A post from last year that really stuck with me is Neel Nanda's "Stop pressing the Try Harder button". Key excerpt:

And every time I thought about the task, I resolved to Try Harder, and felt a stronger sense of motivation, but this never translated into action. I call this error Pressing the Try Harder button, and it’s characterised by feelings of guilt, obligation, motivation and optimism.

This is a classic case of failing to Be Deliberate. It feels good to try hard at something, it feels important and virtuous, and it’s easy to think that trying hard is what matters. But ultimately, trying hard is just a means to an end - my goal is to ensure that the task happens. If I can get it done in half the effort, or get somebody else to do it, that’s awesome! Because my true goal is the result. And pressing the Try Harder button is not an effective way of achieving the goal - you can tell, because it so often fails!

If I'm repeatedly failing to do something I want to do, then that's strong evidence that "resolving to try harder next time" was not an effective plan for accomplishing this particular goal. (That's not to say it never works.) Well, if that plan is ineffective, I need to find a different plan. Maybe I should set a reminder alarm, or change my routine, or outsource the task, or make a checklist, or whatever. (See Neel's post or your favorite productivity book for more ideas.)

I don't consider this advice to be particularly novel, but Neel's post is a nice framing because the phrase "try harder" jogs my memory. It has become the "trigger" of a trigger-action-plan: When I say to myself "I'll try harder next time", it makes me think of Neel's post, and then that makes me pause and try to think of a better way.

…And then, what do you know, I also started noticing myself telling my kid to "try harder next time".

Well, let me tell you. If "try harder next time" is a frequently-ineffective way for me to solve a problem, then wouldn't you know it, it's a frequently-ineffective way for my kid to solve a problem too.

So now if my kid is trying to solve a problem—or if they're not even trying—and I catch myself telling them to "try harder next time", that reminds me to pause, and put on my problem-solving hat instead, and encourage my kid to put on their problem-solving hat too. Maybe we'll even brainstorm together. (If tensions are high, I might set a reminder to do the brainstorming session the following day.)

I'm not perfect. I don't always remember to do this. Guess I should try harder next time.


New Comment
7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:10 AM

Relevant: sarahconstantin's Errors, Bugs, and the End of Stupidity

A person taking a test or playing a piece of music is executing a program, a deterministic procedure.  If your program has a bug, then you'll get a whole class of problems wrong, consistently. [...] A kid who gets arithmetic questions wrong usually isn't getting them wrong at random; there's something missing in their understanding, like not getting the difference between multiplication and addition.  Working generically "harder" doesn't fix bugs (though fixing bugs does require work). 

Once you start to think of mistakes as deterministic rather than random, as caused by "bugs" (incorrect understanding or incorrect procedures) rather than random inaccuracy, a curious thing happens.

You stop thinking of people as "stupid."

Tags like "stupid," "bad at ____", "sloppy," and so on, are ways of saying "You're performing badly and I don't know why."  Once you move it to "you're performing badly because you have the wrong fingerings," or "you're performing badly because you don't understand what a limit is," it's no longer a vague personal failing but a causal necessity.  Anyone who never understood limits will flunk calculus.  It's not you, it's the bug.

This also applies to "lazy."  Lazy just means "you're not meeting your obligations and I don't know why."  If it turns out that you've been missing appointments because you don't keep a calendar, then you're not intrinsically "lazy," you were just executing the wrong procedure.  And suddenly you stop wanting to call the person "lazy" when it makes more sense to say they need organizational tools.

"Lazy" and "stupid" and "bad at ____" are terms about the map, not the territory.  Once you understand what causes mistakes, those terms are far less informative than actually describing what's happening. 

These days, learning disabilities are far more highly diagnosed than they used to be. And sometimes I hear the complaint about rich parents, "Suddenly if your kid's getting B's, you have to believe it's a learning disability.  Nobody can accept that their kid is just plain mediocre.  Are there no stupid people left?"  And maybe there's something to the notion that the kid who used to be just "stupid" or "not a great student" is now often labeled "learning disabled." But I want to complicate that a little bit.

