Why You Should Be More Extreme

Trying too hard is stigmatized in our society. People don’t like it when someone goes too far when trying to accomplish something. This is unfortunate, because going too far is exactly what you need to do.

Case in point: I recently started tracking calories. No, I’m not fat. No, I don’t think I am. But as a formerly always-skinny guy who no longer can eat anything and never gain weight, I decided to be proactive about it. I wanted to know more about how much I eat and how much effort I need to exert to lose or maintain my weight.

Of course, everyone I’ve talked to who has seen me doing this thinks I’m crazy. “Why are you trying to lose weight?” “You should just try to eat ‘healthy’,” “Isn’t tracking everything you eat super annoying?”

To which the responses are: “To see how much effort it is to lose a few pounds,” “I do try to eat healthy, but I want more precision,” and “Yes, of course it’s super annoying.”

Then why do it? My answer is simple: going too extreme in the beginning of a new self-improvement task is a necessary part of calibration. The same people who skip this and aim for the “moderate” solution, perpetually fall short.

Why Starting Extreme Works Better

To achieve results in any goal, there’s an optimal effort range. Too little effort, and you’ll fail to see traction. Sometimes, if there’s some friction between where you are now and your goal, you may not make any progress at all. Even if that isn’t the case, the progress might be so slow as to be uninspiring or unacceptable.

Unfortunately, you don’t actually know where this effort range lies. It could be quite simple, and only a modest effort on your part will achieve the desired result. Or it could be so challenging as to be impossible for you, or completely impractical based on your other goals.

The first part of any self-improvement effort in a new domain is to figure out where that effort range lies. This isn’t something anyone can tell you, because it differs from person to person.

What’s the best way to find that ideal effort range?

One approach would be escalating moderation. Keep pushing harder and harder until you get results. Unfortunately this typically fails for two reasons: one motivational the other practical.

Why Moderation Fails: Reason #1 – Pushing Through Failures

Assume that the ideal effort range isn’t easily within reach. Which, let’s face it, is the most likely case because if the effort threshold were really low, you probably would have surmounted it with casual interest by now.

Now assume that you try to steadily ratchet up your effort and intensity until you reach the level that sustains improvement.

If you were trying to lose weight this could be: trying to walk more, to cutting out some junk food, all the way to a full-blown lifestyle change. If you were trying to learn a language it could be: spending a few minutes each day on DuoLingo, to taking a weekly class, all the way to going no-English for a period of time.

The problem is that, if the effort threshold is high, you’ll probably fail on the first few increments of moderation. That is, you aren’t trying hard enough to make the kind of results you feel are meaningful. The consequence of this is that each reassessment is brought on by failure.

Perhaps if we were all emotionless Vulcans, this wouldn’t be an issue. Except failing constantly is a good way to undermine your confidence and motivation for self-improvement. It’s hard to wholeheartedly throw yourself into something you feel won’t be successful.

Compare that with starting out more extreme. Now you’re much more likely to have the effort threshold within your starting project. Here you can do the opposite, tone down your efforts based on a history of overwhelming success. This, in contrast to pushing through failures, is much easier to do.

Why Moderation Fails: Reason #2 – Effort is Easiest in the Beginning

The second reason why this ratcheting approach isn’t often successful is because it’s easiest to apply a full force of effort in the beginning of a new goal or project.

There seem to be a few different reasons for this. The first comes from a selection effect. You naturally have different levels of enthusiasm for different goals percolating in your head at all times. When you finally trigger the forward action on one of those goals is when that goal has risen above the rest. Therefore, it’s at an unnatural high-point which, because of regression to the mean, will likely not last forever. Escalating moderation requires the opposite—that you put more effort in, long after a project has started.

The second is probably because of construal-level theory. When you think about a goal in the abstract, you aren’t seeing all the details. You imagine the broad swaths of positives, but often forget all the gritty negatives. Imagining being fit or fluent is romantic. Actually waking up and hitting the track or grinding through vocabulary acquisition is not.

All of this means that if you’re going to be applying maximal force, it had better come earlier in your efforts.

Limits to the Strategy

The two biggest critiques I can see to going extreme-first would be preventing burnout and building habits.

The first worry is that by going extreme-first, you risk burning yourself out and crashing, abandoning the project. My personal experience is that you can typically dial back the intensity when you see this happening. As long as you’re putting in sufficient effort to get results, this is often a more satisfying approach than pushing through failures caused by insufficient effort. My MIT Challenge worked this way, where I started out much harder than I actually needed and was able to dial it back later.

