The things that get harder when you try to do them

Effort sometimes gets in the way of a desired outcome.

We’re all used to the idea that if you try really hard to do something, you will probably do it. The harder you try, the more likely it is to happen.

If you want to lift a dumbbell, the more concentration and effort you put into lifting it, the more likely it is to ascend. This applies to cognitive tasks too—we try to solve conceptual problems by thinking hard about them, and a solution will come if we do this for long enough.

Generally, intention is a proximate cause of the thing it is intention-ing.

But there’s a small set of things that don’t work this way. Consider:

  • falling asleep

  • ceasing to feel a given emotion once you are feeling it (e.g. anger)

  • not thinking about something

  • stopping a song that’s stuck in your head

These are unlike most other activities. It’s not that these things require an especially high degree of intention, or that intention has no effect on the outcome, but rather that intention actively hinders the desired outcome.

If you’re not convinced of this, experiment with it. Try really hard to fall asleep and you will get less tired. Put all of your intention towards not thinking about something and the concept will feel tethered your brain. It’s very similar with emotions—once you feel angry about something, effortfully trying to not be angry usually just exacerbates the feeling.

Neurologically, what’s going on with these activities? Is there something about the way different brain regions are wired together—say, the prefrontal cortex and the hypothalamus—that makes it so that intention actively messes with our ability to do basic tasks?

The idea of the volitional self is central to this. We have the sense that there is an agent within our head that has thoughts and intentions and acts in the world. That agent is us. But this sense can actually be modulated throughout the day—sometimes the volitional self is very much on (when we’re trying hard to do something) and sometimes it is off (e.g. when we’re immersed in something, like a flow state or a TV show). The volitional self essentially needs to turn off for the above activities to take place.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry much about this because these activities basically happen on their own. If you’re tired, and your mind wanders into relaxing thoughts, you will eventually fall asleep. If you get distracted from whatever made you angry, the anger will eventually dissipate, and same with any song stuck in your head. But it’s illuminating to see that the relationship between action and volition is not always as straightforward as we think.

Icon made by Eucalyp from Flaticon.