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?


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