The “Do it the Hard Way” Trap

I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been intentionally doing more things the hard way.

The allure is this: the hard way feels like it ought to produce the best results. If you’re uniquely talented or qualified to do whatever it is you’re doing the “hard” or “best” or “right” way, it should follow that doing so will give you a competitive advantage. You’ll have the best product, and no one else will be able to replicate it.

This of course is a fallacy. Why? Because the relationship between raw effort and results is not linear, or even strongly correlated. It’s often decreasing returns past a threshold, and only effort in the direction of the goal counts (the dot product of effort and goals).

The Hard Way is a tempting trap. We’ve been conditioned toward it in school, having been warded for going “above and beyond” to get the A+. Brute force doesn’t require much creativity, but it’s still Hard. It can feel like a sure-fire way to build the best product or get the most customers. That customers will recognize your greatness, and competitors won’t be able to replicate you, because you did it The Hard Way. But customers don’t care how hard it was to build your product; they care how well it solves their problems. And smart competitors will find easier and more effective ways to compete.

Building a custom datastore for your web app? Maybe you should use something off the shelf instead.

Trying to win by making your design or marketing copy or user interface “perfect”? Consider whether “pretty good” is good enough. (This is what I’ve been catching myself doing lately.)

Doing things The Easy Way requires constant reflection about how well your effort is aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish, and being ruthless about cutting out work that isn’t pulling its weight. Are you getting a good return on your effort? What can you get by without doing? Can you be more focused? Every time I stop to ask these questions, I’m glad I did.