Effort is Overrated

In the course of my life, I’ve become somewhat “anti-effort.” While I’m on the lazy side of the work ethic spectrum, that’s not even the reason for my stance. And to clarify, anti-effort does not mean anti-persistence. It means that effort is not the only or most important factor in our pursuits.

Effort and Results

I will concede the fact that some amount of effort is (usually) required to get results. Not always, however, as in the case of passive investments or good habits built over years that require little thought and/or no internal resistance. Those can give you incredible results with minimal or no effort. But it’s fair to say that effort is generally required for most good things to happen.

It does not mean, however, that effort is a clean and linear giver of results. And that is precisely why it’s overrated.

In Hawaii, I met a homeless man sitting up against a brick wall. He asked me for money to buy cigarettes. I have a heart for the homeless, but I hate cigarettes, so I offered to buy him something else from the grocery store. But he really wanted cigarettes. After some discussion, we settled on some other items, which I brought back to him. Upon seeing that he failed to convince me to get him cigarettes, he proceeded to bang his head HARD on the brick wall to the point where one would expect blood, while repeatedly saying, “I’m so stupid! I’m so stupid!”

He had mental issues beyond my ability to help him. The whole ordeal took about 30 minutes, was stressful for all parties involved, and it ended with him banging his head against the wall, probably giving himself a concussion. My effort to help him actually made the situation worse, and I’ll never forget it. 

Have you ever put together a piece of furniture, only to discover that you need to take it apart because you did something wrong? It’s a terrible feeling because it was complete waste of your time and effort, and it takes additional effort to fix it.

I think there is a very large subset of people who think effort is all that matters. They are the type to use words like “grind” and “hustle.” It’s a dangerous mindset because if applied improperly, 100% effort can leave you exhausted without making much progress. And they can miss out on low effort, high impact actions such as mini habits.

Wasted effort is devastating, which is why we need to avoid wasting it.

Effort Principle: Go For Value Over Quantity

To show the importance of how you apply effort, consider exercise. Try shorter bouts of higher intensity exercise (known as HIIT or HIIE) instead of longer bouts of moderate intensity exercise. Studies find it is multiple times more effective for fat loss that something like jogging. Here’s a good article about one such study.

It’s hard to believe, but in the aforementioned study, a 20 minute workout 3 times per week gave about the same results as jogging one hour per day! That’s six extra hours of effort per week for nothing in the jogging group.

Also watch out for diminishing returns in some areas of effort. For example, straightening up takes considerably less effort than a deep clean, but it can be nearly as beneficial and look almost as good. Not that a deep clean isn’t ever worth it, but perhaps it isn’t worth the effort frequently.

Effort is important in life, but how you expend it often matters more than how much you expend.

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