Why The Advice “Work Harder” Doesn’t Work
Why do we sometimes fail to finish what we started? And how do you get over creative blocks?
In this post, I want to offer an actual road map so you can stay motivated and keep moving forward. And I also want to share a personal story with you.
When I used to get stuck or feel unmotivated, I would do one of two things:
My first go-to move was to step away from my work or practice and take a break. If I had enough energy left in me to risk the frightening possibility of actually interacting with other people, then I might go for a walk or grab a bite to eat. But most of the time, I didn’t have the energy in me, and I would just watch another episode of anime or Game of Thrones.
And every hour that passed, I would tell myself that this would be the last episode (or series). Or at the very least, that I would continue on with my work once I felt fully recharged again.
But deep down inside, I knew that what I was really doing was just running away from the hard work. Logically, I knew that I needed to put in the time and “just do it” in order to get the results that I wanted. And what was most frustrating wasn’t managing my stress levels or even feeling depressed about my lack of willpower.
What was the most frustrating was the fact that I needed to take breaks at all. It was this realization that if I was serious about being an artist and creating art, then why did I need to take breaks? Why was I feeling burnt out?
If I’m doing the thing that I’m supposed to love, then shouldn’t every moment be fun and enjoyable? Why couldn’t I practice for 8 hours straight like all the professionals? I was the one who chose the path of the artist, and if I didn’t love every minute of it — then how was I ever going to make it?
My second go-to move was to ask someone close to me for advice. This was usually a bad idea. It was a bad idea because it’s rare to find someone who A) is an artist and B) is a successful artist. In my case, I had neither but that didn’t stop me from asking anyways.
Now, I know that most people are well-intentioned, but like me, maybe you have heard some advice that goes something like this…
“You’re not practicing enough”
“Focus on your work”
“Just keep it up”
I call this B.S. advice because it’s ineffective. It’s something that people say when they don’t know what else to say. Working harder is the advice that we’ve been told our entire lives — and it’s been glorified in the media, the movies, and our culture. And don’t get me wrong, I love a good underdog comeback story, but brute force effort alone is not the best path forward.
Yes, this method can help you to get results. And yes, it can even force you to finish your work. But the main problem with this advice is that it is only one piece of the puzzle. Effort is just one of the ingredients you need to break through mental blocks, sustain practice, and maintain motivation.
So, let’s break it down. Here is how you can unblock those barriers and maintain focus on your creative work.
#1 Be brutally honest with yourself
Ask yourself honestly, “Do I really love this?” And more importantly, “Am I creating something for myself?”
Sometimes we convince ourselves that we love something when we really don’t. We may do it out of necessity, because we think it will make money, to impress other people, or to get a feeling of importance and respect. The thing is, we may view art the same way that we view jobs — that there are a limited number of paths forward to success, and those are the paths that we see available today. Anything else is viewed as risky, destined to fail, a waste of time, or just plain stupid.
When I was starting out as a musician, there was a time when I told myself that I wanted to become a concert pianist. And when that didn’t work out, I told myself that I wanted to become a film composer. But the reality was that these were just the options that seemed the most viable to me at the time. Even though I didn’t really love studying classical music theory or I didn’t really enjoy the process of scoring music to a film director’s vision — I somehow convinced myself that that was what I really wanted.
See, if your true feelings aren’t in alignment with what you are doing, then it’s going to be difficult to keep going. And the only way that you can properly align things is if you are brutally honest with yourself and able to overcome any external fears (like what your friends or parents will think or if there is any financial security in what you are pursuing).
#2 Trust that things will work out eventually
There’s this great speech by Steve Jobs that he gives at a Stanford University graduation ceremony. If you have the time, I think it’s worthwhile to watch, and you can check out the whole speech here: https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/
During his speech, Jobs talks about this idea of “connecting the dots.” And what he says is…
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
What Steve Jobs was referring to was his experience at Reed College and taking a calligraphy class there. He took the class after he had already dropped out of the college because he was genuinely interested in and fascinated by calligraphy. At the time, there was no way for Jobs to know that this class would have any practical application in his life. But when he started to design the first Mac computer, he remembered his class, and he added beautiful typography — which he believed led the way for all the wonderful fonts that we enjoy today.
