When I was getting my scuba diving license a few years ago, I remember I had such a hard time using the BCD (the vest that can have air added or removed to adjust buoyancy). I would add air and nothing would happen so I would add more air but then I would start floating up uncontrollably to the surface. At the surface, I would deflate the BCD, dive deeper into the water just to over-inflate again and end back up at the surface.
This was a very frustrating experience until I realized that there was a delay between adding air (the cause) and my buoyancy (the effect). To illustrate this for non-divers, imagine taking a shower where it takes 5 minutes for the water to respond to the turn of the faucet knob. The water starts off cold so you add more hot water but nothing happens so you add even more and 5 minutes later you are jumping out of the shower because the water is too hot.
If this phenomenon of delay was confined only to scuba-diving and showers, our lives would be so much easier and I wouldn't be writing about it but it is not.
An example from the workplace:
An employee who is feeling "invisible" tries to gain recognition by speaking up at meetings, talking more about their work, introducing themselves to their higher-ups, etc. When there is a delay a between their actions and their desired result, the person perceives what they are doing as being ineffective so they intensify their efforts for visibility by dominating a meeting, bragging about their recent success and talking even more with the higher-ups. This extra push may actually hurt the person by isolating them from their colleagues and having their boss perceive them as a threat and a malign self-promoter.
Now it is possible that their initial actions for visibility were actually ineffective and they were right to intensify their efforts. So how can you distinguish between delay and ineffectiveness?
Just as with my uncontrollable BCD and a ridiculously slow-reacting shower, the only way to know whether there is a delay is through experience. The great thing is that it doesn't have to be your experience. If someone told me earlier that there was a delay when adding air to the BCD or that the shower takes about 5 minutes to respond to the turn of the faucet, I would take that information into account and approach the situation differently.
As long as someone has experienced what you are about to experience, you can and should learn and benefit from them. Why learn the hard way when you can learn the easy way? Here is how you can save yourself a lot of trouble:
Reading (a lot)
Most people have written their life's wisdom in books either about a subject or about their life. These days with the ease of blogging, more and more people are sharing their own experiences and it is possible to find material on almost any topic. The more you read, the more you'll become aware about situations where there is delay and doing more is harmful.
Mentors are people who have already travelled the road that you want to take. If you are an aspiring speaker, your mentor would be an established speaker because they have gone through what it takes to get to where you want to go. If you want to lose weight, your mentor is someone who was overweight and has sustainably kept it off in a healthy way. A mentor is one of the most valuable resources you can have because they can tell you what works and what doesn't from their own experience. Even if you are a trailblazer, it is impossible to blaze your own trail without first knowing what roads are already out there.
Learning from Your Own Mistakes
There are many times when we have done things the hard way but because we didn't recognize the lesson or just forgot about it, we end up repeating the same mistake (for me, it is going to a buffet - I always regret coming out of one). I find that it helps to study my own failures and really analyze why I didn't achieve my desired outcome. This active thinking helps me to remember the reason I missed my goal and to come up with ways to prevent it in the future.
The next time you are frustrated because your actions seem to be ineffective, ask yourself if it might be due to a delay. Before you double your efforts, read a few books about what you're trying to do or ask a mentor how they overcame the problem that you are currently having. Once you've gotten a clear picture, you can take the next step which may sometimes be just to wait for your initial efforts to come to fruition.
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.