Effort paradox

‘This is my heart and soul.’

‘I built it with my sweat and blood.’

Have you ever used or at least heard of these phrases?

What I’m about to tell you is somewhat the opposite of this.

I’m going to ramble about the effort paradox today.

I will tell you what is it? How is this relevant to you? And all other doubts you have in your mind right now.

Table of contents

What is the effort paradox?

We have a notion in our heads.

The more effort we put into something, the more result we will get.

This is true and straightforward in almost all cases, but not all.

All of us aspire to be hardworking and have a conviction that hard work results in success.

I have no intention to change any of that, but I want you to know there are some exceptions to this.

There are essentially two versions of the effort paradox available.

The first one is the one you will find on the internet if you search for it. This states the effort is valued and costly. Therefore, we avoid putting effort when given a choice. But the paradox states the despite the effort being resource-intensive, we choose actions that require more effort. Also, additional efforts make the actions more rewarding.

The second one is what I’m familiar with and what we will discuss today. The second one states that contrary to our believes that putting more effort will yield more results, in the case of some tasks, putting more effort will diminish the result.

An obvious example would be sleeping. The more try to force yourself to sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep.

So as you might have figured out, what we are discussing today is how putting fewer efforts yields more results sometimes.

When did I notice the effort paradox?

There are a couple of instances in my life where I have noticed this strange phenomenon at work.

Solving problems

Whether it is a problem from our studies, or work, or just some fun questions, there will be a point when you become stuck at a point and become clueless at proceeding further.

You might try to beat the hell out of your brain, but would still only be more confused than before. If you know what I’m talking about, you have been there as well.

When all hope seems lost and we just move on, dismissing the problem as unsolvable. But then when you are in the middle of something else, out of nowhere, the solution or the breakthrough you direly needed will strike you.

It will take you a moment to figure out that you have found the solution.

More often than not, the solutions we need come at most unexpected times.

Learning new things

Whenever we are trying to discern or comprehend something new, there might be a point where we feel we are not making any progress. No matter how much you try, you can’t get your head around something.

With a tint of disappointment, you might leave it. Then you come back to it to continue your struggle of learning, and you realize you are better than where you have left off. Somehow, you have made progress in it doing nothing.


You might write something and you think the delivery is slightly off, but don’t quite know how to do it right. You might pause for a minute, hoping something might land on your head, but tough luck.

The moment you leave your focus and move on, something might click.

Another example would be, when you are trying to catch some errors, even when you are looking through every peck of details, you might think that you have nailed all of it.

After a break, you come back and read it again to get shocked by the blunder that was right in front of your nose.

The common trait that you can find in these examples is that you might try your best to make some progress but would be left with despair until you get on with your life.

In that break you take, somehow the solution magically appears before you or the break helps you see the solution afterward.

How putting less effort helps?

Let’s try to make sense of this seemingly strange observation. How does putting less effort help to get more results?

Activates diffused mode of thinking

There are essentially two modes of thinking in our brain:

  1. Focused mode of thinking
  2. Diffused mode of thinking

The Focus mode of thinking is what we generally consider as thinking. We will pay close attention to the subject at hand. There won’t be any distractions, and your focus and attention are all dedicated to the matter.

Diffused mode of thinking is the not so popular yet effective form of thinking where we let the mind wander freely while not actively thinking about the subject at hand. We would let random thoughts take over our minds while we sit back and relax.

Diffused mode of thinking is the fundamental reason why the effort paradox happens.

The best learning practice happens when you use the focused mode of thinking first, which is then followed by diffused mode of thinking.

If you are a student, you might be familiar with the Pomodoro technique for studying. Where you study for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minutes break.

Pomodoro technique essentially uses the focused and diffused mode of thinking for better learning.

So whenever you feel stuck or can’t find a breakthrough you have been looking for, just take a 5 minutes break. This will activate the diffused mode of thinking and diffused mode of thinking is very helpful for creative and out-of-the-box solutions.

So yes, next time you are taking a break, you can tell yourself that you are just switching to the diffused mode of thinking.

Asking the right question

I would say 99% of the reason we can’t find the right solutions are because we are knocking at the wrong door.

If you want to find the right answer, then the foremost thing you should do is to ask the right question.

This is one of the most overlook and underrated skillsets.

We waste so much of our time finding solutions to wrong questions, then by the time we realize this, it would be too late.

When you keep your mind laser focus on a question trying to squeeze out an answer, the first question you need to ask yourself is ‘Is this the right one?’.

Putting too much effort into a problem makes us obsessed with the question before us that blocks us from seeing other questions.

Taking your mind off something gives space to think about other problems that might lurk in the background.

This is another reason putting too much effort could be counterproductive.

So before you jump in and start attacking any question, ask yourself whether this is the right question to chase after first.

Less stress

Hitting a roadblock when you are searching for an answer can be frustrating. You will feel hopeless and powerless. When there is a clock ticking away reminding you that time is drifting away, this can be very stressful.

The more time you spend smashing the wrong wall, the more stressed you will be about reaching a solution.

Stress is never a friend of ours. Something we should stay away from.

Sometimes taking a break, even when you know the clock hand is swinging, can help in taking that stress off your shoulder and remind you of the big picture.

Stop putting too much effort and taking a moment to give you a breathing space can be a lot helpful than you could imagine.

How to put this technique to good use?

That that we know not putting too many efforts has its perks. Let’s look at how we can put this to effective use.

Before putting all your effort, ask yourself, is this the right problem?

Before tackling any problem, the first thing you need to verify is that is this the right problem.

Sometimes you might realize it after chasing after the wrong one. But whenever you think things are not going as expected, make sure you are working on the right problem.

This is something we take lightly and often give over.

Always remember, we can only find the right answer with the right question.

If things are going nowhere, go somewhere

When things go south on us, this will hurt our ego. We don’t want to feel like we give up on something. We don’t want to lose.

This stupid ego will keep you stuck on this problem. No matter how much you try, you can’t seem to solve it.

If you have tried, and still nothing works out for you?

Then the next thing you should do is to put aside your ego and your pride and ask for some help or take a break.

You might think that putting a little more effort might open the door to your answer. But you shouldn’t buy into that false hope.

Sometimes there can be things you need some help to solve, there can be things that take time to solve, but torturing yourself in the name of false hope is just pointless.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Know that sometimes, even if you are not looking for the solution, the solution might come to you.

Actively try to be mindful.

When you are all caught up in the quest to find the solution, you lose sight of what is most important.

Solving any problem requires you to look at the problem at a rational level.

You need to ask whether this is the right question and whether you are the right person to answer it.

Being mindful and being detached from the problem you are after can be very helpful in making rational decisions.

The effort paradox can only be used to your advantage when you have the rationality and the big picture in your mind.

Being mindful is an excellent technique to solve any problem because then you not only know how to solve something, but you will also know when to stop when you can’t.

Wrap up

In this blog post, we look at the effort paradox, we try to understand what effort paradox is, why that happens and how to use it to our advantage.

The effort paradox presents us with a fresh way to approach breaks or time-offs. How doing something counterintuitive like putting in less effort can also be helpful.

I hope you too can find results without putting in too much of your precious effort.

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