Two reasons why doing things the hard way pays off.

A Neurological and Cognitive Viewpoint

Image for post
Image for post

Our brain is an incredible phenomenon. Some neurologists assume that overall, we have understood about 2% of neurological processes. Indeed, most of what we know about the brain is rudimentary and needs years, decades or even centuries of research to be fully explored. Some concepts however are crystal clear — and one of them bears the secret to healthy brain development and mastery: Doing things the hard way.

But our brain hates doing things the hard way. It is designed in a way that makes it function efficiently, not necessarily effectively. Our brain is full of ‚heuristics’, that is short-cuts that help our brain make decisions more quickly, but often wrongly. It is constantly on stand-by and performs real work only if . But why is that? How does our brain work?

Part 1: Kahneman’s Dual System Theory — Understanding the conscious and unconscious

The Nobel Price winner Daniel Kahneman argues that our brain recruits two different systems for doing a task: Either System 1 or System 2. While those names are possibly the most boring way of describing one of the most interesting phenomena in cognitive science, Kahneman intends to avoid tapping into existing terminology. He argues that sub-conscious and conscious is not really understood and that all we know is that there is a difference between two systems operating in our brain; hence the abstract names.

In short, there is an automatic system, System 1, in our brain that is hyper-efficient and tries to waste the least amount of energy. System 2, on the other hand, is deliberate, effective and requires so much energy that it can only focus on one task at once. Kahneman lists the following table in one of his books.

Image for post
Image for post
System 1 vs System 2

The Muller-Lyer Illusion

What does this mean practically? The following illusion, discovered by Muller-Lyer, sheds light on the workings of the two systems.

Image for post
Image for post
The Müller-Lyer Illusion

What do you see? Clearly two lines of different sizes. Maybe you have even measured them and discovered that they actually have the same length. In both cases, the fascination around the Müller-Lyer illusion does not originate in realising that the two lines have indeed the same length, it originates in realising that once that former realisation has taken place, the lines still appear to the eye as if they were of different lengths. Knowing that the lines are of the same lines does not help us perceive them accordingly. System 2 is the part in your brain that can understand that the lines have the same length, System 1 makes them look differently.

The problem

The problem is that System 2 requires much more effort. Our brain tries to avoid using System 2 as much as possible and it is up to our to use it more often. System 2 helps us dig deep enough to find out how things really are, for instance by noticing that those two lines have the same length. It is easy for us to avoid further investigation and to go with what the first impression tells you. Judging someone on her or his looks is another good example. One specific heuristic, called the halo-effect [4], leads us to infer one positive trait from another completely unrelated positive trait. For example, we often believe good looking male people are more intelligent, reliable and friendly. [5] This is System 1 thinking.

Our lazy System 1 betrays us often — even though it is neurologically essential and helps us in most cases to make quick, good decisions — and it is up to us to decipher a situation before we make a good decision. Doing things the hard way pays off. We have to learn to dig deeper, beyond looks, superficial patterns and pure intuition.

Part 2: Neuroplasticity

explains this phenomenon a little bit more in depth. In short, there is strong evidence that our brain changes and is able to be forged quite significantly, even when we’re older. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] However, this becomes increasingly difficult the older a person gets and we have to apply tricks to ‘respark’ significant neuroplastic development. One trick is to be highly concentrated and excited, and another really effective one is: Doing things the hard way.

Dr Taub is famous for what he calls ‘constraint-induced therapy’. He has helped several paraplegic individuals, for example those with a paralysed left arm, to ‘retrain’ their brain to use this arm again. He does so with very simple techniques, for instance by sewing the other, functional arm at your waist so that you can’t use it anymore. By doing so, using your non-functional arm suddenly becomes possible again. [11] [12] [13] Same applies to studying language. Individuals who travel to other countries without being able to converse in their own language in any way are significantly more likely to pick up on new languages quicker and memorise words easier [14]. This is also why you shouldn’t look a word up straight away if you can’t find it when studying vocabulary. Trying to find out what the word is for a couple of minutes will pay off in the long-term. Also, if you can’t find it for a while, try still not looking it up and coming back to it later on. This will signal to your brain that there is no viable alternative and ultimately help it develop new neurons.

