The Effort Threshold

Last week, I wrote about how a major cause of failure is simple: not working hard enough. If you’re only spending 30 minutes per week at the gym, your specific exercise plan doesn’t really matter. You aren’t reaching the minimum effort threshold needed for success.

The idea that all goals have a minimum effort threshold is a powerful one. If you know roughly what the effort threshold is for any particular goal, you can stop worrying about which tactics to use until you’ve committed at least that much effort.

Let’s say you knew, for example, that it takes roughly two years and 3,000 hours of productive work to create a successful online business. If that’s the case, you wouldn’t get discouraged when you aren’t successful after only six months.

Finding the Effort Threshold for Your Goals

My article last week focused on a common problem: people often underestimate the magnitude of the effort threshold. They assume something must be wrong with them. Either they aren’t smart enough or their approach is flawed. In reality, they may just be under the threshold.

What’s the best way to find the effort threshold for a goal: study people who’ve already achieved it. Don’t look for the miraculous cases, there will always be outliers. Look at the ordinary people, who through consistent effort managed to reach an attainable goal.

The bar is often set higher than you think:

  1. Exercise – Most of my friends that went from fat to fit took at least a year, with consistent effort. My friends in fantastic shape spend about 5-10 hours at the gym per week and have a healthy diet.
  2. Wealth – Zig Ziglar once remarked that when you examine the majority of millionaires, they are regular people, working at good careers, that have saved and invested wisely for most their lives. The rock star entrepreneurs that reach billions in their twenties are exceptions.
  3. Writing – If you want to become a not-bad writer, I’d write at least 500,000 words. If you want to become a good writer, I’d put in at least 5,000,000 words. I’ve written about 600,000 words for this blog, and I’m still far below the effort threshold needed for great writing.
  4. Learning – Holistic learning is a rule-breaking strategy for learning. But it works best when you’re already at the effort threshold for decent results and want to do even better.
  5. Online Business – Going from nothing to full-time income should take at least 2-3 years.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that mastery of any skill takes at least 10,000 hours of practice. Personally, I think the number is a bit too rigid. Some goals may require only 100 hours of work. Others may require your entire life of dedicated work. But the principle is still the same: a minimum threshold needed to be successful.

Study Extraordinary Strategies, Use an Ordinary Effort Threshold

Before you start a goal, seek people who have already done it. When I started blogging, I reached out to people who had already achieved the specific milestone I wanted to reach. Even if you can’t talk to people who have reached your goal, you can still research it. Reading books on exercise helped me set realistic goals for how much effort I needed to apply.

The problem with extraordinary success is that it sets the effort bar too low. When someone manages to run a business with only four hours per week, graduate with a degree in only three semesters or pass exams without studying, those cases can provide insights into a unique strategy, but they distort the effort threshold.

There is a software mantra that says to find the length of time for a project, take your worst-case scenario, then double it. That’s your new best case scenario. The same logic applies with your effort threshold. Even if you’re studying the strategies of the best-case, you want to put the effort in for the worst case. Otherwise you may have a great strategy but still fall short.

  • Steve

    Scott, this is a great post, once again. It’s good to see the lessons from the turtle and the hare illustrated here. The most successful people live from a long-term time horizon and take the time and effort needed to perfect their skill sets.

  • Mark Lewis

    Nicely put. It’s amazing how often we set our expectations for succeeding to that of winning the lottery.

  • Jens Upton


    Great reminders and I like the realistic structure you present. Learning or accomplishing takes effort and the vehicle for success is often fueled by enthusiasm, practicality, long term vision and reading posts and opinions like this.

    It also reminds me of the oft quoted saying attriuted to Henry Ford – ‘…..fantasize, rehearse then go out in the world and do it.’


  • Cal


    I really agree with you here. Another distortion that causes trouble is that when you’re young you can sometimes get disproportionate credit for relatively small things simply because you are unusually young. This can also lead to a sense of a little bit of effort being sufficient to stand out. As you point out, however, for most things, at most points of life, there is no escaping Steve Martin’s maxim: “If you want to succeed [in a field] you have to be so good they can’t ignore you.”

    – Cal

  • Rick Cooper, The Attraction Ma

    Great insights Scott. I love your suggestion to “Look at the ordinary people, who through consistent effort managed to reach an attainable goal.”

    Too often, people look for shortcuts and miss the opportunities that lay in front of them. Hard work pays off! @RickCooper

  • David Cain

    Yes, I’ve found that most of the time when I’ve been falling short of my goals, it’s because I’m simply not expecting enough of myself.

    But it should certainly be noted that there isn’t always an easy quantity to measure as ‘effort.’ Sometimes there is an important catalyst missing

    For example, you can write 5,000,000 words, but you’ll still be a terrible writer if you don’t read a lot too.

  • Scott Young


    Yes, it’s a simplification. I guess the best way to summarize the thrust of my article is this:

    1. For each of your goals, find a few people who already did it.
    2. Figure out how much effort they applied before making progress.
    3. Apply at least that much effort.

    Reading also helps with writing. To say that every goal simply requires effort in one predictable form of input would be a gross misrepresentation. Having a successful business requires thousands of inputs of effort to be successful.


    I definitely connect with your comment about youth. Occasionally I’ve been asked by readers why my blog doesn’t have the same traffic levels as larger blogs like Zen Habits or Steve Pavlina’s website. The most reasonable answer is simply I haven’t put nearly the same amount of effort in. Leo was a writer for decades and Steve Pavlina had been researching his field for over ten years. Effort isn’t a sufficient condition for success, but it is often necessary.

    I think the effort threshold is good to keep your mind focused on the big picture. When you’re not as successful as you think you should be after a few months, step back and realize you’ve only ran half the race. It shouldn’t be used to discourage you from getting started, however.


  • Andresito

    I bet you meant to put numbers just to get an idea of how much “experience” you must get on your own for certain tasks.
    By experience I mean quality of thinking-energy, planning, and learning cycle.

    5000000 words aren’t equal to 500 “words,” the latter being quality and presumably coming from “some” experience.
    words < "words" ^^

  • Andresito

    As Michael Jordan said,
    “You can practice the shot for 8 hrs everyday. If the technique is wrong you’ll become someone who is good at shooting bad.”

  • BK

    Hi I read your article “10 Tips to Study Smart and Save Time” and I must say I found it very genuine,real and informative which is based on my experience too. I just completed my A-Levels and would be entering medicine first year soon.
    I would like to ask you what do you think about reading aloud while studying the medical books,simply scribbling as you read and then doing short notes on each section you have finished studying.I sometimes use this method but it really drains a lot of energy out of me and I understand medical books are really very thick.
    So, do you think the right way would then be to just visually read while doing the understanding in the mind and connecting the facts? Would that be sufficient or do I also need to write short notes or speak aloud to retain the information? I am also particularly worried about anatomy.

    Thank you. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Scott Young


    It really depends on your abilities. I’ll often read information which I know I won’t be able to perfectly retain later. Especially if it doesn’t jump out at me as being either obvious or interesting.

    In those cases, I usually apply some extra methods like active reading or deliberate holistic learning techniques to fix those ideas in my mind more strongly.

    P.S. – Only one comment post is necessary. First time commentors must have their comments approved by me before they go online, that is why your comment didn’t initially show up.


  • BK

    Hey thanks for the feedback!

  • Launchpad

    Nice post. Well it do take efforts to accomplish something. We can’t get that thing by talking about that. We have to do something. And that requires time…If we give time we get..else we just keep on talking. I know the rules , wish i will start working on them soon.