Many people I talk to are concerned that they’re not pushing themselves hard enough. They either feel like they’re not trying hard enough to make their current job work, or they worry they aren’t doing enough to transition into a new one.
There’s certainly a lot of traditional wisdom out there about the benefits of pushing yourself hard:
“There are no gains, without pains.” – Benjamin Franklin
“In case of doubt, push on just a little further and then keep on pushing.” – General George S Patton, Jr.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
My own personality is wired this way. My default, if I’m worried or stressed about anything at all, is to double down on my efforts and push myself harder towards what I want. Left to my own devices, I begin to obsessively go over my To Do list, ignore all my wants and needs, and proceed to power through.
The problem with this No Pain No Gain attitude is that it has a downside—namely the pain. In my case, in addition to the normal discomfort of exertion, it inevitably leads to exhaustion, grumpiness, fruitless labors, and—sooner or later—depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
On the other hand, I’ve found over the years that when I allow myself to stop trying so hard, when I rest and relax and take it easy, I often get more done than when charging in an all-out, take-no-prisoners assault on my To Do list. I certainly enjoy my life more when I find ways to work with ease.
So the question is—my question is—when the going gets tough, how do you know whether to push harder or let yourself off the hook?
A Better Way to Frame the Question
Actually, I’m being a bit disingenuous with that exact question, because my answer to it would be “neither.” Or maybe “both.”
For reasons I’ll explain below, I don’t ever recommend pushing yourself (unless that’s what you call getting over the initial hump of inertia and resistance in order to work on something important to you). And if letting yourself off the hook means not eviscerating yourself physically, mentally, or emotionally, I’m all for it. But if it means giving up on your dreams and intentions, then please don’t ever do it.
The question about how hard to push is actually a question of how best to marshal the power we need to turn an idea or intention into reality.
See, power isn’t all about brute force and intensity. Sometimes that’s what’s required to reach a goal or make something happen, but other times we need softness, flexibility, or compassion. Sometimes we need to stop and allow. Sometimes we need to yield.
You don’t get strong just by lifting weights; resting is an important part of the process. Easing up doesn’t necessarily mean we’re giving up on our intentions or even slowing down the process. It can actually be the most efficient and effective way to get to where we’re trying to go.
The trick is knowing what’s called for when. Not taking action can be productive rest or paralyzed procrastination. Nose-to-the-grindstone work can be incredibly powerful or wasted effort. How can we tell the difference?
I can’t claim to have the final answer, as I’m still working on that myself. But I have found 3 questions through trial and lots of error that can help you determine when to increase your intensity and when to ease up off the gas:
1. Is it aligned?
When I find that a particular task feels like pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill, I’m usually headed in the wrong direction. Redoubling my efforts will probably only make things feel harder and yield fewer results.
That’s because when I’m pushing, I’m relying on willpower alone (which studies suggest is at least in some ways a limited resource ). I’m focused on what I think I should be doing and ignoring what I want, how I feel, and what my inner wisdom is telling me. Often I’m doing something not out of love or intrinsic motivation, but because I’m trying to avoid feeling shame, guilt, or fear.
This is often the case with people who are doing work they don’t like and who feel that they’re either not trying hard enough to do a good job or not trying hard enough to make it work. Because their current job isn’t aligned with what they truly want or feel called to do, trying harder at it is almost never going to provide fruit.
Realizing that our current direction isn’t aligned with our values, desires, or intentions opens the door so compassion can enter. It’s not that we’re lazy; it’s that we’re going the wrong way—of course part of us is going to resist. If it feels this way to you, there’s no shame in easing off so that you can create some space to reevaluate your direction, reconnect with your inner wisdom, and find something that feels more like a pull than a push. You’ll be much more powerful if you can move towards something wholeheartedly.
If, on the other hand, what you’re working on does feel aligned to you, you can move on to the next question.
2. Is it habitual?
As I’ve explained in a previous post, most of us tend to have one of two habitual responses to anxiety: either we move towards it by taking (usually frantic) action or we withdraw away from it through distraction and procrastination.
When things get tough, when faced with uncertainty, when things don’t go as planned—what do you do? Do you tend to push harder, effort more, and try to force things to go your way through sheer force of will? Or do you freeze, shut down, look for other things to get busy with, and fall prey to procrastination? (This last is often the case, by the way, for the people I mentioned earlier who know they want to make a career change but aren’t doing anything about it.)
Regardless of your answer, the best thing you can do in many cases is the opposite of your habitual response. If you tend to push, try slowing down or doing less. If you usually freeze, try taking any action that allows you to engage with what you’re avoiding (and keep in mind that the smaller it is, the better; you don’t want it to feel overwhelming).
The key is to do whatever feels a bit scary and like letting go of control. This will, of course, bring up anxiety because it takes us out of our comfort zone. The key is to develop our ability to stay with this anxiety long enough to be able to experience the benefits of a different type of response.
When I’ve done this, even though part of me screamed the entire way that we were surely headed towards certain death, I ended up feeling stronger and more powerful. I also found that not only did the world not end when I did things differently, but things actually often turned out better than usual.
3. Is it the right time?
Ah, timing. The bane of my existence.
I tend to have certain ideas about when things should happen: namely immediately, if it’s something I want, and absolutely never, if it’s something I don’t.
Unfortunately, the world usually has different ideas. And despite my best efforts to resist, I’ve found over and over again that in a fight between me and How Things Are, How Things Are always wins.
There are so many reasons that this might not be the right time for something I want to do:
- I might be trying to take on too much now and not have enough time or energy for it.
- I may need to focus on something that’s more important to me at the moment and not dilute my effort or scatter my energies.
- I may not be ready yet to take this on. Or other people may not be ready, for that matter.
- I may not have the external resources I need, and may not be able to get them right now.
- My efforts might bear more fruit at another time in the future…
The list goes on.
I realize that this can be a slippery slope. For many years I never let myself put things off in the future because I figured that I was just procrastinating and making myself feel better about it by saying now wasn’t the right time. I feared that if I didn’t do this difficult thing now, I never would.
But you know what? That wasn’t always the case. Many times when I forged ahead I was ignoring internal or external signs that the timing wasn’t right, and I had a lot of failed efforts as a result. And I found that when I did put something off when the timing wasn’t right, I usually did come back to it later, especially if it was something important to me.
In evaluating whether this is the right time for something, it can help to look at everything you’re currently committed to and be very honest with yourself about your actual capacity for taking action without losing your sanity. If you’ve taken on more than you’re able to manage, sense what feels most important to do now, and give yourself permission to focus on that and let go of everything else. You can always set up reminders to come back to these other things later. I also find it very helpful to check in with my emotional and somatic intelligence and see what they can tell me about what actually needs to be done now and what might be better tackled later.
When I do this—when I’m willing to listen to what wants to happen and yield to How Things Are—things don’t always happen on my timeline. But the important things do happen, if slowly, with plenty of power and ease, and that’s what matters most.
Bonus Question: Is It Kind?
Regardless of where you decide to intensify your efforts and where you decide to yield, this is a great question to ask. Because no matter how aligned an action is, and no matter how right the timing may be, if you’re being unkind to yourself in how you engage with it, you’re undermining your effectiveness.
Go slowly. Take lots of breaks. Let yourself take the smallest baby step imaginable. Don’t take on more than you can while still taking really good care of yourself.
Often we think that when we feel powerful, when we’ve done enough, we’ll finally be kind to ourselves. In my experience, only when we’re kind to ourselves will we be truly powerful.