Question: what do you usually hear when high achievers are asked how they did it? It’s usually something about hard work or dedication, and sacrifice. Lots of sacrifice. “No pain, no gain,” right?
Well, I’m not calling these people liars. But I do think, to the aspiring business owner or entrepreneur or athlete, this kind of advice is misleading.
In fact, when taken incorrectly, it’s downright harmful.
The problem with telling someone to “work harder” is that it implies failure is always a result of not pushing yourself enough.
Oh, you didn’t land that new client? You didn’t prepare enough.
You didn’t lose 10 pounds? You didn’t exercise hard enough.
Your client wasn’t happy with the results of your hard work? Must be your fault — you didn’t give it 110% (which, last I checked, is impossible).
We live in this incredibly stressful time in which it’s easy to feel like we’re being outpaced by our friends, colleagues, competitors, and even by technology. The human response to this feeling is to do more: work longer hours, make a big change, drink more caffeine, “do what others won’t.”
But this isn’t the recipe for real and lasting success.
Try “Habits” Instead of “Harder”
Pushing yourself to extremes is like yanking a rubber band to a full arm’s length. Sure, you might get the desired result (a stretched rubber band?) but it’ll break. Every time. And if the rubber band is your mental, physical, or financial health, you’ll have hurt yourself in the long-run. Putting it back together is going to take even more time, and it’s never going to be as strong as it could’ve been if you’d taken it slow.
In my experience and observation, lasting success in work, fitness, friendships, relationships, and everything comes from creating and maintaining little habits.
So instead of pushing to be your best self right this second, create and maintain little habits. Stretch the rubber band a little bit and hold it there. When it’s ready to stretch more, stretch a little more.
And here’s some food for thought: if you’re into “doing what others won’t,” try being patient with yourself.
A Literature Lesson
We don’t hand Shakespeare to kindergartners who are just learning to read and say, “just try harder, kid!!” Could you imagine? Every child would hate reading. Every child would think she was hopeless and stupid.
Our earliest teachers had it right. We start with the alphabet. Then phonetics. Then words, then sentences, then stories, then novels, and maybe one day, Shakespeare. Maybe even books in a second language.
I used to wreck myself doing hardcore strength training for a week and then give up because I was tired. Or I would only go to the climbing gym, because I only wanted to work out if it would be fun. It always used to feel like I had to choose between “fun” and “effective,” when it came to staying in shape. And with my long, long workout sessions, it seemed insane to try to make these a habit — who had the time and energy for that? Champions, I guess, which meant I was no champion.
So instead, I tried a new approach. I decided I would do a little bit every day. My husband and I call it “nickel-and-diming ourselves” into fitness/financial health/you name it.
Here’s how it works: I used to sleep until 7:15 every morning, but I wanted to add walking to my morning routine. So I didn’t suddenly set my alarm for 6:00 and start walking. I guarantee that would have felt jarring, I would have been sluggish and unmotivated, and it probably wouldn’t have stuck.
So I set my alarm for a mere 15 minutes earlier than usual, and just walked for 15 minutes.
Next day, I set it for 6:55, and walked a little longer.
Next day, 6:50, and a little longer.
Then 6:45, and on, and on.
Now, I get up at 6:15 and walk for nearly an hour. I’ve started adding jogging to the mix. And the amazing thing? I never feel tired. I don’t want to nap. I have never “pushed myself” to exhaustion. Yet, I’ve lost serious weight, I’ve gained muscle, and my energy levels are higher than ever. And, timid as I feel admitting this in a public forum, I feel like a champion!
And it’s the same with work. I didn’t graduate college and start an agency; I graduated and wrote one article for one company, and then another, and another. I didn’t take on everything all at once, say “yes” to every opportunity, or hold myself to the same standard as the top CEOs of the time.
We don’t hand Shakespeare to five year-olds. So why do we do it to ourselves?