Just Manageable Difficulty

Much of life for most of us is spent dealing with the gaps between what we want and what we get. We want actions, challenges and growth opportunities to explore our competence and effectiveness. Many people find growth opportunities and challenges in the workplace but those who cannot will simply search for special challenges and achievements elsewhere, like losing weight, making the perfect omelette or seeking adventure.

The drive for growth and mastery is powerful but curiously bounded. We take up projects that are exciting, demanding, filled with achievements and occasional failure too. We choose challenges that are difficult enough to perplex and test our powers yet not so tough that we are likely to face severe failure and frequent problems. The late psychologist Nicholas Hobbs called it the level of ‘Just Manageable Difficulty’. The term translates into tasks we can complete by using an average about 80% of our capacity. If you love tennis and try to play a serious match against a four-year-old, you will quickly become bored. It’s too easy. You’ll win every point. In contrast, if you play a professional tennis player like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you will quickly lose motivation because the match is too difficult.

Now consider playing tennis against someone who is your equal. As the game progresses, you win a few points and you lose a few. You have a good chance of winning, but only if you really try. Your focus narrows, distractions fade away, and you find yourself fully invested in the task at hand.

Working on things that demand most but not all of our total capacity leaves something in reserve for meeting special demands. Pushing beyond that level for long periods is likely to make us feel stressed and anxious and falling below for long stretches can leave us feeling bored and under challenged. But most of the times we try to arrange things so we are neither pushed to the limits nor coasting.

When we succeed in meeting some goals. We replace them with other, more challenging ones but when we fall we lower our sight somewhere. After a loss or failure we usually change some aspects of our goal structure to make success more feasible the next time. But there is a hitch as people can become  psychologically trapped by their own success since they race up to keep up with the rising expectation bred by each new achievement.