Sometimes I think you can try too hard to improve yourself – whether you’re trying to improve a specific area of your personality, developing a new skill or aiming for a life goal.
There comes a point where your efforts simply become counterproductive; where you tip yourself from a positive into a negative mind set. The pressure you feel to succeed and the importance you place on your success become overwhelming; and consequently you fall afoul of the two great foes of success and achievement – anxiety and stress.
There is a great line that I underlined long ago in my rather worn copy of Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ which reads, ‘I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism’.
Of course, Dale Carnegie was writing about how one person’s mind-set can influence the effectiveness and productivity of another person. How encouragement, enthusiasm, support and understanding have a significantly greater positive impact on their progress than being critical, authoritarian and judgemental. But the fact is the same holds true about how you think and talk to yourself.
The ‘Don’t Try Too Hard’ Paradox
I myself, have often fought with the paradox that I seem to accomplish far more and work with far greater mental clarity when I don’t ‘try’ – when I don’t place too much emphasis on the ‘importance’ of what I’m doing or what I’m trying to achieve.
But of course, it’s not really a paradox – because the sense of pressure that often accompanies ‘importance’ expends a great deal of negative mental energy; energy that could have otherwise been put to positive use.
Remove that pressure and instead of being consumed with stress, urgency and insecurity, you’re filled with enthusiasm, interest, curiosity and creativity – resourceful mental states that are only accessible when you’re relaxed and calm. And that’s the exact same point Dale Carnegie made – elicit stress and pressure in someone and watch their abilities and productivity dwindle, help them to feel secure and relaxed through approval and watch their achievements bloom.
Born to Achieve
I’m a great believer in the core philosophy of the positive psychologist Abraham Maslow, who basically saw the human character to be filled with an innate drive to achieve.
By definition, that innate inclination towards achievement means that we don’t have to ‘try’ to succeed – because all the positive characteristics we need to achieve are firmly embedded in our psyches. In other words, being enthusiastic, creative, motivated, curious, and interested come naturally to us. We don’t need additional pressure and we don’t need to work under duress to do well.
It’s exactly when we start to feel additional pressure thanks to attributed ‘importance’ that we fall afoul. You think to yourself, ‘This exam (or this job, or this project, or this skill) is absolutely vital to my future success, I must do well’. In that moment, when you bestow that vital importance, a switch flips in your brain. Things become a matter of survival not fulfilment and consequently, you try too hard and put in too much mental effort.
The problem with attributing too much ‘importance’ to anything is that it evokes a very nasty demon indeed, a demon called ‘fear of failure’ – and the anxiety that arises from that demon has the potential to become all consuming. Under such duress it’s not really that surprising that those innate positive qualities seem to switch off and consequently, our capacity for achievement seems to diminish exponentially.
Pretending Things Don’t Matter
Of course, the things you want to achieve in life are important to you – and pretending otherwise isn’t an effective solution. That’s as naive as believing in the powers of unrealistic and farfetched positive self-talk to help you to feel like life’s just peachy when you know in your heart that the opposite is true. No, pretending things aren’t important to you when they are is artificial and will get you nowhere.
Neither would I suggest that you should adopt an all-encompassing attitude of casual indifference to life or that you shouldn’t try to improve, to excel and achieve – because again, I’d be giving you pseudo advice of the greatest magnitude.
Be On Guard
What I would suggest however is this: Be aware that any goal that you consider to be ‘important’ has the potential to tip you into an unresourceful state, one where stress and pressure strip you of the higher mental functions that allow you to perform at your best.
Be on guard for that stress – watch out for it not only when actually putting in direct effort into the achievement of your goals, but in the emotions that you carry around with you during the rest of your conscious day. One thing I’ve learned is that stress in one area of your life can pervade all areas of your psyche to the point where you feel perpetually exhausted and where everything feels like a chore.
I’ve also found that ‘being on guard’ against stress is very much a proactive process – because it’s alarmingly easily to slip into a stress state almost unaware.
In fact, even with that knowledge there are still times in my life when I’ll feel in total control, but for days I’ll feel that I just don’t seem to be getting anywhere. It’s only when I take a step back and ask myself, ‘What’s the problem here?’ that I come to the realisation that I’ve slipped into an unresourceful stress state – and that almost stealth state of negativity has left me mentally dumbed, demotivated and overwhelmed. That I’ve been, as Wesley Snipes once put it, ‘trying to ice skate uphill’ without even realising it.
Stop and Regain Perspective
At that point I take a step back and I stop what I’m doing. I’ve learned from bitter experience that trying to push forward by continuing to work under an air of anxiety and stress doesn’t help to move me forward; in fact, it’s more likely to put me into reverse. As such, the best possible thing I can do (and ironically, the most proactive) is to just stop – to assess and reflect on the situation.
Clichéd though it may well seem, that objective reflection often simply involves reminding myself that, ‘What I’m doing is not a matter of life and death, it is therefore not that important.’ and that, ‘Stress doesn’t help me to achieve anything…it just leads to more stress and less productivity’. In fact, facile though it may seem, I find it very helpful to articulate those thoughts to myself – they highlight the futility of working in an anxiety and stress fuelled state, something that I would otherwise continue to try to do. The strange reality is that in response to stress, it seems to be human nature to try to work harder, to try to focus more intently, and to push ourselves further – even when we can see through our lack of progress that the effect is detrimental.
The Golden Rule: Stay Relaxed
My personal golden rule is to stay relaxed all the time. To that end, when I feel myself getting stressed, I always remind myself of the futility of that stress, stop what I’m doing and go to do something else – something that will put me back in a relaxed resourceful state.
Listening to music, playing the guitar, going for a run, reading a book, visualising my favourite place, staring at the sea, even taking the rest of the day off are all things I’ll do to get back my relaxed, resourceful state and to regain the perspective that ‘Nothing is so important that I’m going to get stressed about it’.
It can seem as if you’re wasting time when you adopt this philosophy – when you’d rather take a day or even a week off from your ‘important’ task or goal.
But the opposite is true, you waste far more time trying to flog a dead horse – you lose your efficiency, you make mistakes, you miss the obvious and you get more and more stressed, frustrated and demotivated. In my mind at least, working through stress is the recipe for disaster, taking the time off to regain your composure is the intelligent choice. I remember many occasions flogging the proverbial dead horse sometimes for weeks at a time in pursuit of a goal, just to find later that approached with a fresh, relaxed mind, those goals could have been achieved in a fraction of the time.
Goals are important, achieving greater heights in all areas of your life is important, but when that attributed importance trips you into a state of stress your ability to achieve those things becomes far reduced. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap.
Stop, be objective, remind yourself that ‘nothing is that important’, then turn your attention to an activity that rekindles your natural motivation, interest and enthusiasm. Always remember that approaching anything under a spirit of stress and anxiety will get you nowhere fast. We are all innately motivated, innately creative, and innately able – we don’t need to ‘try’ or push ourselves to achieve those virtues, all we need to do is relax.