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The Psychology of Effort

Updated: May 7

In this post, we are initiating the conversation about the concept of the psychology of “effort,”, and how effort can impact our weight-loss journey and process. So, to better understand more about the psychological concept of effort and the kind of impact it has, let’s take a deeper dive into effort. We will also discuss the concept of setting goals, the formation of habits (which will help in forming more positive ones in order to help with weight loss) and how to navigate through psychological roadblocks that may impact weight loss.

For so many of us, the journey behind weight loss can be a daunting and overwhelming process. Many of us have been on the hamster wheel of dieting and trying to lose weight for many years or have tried more diets than we can count. And yet, here we are again - some of us at our wits’ end, unsure that The Livy Method will work. For many of us, this is our last attempt before giving up and accepting our current reality as our future.

How is The Livy Method different?

With this method, there is a completely different emphasis on how we should be treating our bodies as well as our mindsets. We are shifting our focus to supporting the body by giving it what it needs, establishing good nutrition, as well as focusing on lifestyle changes that complement the weight-loss process. We are also challenging ourselves in a more cerebral and emotional way, by purposefully implementing tweaks that address issues we may have consciously or subconsciously. The Livy Method post and video is an excellent resource, discussing how this process is different from the other diets that are out there or what we have experienced in the past.

However, this method is not a quick fix and may require some amount of effort in order to attain success. Although many members come into this process with gusto, ready to do all it takes, many can also be challenged as time evolves and their level of success may not be reflected by their perceived effort. Everybody is different, with different histories, physiologies and health issues they may be working through, varying mental/emotional experiences, stresses, financial situations, as well as life challenges. To be straight up, some people may need a lot of help and time before their body may be willing to make changes or start to drop weight on the scale. Some may really struggle with the time and energy it may take to work through this.

This raises the question, what happens when one’s effort does not match their success on the scale? Many people use the scale to judge their level of achievement, yet discount any possible NSVs (non-scale victories) that they may have experienced or are experiencing. They may also not be realistic about the time that may be required to get their bodies healthy before they will begin to drop any weight.

Effort is a very interesting and complicated concept, as one may perceive they are exerting much more effort than they truly are, thus expecting a bigger return than they may be experiencing. They may be seeing themselves at the finish line in their minds, yet not putting in the actual level of effort required, thus feeling frustration with their current experience as reflected on the scale. Effort is subjective and irreflective of outcome. Let’s delve deeper into the concept of Effort.

Effort Defined

Effort refers to the “subjective intensification of mental and/or physical activity in the service of meeting some goal” (Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., & Olivola, C. Y., 2018). Although related, effort is not the same as motivation, which is “a force that drives behavior by determining both a direction (e.g. goal) and the intensity or vigor with which this direction is pursued.” Effort refers to the intensity of behavior but does not refer to any specific goal.

Effort is an “intentional process and application.” Therefore, it corresponds with what a person is actively doing and not to what is passively happening to them. Effort is distinguishable from demand or difficulty, as effort corresponds to the intensity of mental or physical work that someone applies to achieve some outcome. Although effort typically involves demand (with people working harder when the task is more difficult), this relationship breaks down when incentives are too low or when demands are too high. Finally, it is important to distinguish effort from associated mental constructs, such as boredom.” (Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., & Olivola, C. Y., 2018).

Effort can also be “visible to others and is difficult to fake, making it plain to observers whether someone is exerting themselves or not. The fact that effort is easily recognized in self and others gives it important signaling functions; for example, communicating dedication, intention, and commitment” (Inzlicht, M., Shenhav, A., & Olivola, C. Y., 2018).

The Paradox of Effort

Effort, whether it is mental or physical, is a common occurrence in daily life and is encountered every time we need to push ourselves. We regularly face activities that require us to exert some level of energy to achieve a goal or task, whether it is forcing ourselves to get up for work, or exercise at the end of the day.

Effort is often associated with something that can feel difficult and averse and as a result, people tend to avoid effort, including the effort that comes from merely thinking things through. People often develop strategies that allow them to avoid situations that require more work or effort.

However, in contrast to this, while people will work hard to obtain something of value, working hard can also make those same things more valuable. Effort can even be experienced as valuable or rewarding in its own right. People may readily apply more effort for better outcomes and view those outcomes as more rewarding, if more (not less) effort was used to attain them. In the example of weight loss, a person may see more value in the work they put in to achieve their weight-loss goal, than in the actual weight loss itself.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Effort Justification

According to cognitive dissonance theory and its research, the more effort one exerts, the more valuable one perceives the reward associated with that effort (Harmon-Jones, E., Clark, D., Paul, K., & Har- mon-Jones, C., 2020). This effect has been referred to as effort justification. Thus, cognitive dissonance theory would suggest that increasing the attractiveness of a reward would encourage greater effort; however, we need to be clear on the effort we are really exerting. In The Livy Method, members sometimes feel that the reward (e.g. weight loss) is not reflective of their effort. However, The Maximizing Your Efforts Checklist will help members to rate the effort they are truly exerting and thus, identify where they can level up. You may tell yourself that you are doing “all the things,” although in reality, you may not be. While following The Livy Method may be challenging and unpleasant for some, being realistic about the effort you are applying (by utilizing the Maximizing Your Efforts Checklist) will help reduce the cognitive dissonance and stress when you think you are doing everything when in reality, there are ways in which we can always level up.

