“No pain, no gain” is a flawed concept. I lay out an alternative that can increase your productivity and massively reduce the level of pain in your life.

Length: 1097 words, 5-7 minute read

Subject: I discuss the problems with a ‘no pain, no gain’ approach to getting things done and present an alternative in the Daoist principle of Wu-Wei.

Disclaimer: I make reference to my new app Self Discipline Sensei. The app can help with achieving state described herein, but it is not a requirement to understand this material. Product links are affiliate links – these cost you nothing, but support the blog when used.


No pain, no gainI used to be a big believer in the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’. It made sense to me that the greatest gains in progress would require enduring pain. That the forces of the universe worked against me and that the measure of a man was the extent to which he could push back.

It’s a romantic notion and it can inspire feats of great willpower, but only through grim determination.

The problem comes with the fact that willpower is finite. This has been shown in recent research that links an exertion of willpower to a ‘glucose cost’ within the body. After a certain amount of expenditure, it becomes almost impossible to force ourselves to do something we don’t want to do.

And willpower exertion happens constantly in modern society. Resisting temptation has a cost in willpower, so if you’re on a diet or fighting the urge to smoke, you’re already running large willpower deficits. Working in an environment in which you have no autonomy also has a willpower cost, as you have to force yourself to keep working in order to keep your job.

All of these willpower microtransactions over the course of a day can make it close to impossible to sit down and focus on a hobby or a personal goal –  like writing a book, or learning a new language.

While it’s possible to increase your willpower reserves with a good diet, exercise and consistent practise, there is another option.

If we can’t easily increase the amount of willpower, we can decrease the associated costs. And doing so is as easy as removing the pain. If we don’t have to endure the pain, we don’t incur a willpower cost.

We simply need to redesign or reframe the task at hand as something pleasurable, rather than painful.

If that idea seems outlandish, lets consider a few examples:

Imagine two friends – one is a jogger that forces himself up early every morning to plod around the block, the other is obsessed with body building and goes to the gym most days of the week to apply the things he’s studied. Which is likely to be in better shape? Which is most likely to give up after failing to keep up the pace for a few days?

Both of these people have an interest in fitness, but their approach is going to lead to wildly different results.

Now imagine two friends that are artists. One has a tutor that dictates everything they must do – hold the pencil like this, study from this book, learn the material in this order. The other just draws constantly – whatever they want, however they want. Study happens organically and they research any areas they have questions about.

Which is likely to be the better artist? In my experience, the person coming at a subject from a place of love and curiosity always overtakes the person that is enduring pain.

Now I’m not trying to undermine the value of diligence. It’s still important to have that sense of gravitas and determination that is implied by ‘no pain, no gain’. But if you can reframe pain as pleasure, you will reap significant rewards.

This concept is not a new one. It has many parallels with the ancient Daoist idea of Wu-Wei – the way of no forcing.

Imagine the forces of the world as a great powerful ocean, with ourselves as the boat floating on top of it, trying to make our journey to whatever our dream destination is.

The typical approach is to float lazily atop the ocean, letting the tide pull you where it will and spending your time praying that it takes you where you want to go.

This approach rarely pays off. And ‘no pain, no gain’ people know this. So they start to row against the flow of the ocean, attempting the struggle to make a beeline towards their destination.

Perhaps you make better progress than the floaters, but you will quickly become exhausted. The constant struggle will weather your constitution. Perhaps you’ll fall apart before you make it to your destination. Perhaps you’ll make it but be too haggard to enjoy success.

Wu-Wei presents a third option, between aimless drifting and incessant struggling.

What is between floating and rowing? Sailing.

With Wu-Wei, you consider the flow of the tide before making your move. You don’t obsess about finding a direct route to your goal, you just have a sense of which direction it’s in and make slight adjustments on your course.

The beauty of this approach is that you utilize the natural motion of the sea, rather than relying purely on your own strength and willpower.

This is the secret to a rapid ascent to the upper echelons of skill. 

Even a person with the will of an Olympian can’t compete with someone that loves what they do to the point of obsession. Consider anyone who is a master of their field. How many of them are a master despite disliking what they do? I suspect that a few people can reach a high skill level with grit alone, but to become a true master requires love. 

Self Discipline Sensei screenshotAt this point I’d like to introduce Bancho’s latest product: Self Discipline Sensei. This app, currently available for iOS and Android (PC and Mac coming soon), is designed to encourage and nurture a Wu-Wei approach to productivity.  It does this via a variety of productivity techniques, tracking tools and a gamified reward system.

Self Discipline Sensei allows you to set up your own custom rewards for your hard work. This is a great way to get yourself out of a pain-centric approach to personal goals. From then on, Self  Discipline Sensei encourages a growth of motivation, shifting away from extrinsic rewards and into intrinsic rewards and a true Wu-Wei effortless effort approach to work. It does this using the same techniques that mobile games use to hook you in and make you feel addicted to playing – except these powerful conditioning techniques are utilized for a good cause – getting you addicted to pursuing your dreams.

Check out the sales page at www.selfdisciplinesensei.com if you’re interested in hearing more.