There’s something I’ve been noticing lately as I’ve started to try and develop several new habits. It’s not just me – I’ve had this conversation with several of my friends who’ve also felt or noticed the same thing.
The phenomenon is this: when trying to improve at something, prepare to actively get worse while you try to get better. This can be maddening when you’re working hard at something, and (I’m convinced) is a major reason why most self-improvement initiatives fail.
Fighting through this period sucks. It’s also a main differentiator between people who learn (and thus grow) rapidly and those that don’t.
The first time I realized this was while working out. When I started lifting, I had a bunch of bad habits (poor posture, bad form and unstructured routines) when I hit the gym. For years, I reinforced these habits every time I lifted: using too much shoulder on the bench press, squatting with poor form… I did all kinds of things wrong.
A year or two later, I lifted with someone who actually knew what they were doing. He showed me how to properly squat, bench and do a few other exercises that I was consistently doing wrong. I incorporated his changes, started lifting properly, and got weaker.
What?! That’s not how this was supposed to work.
After lifting with proper form, I went from someone who could move respectable (for my size) amounts of weight around to someone who looked like they were on day 5 of their 7 day free pass. It was embarrassing. Why did this happen?
In mathematics, there’s this concept of a local maximum:
The idea here is that there is a local maximum within a small surface area. This is a good place to be – think being the spelling bee winner at your school. However, within a larger surface area, there’s a better maximum – think the spelling bee champion in your state. If you’re trying to become the best you can, the better maximum is where you want to focus.
But, look what happens when you try moving from a local maximum to a better maximum: you go backwards. You actually get worse trying to move from a good place to a better one!
I experienced this effect when teaching myself how to use keyboard shortcuts on my computer. For the 2 weeks I tried to improve my productivity by using keyboard shortcuts, I actually got worse. Everything I did on the computer was 50-100% slower. However, after an initial period of pain, I’m now more efficient than almost anyone I know when it comes to using the computer.
More recently, I saw this effect when going out with a group that doesn’t drink when they go out. Initially, going out to bars and holding meaningful conversations was much harder without alcohol’s help: after a few weeks of doing this, I’m actually better at keeping my energy level up and having fun conversations than I was with alcohol’s help. Improvement!
This effect can be really hard to deal with both mentally and emotionally. Mentally, it’s hard to accept that your vision of a better you (you + a new diet, workout plan or skill) means a worse you in the present. Emotionally, it’s tough to accept that improvement means getting worse. It can be discouraging in the early days of making changes, right when you could most use positive reinforcement. It’s the mental and emotional equivalent of starting a new diet and putting on 15lbs. Sure, eventually you’ll reap the gains of the diet, but man does it suck in the present.
Fight through the suck.