Does Enjoyment Trump Efficiency?

I had a conversation with a friend once who complained about his lack of success with women. Yet this same person rarely did anything social, preferring to do solo activities or hang out with the same group of friends.

It may seem crazy that someone can want to change an element of their life badly, but doesn’t take any action. But people do this all the time: overweight people who don’t exercise, people who hate their jobs but don’t work on an escape plan, failing students that procrastinate right before the final exam.

I think it’s easy to be judgmental of inaction. Explain it away as simply being laziness or weakness. But the truth is probably more basic: self-motivation is really hard to do, especially for tasks you don’t enjoy.

The Enjoyment Barrier

Although a rational reason for exercising, socializing or working should be enough, it usually isn’t. If you loathe exercising or hate your work, motivation can be an immense problem.

The solution most people have is adding more reasons. Sometimes this works, but often it fails. After all, if you already had a good reason to exercise but you’re staying home again, what difference will having a slightly better reason make?

I feel a better strategy is instead of summoning up more willpower, trying to hack the activity in question so it becomes more enjoyable. Instead of driving the change with more force, you use a catalyst.

Focus on Enjoyment Over Efficiency

Kalid Azad writes about using a variant of this strategy when teaching math. We spend so much time thinking about the efficiency of math education, forcing rules of trigonometry and algebra onto students that fewer people ever develop a real love of math.

What if we took the opposite strategy? That the role of math education isn’t just to prepare students, but to encourage a love of math so that they will more eagerly take on new challenges. Who will end up ahead, in the long-term?

What if the goal of exercise was to find something physical you really liked, not to lose weight? The goal of socializing was to find activities you enjoyed, not to fit some mold people expect you to follow?

Feedback Cycles and Positive Reinforcement

One of the first articles I ever wrote here was about the frustration barrier. The idea is that, in most new activities, there’s a period where positive reinforcement is relatively weak, so it can be draining to try to get good.

The flip-side of that is, once you reach a minimum threshold of competence, you start reaping rewards and it becomes easier to put more effort in. You can start devoting time to making your activities less enjoyable and more efficient, because you’re already have a wealth of positive feedback driving you forward.

Enjoyment First, Efficiency Second

As a rule of thumb, I would say the first priority should be to enjoy an activity. This applies whenever you find yourself procrastinating constantly or finding that you’re putting off a goal for months. After you don’t have a problem showing up, every day, the goal should be efficiency, which reaps greater rewards.

My advice to new bloggers would be, start by writing whatever you enjoy writing about most. Don’t worry about finesse or mastering the craft, just get out there and write what you’re passionate about. After a hundred or so articles, you might want to spend more time carefully examining how you can improve.

The consequence of this rule is that the advice you should be following will differ depending on where you are along the frustration barrier. In the beginning, choose fun, lower-efficiency strategies. Later on, choose intense deliberate practice tactics for mastery.

Finding Enjoyment

How to actually make a task more enjoyable is another huge topic, and I’m not sure it has a solution in every case. There’s definitely tasks I can, at most, begrudgingly accept, not fall in love with.

However, most tasks are susceptible at some point to being rearranged to make them more enjoyable. Listening to music while working tends to lower my efficiency, but increase my enjoyment. Going to the gym with friends can be a distraction if you’re on an intense schedule, but also more fun.

Thoughts and Counterarguments

Of course, the opposite theory—that quickly getting results is the best way to get the feedback cycle into the positive phase, is also popular. Tim Ferriss argued from his latest book that a less-fun but high-results dieting approach is better than one which is easy, but may not give the tangible benefits that encourage you to continue.

What do you think? Should your initial action plans focus on what is going to be the most effective strategy, or the one you’ll enjoy most? If it depends, what causes you to make that distinction?

  • John Paton

    I think there is certainly a need to focus on enjoyment over efficiency some times. The more you enjoy your work, the easier it is to focus for large periods of time.

    Whenever I have a hard essay to write or a tricky problem set to work on, I make sure that I ‘relax into my work.’ By this I mean that I’ll make myself a cup of tea, I’ll find some dark chocolate, and I might even play some music. Although this might initially make things less efficient, it certainly makes things more enjoyable!

    As you’ve written before I feel that energy not time is the limiting factor when it comes to getting work done. Most of the time we can afford to sacrifice efficiency for more enjoyment.

  • Ari

    Although I understand and I can read English fast enough to enjoy it on a regular basis I am not used to write and express my ideas in that language. Your blog and comments make me want to improve my communication skills.

    As a mathematics student, language learner, studying science in a foreign country, I struggle every day to write any kind of ideas. It also happens with math, I read a lot of sources but, I barely write. I hack ideas in my mind, I have my own concepts to learn making connections virtually and after my course on “Neural Networks” I think also physically. I feel like I get the ideas really well, also philosophical and social ones, but: do I really get them if I cannot write them down clearly?

    I enjoy a lot the content of your website and I think I can appreciate most of it. Just wanted to say hello, thanks and best wishes from Italy! I go on with MIT 18.03, Systems of ODE’s,


  • Emily

    That’s a great point, Scott. I’ve noticed that in my own life: if I focus on enjoying something, I end up getting more out of it in the long run than trying to do it perfectly.

  • Alberto

    Great post. Totally agree, one of the biggest scam in the self-development market is marketing to everybody methods that are too difficult to apply (motivationally) for 80% of the population.

    They even admit that. Dating advice is a good example, they often say “this is for the 20% of guys who have the balls to go out 3 times a week and approach several women every night”. Fine. They have the right to build such a method, but then the consequence should be that if you are in the 80%, the method is just bad for you. You have nothing wrong, the method is wrong (for you): you should not buy the product.

