Why Trying Too Hard Can Backfire
Sometimes letting go is the best way to succeed
Ask a successful person what got them to where they are, and you’ll probably hear some version of: “A lot of hard work.”
It’s an answer that makes intuitive sense. I’m sure you can think of examples where you believe you failed because you didn’t try hard enough. In any endeavor, effort is certainly important.
But this simplification — the idea that putting more time, thought, or energy into something is guaranteed to give you better results — doesn’t show the whole picture. Perhaps you’re one point away from winning a game, and you put so much pressure on yourself that you not only cede the lead, but end up losing. Or you land an interview for the job of your dreams and spend hours prepping a response for every question you can think of, but then fumble on the most basic softballs.
People have long been grappling with this paradox. In Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” The late Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner discovered the reason why this is the case: When we try not to think of something, one part of our brain does its job to block the banned thought, but another part sporadically “checks in” to make sure the thought isn’t around, bringing the thought to mind. This phenomenon, called “ironic process theory,” explains why trying to relax makes people more stressed, why trying to stay awake gets insomniacs to fall asleep, and why it’s more likely someone will believe something when they try not to.
In other words, the old adage is true: “Whatever you resist, persists.”
The good news is that there are some ways to counteract the ironic processes that can get in your way of achieving your goals. Here are three strategies.
Let go of control
In the classic book The Inner Game of Tennis, coach W. Timothy Gallwey explains that students often get frustrated when they can’t master a certain skill. When that happens, he writes, they should let their unconscious mind do the work: “If your body knows how to hit…