Why ‘Try Your Best’ May Be the Perfect Advice

What science teaches us about the value of effort and reward

Each and every year we are a human paradox. January 1st rolls around and we are ambitious. This year will be the year. We contemplate our goals and although we know the effort it takes and the effort we are prepared to forgo, we set them anyway.

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In a sense, we are looking our goals in the face, knowing them for what they are and not paying a blind bit of notice to that fact. Each and every year we are overly ambitious and each and every year we fall victim to ourselves.

Could this year be different?

The Amount of Effort is Calculated By Perceived Reward

Water and electricity are the same in one respect. They both take the path of least resistance. Water won’t climb all the way up a hill if it can slip through a crack. Electricity won’t run through a resistor if there is a path with less resistance. And we humans aren’t too different from that.

If we want to achieve anything big in life, typically that path has a considerable amount of resistance, which often we can steer away from. It turns out taking a path of least resistance makes biological sense. Centuries before now, we would be hunting for our food, all of sudden conserving energy could be the difference between surviving and not. Jessica C. Selinger and colleagues found that humans are innately lazy.

“People prefer to move in ways that minimize their energetic cost”

In the same study, Selinger found that “energetic cost is not just an outcome of the movement, but also continuously shapes it”, meaning our bodies are continuously looking for ways to conserve energy. In other words, increasing our effort isn’t something we’re particularly interested in.

Today of course we aren’t risking our survival in the literal sense. Yet there is a comparison worth making; we risk our reputation and self-worth, which for most of us, in some way, puts food on the table. We weigh up the likelihood of things going well and we decide whether to pursue our goals. We may quietly try with the goals we commit too but after a few attempts and no indication of reaping any rewards, we give up. The effort isn’t worth it.

Psychologist and author Robert Taibbi, notes that there are various reasons we give up too easily. Those include:

  • Unreasonable expectations
  • All-or-nothing mentality
  • Not enough rewards and support

That last point is perhaps the most interesting, essentially what we’re saying is that the perceived effort does seem to be worth the reward. We try for a short period of time to understand the reward on offer; we then get put off by how little the reward is in context to the perceived effort, which results in us giving up.

In a promising study of Major Depressive Disorder, there was evidence that one of the most noticeable markers of this disease was Anhedonia. Anhedonia describes ‘the decreased motivation for and sensitivity to rewarding experiences.’ I.e. the reward doesn’t motivate you to do the task. In other words, the prospect of the reward is the thing that motivates us and when it’s lacking there are severe consequences.

So, understanding the reward, for most people, is the major motivation for trying our best. And when the reward is lacking those famous words enter our heads: “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.

The Paradox of Effort — Effort is Part of the Reward Equation

What we fail to realise though is that effort brings value. According to 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.

“According to prominent models in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and economics, effort (be it physical or mental) is costly”

As we’ve previously seen, we avoid effort, it costs a lot and the risks are high. Yet this paper suggests something different entirely, it suggests that effort is the source of the reward, the more effort we exert, the more potential reward.

“Not only can the same outcomes be more rewarding if we apply more (not less) effort, sometimes we select options precisely because they require effort.”

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 you only put in half the effort?
  • Do you feel satisfied with the reward of saving for something rather than buying it on a credit card and getting it the next day?

What I’m saying here is that we tend to take the easy route, we are only human and it makes sense for us to find efficiencies. However, you shouldn’t be scared of putting in the effort.

Instead, what happens if we reframe the effort as part of the reward? Then, well, the world is different entirely.

You Can’t Go for a Run and Eat Your Cake Too

But there is a word of warning here. Once we’ve started the work, convinced ourself the effort is worth the reward, we need to be careful to not overindulge. We can go too far with rewards and have the opposite effect that we are aspiring too. Sometimes, when we exceed our expectations and perform the behaviour we want, we then start a second, counterintuitive behaviour, sound familiar?

  • A hearty snack after a 30-minute gym session
  • An hour YouTube break after 20 minutes writing

According to Paul Doolan, this is called permitting spillover, easiest described as following something nice with something naughty or 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, counterbalancing the exercise.”

So, a word of caution, don’t over reward yourself. Your reward needs to be in moderation. Remember that you are in control of both your effort and your reward. We can reward ourselves at any moment for good behaviour but we need to do so carefully.

The one thing you need to do is 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.

Closing Thoughts on Effort and Reward

Sometimes we are wary 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. But perhaps the reverse is riskier. Putting your time and effort across several activities means you are giving less than 100% which could lead to a lower reward.

For a long time evolution has meant that conserving effort was a worthwhile pursuit. In other words, not trying so hard might be beneficial. Yet, newer research is beginning to prove that the effort put into a task or goal can often be the maker of the reward. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and not trying so hard, maybe we should go for it.

Perhaps you should squeeze every ounce of effort you can into a task and see where it leads you. That’s why ‘trying your best’ is some of the best advice out there.

340k+ views. Science-led self-help. BSc Biomedical Science, studying MSc Behavioural Science.

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