Dissonance theory research suggests that people use effort justification when they perceive their goal cannot be predicted with certainty, so they use how much effort they perceive they are exerting as a justification for obtaining the reward. This causes cognitive dissonance when the reward (in our case weight loss) is not immediately apparent.

Check out this video that explains the theory of cognitive dissonance in more detail.

Check out this video that explains effort justification in more detail.

What is being valued, effort itself or the product of effort?

There is evidence that people hold greater value to goods and outcomes (e.g. group membership, furniture, coffee mugs, etc.) that they worked for and required effort, compared with identical goods and outcomes that they obtained without effort (e.g. by chance, as windfalls). Therefore, it can be assumed that those who achieved weight loss by following The Program and putting in a good effort to do so, will see the outcome of the process as more valuable.

People tend to associate effort with reward and will sometimes select objects or activities precisely because they require effort (e.g. mountain climbing, marathons). Effort adds value to the products achieved, but the effort itself also has value. The value of effort is not only accessed concurrently with, or immediately following effort exertion, but is also in anticipation of such expenditure, suggesting that we already have an intuitive understanding of effort’s potential positive value.

From examining the literature around effort, it can be seen that putting real effort into The Livy Method is putting real effort into yourself. That effort alone may have value to you, even if it is difficult. Recognizing the scale and NSVs accomplished will also increase the value you achieve from this process. However, it is important to see things from an accurate lens and to be real. Recognize where you could truly put in more effort. Be honest when completing the Maximizing Your Efforts Checklist so you can see where you can level up and Maximize your efforts.

Now that we have discussed the importance of effort, let’s talk about setting goals to put forth your effort into action.

Setting Goals Rewires Your Brain’s Effectiveness

Goal setting can be very powerful and can motivate people to accomplish tasks they might not have thought they could.

A study in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews showed that people who set goals are generally more “together” than everyone else (Top Stack, 2019, November). This is because goal setting rewires our brains to make the component parts work more effectively. This study showed that when you set a goal, multiple parts of the brain are suddenly engaged. The amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional center, evaluates the goal for how important it is to you. The frontal lobe, which is the brain’s logical problem-solving portion, defines the goal and digests it. Both the amygdala and the frontal lobe then work together to push you toward the completion of the goal. As the brain moves you into situations to help you achieve your goal, the organ changes to help you optimize behaviors and tasks.

Another study, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, reports that people who established an ambitious goal usually achieved it. The study suggested that ambitious goals stimulate the brain more, motivating the person to accomplish the impossible. The study found that the higher the goal that was set, the more likely one would achieve it. The Psychological Bulletin said 90% of the studies showed that more challenging goals led to higher performance. More manageable goals, “do your best” goals or no goals did not have the same effect on the brain, or the person’s ability to achieve their goals. Researchers report that “goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging” (Top Stack, 2019, November). Also, decades of research on achievement suggests that successful people reach their goals not simply because of who they are but more often, because of what they do.

Interestingly, these studies suggest brain rewiring occurs when the individual sets the goal themselves. However, the brain does not seem to change if the goal is set by someone else. When we apply this to The Livy Method, it calls attention to the importance of regularly checking in on your ‘Why’ – it is only you who can decide your ‘Why.’

So, for those looking for success while following The Livy Method, let’s talk more about the process of goal setting.

  1. Get specific. When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. “Lose 5 pounds” is a better goal than “lose some weight,” because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions recommended by The Livy Method that need to be taken to reach your goal. Just stating you will “sleep more” is too vague - be clear and precise. “I’ll be in bed by 10PM on weeknights and sleep between 7-8 hours” is a specific goal.

  2. Seize the moment to act on your goals. For example, increasing your activity or exercise is part of Maximizing. Achieving your goal means organizing this activity into your calendar, especially as many of us live busy lives. Be as specific as possible (e.g. “on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I’ll work out for 45 minutes before work.”). Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300% (Grant, H., 2011, February).

  3. Know exactly how you are progressing. Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress. If you do not know how well you are doing, you are not able to adjust your behavior or strategies accordingly. While following The Livy Method, check your progress daily by using the Livy Method App to document your weight, water, activity, sleep, meals and snacks, as well as to journal. This will keep your head in the game as you are maintaining accountability and seeing your daily weight progress will help keep you focused.

  4. Be a realistic optimist. Believing in your ability to succeed is enormously helpful for creating and sustaining your motivation. However, do not underestimate how difficult it may be to reach your goal. Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort and persistence. Studies show that people who assume things will happen easily and with little effort will have more difficulty achieving their goal, as they may be unprepared for the journey ahead.