Thing is, I've worked with learning disabled kids.  There were kids who had trouble reading, kids who had trouble with math, kids with poor fine motor skills, ADD and autistic kids, you name it.  And these were mostly pretty mild disabilities.  These were the kids who, in decades past, might just have been C students, but whose anxious modern-day parents were sending them to special programs for the learning disabled. 

But what we did with them was nothing especially mysterious or medical.  We just focused, carefully and non-judgmentally, on improving their areas of weakness.  The dyslexics got reading practice.  The math-disabled got worksheets and blocks to count.  Hyperactive kids were taught to ask themselves "How's my motor running today?" and be mindful of their own energy levels and behavior.  The only difference between us and a "regular" school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that.

And I have to wonder: is that "special education" or is it just education? [...]

As a matter of self-improvement, I think it can make sense not to think in terms of "getting better" ("better at piano", "better at math," "better at organizing my time").  How are you going to get better until you figure out what's wrong with what you're already doing?  It's really more an exploratory process -- where is the bug, and what can be done to dislodge it?  Dislodging bugs doesn't look like competition, and sometimes it doesn't even look like work.  Mr. Cohn was gentle and playful -- he wasn't trying to get me to "work harder," but to relax enough to change the mistaken patterns I'd drilled into myself. 

The problem with "try harder" is that it has an unstated implication that "try" is a well-defined action, and it's about "expend more energy", and that's just wrong.  All of the things you list (setting alarms, changing environments, using different tools) ARE ways to try harder. Or really, ways to actually try at all.  See also https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/fhEPnveFhb9tmd7Pe/use-the-try-harder-luke

Yoda at your kids (and yourself) a bit more.  At least for those things where the result matters.  For a WHOLE LOT of activities, especially for kids, the result is a small part of the value, and it's the habits, techniques, and activities that matter.  That's a whole different set of lessons, which "there is no try" won't help with.  The first time your kid outsources schoolwork to someone who's got a comparative advantage, you'll be both proud and horrified.

LOL :)

I agree on all counts. I would also say:

  • "try harder right now" is excellent advice
  • "try harder next time you're in such-and-such situation" is mediocre advice under the best of circumstances, and terrible advice if it has already been attempted unsuccessfully.

I'm not sure I agree.

Some class of errors/problems are due to taking the wrong approach. Trying harder here is indeed not effective and is bad advice.

Another class of errors are due to giving up too early, not putting in enough effort or not really caring about doing something well/properly. For this class of errors, "try harder" is legitimate feedback because the problem is indeed the amount of effort being put in.

An example from my time at secondary school. Some people would try to study but take the wrong approach and as a consequence not do that well. Telling them to study harder or longer would not have been good advice. Other people didn't really care, didn't study or pay attention in class and when they did it was only the bare minimum to avoid punishment. For the second group, telling them to try harder is good advice.

There's another question here over whether telling someone to try harder is often effective. The implicit assumption of the post is that no, its not. My experience in the real world is that in many situations you can motivate people to exert substantially more effort in an activity with "try harder" advice framed in the right way and with the right relationship with the person you're talking to.

Thanks for your comment!

I think "Next time don't give up so quickly" or "Next time keep working until you've produced something you're proud of" etc. is often useful advice in a way that "try harder next time" is usually not. It's a specific thing to do, not just a generic cranking up the motivation dial.

I think "You weren't trying at all. Next time you need to try." is also frequently useful (but only if it's in fact true, from their own perspective, that they weren't trying at all) (and also only if accompanied by a reason that is likely to convince them, or better yet discussion / debugging of why they weren't trying at all).

I imagine that there are people who have already mentally replaced the common definition of the words "try harder" (i.e. "crank up the motivation dial") with an enlightened alternative definition of the words "try harder" (i.e. "strategize about how to improve results, and then execute that strategy"). For those enlightened individuals, "try harder next time" is probably fine. Although I still think that it's often wise to do the strategizing part right now rather than waiting for next time. Then you can have a plan / advice which is more specific: "Do X next time."

I agree that "try harder next time" is not bad advice / bad plan in every conceivable situation. I would say "there is frequently a much better option for advice / plan", especially if "try harder next time" has already been attempted unsuccessfully.

Before responding with "try harder" try to observe and understand what they are doing. Brainstorming might even be too much. Deliberate Play might be better. 

New to LessWrong?