Self-improvement is a difficult, endless pursuit. At the beginning of the journey, progress and lifestyle changes tend to be visible. But as time goes on, progress becomes less visible and seems to plateau.
When learning any new skill — take guitar, for example — it doesn’t take too long to learn most of the chords, some strumming patterns, and a few songs. However, at a certain point, skill level seems to plateau. There is a huge gap between being a competent guitar player and an amazing guitar player.
At this point, most people instinctively think they need to do more if they want to keep getting better. And they aren’t wrong — incrementally increasing the frequency or intensity of a habit is a great way to accomplish this.
However, even the most well-intentioned people often become impatient in pursuits of self-improvement. When they don’t see progress from their current efforts, they push themselves to do much more.
While this motivation comes from a good place — the desire to be better, live more, and be happier — doing too much can often have adverse effects, especially in the field of self-improvement.
Fluency and cognitive ease
Let’s say that you have been journaling frequently, and each day you have been writing down 5 things you love about yourself. It’s been going great so far, so when progress feels like it has hit a plateau, you increase this number from 5 to 10.
Now, every day you write down 10 things you love about yourself. Sounds good, right?
However, as more reasons are written down, it takes longer and longer to think of the next aspect of yourself that you love. This has nothing to do with your actual perception of yourself, but is instead a result of a psychological effect called the availability heuristic.
It is much easier to come up with 5 examples than 10. When a cognitive task is easy to do, we feel a sense of cognitive ease.
When we feel cognitive ease while writing down our positive qualities, the mind associates feelings of self-love with feelings of ease. The association machine in our brains thinks like this:
If I can easily think of reasons why I love myself, I can confidently conclude that I really do love myself.
If I can’t easily think of another reason why I love myself, I must not really love myself.
On the other hand, when we try to think of too many examples, our mind goes into overdrive, and it beings to feel cognitive strain instead.
The cognitive ease of brainstorming 5 reasons disappears. While recalling 10 examples is not impossible, it requires significantly more cognitive effort.
Because of this, people who are tasked to think of too many examples of a topic tend to associate cognitive strain with the topic.
This makes sense intuitively. Humans tend to fixate on the negative — instead of appreciating the past 8 reasons why we love ourselves, we beat ourselves up over not being able to think of a 9th.
In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, author Daniel Kahneman discusses an experiment that tested the influence of the ease and fluency of retrieving examples from memory.
Two groups of people were asked to list a certain number of times when they had been assertive. The first group was told to list 6 examples, while the second group was told to list 12.
On average, the participants who had been asked to list 12 cases ended up thinking of themselves as less assertive than those who had been asked to list only 6.
“If we cannot easily come up with instances of a certain behavior, we are likely to conclude that we do not strongly exhibit this behavior.” — Daniel Kahneman
The role of fluency and cognitive ease in endeavors of self-improvement is no different.
Take the previous example of writing down reasons why we love ourselves. Increasing this number from 5 to 10 at once would increase cognitive strain to unproductive levels because the jump is too large. Instead of taking this big jump, we can increase the number of instances from 5 to 6.
This increase provides an appropriate balance of cognitive strain and cognitive ease. It is not too difficult to come up with one extra example, but it is still an effortful task.
Subtle increases are the most productive because it is easier to be consistent with incremental changes than with huge steps. In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” author Cal Newport stresses the importance of taking on appropriately-sized challenges to see maximum growth.
For a high school wrestler, taking on a pro would be too big of a challenge. The difference in ability would be too great that he would not learn as much as if he had competed against another skillful high school athlete.
Trying to take a huge step will ultimately be slower than taking on appropriately sized challenges.
One would think that taking on the biggest challenge possible would result in the most growth, but this is simply untrue, as difficulty and growth do not have a linear relationship.
Imagine you’re climbing a flight of stairs. Trying to take on 4 stairs at a time is slower than taking 2 stairs at a time. This is because the strain on your muscles is much greater when you try to conquer 4 stairs at once, whereas 2 stairs at a time won’t cause too much of a strain for the average person.
It can be tempting to rush into a huge step. Anybody can set a grand goal, but successful people have the ability to take their excitement and break it down into actionable steps.
To get the most out of any self-improvement habit such as journaling, exercise, or meditation, we must be careful to balance cognitive ease with cognitive strain. This balance will look different for each person, but the ideas of cognitive ease and cognitive strain provide modern evidence for the old adage: less is more.
- Trying to take on a task that is too difficult causes more mental and physical strain than taking on a series of smaller tasks that achieves the same goal. Challenge yourself appropriately.
- Improvement comes from small, steady increases.