Don't Give Up: Why Effort Is the Key to Satisfaction

Effort is your friend. It's the unsung engine of the 40 percent of your potential happiness that you can actually do something about, that's not inherited or the result of circumstantial influences.
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No small amount of human duress is caused by a little hitch in the motivational equipment. What we want isn't necessarily what we need. What we want mostly is what's easy. We're wired for instant gratification, if not vegetation. If there's a product that can help you budge less, it's a winner, whether it's a garage door opener, a robot vacuum cleaner or diet pills that magically take the weight off while you slumber.

Unfortunately, what we need is hard. It takes the opposite of instant payoff to satisfy brain neurons that crave novelty and core psychological needs that demand self-determined action. It takes effort. There's an inextricable relationship between effort and satisfaction. The latter can't exist without the former. Tying your shoes won't bring you gratification. The feeling of satisfaction and the dopamine it generates comes in response to a new or challenging action joined and handled. It's the brain's reward for stretching beyond the familiar. You also feel good because completing a hard task demonstrates competence, one of your core needs.

As we stare down our goals for the new year, it's a good time to zero in on just how crucial the effort component is, not just to get projects and wish lists polished off, but also to create satisfaction in our lives. All the research shows that happiness takes work -- initiating and sustaining effort. When motivation flags, bailing out doesn't just deep-six the goal, it deprives you of what you really need, the gratification of having moved forward.

The belief that the "work" of our goals is incidental and separate from the outcome makes it tough to stick with them and fuels procrastination and flake-outs. Seeing the new exercise program as drudgery, something you're forced to do, shuts down your core need for autonomy and makes you want to bolt. When you feel controlled and pressured, by others or yourself, you recoil from it.

You can avoid that trap by reframing the "work" as part of the mission, not as a way station to outcome. View the practice of a new behavior as the cake to the frosting of gratification that comes with improvement and growth. Working at it is not a root canal; it's the root of competence, which empowers you.

Effort is your friend. It's the unsung engine of the 40 percent of your potential happiness that you can actually do something about, that's not inherited or the result of circumstantial influences (health, environment, geography). Researchers say that this chunk, known as "intentional activity," is the best route to increasing and sustaining happiness, through self-chosen, positive experiences. All intentional activities require you to do something, so initiating and sustaining effort are essential to increasing your odds of finding real satisfaction.

You can dramatically increase your ability to sustain effort by your choice of goals. If you're in it only for an external outcome -- praise, status, success, money -- it will be harder to persevere. Studies show that strong external performance goals undercut persistence. Any setbacks shake the self-image of people ruled by performance standards. Stanford's Carol Dweck found that students who were oriented to the intrinsic goal of learning were able to get enjoyment out of a challenge even when they weren't doing well. They remained eager in the face of setbacks. The externally motivated weren't interested in a subject they didn't do well in. Yes, the performance identity is a quitter, if it doesn't get what it wants when it wants it.

A new friend of mine is a long-distance runner, but he kept getting injured while training for marathons. He wound up burned-out on his passion because he measured progress by the times he ran and how many miles he trained each week. After one too many Achilles and fascia problems, he decided to dump the external yardsticks and run for the fun of it. That changed everything. He now enjoys running again and isn't getting injured. Another important piece for runners or anyone trying to sustain motivation is that varying your course (such as time, length, and intensity) will help keep you at it, by holding off the habituation that leads to boredom.

Intrinsic motivation promotes autonomy and competence, core needs that fuel your ability to be proactive. They are self-propulsion agents. When your goal is intrinsic -- you're doing it for the challenge, fun, growth, learning, excellence -- the usual excuses (it's taking too long, not seeing progress, too hard) can't get in the way, because you're focused on the moment of experience, not the outcome. The intrinsic approach shuts down the unrealistic expectations that lead to bailing out when reality doesn't meet random, imagined scenarios.

I met dozens of folks in the course of doing a new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the power of participant experiences, who have mastered the art of persistence with one of the best intrinsic strategies there is -- developing a passion. The more you use initiating and sustaining skills, the easier it is to call on them. It's a kind of "muscle memory" of motivation that builds the skills of showing up and persistence.

Through the day-in, day-out effort of learning a skill, they developed enough competence for the practice to become internalized and part of their identity. Ian Glazer, a technical analyst at a research firm in Washington D.C., is a 10-year practitioner of classical tai chi chuan. When he first started taking lessons at the Great River Taoist Center, he was amazed at how senior citizens in his class could deflect his moves and push him to the ground. He began going one day a week, then two, three, and four times a week.

"You have to push yourself, getting a little better each time," says Glazer. "My goal is to be less bad than I was the last time."

I love that approach, because it shuts down the outcome fixation of judgment and puts the intrinsic goal of learning center stage. The practice is the practice. Every stretch, every exercise, every mistake is part of the life practice.

The insistent call of the easy and comfortable will keep tugging. You're too tired. You're not getting anywhere. You don't have time. Don't buy it. Stay focused on the goal and do something that your instant gratification equipment will never expect: Rally. Override the momentary moods, frustrations and inertial defaults by contesting them. You're not going with the first reaction. You're rallying. You transcend the alibis by summoning your commitment to live without excuses and ego.

From what I've seen in training and coaching people who want to improve their lives and skills through determined action, we're all a lot better at rallying than we think. The next time your body wants to veg when it's time to take care of your core needs with a career-improvement goal or activate your life with a tango class, rally. When the gloom of a bad day shuts down your motivation, rally. You're not going to roll over. Make the rally your counterpunch to any alibi. What if all that was standing between you and completing the goals that could transform your life was trying it one more time? If you don't rally, you'll never know.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life">, on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.