Why Trying Harder Backfires

Person sitting at a desk with an open book. They are putting two pencils to their head and looking at the person in front of them.
After trying a range of activities to see how each made your body feel, did you notice anything unexpected? Did some that you associate with relaxing not actually have that relaxing effect? Here's why.

When what you do is not what you want to do

We just looked at several activities and experiences to find ones that feel good, or give you energy. Now if I asked you which ones you would prefer to do, I’m guessing your answers would not be the same.

This is the classic example of doing what you don’t want to do, and not doing what you want to do. It’s an age old problem, and we tend to treat it as a lack of self-control. If it is, then the obvious solution would be to increase your self-control.

Yet studies show unequivocally that this is backwards. When dieters try harder to control their food intake, they make worse food choices. When scattered students try harder to focus, they become less focused.


Quite simply, trying harder uses up a lot of energy, so you have less energy available for making good decisions or for the task at hand.

Another option

So if willpower doesn’t work, what does? Well, the short answer is Self-Reg. 

That means: reframe the issue as an unmet need (a reaction to stress), figure out what the need is (what’s causing the stress), and meet the need (reduce the stress). Then you’ll be more able to do the thing you’re trying to do. Effort may still be required, but not as much self-control.

Self control is one good tool to use sometimes, but it’s not the only solution to every difficulty in life.

Getting through tough situations by sheer force of willpower can get results in the short term, but it always has huge long-term consequences.

And forcing yourself to do something that hurts you is not success.

Fighting ourselves

So in your experiments, if you found that you felt energized and refreshed and clear headed when you got some physical movement, while after a round of gaming you felt kind of dull and could only think about the next game, and when you turned it off you felt agitated, yet you still go to your games when you want to feel better instead of getting up and moving, what’s going on?

When autistic kids have difficulty doing something, we often hear that we just need to try harder. But that’s like asking you to do something impossible, and when you can’t, telling you it is your fault for not trying hard enough. 

Or say you watch TV at the end of a long day to unwind, yet after sitting in front of the TV you feel, perhaps less agitated, but also sluggish and not actively good inside. Why do you keep watching the TV?

Why do we keep choosing the things that make us feel dull, or sluggish, or agitated?

It’s not because we lack willpower. Rather, it’s because fighting with ourselves to choose the better option is incredibly energy expensive, and it’s when our energy is low that we’re more likely to give in, if not now, then later.

And we do fight ourselves because our brain/bodies are firmly convinced that TV, digital games, sugary foods, etc. are going to make us feel better, despite lots of experience to the contrary. Why?

In short, our bodies can get tricked.

This is an excerpt from my e-book, Autism, Stress, and Self-Reg: A Guidebook for Parents and Caregivers. (Which is not currently available, sorry, as it may get published! Squee!)

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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