Reward the Effort

effortWhy is it so hard to make positive changes in our lives?

A woman we have been working with came in yesterday and told us about all of the things that she had been doing – making a serious effort to find a satisfying job and career, beginning to get healthy by exercising and joining weight watchers, working on her relationships to make them more satisfying. But that was not a lead in to her saying that she was feeling good. Far from it, she said she was actually feeling discouraged. It was such hard work and there was so little to show for it.

We need to reward effort more and results less.

By effort, I don’t mean just any effort, I mean thoughtful effort to do hard things that are important.

In practice, effort gets a fair amount of lip service and back handed compliments – “Johnny tries so hard… why is he not getting the grades?” “He is such a hard worker (said of someone who somehow is not making the grade….” By contrast, results get rewarded even when they probably shouldn’t be.

According to a 2002 confidential survey of 12,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute for Ethics, 74 percent  of the students said they had cheated on an examination at least once in the past year.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a state investigation of the so-called “Atlanta miracle” (consistently rising test scores for a decade), found that principals and teachers at almost half the schools in the district had cheated. They ratedstudents who could barely read as “proficient.”

That is the societal context, but we are not hear talking about what is wrong with the world, we are talking about MoodSurfing, how to live creatively with moods.

The problem at a personal level is that rewarding only results makes it very difficult to do many hard but important things that can mean the difference between a good life and a life of pain and hurt. Changing our intimate relationships is a perfect example of something that is very important, but usually requires quite a bit of work. And how about… losing weight, getting back in shape, preventing severe depression (if you have had many depressions before), recovering from childhood trauma…

When people tackle these problems they almost always, at some point, will come in and say that they are discouraged, it is too hard, they just can’t keep up the effort.

Usually the problem is that they are too focused on results. And, in fact, when you tackle a hard problem there usually aren’t quick results. In fact, because you are now paying attention to the problem, your personal experience may be that you are facing more failure (because you can’t use the psychological “tricks” that allow you to avoid seeing the failures in ordinary life).

Although the focus is on the lack of reward from others, often the bigger problem is that we don’t reward ourselves for hard work.

That is something that we can change. Make a conscious effort to pay attention to effort and to notice that effort and to feel proud of it.

Keep track of progress toward your goal, rather than where you started. If you want to lose weight, set your starting weight at “zero” and then track the number of pounds you lose, rather than how much you weigh.

Tell other people about the hard work you are doing.  They will respond to how you talk about your efforts to change – if you start by saying that you aren’t really getting anywhere losing weight, they will likely be sympathetic but not enthusiastic, but if you say that you are really working on losing weight, and you have made some small progress, they will respond positively.

Be a cheerleader for change. It may seem silly but you are fighting a lifetime of lessons that say that success and results are all that matter.