Productive Struggle is a concept in neuroscience that explains why, sometimes, it’s actually better to take the path that’s more mentally complex.
Let’s drop the “productive,” and instead leave ourselves with just “struggle.”
Struggle, in any system, is arguably the most important part of strengthening that system. Struggle highlights error, oppression, criticism, and weakness. The struggle is, for the most part, the reason that every solid system is where it’s at today.
In contrast, we rarely see a situation where we move on from things because they were working well. Moreover, rarely is it that something actually grows because we’ve shifted during positive times. This in fact is the opposite of growth. It’s preservation.
Discerning the need for growth or preservation requires deeper examination. It calls upon the observant to think about the system historically, its present state, and its future goals. If a system is solid and its participants are content, then preservation locks it in. Stabilizes it. The presence of struggle, on the other hand, means it’s time for a change.
Now let’s bring back “productive.” Productive struggle is the effortful learning process that helps us develop grit and creative problem-solving. By actually committing to a more strenuous system, we are forcing ourselves to become resilient and mentally stronger. The special part of the productive struggle is its variance. Within these strenuous systems, there are often multiple ways to achieve success, and this is when creative thinking comes to play.
At the beginning of summer, I set a boundary for myself in my pursuit of essentialism; no entries longer than 500 words. Simply put, I have struggled greatly with this boundary. My reason for such a slim limitation was to try and harness one of my greatest mental challenges; spontaneity. I thought that by placing a 500-word cap, my focus would be narrowed, my writing would improve, and my stress would be alleviated.
Now, I recognize that I was wrong. I hate writing concisely because writing impulsively is great. It’s captivating! I can paint the page with whatever is on my mind, instead of having to ax away my thoughts. The system ultimately created more stress than it did mend it.
Or so I thought.
It was at this moment that I was planning to conclude the entry, but ironically enough, I had expressed my thoughts and clocked in only 366 words.
This time around, my plan was to write completely unbothered, disregarding the word count. I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the possibility of me having few things to say about this system, effectively leading to a shorter entry. Although I don’t think this is the case.
Amidst the patronizing of the very system I employed, it reinforced not only itself as successful, but it simultaneously proved the importance of productive struggle. In forcing myself into this system, and then apprehensively removing it because of its side effects, I’ve been left with the autonomy I fell into over time. I didn’t try to write less than 500 words. Hell, I was inches away from hitting submit.
But here I am with words to spare.
Maybe Essentialism isn’t always about removal. Maybe, sometimes it’s actually about endurance. Overcommance. In either case, I’ve learned that autonomy is achieved by sticking to a system and mastering it. Either refining it for yourself or more difficult, experiencing the struggle to let it refine you.
I’ve broken the word barrier today, but oddly I’m okay with that. Had I never checked the word count upon the completion of this entry’s first segment, I would have assumed that, like always, I’d have to go back and clean it up to get back under 500 words. So to my pleasant surprise, the 366 felt rewarding. It was real-time feedback of the system hard at work.
Productive struggle is a magnificent thing. By challenging ourselves to do a little more than what’s essential, we might actually grow more in the end. Perhaps this is the distinction between minimalism and essentialism. Or perhaps, what I believe to be the truth, is that essentialism isn’t always about getting rid of a system, but mastering it so it is removed from your conscious thought.