Struggling with a problem? Why “trying harder” isn’t the answer.

A little while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine and he told me about a problem he was struggling with. I asked him,

“Okay, so what do you think you could try doing?”

And his response was simply…

“…well, I guess I could try harder?”

At this point, alarm bells started going off in my head. I’ve often heard people say that they just need to “try harder” when they have a problem they’re struggling to solve. Heck, I’ve even said it myself!

  • I’m having trouble writing? I’ll try harder!
  • I can’t seem to get in shape? I’ll try harder!
  • I’m not getting enough work done? Looks like I have to try harder!

I mean, it sounds logical, right? If I’m trying to solve a problem and I have an issue that I can’t seem to get past, then shouldn’t trying…harder…make a difference? Over time, I’ve come to realize that…

“Trying harder” is usually not the answer

Looking back, I realize that very few of my problems were solved by simply “trying harder”. Some time ago, I used to be a really skinny nerd with stick-figure arms. Of course, I would have liked to bulk up, but I didn’t really know how to go about doing that.

Good at N64. Not so good at P90X.

I set out to get myself in shape, but it turned out that I had no idea how to do a workout routine or what you should eat in order to bulk up. So, I floundered about for a while using all the machines in the gym wrong and eating all the wrong foods.

After a few weeks, it was clear that I wasn’t getting any results. I still wanted to get in shape, though. What did I do? I buckled down and “tried harder”.

And by “trying harder”, I mean that I pretty much floundered about even more. That problem was eventually solved when my wife (yes, my wife of all people) eventually showed me that my nutrition plan + workout schedule was all off. By fixing that, I was finally able to start getting into shape.

It wasn’t solved by simply “trying harder”.

What “trying harder” really means

In my experience, whenever I tell myself that “I just need to try harder”, it actually means “I’m not sure what to do.” It’s a code phrase. It means that we intend to continue throwing ourselves at the problem because doing so feels productive, but we don’t actually know what we are doing.

After all, it doesn’t feel good to say “I have a problem and I’m not sure what the solution is”. It doesn’t feel good to look at what you have been doing in the past and acknowledge that you may have been doing it wrong. It feels a lot better to say that “I just need to try harder”. That feels more productive, and it give us a sense of false hope that the solution will come if we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Also, beware of similar phrases such as “I just need to figure it out”. That’s in the same vein as “I just need to try harder”.

What to do instead of “trying harder”

Earlier, I mentioned that my friend was struggling with a problem and asked me for help. His problem was that he had been single for a long time and was having a hard time getting a date. When he told me that he probably just needed to “try harder”, I realized that what we really needed to do was take a look at what he had been doing and see what needed fixing. After taking some time to dig deep into his issue, we discovered that…

  • He wasn’t meeting a lot of women. To overcome this, we brainstormed several local places where he could meet women and also have a good time.
  • The way he talked to women was coming off a little weird. I role-played being a woman and had him practice a few times with me.

And that was the first step on solving his problem. Maybe someday I’ll even look back on being a woman and laugh. Someday. Maybe

If you have a problem and you catch yourself saying something along the lines of “I just need to try harder” or “I just need to figure it out”, then take a moment and hit the pause button on your life. You might feel tempted to continue throwing yourself at the problem. Instead, it may time to do some introspection. What is it you’re trying to accomplish? What have you been doing in the past? Why hasn’t that been working?

Finally, what’s the first step you can take to begin solving your problem? Once you know the first step, go get on it!

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