The second concern is that habits are best built with the slow-and-steady approach. Here my thoughts are more nuanced. Both strategies are good, but they serve different purposes and so you need to decide which is more useful to you in each situation. Habits are good at building long-term, autopilot behaviors. Extreme-first effort approaches are good for calibrating what level of intensity is needed to deliver results. Depending on the situation one may take precedence over the other.

Why is Trying Too Hard Stigmatized?

All of this raises an interesting question: why is trying hard looked down upon?

I have a couple theories, none of which are mutually exclusive:

Theory #1: People are Envious

People often have a competitive streak. When they see someone doing better for themselves, they feel worse about their own situation. As such, they want to discourage what they see as an attack on their own identity.
This is probably true in some cases, and it’s the most cited explanation by new try-hard achievers, but it’s probably false in most of them. My own experience is that the usual reaction is scorn or pity, not envy.

Theory #2: People Don’t Think This Works

In other words, people explicitly or implicitly reject the arguments I set forth above for why going overboard in the beginning might be an effective strategy. These people may genuinely feel like a more moderate approach would be more successful, and so they dislike the extreme lengths the person is undergoing.

I see some support for this idea. Particularly in areas where people often fail to have maintenance of their achievements afterwards. In both weight-loss and learning, there is often an intense period of accomplishment which can be undermined if long-term efforts aren’t made.

But if this is the case, then why attack the extreme initial measures instead of the lack of proper long-term follow-through?

Theory #3: High-Effort Raises Collective Expectations

The final theory I can think of isn’t envious of accomplishments or agnostic about the benefits, but feels dislike at the possibly rising standards of effort expected. What is considered a “normal” amount of effort is defined relatively. If everyone tries harder, then that becomes the new normal.

It’s certainly possible to get into an arms-race of ever escalating effort, especially when part of the goal is to signal to other people how much effort you’re putting into something. The net effect of this may be, that in order to not look lazy, you need to put in tons of effort.

Two examples where I’ve seen effort-expectation positive feedback cycles run out of control are modern parenting and working hours expectations in East Asia. It’s certainly a risk and so, perhaps, people are using collective norms to try to prevent these feedback loops from occurring.

All of this, of course has a simple solution. If you don’t like the stigma, you don’t need to talk about your extreme efforts. Work hard in private, and if anyone asks, you can downplay how hard you had to work at it.

Side note: This is already common, and it explains why many people’s first attempts are pegged far to the left on the efficiency-effort curve of where they should be. They think by seeing other’s blasé reaction to their own accomplishments that success is easy. It’s not, people just don’t want to be punished socially for appearing to try hard.

How Much Effort is Necessary?

Often the ideal efficiency of effort invested is much higher than people realize. I’m not alone in thinking that, for language learning, this occurs at near total-immersion. For many other projects it may not be maximally intense, but it still occurs near the upper range of your capabilities.

All of this means that going extreme doesn’t deserve the negative connotations it often receives. Starting strong and dialing back the intensity, in the case that a lesser effort will do the job just fine, is a much better overall strategy than trying to progressively push yourself harder when the previous investment failed.

What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree, share them in the comments below!

Two Kinds of Difficulty

There are two reasons accomplishing something might be difficult.

The first is intrinsic difficulty. Imagine you wanted to hold your breath for ten minutes straight. This is a challenging task because of the limitations of the human body. It’s exceptionally hard to do without intense training.

The second is relative difficulty. Now imagine you wanted to have the world record for holding your breath. Here, what is important isn’t so much the absolute difficulty of holding your breath. Instead, it’s the level of competition. If there’s a lot of serious competitors, this will be very hard. The world record for breath-holding is twenty-two minutes, so in this case it certainly qualifies as very difficult.

I think it’s important to separate these two types of difficulty, particularly with respect to learning accomplishments, because they have completely different features and expectations.

What Makes Learning Hard?

I think an illustrative example of the difference between intrinsic and relative difficulty is quantum physics and chess.

Quantum physics is a hard subject. The math required to understand requires a steady ascent of increasing abstraction starting from counting to arithmetic to algebra to calculus to differential equations and waves. It’s a trek that usually takes years to complete, and many people fall off along the way.

Chess, in comparison is dead simple. I wager that I could teach almost anyone how to play chess in less than half an hour, with no prerequisites. Perhaps slightly more time would be necessary if the person had never played a board game before, but not much.

Quantum physics, in my opinion, is intrinsically difficult. It’s difficulty is owing to the fact that, in order to understand it at all, you need to have decades of specialized training layering abstraction upon abstraction.