Hence, if there’s an alternative our brain will do everything to use this alternative and to work around the actual problem as much as possible. From a neurological perspective, this is efficient and makes total sense. But our brain doesn’t know if we intend to study a new language which we might use for decades to come. If this was the case, actually doing the neurological work right now instead of working through alternatives will be better in the long-term. Our brain, however, doesn’t work that way and we need to be the planners and long-term thinkers and force it to comply.

Doing so can have a significant effect on how well our brain develops in the long-term. We can stop learning after high school and work out alternatives that get us through life. However, if we deliberately chose a path of life-long learning and improvement, we will have to do things the hard way. And the more often we do so, the quicker our brain learns new skills. Carol Dweck notices this pattern in her book ‘Growth Mindset’. She finds that people with a growth mindset are significantly more likely to do things the hard way. Those individuals are also more likely to become successful, smart and fulfilled in life. [15]


  1. Do one thing the hard way every day. Try brushing your teeth with your left hand instead of your right — or the other way round if you’re left-handed. Try opening doors with your left hand or take an alternative route home or to work. These tiny things will spark neuroplasticity in your brain and help it develop faster.
  2. Kill your alternatives whenever you’re trying to learn a new skill, such as learning a new (programming) language, learning to use a new computer program / software tool, learning to think in a different way or learning to behave differently even. This will amplify your learning experience significantly.


[1] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY, US: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] Barrett, D. J. (2016) Müller-Lyer illusion. Available at: (Accessed: 11 March 2019).

[3] Müller-Lyer, F. C. (1889) ‘Optische Urteilstäuschungen’, Archiv für Physiologie Suppl, pp. 263–270.

[4] Erin Long-Crowell. . Psychology 104: Social Psychology. Retrieved September 30, 2015.

[5] Eagly, Alice H.; Ashmore, R.D.; Makhijani, M.G.; Longo, L.C. (1991). (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 110 (1): 109–128. :.

[6] Merabet, L.B., Hamilton, R., Schlaug, G., Swisher, J.D., Kiriakopoulos, E.T., Pitskel, N.B. (2008). Rapid and Reversible Recruitment of Early Visual Cortex for Touch. PLoS ONE 3(8): e3046.

[7] Thaler, L., Arnott, S. R., Goodale, M. A. (2010). . Journal of Vision. 10 (7): 1050. :.

[8] Thaler, L., Arnott, S.R., Goodale, M.A. (2011). . PLOS ONE. 6 (5): e20162. :. :. . .

[9] Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.

[10] Bowling, H., Bhattacharya, A., Klann, E., Chao, M. V. (2016). Deconstructing brain-derived neurotrophic factor actions in adult brain circuits to bridge an existing informational gap in neuro-cell biology. Neural regeneration research, 11(3), 363–367. doi:10.4103/1673–5374.179031

[11] Taub, E. (1994). Overcoming learned nonuse: A new behavioral medicine approach to physical medicine. In J. G. Carlson, S. R. Seifert, & N. Birbaumer. (eds.) Clinical applied psychophysiology (pp. 185–220). New York: Plenum.

[12] Taub, E. (1980). Somatosensory deafferentation research with monkeys: Implications for rehabilitation medicine. In L. P. Ince (Ed.), Behavioral Psychology in Rehabilitation Medicine: Clinical Applications (pp. 371–401). New York: Williams & Wilkins.

[13] Taub, E., Burgio, L., Miller, N. E., Cook, E.W. III, Groomes, T., DeLuca, S., & Crago, J. (1994). An operant approach to overcoming learned nonuse after CNS damage in monkeys and man: The role of shaping. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 61, 281–293.

[14] Wyner, G. (2014). Fluent forever: How to learn any language fast and never forget it.Bottom of Form

[15] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

We produce science-based content to boost your performance.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store