As creatives, it’s our role to explore the edges of what’s possible and to make connections that aren’t obvious to others. These are the things that are discovered through our love of tinkering, experimenting, and playfulness.
So just pursue the things that you’re interested in. Even if you stray from the road most traveled, I promise that you will find the greatest joy in doing the things that personally interest you — regardless of what others may say and regardless of your own internal fears. It sounds so obvious but many of us don’t actually do this.
If there is value in what you are interested in, and you pursue it genuinely and diligently (even if it doesn’t appear to have any practical application or relation to your work or project) — remember that there will always be value in value. You have to trust that the dots will connect and things will work out eventually.
#3 Examine your deepest needs and desires
Why do you do what you do? And why is it so important to you?
One of the frameworks that I like to look at is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
In the 1940’s Abraham Maslow proposed his idea that there is a hierarchy of human needs, starting with the most basic survival needs all the way up to “self-actualization” or the fulfillment of your own potential.
It’s not a perfect concept by any means, but I like that it organizes different human needs into clear categories. It makes it easy to look at and see for yourself what needs are driving your life right now.
Let’s say that I am not able to take care of my most basic needs. In today’s world, the thing that takes care of these basic needs is money. Money can buy us food, water, shelter, and even safety and security. So if money and basic needs are not taken care of, then obviously those things will be top of mind. I’m going to worry about things like, “How am I going to pay next month’s rent?” or “How much money do I have left to spend on groceries, clothing, or gas until my next paycheck?”
But what money will not buy are the psychological needs — things like a feeling of accomplishment or intimate relationships. If you don’t have to worry about your basic needs, then you may be more driven by the “higher needs” like prestige or achieving your full creative potential.
One thing I don’t like about this diagram is that it can be misleading. It makes it seem like you have to fulfill the bottom sections of the pyramid first before you can move up to the top. This actually isn’t what Maslow proposed (and the diagram wasn’t created by Maslow, but it became popular later anyways).
Instead, it’s possible for us to feel the need to fulfill multiple parts of the Hierarchy of Needs at the same time. It’s just that for most people, the lower sections of the pyramid (like food and shelter) are going to be the most urgent to take care of.
So take a look at the Hierarchy of Needs. Where do you feel the most pain? What are the things that are constantly on your mind?
Once you understand the needs that you have, then you can start to see what is really motivating you.
For example, there was a time when I went completely broke trying to become a film composer. When I started out, I had a full-time job and I was doing music composition projects on the side. My job paid for food and rent, but I felt unfulfilled in life. What was motivating me at the time was my need to fulfill my creative potential.
So, I quit my job and decided to pursue film composing full-time. At first, things were great because I could focus on my creative work. But after a while, as my savings started to disappear, I got the the point where I could no longer pay for rent.
At that point, money (or my basic needs) became the biggest motivator and my thoughts shifted towards focusing on what I could do with my music that could also make money.
So you can see where the problem is. I wanted my music to fulfill all or most of my Hierarchy of Needs. For me, at the time, this wasn’t possible. I needed to make a decision about if I was doing music for self-fulfillment or if I was doing music to make money to pay for my basic needs.
Staying motivated isn’t just about being able to push through pain and suffering. It’s also about understanding the connection between what you are doing and what your deepest needs are. Most of us will fulfill these different needs by doing different things. Whether you do one thing or lots of things is completely up to you — but if you can properly align your actions in life to your true needs, then it will become much easier to stay motivated.
#4 Work smarter, not harder
Another reason why I dislike phrases like “just keep it up” or “work harder” is because it’s not efficient. What people are really saying is, if you put in more effort then you’ll get better results.
First of all, that’s not even necessarily true. If you just put in more and more effort into say work, what happens? You get burned out, you get mentally exhausted, and in some cases you might even get physically sick.
