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Putting Forth Effort: the Hardest Thing You Ever Do


For some of us, it's the dreaded E-word. When the going gets tough, well...

I don't have to tell you what happens when a big project stands in the way of us and victory. For one, I can be my own worst enemy when it comes to sitting down and doing the work. Take my current novel-in-progress. I know exactly what needs to be done to finish it, but DAMN if it isn't hard work getting to "the end."

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Adam Smith said this about effort:

“The real price of every thing, what ever thing really costs to the [person] who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.”

Maybe it's not always the trouble of acquiring it. Sometimes, I wonder if it's the trouble of going after the creativity after doing all of the other things a day requires, but that's neither here nor there right now.

Sometimes, I avoid thinking about effort, especially when I'm already tired; yet, it doesn't stop me from daydreaming about the end goal. But the effort? That's hard work. The concept of effort refers to the intensification or amplification of a particular behavior, and it doesn't event account for the final goal. That big goal is up to us to add in.

In the spirit of trying to get ahead on my novel this month, I've had effort on my mind. A little digging into the effort literature actually surprised me. It turns out that there's considerable research on effort, and it showed that effort branches out in many directions. Effort can and does affect us in many ways. We've taken some of our favorite effort types, summarized them below, and expanded on how they relate to creativity. Have any to add? Shout them out in the comments!

Effort types

  • Effort justification: People like outcomes more when they are obtained through effort.

There's nothing like that feeling of fulfillment when you've worked hard for something, whether it's wrapping up the first draft of a novel, finishing a painting, or recording a song. All of these creative endeavors require patience, dedication, and hard work, especially if you're venturing into new territory with your art. Have you ever felt that way when you've taken a shortcut or when you know that you didn't give your very best? Probably not. There's nothing that quite compares to thumbing through a stack of freshly printed papers that ends with... "the end," or hanging up that completed canvas.

  • IKEA effect: People value items that they build or prepare themselves more than identical products that are pre-prepared by others.

Have you come to the decision that indie publishing is the better route for you? That exerting control over all the points of the process makes more sense for your creative process? Perhaps that’s due, in some small part, to the IKEA effect. It's okay to want to stay in the driver's seat when it comes to your art! Traditional routes are not for everyone.

  • Sunk-cost effect: People are more likely to continue pursuing something if effort has already been put forth into it.

It’s hard to give up on a work of art we’ve dedicated the last decade of our lives to; and sometimes, that’s for good reason. We’ve put so much of ourselves into a particular piece that it deserves a wider audience. The true lesson is learning when to push on and when to let go.

  • Earned income vs. windfall gains: Monetary gains that are earned through effort are valued more than monetary gains that are obtained without effort.

Most of us are guilty of wishing that the lottery ticket will pay off or that the slot machine will regurgitate piles of coins (Hello! Mr. Jackpots!). There's nothing wrong with that fantasy, but there's a reason that so many people who hit the lottery find themselves bankrupt. When you work hard for something, you're less like to squander your gains than you are if you're handed a pile of money. There's a reason that many of individuals on Forbes list of billionaires are people who worked for their cash as opposed to those who inherited their fortunes. Isn't the same true for those hard-earned record sales? Art sold at a craft fair? Your Amazon royalties check? Those things tend to mean something to their creators, even if their values aren't sky-high. Many of the indie artists we know tend to reinvest their money into their art simply because they value their craft as much as they do.

  • State-dependent valuation: People place value on effort dependent on the state they are in when they encounter the object; if they encounter it in a positive state, they place a higher value on it then if they encounter it in a negative state.

If you are in a good mood when you start to create, you're more likely to believe the effort to create is worthwhile. If you believe your effort is worthwhile, you're more likely to engage in postive self-talk, self-reinforcement, and see the overall good in the work you're doing. Conversely, it's probably a good idea to have a strong awareness if you approach your work in a negative state. Recognizing how you approach your work can influence how you move forward. Be kind to yourself when you're in the drafting process, and remember one of the golden rules of effort: it. is. hard.

  • Learned industriousness: Effort itself becomes the reward.

Ask any creative person why they work so hard on their art and most of them will tell you that they do it because they have no choice. It's in their bones. It's part of the very DNA of who they are. The act of creating is what brings us joy. Sure, it's great to make money with your art, but most of us still do it without any promise of a paycheck.

  • Need for cognition: A personality trait that predict’s one’s tendency to engage in and enjoy putting forth effort in problem-solving.

Some people just like a good challenge. Bless their hearts.

I kid. Do you want to stifle your creativity and write the same book over and over again? No way! What if you engaged in a challenge and came out ahead? What if you discovered an awesome new talent by diving head-first into something totally different? You might uncover a new facet of your many talents. Some of us are pre-wired to take on challenges, and for those of us that aren't, we can learn from example.

  • Flow: Entering into a positive state of complete immersion of an activity.

We're such big fans of flow, we've already written about it. For more on flow, check out our blog post on flow theory!

Or, listen to the master himself.

“You’re avoiding this because it’s hard. You already know what to do. The evidence has been staring you in the face for months.” -

Effort types source: Inzlicht M, et al. The effort paradox: effort is both costly and valued. Trends Cogn Sci 2018;22(4):337-49.

We put for the effort to write this blog, so if you love it, tap that heart! We love reading your comments, too!


Nov 17, 2021

I fled Instagram (and now claim status as a Meta-Refugee) and have started a Substack newsletter for the purpose of creating an effortful and more writing-appropriate internet presence. Every 2 weeks, I put out a story, meaning I know that such story must be completed on time and that its a set length, and that it must have some sort continuity (character, plot, thematic, simply 'fit') with the story preceding it, and since I hope to build the Substack base (and sell paid subscriptions at some point) there must be quality. This all means that the effort of outlining-drafting-editing-and-publishing must continue on a bi-weekly cycle. There is also a stable reward, even if it is knowing that just a handful…


Richard T. Hill
Richard T. Hill
Nov 17, 2021

Even though the "writing" I engage in is musical composition, this article was a great exploration of Pure Creativity. Personally, I'm big on Flow and Need for Cognition.

Williams Griffin
Williams Griffin
Dec 08, 2021
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