Do or Do Not, There is No Try -Are You Putting Enough Effort Toward Your Goals?

The early morning Washington drizzle had already started. It was cold. The sky was still pitch black. A line was forming outside the gym door.

I waited in my car for the gym lights to click on, signaling the beginning of my day.

I opened YouTube and watched the first video in my feed. A fitness video posed the question, “Are you trying hard enough?” It explained that if you are, in fact, trying hard enough, then you are actually “doing.” You are succeeding in your goals. And if you aren’t succeeding in your goals, then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

The crack of the gym deadbolt twisting broke my focus. Eager gym rats crowded in the front door. I walked through the now pouring rain.

The question from the video still lingered in my mind. Was I trying hard enough? Maybe this time, I would push a little harder.

When I had finished my planned workout, I felt I could and should do more. So, I kept going.

At the end of the hour, I was dead tired. I expended more energy than I had in a long time.

Recognizing the difference this mental shift had made, I began questioning if I was trying hard enough in other areas of my life.

Take Stock of What Matters Most to You

This simple exercise in identifying how hard I was trying throughout my day raised more questions — questions as to where to place my effort and how much.

When it comes to achieving goals, allocating our effort across multiple stages may produce greater results. In sports, for instance, progress is made throughout different stages of development. There is truth to the old adage, “You have to walk before you can run.”

In the report, “The Psychology of Human Effort,” Dr. Paul Martin explains that approaching athletic training in stages allows the athlete to understand the amount of effort needed to move from one stage to the next.

Breaking training into logical stages of progression allows the athlete to exert maximum effort to overcome small amounts of planned suffering.

That effort in turn callouses the mind against greater suffering over time.

“Psychology and experience of life teach us that we must treat all difficulties and obstacles that we may encounter in the same manner. We must learn to endure suffering, for, sooner or later, one must undergo this experience. Suffering becomes bearable as long as we accept it gradually. Why then, take on today the burden of tomorrow’s sufferings which may never materialize or may be completely different from what we actually imagined? Most of the people who lose courage long before they achieve the results they are capable of are victims of a delusion which makes them persist in facing all their difficulties at once until they persuade themselves of the sheer impossibility of attaining the desired performance.” — Dr. Paul Martin

Without a plan, it is difficult to know how much effort is needed to progress. This can lead to the false belief that simply engaging in an activity will be enough to sustain progress.

The reality is, in physical and mental endeavors, we tend to approach both in the same way. With too much effort all at once — causing us to burn out and abandon our goals. Or, with too little effort that we end up going through the motions without any real results to show for it.

Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Everyone is susceptible to going through the motions. But how often do we take time to look at the motions and determine if they are worth going through at all?

There is likely something you are doing for no other reason than because you have been doing it for a long time.

Identifying that activity, then determining if it’s worth keeping in your life, will allow you to gauge how much effort to dedicate to it if any.

Think Differently About Fatigue

In studies of fatigue, research suggests that task-related fatigue and effort are closely correlated. According to Dr. Robert Hockey, “Fatigue develops if the performer is motivated to maintain the task goal in the face of desire to stop or change to something else and needs to employ a high level of effort to do so.”

The ability to push through task-related fatigue may be linked to one’s belief in the purpose of what they are doing. Dr. Hockey also suggests in his The Psychology of Fatigue: Work, Effort and Control that “fatigue appeared to be less about energy than about personal motivation and interest.”

Find Your Line Between Burnout and Progress

In my research for this article, I found my searches turned up numerous posts discussing how the key to success is more effort. Several articles argue that most people underestimate the amount of effort they put into their days.

Taking this argument at face value — I agree. I saw in my workout example that I underemployed effort and consequently had not achieved my goals. However, advice on effort can take the form of “maximum effort, all the time,” without emphasizing any sort of planning, gradual progression, or scheduled rest.

This approach to effort can actually inhibit progress. As Dr. Martin puts it, “The outcome of effort does not depend on hurry or acceleration of movement but on the display of sustained and progressive effort executed through the course of time.”

The “maximum effort all the time” advice can serve as a motivational tool. But without recognizing that effort is a finite commodity, we may struggle to allocate it to the things we care about most.

Authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, explain in their book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success that one of the things we should all be trying harder at is rest.

Brad and Steve’s research showed that integrating planned rest periods between stages of intense effort can lead to greater results.

Keep in mind that planned rest is earned through the completion of the scheduled activity. Planned rest is not to be confused with procrastination, which is the delay of the activity in favor of rest.

Planning is Important

Having a plan for your effort can aid in your progress.

Time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders writes in the Harvard Business Review that, “Realizing the importance of purposely deciding where I will invest more time and energy to produce stellar quality work and where less-than-perfect execution has a bigger payoff has had a profound impact on my own approach to success and my ability to empower clients who feel overwhelmed.”

Saunders advises her clients to pre-plan their weeks to allocate their time and effort to the areas that will have the highest pay off in pursuit of their goals.

Georgetown Professor Cal Newport explains in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World that its important to set aside blocks of time dedicated to intense effort. Newport’s research shows that to make the most of planned effort you should also plan to avoid any and all distraction during those periods of time.

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.” — Cal Newport

Focus on the Effort When You Fail

There will be times when you fail, even if you allocate your effort according to plan. How you perceive that failure and your ability to respond to it may play a role in your future success.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck found in a study with school children that praising their effort in a task instead of their natural ability resulted in what she refers to as the “growth mindset.” Having a growth mindset is to maintain the belief that your intelligence is not limited.

Dweck’s results demonstrate that focusing on the children’s’ effort when attached to the goal of future learning instilled a sense of control over the task. Praising their ability or providing excuses for their lack of ability (see quote below), led to the belief that their success was out of their hands.

“Not everybody is a good at math. Just do your best,” a teacher or parent should say “When you learn how to do a new math problem, it grows your brain.” Or instead of saying “Maybe math is not one of your strengths,” a better approach is adding “yet” to the end of the sentence: “Maybe math is not one of your strengths yet.” — Carol Dweck

Recognizing that with appropriately allocated effort compounded by the belief that you can make progress, growth is possible.

When you fail to reach the next stage of progression, return to your effort plan and re-calibrate. As the Henry Ford saying goes, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”


The day that I exerted more effort in the gym opened my eyes to something I had seemingly forgotten. Progress hurts. It’s meant to.

It is the small amount of suffering endured throughout progress that prepares us for difficult things in life.

I realized I could be trying harder in the areas that I care most about and weeding out some of the “going through the motions” tasks that no longer have any real benefit to my goals.

Doing so has already allowed me to make progress. But progress is rarely linear.

We need to ask ourselves continuously if we are allocating our effort appropriately. In doing so, we improve our chances of reaching our individual visions of success.

Summary: How to Approach Your Effort Plan

  1. Determine if what you are doing is actually worth doing at all. Fatigue will set in much faster if you don’t have an interest in what you are doing.
  2. Break your goal into stages of progression with a clear outcome for each stage.
  3. Maximize your effort within each stage. You can’t dedicate all of your effort to everything all of the time. Dedicate it to those things that will allow you to make progress.
  4. Pre-plan your rest. Pre-planning a rest period will allow you to gradually push through fatigue without burning out. It will also allow you to recover and approach the next stage with increased effort.
  5. If you fail, examine your effort plan. Your effort is in your control. Start again.

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