Sometimes the hard thing isn’t the right thing: How taking it easy can help you learn

Without realizing it, for most of my life I followed the maxim “If it’s the hard thing, it’s the right thing.” I often pushed myself too far. Exercise would result in injury when I didn’t pay attention to my body’s needs for rest and recovery. I’d get burned out at work when I forced myself to do the hard things and ignored what I enjoyed or found meaningful. I’d lose out on fun and connection because I was so focused on working hard and getting things done.

Many people who are highly self-critical will understand this experience. It makes sense in a way. If you’re constantly being critical of yourself for not being/doing good enough in some way, it might seem like the way to appease that self-critic is to just try harder, toughen up, excel or just GET.IT. DONE! That’s the strategy I tried for too many years.

One memory stands out. I was 18-years-old and I was hiking up a mountain with my best friend. He was having a hard time of it. Instead of waiting for him and trying to encourage him, I left him behind and summitted the mountain on my own. Only later in the day did I learn that he never made it to the top. I am pretty sure my abandoning him was a big part of the reason. My focus on doing the hard thing–summitting the mountain–created a blind spot. I totally missed that I was hurting my good friend. I still feel sad and a sense of shrinking shame when I think about it.

“If it’s the hard thing, it’s the right thing” has caused lots of pain in my life, both to myself and sometimes to others I love.

As part of becoming a better friend to myself and also having better relationships with those I love, I’ve been unwinding this pattern for decades, though I still get caught up in my “harder is better” pattern at times. However, recently I had an experience that really reminded me of how “doing the hard thing” isn’t always the right thing and in fact, how “taking it easy” can work better.  

It happened when I was learning how to freedive. In case, you don’t know what freediving is, it’s essentially about holding your breath so you can stay underwater for an extended period of time, usually a couple of minutes or even more. It’s a bit like scuba diving without the oxygen talk. As you get better and better at holding your breath, you are able to go deeper and deeper.  

Staying underwater for a couple of minutes or more without breathing may sound intense to a lot of people, but inside freediving is a fascinating paradox. In order to stay under longer, you need to learn how to relax. The more relaxed you are, the less oxygen you use and the longer you can hold your breath. So intensity is not your friend. Pushing yourself is not your friend.

In freediving, the hard thing is not the right thing.

This focus on relaxation translates directly into how you train. In freediving, it’s very important to know your limits and not push yourself too far, as that tends to create tension and anxiety that undermines your progress. A freediving maxim is “slow is fast, fast is slow.” Progression is gradual and only once you feel comfortable at a certain depth or a breath hold length do you take it a step farther.

During the freediving four-day course, a main goal I had was to see what I could learn while also “taking it easy.” I wanted to practice not pushing myself, not making it uncomfortable, and instead following what my body was telling me about what I enjoyed.

It was challenging to not fall into my old habits, but I was able to do it. Several times in the course I was presented with situations where it was tempting to push myself to go deeper or hold my breath longer. However, I also knew those things would be “the hard thing,” so I went against the grain of my urges and didn’t push myself.

By the end of the course I had I learned a ton. I increased the maximum depth I had ever dived from 15 feet to 82 feet. I increased my breath hold from about 2 minutes to over 3 minutes. And I learned a lot about technique, safety, and, most importantly, about myself.

“Slow is fast, and fast is slow” really worked. And it also made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.

So, if you are someone who tends to push yourself in ways that harm you or your relationships, I’d challenge you to give the “slow is fast” strategy a go next time you are trying to learn something.

If you want to learn something, there’s no way around putting in the time to learn. (I did spend four days in the freediving course and was wiped at the end of each day). What’s different about the slow is fast strategy is how you practice. Next time you are learning something, try the following:

  • Instead of pushing yourself to do one more round of practice, give yourself a break.
  • When you find yourself becoming exhausted, instead of continuing, give yourself time to recuperate.
  • If you lose motivation, take a few minutes to reflect on why you are wanting to learn this thing, before you return to the task.
  • Rather than focusing on pushing yourself to the limit of what you can do, push yourself just a little past what you already know you can do.
  • Finally, pay attention to how you are doing that day and check in with yourself throughout the activity. Some days we’re in a better place and have more to give. Some days we are dealing with injuries or impairments. Some days just showing up is about all we can do. Give yourself the space to be gentle with yourself. Remind yourself that learning is a process that takes time. We all have our good and bad days. Pay attention to your state and use that as data to inform what you do next.

I challenge you to try this out and see if you don’t actually learn more in the long run by taking it slow. And you might just learn how the more compassionate approach is often the more effective approach.

Photo by KateMicaela at

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  • Alex Hales
    As a result of this workshop, a number of therapists and researchers from Argentina graciously took time to translate a bunch of the handouts and meditations from the workshop to the Spanish language of