  5. Have grit. Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals and to persist in the face of difficulty. Grit is a good determiner of who will be successful in the long term. Everyone has the potential for grit. Putting in the effort, planning, persistence and implementing the strategies needed to succeed will not only help you see yourself and your goals more accurately, but will also do wonders for your grit.

  6. Make sure your choices are in line with your goals. We make multiple choices and decisions every day. When you are choosing what to eat, take a minute to think through – is this in line with my goals? Will this help advance my journey to Finally & Forever? Think through the choices you are making and be comfortable with the decisions you make.

Focus on What you Have Achieved

On the days when you feel frustrated with yourself for not meeting your goals, try taking a closer look at the things you have achieved. Revisiting what you have accomplished in the process so far can help you keep things in perspective. This is a good time to examine your “Why” of wanting to lose weight or to get healthier by participating in The Program. It is also important to look deeper at all the non- scale victories you have experienced.

Know Your Limits

Even with the best intentions and the willingness to put in maximum effort, you may not find it possible to improve every situation or meet every expectation. Although effort can get you closer to fulfilling your weight-loss goal, you might need additional resources that you don’t have access to, such as the financial means to purchase supplements. Or, you may be overwhelmed with stress or at capacity. You are a human being with normal physical and emotional limitations. If you find yourself not meeting an expectation you have set, acknowledge that you did your best and offer yourself compassion instead of blame. You will get there.

Share Your Expectations

Discuss your goals and needs with the supporters in your life. By sharing your needs with those in your immediate circle, you are actively communicating what will help you be successful. This will help ensure your success in meeting your goals and also allow those who care about you to support and be there for you.

Keep a Flexible Mindset

The more flexible you are with your goals, the better you will be able to accommodate life’s unpredictability. The path to weight loss, as we know, is not a straight one. Just do the best you can and roll with the punches.

The last thing that will be discussed, along with effort, goal setting and expectations, is the formation of habits. Oftentimes, it is certain habits that have led us to the path of weight gain or yo-yo dieting. However, The Livy Method is about real change and implementing healthier life habits. Let’s examine how long we may expect to incite real change into our lives.

How long does it take to form a new habit?

According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, “it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit” (Legg, T.J., & Frothingham, S., 2019, October). The study also concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, ultimately depending on the habit in question.

  • Certain habits take longer to form. As demonstrated in the study, many participants found it easier to adopt the habit of drinking a glass of water at breakfast, than to do 50 sit-ups after their morning coffee.

  • Some people are better suited to forming habits than others, as some gravitate towards a consistent routine, whereas others do not.

How the Myth of “21 Days” Came About

Many people subscribe to the belief that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. This concept can be traced back to “Psycho-Cybernetics,” a book published in 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz identified this number as an observable metric in both himself and his patients and wrote, “these, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.” As the book became more popular, this situational observation has become accepted as fact.

The Psychology of Forming a Habit

According to a 2012 study published in the British Journal of General Practice, habits are “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance” (Legg, T.J., & Frothingham, S., 2019, October). For example, when you get into your car, you automatically put on the seat belt. You do not think about doing it or why you do it. You just do it. Your brain likes habits because they are efficient and when you automate common actions, you free up mental resources for other tasks.

Why it Can be Difficult to Break a Habit

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pleasure-based habits are particularly difficult to break, because enjoyable behavior prompts your brain to release dopamine (Legg, T.J., & Frothingham, S., 2019, October). Dopamine is the reward that strengthens the habit and creates the craving to do it again. As we discuss in the post on hormones, sugar also stimulates our dopamine response, eventually leading to a dulled response. We often seek more of these types of foods to stimulate the dopamine release. This may also account for snacking at night. You may enjoy some chips as you unwind for the night, while watching television. This will start to stimulate the dopamine reward center, reinforcing the habit of snacking while watching television. These types of habits may have a negative impact on the success of following The Livy Method.

How to Change a Habit

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggests that the first step is to become more aware of your habits so you can develop strategies to change them. One strategy Volkow suggests is to identify the places, people, or activities that are connected in your mind to certain habits, and then adjust your behavior toward those things.

For example, if you like to eat chips, you can avoid buying chips until you feel more comfortable being around them without wanting to impulsively eat them. This can help you achieve your goal of avoiding them as you start your weight-loss journey until your habit has changed.

Another strategy is to replace a bad habit with a good one. For example, instead of snacking on these same potato chips at night when watching TV, consider swapping them out for a nice warm cup of tea.

Over time, you will change your association of watching television with eating chips, creating a new routine with healthier habits when unwinding in the evenings.

In summation, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. Everyone is different, as well as their life circumstances, reinforcing why this timeframe may be so different for everyone. Some habits are easier to form than others, and some people may find it easier to develop new behaviors than others. Just know that the only timeline that matters is the one that works best for you. If you Maximize your efforts, have the confidence that you WILL achieve your goals.


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