anxiety building self-esteem depression Good habits Mental Health mental healtj

Effort Matters in Mental Health

Putting in effort matters in your mental health. Whether you have anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, or something else. To feel good about yourself, about who you are, or where you are going, put in real effort.

I counsel people who are dissatisfied their jobs, social situation, relationships, or maybe their body or personalities. Quite often, people feel worthless but don’t actually do anything to make themselves more worthy. You can change these things for the better, but only with effort. Magical thinking doesn’t change it, telling yourself you’re a warrior, boss, alpha, etc. won’t turn you into one either. You have to start and actually do the work. The good news is there are some life hacks (behavioral hacks) to get help you start. You’d be surprised at how little effort it takes to become a better person. Notice I said become a better person, not think you’re a better person.

Tired of Being Anxious or Depressed?

If you’re tired of being anxious or depressed, boost your mental state just by getting up and doing something. You have to muster the effort to get out of the chair, off the couch, put your phone down, and start doing things that make a difference. Sometimes the smallest effort such as washing dishes, tidying up a room, or getting outside and going for a short walk is a great start to strengthening your mental health. If you do this, it’s probably a little more than you did yesterday. Start there and add something to it the next time, walk a little farther, clean a little more, read one more page of the book.

If you’re like me, you feel better on days you’re productive and getting things done than on days you “play” but don’t accomplish much. On days I don’t accomplish much, I go to bed thinking of the things I neglected to do. On the other hand, on days I get a lot done, I feel satisfied with myself and look forward to relaxing the next day because I’ve earned it.

Being Productive Improves Mental Health

I’ve seen this same effect with other people. I’ll use my son as an example. I make a point to have my son take on more responsibility around the house. Earlier this Spring I had him split some firewood for me. He went outside grumbling because it meant his video game was interrupted. It took him about 30 minutes to split the wood. When he walked back inside, he walked noticeably straighter and with more swagger. He put in the effort to do something hard and felt better for it afterward. More recently, I had him help me with some yard work. I gave him the more manly task of cutting down some saplings with a machete, which he did. Then on his own, he started pulling some bigger weeds in part of the front yard. When I told him he could take a break if he wanted, he declined. He said he was enjoying seeing the progress he was making. He felt good because he got stuff done and saw the progress.

If you want better mental health, try making improvements to yourself. There are no shortcuts. You have to expend effort. This can be mental or physical effort. It’s okay to start small and work your way up. First, figure out what you want to improve. Consider learning to do something new like play an instrument or learn to cook. I have clients who want to get in better shape so they are designing exercise regimens. The key though is to start really small with about one to three percent of where you want to end up.

Start Small for Better Results

For example, if you want to learn more by reading books, don’t try to read a whole book all at once. Start by reading one page a day and gradually add more pages per day. If you want to start exercising, you might need to start with two pushups in the morning before work or school, then gradually increase. And there are scientific reasons for doing this. I’ll explain below.

Pushing yourself to do too much too soon can burn you out quickly. You’re relying on sheer will power to do it and willpower doesn’t last. Doing too much too soon can lead to failing to reach a goal. This usually hurts your mental health. In addition, if you force yourself to do something like practice piano for too long at one sitting, your brain will register this as something unenjoyable and our brains don’t like to do things that we don’t enjoy. You can only force yourself for so long. We change best by enjoying the changes we make. This usually means starting small and slowly increasing the effort.

Even Things You Don’t Like

Even things we don’t like to do, such as homework, can be enjoyable for short periods of time (maybe only for 30 seconds). This is because we enjoy being productive more than enjoy the task itself. When you start the thing you want to get good at, start with small increments of it, and stop while it still feels good. Your brain registers this as a good thing that should be repeated. This makes it much easier to do again the next day. In essence, by doing the new thing and stopping while it still feels good, we develop a craving to do it some more, which means we’re looking forward to doing it at the next opportunity, rather than being glad the hard effort is over and dreading having to do it again.

There is a good book that explains this in detail called “Tiny Habits” by B.J. Fogg if you want more information and specific ideas.

Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan.  He provides counseling for couples, counseling for teenagers, and adults.  He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more.  For more information, please visit the website at