    Instead, since nobody wants to admit that he is not a potential hero, everybody buys the product and lose time and money with a method that is not a good fit. Marketers know it and do it on purpose.
    Compliance is king: if, after a few attempts, you can’t get yourself to comply with a method, the method is bad (for you).

  • shreevidya

    in my case thats whats been happening.i m only having plans, goals, sub-goals, but no enjoyment. will consider this point. thanks.

  • Rod

    Great post, i think we tend to focus on the results of what we want, sometimes motivation is missing, most of the time theres always a reason, there are things i want but i find really difficult to do something about it, we can read tons of books without being able to do something about it, as Alberto said, because the problem is not that we want it, the intellectual part is ok, the problem is fellings and is really hard to break the neuronal circuit of those fellings and change it then some of us just stop trying not wanting it, i think is a grat idea focus on enjoyment of what it needs to be done, it be wonderful it most books think like you and focus on what matter. Greetings

    p.d i hope you get my point, english writing is not what i do best.

  • Jay

    I think that enjoyment trumps efficiency. I remember going on a weight loss program years ago (zone diet), and I lost about 20 lbs. But I couldn’t hold it, because I couldn’t live with (i.e. didn’t enjoy) the dietary restrictions and the need to spend time exercising a lot. I eventually (6 years) ballooned back up.

    This time, I’m on a weight loss program, and I enjoy it more. That is because I am doing a few things differently. I have still given up most high density carbohydrates, but I “take the foot off the pedal” once a week. I still exercise, but I’m using the “Peak Fitness” approach which takes less time and delivers better results. I have incorporated black beans which tremendously reduces my cravings for high density carbs, and I don’t suffer a reduction of enjoyment because of carb cravings.

    Once there is a surplus of enjoyment, it can be spent to improve efficiency. And that is where Ferris is right. And why not. If you are going to have less net enjoyment but still net positive enjoyment, why not spend some of it on suffering to get long-term gain? However, the danger to beware of is that if you spend enjoyment to gain efficiency, and it leads to a net deficit in enjoyment, the activity will naturally stop.

  • Kalid

    Great interesting article Scott. Something I struggle with myself.

    If you are doing something “just to do it” (i.e., fix a leaky faucet, mow your lawn, etc.) then you want the most efficient path possible.

    I think the mistake happens when we see math in the same light, a checklist of “something to get through”. The issue is that math is really about shifting your mind to think in new ways — you can’t really force it.

    I think the deep connections are made when you truly play with the subject — if you hate math, it stays this rigid, artificial thing which never becomes a tool in your belt. Calculus is this way for most of us — we may have ‘learned’ it, but we’d never jump to start using it when there’s a problem.

    Like you said for writing, I think motivation is the larger problem, not lack of details/rigor. That stuff will come once you enjoy the subject on its own. (In computer science there’s a saying “What’s the high-order bit?”. I.e., there might be several things that matter, but which one dominates the others? I.e., if you don’t get the enjoyment factor right, will any amount of “forcing yourself” really have a permanent effect?).

    Enjoyed the read!

  • T. Jay Johnson

    Fascinating question, you might need fun to begin but won’t grow until you’re challenged outside your comfort zone. Mathematically, you could say that having efficiency at doing nothing is worse than low efficiency at doing little. 🙂 It probably has more to do with a person’s individual personality than anything else.

  • Amelia

    Effectiveness, for me, is about being in flow. When I am in flow I lose track of time *because* I am enjoying the moment. I don’t see these two concepts as mutually exclusive, but yes, enjoyment must come first, then you can be effective effortlessly. Prior to a few months ago, I was one of these people who wanted to lose weight but exercised infrequently. For me, I had reasons why I should be exercising, but it was only when I found reasons why I *liked the exercise I chose*, that I shifted my perspective enough to get my butt to the gym on a regular basis. Now that I am *enjoying* myself sweating it out (and seeing the results – agree with Tim Ferriss on that one), it doesn’t feel anywhere near as hard to get up at 5am anymore.

  • Busy Signals

    Good point regarding how adding more good reasons somerimes won’t help. There’s a self-help writer named Michael Neill who often says the more “reasons” we have for doing something, the less we truly want to do it. For the things we really want, “I really want to do this” is enough.

  • Fredrick

    very interesting website here, interestingly i found it by doing a search on the internet of “how to learn everything” because i want to learn everything. it is very fun to learn and to expand knowledge and awareness and consciousness.

  • Pierre Bastien

    I’m not sure it’s a trade-off between enjoyment and efficiency. I think it’s probably two sequential steps, (1) enjoyment then (2) efficiency.

    I see the first step, enjoyment, as really more about acceptance. Fully accept where you already are. Find enjoyment in what you’re already doing. Maybe you *like* hanging out alone or with the guys, in which case, don’t beat yourself up about not being better with women. If you’re already happy, what’s the problem?

    Once you accept wherever you are, it takes some of the pressure off, and you can focus on enjoying the steps you might want to take in a new direction. Now you can decide on what level of efficiency you want to use.

    You may be the kind of person who wants to get results quickly, a.k.a the Tim Ferriss ™. In that case, go out and learn from other people — read books about talking to women, ask people who are successful with women how they do it, etc. Then put the ideas into practice. All the while, enjoy yourself.

    If you want to go at your own pace, and just learn on your own as opportunities come up, great. Maybe we’ll call these people the Leo Babauta ™. If you find yourself in the checkout line next to a cute girl, then try talking to her for a few seconds. All the while, enjoy yourself.

    If you are willing to accept where you are and enjoy the process of learning and trying, then probably both of these approaches will work for you, just pick the one you’re most comfortable with (or do both!).

    If you aren’t willing to accept and enjoy where you are today, then I bet neither of these approaches will work — you’ll be too scared to take action down either path.

    At least…that’s been my own experience over the years.

    A thought-provoking post Scott — thanks.