And while it’s true that you might see better results, this piece of advice doesn’t take into account the rate of improvement. How much more could you potentially improve if your effort is applied in the most effective way? Put another way, how much did you lose out on by doing things inefficiently?
The classic example is the lever and fulcrum. Yay physics! But we’ll keep it simple here.
If you’re trying to move a rock (your goal) with a lever and fulcrum (your method, or the combination of the triangle-shaped stone and the long stick) — then what makes the most difference in your results (how much you move the large stone) is not how hard you push down on the lever (your effort). What makes the most difference is where you decide to push down on the stick (your technique or strategy).
If you push down on the stick closer to the rock, then you will have to push down much harder (exert more downward force) than you would if you are pushing down on the stick at the other end that is furthest away from the rock (our worker has the right idea!).
You could be putting in the same amount of effort, but if you push down on the stick closer to the rock, the rock may not move at all. Compared to if you pushed down on the stick further away, the rock would immediately roll over.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s not just effort or force. The way that you do things matters. And it matters for a psychological reason too — humans feel more engaged and motivated when they make progress (a form of reward for their efforts).
Imagine that you spent hundreds of hours working on practicing a technique and the progress was painful and slow. It’s much harder to stay motivated and push through this way. A lot of people would lose motivation or give up.
Now imagine that you have a teacher or you’re shown a way to do the technique that is 100 times easier and more effective. Not only is it less work, but you quickly make rapid progress. This is going to be much more exciting and motivating.
This is exactly why great teachers and mentors are worth their weight in gold. They will show you the most effective ways to apply your effort, and not only do you get better results, but you will naturally feel more motivated to put in more work.
Contrast this to asking someone who doesn’t have experience or expertise in what you are trying to accomplish. No matter how much you ask them for advice, chances are that they can only tell you to “keep trying” or “do your best” — and you will be left feeling like there is something wrong with you for not being able to push through the pain when in reality, you just need to be shown where you should push down on the lever and fulcrum.
Which leads us to…
#5 Find positive, supportive, and credible people
There is so much negativity in the world right now. And maybe rightfully so. Most of us are over-worked, over-pressured, or struggling to earn a decent living. And that’s not even addressing our social and mental needs — things like feelings of self-worth, feeling a sense of connection with others, and being able to love yourself and others.
If there are people who are giving you feedback that is negative or not supportive, then you need to remove yourself from those people. At the very least pick and choose how you engage with them.
I don’t say that out of spite or to be mean — in fact, I understand why people say and do that. It usually comes from their own fears and insecurities that are either projected onto you, or they have a scarcity mindset and don’t think that there is a future for your future self.
What I’ve discovered is that being an artist and being an entrepreneur are very similar. Most people are skeptical, there aren’t always clear paths to success, there’s very little support or acknowledgement in the beginning, and it can feel like you’re trying to convince the world that what you are doing has value.
When you are starting out doing something new or different, there will always be challenges. Just like there are when you’re interviewing for your first job or learning how to ride a bike.
Humans have this amazing ability to learn from their mistakes and to incorporate knowledge and advice from others. In other words, we have the ability to change and evolve in order to improve the quality of our lives.
If you understand that we are all in the process of changing and improving ourselves, then understand that it’s important to put yourself in an environment that will help to grow and encourage that.
What that requires is finding people who are positive and compassionate. The reason why you will find these things in the most credible people is because they probably went through the exact same feelings and situations that you are going through now.
When you understand the pain and suffering that someone else has gone through, it’s hard to not be positive and reassuring — because you know first-hand what it’s like be in that person’s shoes. In other words, the shared experience of hardship and suffering is what powers our sense of empathy, and can actually be used to strengthen our bonds with others.
So I encourage you to find these people. This will help you to break through those barriers and work through the obstacles and challenges that you’ll face along the way. And not just that, it will brighten your life. The world is a huge place with over 7 billion people. Chances are good that there is someone out there who can help you, but you just haven’t found them yet. Find those people and cherish them because there are limitations to what you can do alone.