We often experience knowing what we “need to do” yet feeling unable to actually do it. We often feel like we won’t succeed at the action or that it’s “something that only others can do”. This is the feeling of insufficient self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is one’s belief in ability to succeed at carrying out some set of actions.
To succeed at a particular challenge, we need two things. First, knowledge of the action which is likely to lead to success — knowing what to do. Second, before we bother trying, we need to believe that we can actually succeed at taking the action. Self-efficacy is this second part. It has powerful effects on our ability to actually do the thing. Even better, we can change our self-efficacy!
The theory of self-efficacy was introduced by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. His main finding was that self-efficacy significantly impacts the actions a person takes. Higher self-efficacy causes people to put in greater effort when faced with challenges. It also encourages taking on more challenging tasks in the first place. One begins to view obstacles to success as stimulating rather than discouraging. Finally, greater self-efficacy allows taking a wider view on challenges. One is more able to zoom out to see the big picture and be more creative when problem-solving.
Unfortunately, higher self-efficacy is not a panacea. It can lead to overconfidence. This can show up through failing to sufficiently prepare for tasks. This is also visible as reduced curiosity. Feelings of mastery in a domain can discourage further learning! Also, the tendency towards putting in more effort can cause one to put in too much effort. This takes the form of not quitting when it becomes clear to others that more effort is futile.
Even so, it seems many people would be better off with higher self-efficacy. The ideal amount seems to be slightly above one’s objective level of competence or skill. This encourages taking on challenges and enables growth. Bandura identified four general factors affecting self-efficacy, in decreasing order of impact: personal experience, modeling (vicarious experience), persuasion (verbal feedback), and physiological or emotive states. The most powerful influence on self-efficacy is experience obtained through enactive attainment. In other words, the process of mastery and achievement — trying to do things and succeeding. This is hard to fake. Easy wins don’t continue to build self-efficacy. Rather, one must experience consistent recognition of difficult accomplishment that has cultural relevance. The accomplishment has to feel important within the context of one’s social world. Bandura also found that building self-efficacy through experience helped develop general capacity. Overcoming challenge in one domain enabled individuals to take on unrelated challenges.
Given what we know, how can we best embark on a project of enhancing our own self-efficacy?
I’ve identified four factors that help:
1. Do something daily
2. Start small
3. Incrementally increase difficulty
4. Optimize for greater energy levels
I find daily diet and exercise habits to be an excellent training ground. Developing a feeling of mastery requires repetitive success at increasingly difficult challenges. Daily habits are especially fruitful because of their high frequency. You get to grapple with them at least once a day. This quick repetition exposes yourself to success over and over. As you succeed you can ratchet up the difficulty to keep it meaningful. The other major benefit is seeing social or cultural value in the skill. We live in a world that idolizes looking good and feeling good. Finally, improving diet and exercise habits comes with physiological benefits. We get an immediate boost to our energy levels. Over time, this helps build capacity in endurance and willpower.
I’ve found two guidelines which have helped me to a felt sense of mastery in these domains. The first is incrementalism — start small and slowly increase the challenge. When I first started, I didn’t think of myself as a “person who exercises daily”. Nor did I know the “best way” to do it. After a few false starts, I settled on a small win: doing a handful of jumping jacks after waking up. This was so easy that I felt I could succeed every day. All that remained was getting used to doing it first thing in the morning, every day. Once established, I began slowly pushing myself to do more: extra jumping jacks, some pushups, etc. Similarly, I began not knowing the “best way” to eat. I had a vague sense that too much sugar was bad, so I started by eating a bit less every day.
You start by constructing Minimum Viable Habits and then iterating from there.
The second guideline is to optimize for energy levels. Scott Adams is big on this in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. After any action, check back over the next few minutes or hours to see how your energy has changed. The goal is to maximize your energy levels. Simple as that. I’ve found this to be far more effective than trying to keep up with the latest in nutritional advice. Listen to your body and you can find out what works for you.
I built a foundation of diet and exercise habits that once felt “not me”. As a result, I noticed my ability to succeed was not constrained to domains where I already felt skilled. I am now more aware that I can perform any pattern of action that I see someone else doing. I no longer feel constrained to “who I am” but feel empowered to build the skills I see as valuable. With increased self-efficacy, I am more equipped to take on any challenges along the way.