ve started the work we need to be careful to not over indulge. Sometimes when we exceed our expectations and perform the behaviour we wanted, we then start a second, counterintuitive behaviour.
The Run and The Cake
According to Paul Doolan this is called permitting spillover, easiest described as following something nice with something naughty or a good behaviour with a bad one. He conducted an experiment at the London School of Economics whereby he asked students to exercise. Once the exercising was over a lovely lunch followed. Doolan tracked the calories consumed in conjunction with the exercise done.
The result? The students that did more exercise indulged in eating more calories. In other words, they rewarded themselves more heavily, counter balancing the exercise.
Graph 1.1: As the effort we put in increases we are likely to reward ourselves in tandem and equal measure. So the harder you try the more you reward yourself. It’s like running a marathon and rewarding yourself with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s afterwards. From www.millennialcareerhealth.com
So a word of caution, don’t over reward yourself. Your reward needs to be in moderation. To understand an example of this it’s perhaps wise to detail a realistic goal.
To build an email subscription list of 10,000 by the end of 2021. This actually happens to be a goal of mine.
So in order to get there I know I need to consistently publish content. The content has to be of good quality, provide value and engage people. What I need to mindful of though is ‘mid-goal peaks’ that could then lead to long periods of dipping… let me explain.
Let’s say that in 4 days time I produce an article that gets the best results I’ve ever gotten. It blows all my other article stats out the water and I’m relishing in my success. This is a decision point and one to be weary of, it’s the exact same as smashing a workout and rewarding yourself with cake. I could say to myself at this point, I deserve to have a few days off, I deserve a break. I could take 4 subsequent days off writing whilst I’m enjoying my success.
That’s the equivalent of eating the cake.
And this happens often, especially when you’ve just started out on a new goal. You might sit for 2 hours and write solidly, you feel on top of the world because the words just flew out of your mind on to the page and now you are convinced you are going to be a world-class author in the next 7 weeks. So you rest. You eat the cake. You set yourself back to equilibrium. Or worse, you go backwards.
Effort is the Reward
Sometimes we are weary of putting the time in. We worry that doing something and putting our time, work and dedication into a single task is a mistake. It feels as though we are putting our eggs into one basket and that feels risky.
I would argue to reverse is more risky. Putting your time and effort across several activities means you are giving less than 100%. In order to feel gratified with the reward, you need to put in 100%.
Go on put 100% in, get your hands dirty — I dare you.