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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

Effort Inversion

A better way to look at the relationship between effort and results.

Greater effort equals greater results, right? We've been told this so often that we tend to believe it unquestioningly. On a graph, it would look something like this:

This understanding is not wrong, but it's incomplete.

Recently, my wife and I taught both of our children to ride their bikes without training wheels. Initially, this required great effort as they learned the basics of starting, stopping, and balancing on two wheels without crashing to the pavement.

They both tried hard and mastered the basics quickly. Surely, with less effort, this process would have taken longer. So, in a sense, greater effort does lead to greater results. No surprises here.

Watching my kids cruise around our neighborhood with ease a couple of days later, however, I realized there is more this story. Their riding was getting incrementally better every day. But they were not giving more effort than they were when they first started. They were giving less. Significantly less.

How can it simultaneously be true that more effort equals greater results and less effort equals greater results?

Effort Inversion—The Effect of Time on Effort and Results

Looking at the simple chart below, there's a missing component: time. In other words, the graph assumes a static relationship between effort and results. You can only plot yourself in one location:

This ignores the efficiencies we gain and the momentum we build as we master a new skill or habit.

A better way to think of this relationship is with two inversely related curves:

When building a new habit or learning a new skill, the effort required at first is high while the results are low. As you progress, the amount of effort required drops while the results increase. Eventually, the habit or skill becomes virtually automatic. It's like riding a bike.

Usually, this change doesn't happen linearly. Instead, there's a period at the beginning where sustained effort is required while visible results are non-existent. Then, the change begins, gradually at first. If you stick with it long enough, you hit a tipping point. You start to experience greater results with less effort. The changes accelerate. Eventually, you hit the "effort inversion"—the point at which greater results can be achieved with less effort (not more).

Start small. Ratchet up.

How does any of this help us? Looking at the relationship between effort and results in this way shines a light on why we so often fail to master new habits or skills. More importantly, it shows us what we can do to improve our odds of success.

Take a closer look at the graph. There are three key factors to consider:

  • The Result Gap: This is represented by the vertical distance between the effort and result lines on the left-hand side of the graph. The smaller the gap, the easier it is to get started.

  • The Tipping Point: This is the point at which the effort required begins to fall in proportion to the results achieved. The sooner you hit the tipping point, the easier it is to persist in your efforts.

  • The Inversion Delay: This is the amount of time it takes before the results you can achieve become disproportionate relative to the amount of effort required. After the inversion, the habit or skill becomes virtually automatic.

The reason we so often fail to master a new skill or habit is that we give up shy of the tipping point.

During this critical early period, the amount of effort required is at its peak while results are non-existent.

To maximize our chances of success, we should break big goals down into a series of smaller ones. By setting a smaller goal to start with, we shrink the result gap and reach both the tipping point and effort inversion in less time. In this way, even the most challenging undertakings can be broken down into a series of achievable steps, each generating momentum that propels us forward to the next. This approach allows us to ratchet up over time where most other people burn out and give up before they even have a chance.

Impactful Ideas:

  • Most people oversimplify the relationship between effort and results, assuming that greater effort is always required for greater results.

  • This assumption overlooks the fact that we gain efficiencies over time, allowing us to achieve better results with less effort, not more.

  • By breaking our projects down into a series of smaller goals, we leverage the "effort inversion" to generate momentum.

  • This approach allows us to successfully tackle projects which would cause most others to burn out and give up.

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