Playing chess, to the standards we typically expect, however, still isn’t easy. To play chess competitively, you need to invest a lot more time with it than to understand quantum physics. Grandmasters can log tens of thousands of hours of brutally intense coaching. The average person could spend hundreds of hours and still not be able to win a local tournament.

The reason for this discrepancy, however, is obvious: competition. Chess is a popular game and therefore the relative difficulty is quite high, even if the intrinsic difficulty is somewhat less so.

What’s Harder: Chess or Go?

Go is a Chinese game played on a grid, similar to chess. The difference is that, in Go, the board starts empty and one places identical pieces one at a time along the intersections of the grid. If your piece finds itself surrounded by enemy pieces, it gets removed. This leads to its more descriptive Chinese name, 围棋 (wéiqí), which loosely translates to “encircling game”.

Recently, I had an email conversation with a reader about learning to play competitive-level Go. Like chess, this involves memorizing thousands of position variants. Some of which may be dozens of moves long and must be executed perfectly or the position is lost.

My correspondent remarked that many competitive Go players essentially train on the game their entire lives, starting in special schools from childhood, easily putting in 30,000+ hours into the game. He suggested that this could be due to the fiendish complexity of the game.

This leads to an interesting question. Which is harder: chess or Go? And why?

Now that we’ve discussed relative vs intrinsic difficulty, this question has new meaning.

In terms of intrinsic difficulty, it’s likely that Go is indeed more difficult than chess. For one, chess has a smaller board and fewer positions. Therefore, at any given point in the game, there are a much smaller set of possible moves in chess than there are for Go.

This is one of the reasons why computers have had a much harder time learning Go. Computers can outperform humans in chess mostly through brute-force. A computer can quickly dive down several moves deep, examining most fruitful possibilities. In Go, the movespace expands so much faster that computers only were able to beat humans by employing sophisticated pattern-recognition algorithms that are likely similar to the ones used by human brains.

However, what about the comment about “30,000+ hours” to become world-class at Go? Here, of course, we’re not dealing with intrinsic difficulty at all, but relative difficulty. If Go were an obscure game that almost nobody in the world played, the rules could be exactly the same but it might only take a few hundred hours to become the world champion.

This difficulty—how long does it take to become a grandmaster—almost entirely depends on the relative competitiveness of chess and Go. My feeling is that this gives chess a slight upper hand, as there are probably more serious chess players than Go players worldwide.

Unless the game itself has a lower-bound of complexity that prevents further mastery (say Tic-Tac-Toe, which can be played perfectly after minutes of instruction), relative difficulty will be the most important factor when sizing up your ability.

How Does Relative Difficulty and Intrinsic Difficulty Affect Your Plans?

We’re very used to thinking about relative difficulty for tasks. So much so, that we often confuse it for intrinsic difficulty. In school, if everyone was getting 100% on every test, the teacher would make it more difficult until some people weren’t getting perfect scores.

Because we’re conditioned to focus on relative difficulty, people quickly deem themselves incapable or incompetent at learning certain things, simply because they fall lower on that end of the spectrum. If you were in the bottom 20% for mathematics, you might tell yourself you can’t learn math. What you really mean, however, is that you’re not as good at math as others, and therefore the relative difficulty is too high.

This actually has some interesting force behind it. There’s some clever argument showing that the same student who was bright in his or her high school may perform differently depending on the exclusiveness of the university he or she enters. Basically, if you’re smart, but everyone around you is even smarter, that may convince you that you’re not actually all that smart and you may downgrade your ambitions either through choosing less competitive majors or not graduating at all.

I’m not sure that this necessarily suggests that the average person shouldn’t try to get into the most exclusive school, but it does at least highlight the possibility that relative assessments of ability often get confused for intrinsic difficulty.

Relative difficulty is important. It certainly serves a purpose of sorting people into different buckets of talent and effort invested. I don’t mean to deny that. However, perceiving the intrinsic difficulty (or lack thereof) is often underrated simply because it is so absent in the formal schooling.

In many cases, what you want is an absolute level of ability, not merely a relative one. If I can fix my plumbing, ask for directions in French, do my taxes, cook a meal, write a useful program, perform first aid, drive a car, start a campfire, give a presentation, make friends, manage my time or any number of other things, my absolute performance matters a lot more than where I fit on a bell curve.

Next time you find yourself saying a certain subject is too difficult, ask yourself whether it’s intrinsically difficult or only by comparison to other people? The answer may change how you approach it.

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