Everyone knows that if you train your body too hard, you can hurt yourself. Too much too soon, of cardio or weights or whatever it might be, will do damage, and might undo any of the benefits acquired from the exercise.
It’s easier for us to forget that the same thing can happen in the brain. If we push ourselves too hard mentally, we can get to the point where it habitually hurts to think or concentrate, where we are afraid to think and will avoid it when we can because of the pain it brings. I’ve been there too. I was intellectually (or at least academically) ambitious when I was younger and constantly pushed myself and, looking back, I was often in this state.
These sorts of incidents need to be minimized. When we get inspired and want to do great things we think we need to work harder, longer, with fewer breaks, until we reach our goal. Many motivational speakers say as much. That’s where we start.
But that’s not the way to succeed. If we push ourselves too hard, and we hurt ourselves, we end up losing more time than we gained. If you’re lifting weights and you hurt your shoulder and it takes months to get back to the full functionality needed for an exercise routine, then pushing hard cost far more than it profited.
And it’s entirely possible that once the injury heals, even then we won’t be back on track. That sort of setback steals momentum, steals motivation. It could be years before the pain and shame have faded enough to allow a new flash of inspiration to start the whole process over again.
There are two extremes, and the vast majority of us jump from extreme to extreme on the things we care most about. We try too hard and hurt ourselves, or we give up and stop trying because even our best efforts end in ruin.
The solution, the middle path, is to push ourselves and avoid injury. That probably means having an easy baseline, a bare minimum that we will never fall below, but which we can fall back to whenever we need without guilt. And from that baseline, we can push ourselves to do more, when we’re ready, while being careful not to hurt ourselves.
It’s so easy, so simple, so obvious, and so effective. It’s also astonishingly rare. For some reason, this middle path doesn’t come naturally to us. I believe that applying this approach consistently is the key to lifelong progress toward our goals.