Don’t Push Yourself to Do Worse
Doing more consistently will result in greater returns over the long term than pushing yourself beyond your capacity
By André van Heerden, Communications Director
Our culture today loves to applaud people who push themselves to extremes. Every sports brand has catchy phrases and commercials that feature people pushing themselves to do more.
A lot of movies and TV shows celebrate those who go the extra mile to succeed. It’s inspiring. It motivates us to do more.
Boston Celtics basketball legend Larry Bird said, “Push yourself again and again. Don’t give an inch until the buzzer sounds.”
But what if pushing yourself too far resulted in worse results?
I was doing math homework with one of my daughters the other evening, and we were working on integers. I gave her a page of different math equations with a variety of different ways of working with integers.
On the first column of questions, she did okay. After figuring out where she was going wrong, she did better on the second column. And after a few more corrections she did even better on the third column.
Because she had a test the next day and she still wasn’t getting all of the questions correct, I printed out another page of questions. After struggling to complete the first column, we reviewed her work and she had made a number of silly mistakes.
In reviewing where she went wrong, it became obvious that she was struggling to concentrate. Concepts and rules that she had known just a few minutes before were now escaping her.
Rather than push her further, we called it a night. Any more work that we could do wasn’t going to sink in and was likely going to cause frustration and worry about the test the next day.
In reflecting on how to deal with diminishing returns in situations like this, I was reminded of other examples where extra effort didn’t result in amazing success.
Against a tight deadline, myself and two audio editors pushed past the end of the workday to complete the audio mixing of a complicated action scene in a movie. After a number of hours of trying to find the right balance between dialogue, sound effects, foley, ambiance, and music, we were ready to listen to it all together.
After the play back, we realized that after so many hours of listening to so many different sound levels we really couldn’t discern what was at the right level anymore. And it was then that one of the editors abruptly stood up and said, “I’m an idiot” and walked out.
Turned out that somehow he had erased all of the presets of about a dozen channels of sound effects by mistake—literally hours of work gone.
Famous author Ray Bradbury wrote that “sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down.”
But what if your wings don’t grow? Or what if they do actually grow but you don’t know how to use them?
I shudder to think what would happen on a construction site if workers pushed themselves to work beyond their physical or mental limits. Or if a nurse or a PSW was too tired to properly concentrate on the essential care that they needed to provide.
Martial arts legend Bruce Lee noted that “long term consistency trumps short term intensity.”
The same daughter that I was doing the math homework with also initially struggled with reading. We tried a number of tactics, but the one consistent thing we did was read to her every night—hoping that she’d eventually want to do more on her own.
Over the past few months, something flipped and suddenly she’s reading a number of books at the same time. In her free time, that’s what she wants to do. I suspect that if we kept pushing her to read on her own before she was ready, she wouldn’t have the natural love for it that she does now.
And that seems to be the key: pushing yourself to do more consistently will result in greater returns over the long term. Pushing yourself or others to do too much when they’re not ready for it, or haven’t been properly trained for it, or are just too tired, will likely lead to mistakes—or worse.