3 Ways to Work on the Habit of Best Effort

I recently read the book Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, and I was struck by a contrast that the author described between two scenarios. In one scenario, a person goes into a meeting knowing that it is going to be a waste of time but he is required to attend. He has no interest in the meeting and it shows in the expression on his face and how he slouches in his chair, resists eye contact, doodles on a notepad, and gives short replies only when he’s called on.

In the other scenario, a person goes into the same meeting knowing that it will be a waste of time, but also knowing that at the end of it he will be required to answer these four questions:

  • Did I do my best to be happy?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?

Now, comparing those two scenarios, think about this: If you knew that you were going to be required to answer those four questions after the meeting, what would you do differently during the meeting?

Those five words, “Did I do my best?,” can make a huge difference.

Let’s talk about cultivating a habit of best effort.

As you think about that meeting example, I encourage you to shift it in your mind to your school lessons. When your child comes to schoolwork for the day—or comes to each subject on the schedule, for that matter—which scenario do you see? Does she come to the lesson already disengaged or does she come ready to put forth the effort to do her best?

The habit of best effort is not about “What does the end product look like?” Sometimes we can get hung up on perfection. That’s one reason I’ve tweaked this habit from the phrase that Charlotte Mason used. She called it the habit of “perfect execution,” but so many of us and our children can get paralyzed by the idea of making the end product “perfect.” And when you’re paralyzed, it’s hard to get a neuron path moving to form a good habit. So I like to think of this habit as “Did I do my best?” And that habit is not about the product; it is about the process. It is about the effort put forth. Rather than asking yourself, “Is this the highest quality product I could ever produce?” ask yourself, “Did I do my best today to . . . ?”

And that’s where you would fill in the blank as you plan for habit training in best effort. We’ve talked before about how each of the habits that Charlotte Mason recommended we work on are actually broad categories, character traits, that can be applied in many different ways over a wide range of everyday actions. So part of planning for habit training is determining what application, or applications, you want each child to work on during the six weeks you will be focusing on that particular habit. Some children will be able to apply best effort across the board in just about all areas of life at once; other children will need to work on one specific application for all six weeks. That’s fine. That’s why we choose another habit every six or eight weeks; with the next habit, the shoe might be on the other foot, and it will come easier to a child who perhaps struggled more with the previous habit. 

In habit training, as in all of education, we teach the child.

In what area of life does this child need to grow in doing his best?

As you think through how to customize the habit of best effort for each child, how to fill in the blank of “Did I do my best to . . .?,” don’t just confine it to school work. Think through home life and outside activities as well. In what area of life does this child need to grow in doing his best? Then once you have identified the area, you can narrow that down to specific scenarios. If you’re not sure which one to focus on, pick the one that bugs you the most. 

Here are some aspects to consider as you walk through that process. These are three ways you can work on that habit of best effort.

Scope of the Task

First, think about the scope of the task. As with any habit, we start short in order to get the desired neuron path set up in the brain. Once it is set up and in place, we can work on gradually lengthening the task. So with the habit of best effort, start with a single, short task, and choose tasks that will let your child see immediate results. 

  • Did I do my best to make my bed neatly?
  • Did I do my best to copy that letter?

If a child has already started that habit and is having success in those single, short tasks, you could work on a longer project that will still let her see immediate results. For example,

  • Did I do my best to retell that story?
  • Did I do my best to memorize the stanza of that poem?
  • Did I do my best to clean my room?

From there, some children may be ready to progress to applying the habit of best effort in long-term, multiple-step projects that delay any visible results. Or that child may be ready to focus on intangible efforts of attitude and heart, such as the ones mentioned in the meeting scenarios:

  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?
  • Did I do my best to encourage my siblings?
  • Did I do my best to understand algebra?

At this stage, a lot of the habit of best effort is about faithfulness and prolonged best effort. And that’s something all of us can work on, no matter how old we are. But we don’t start here, we work up to it gradually as each child grows in this habit.

Enjoyment of the Task

A second aspect to consider when you’re thinking about how to apply the habit of best effort is that particular child’s preferences—what she likes to do or doesn’t really enjoy doing. We all know that it’s easier to give best effort when we’re working on something we like to do; it’s much harder to give best effort when it’s a task we don’t enjoy. So take that factor into consideration too. Start your child’s efforts on tasks she likes to do, then gradually work toward applying best effort to tasks that include a mixture of some parts that she enjoys and other parts that are not her favorite. Then, finally, work toward applying best effort to tasks that she does not like to do. 

I can give you some examples, but remember that what I might see as enjoyable might sound like torture to some of you, and what I might think of as difficult, you might think of as fun. Know your child and customize to her as a person. Some possibilities might be

  • Did I do my best to organize my closet?
  • Did I do my best to weed the garden?
  • Did I do my best to try that new food?

For some children, that process from likes to dislikes will go quickly; for others, it may take several months or years of growing to get to the point where they will wholeheartedly do their best even when it’s a task they don’t enjoy. Again, that’s an area of habit that all of us can work on, even as adults. So be patient and faithful, and you will see growth.

Amount of Supervision

The third aspect to consider as you are determining how to apply the habit of best effort for each child has to do with the amount of supervision. Actually, this aspect applies to all of the habits that Charlotte mentioned. She held that a habit is not truly formed in a child until it is done without supervision. That’s when you know that the habit is the child’s own possession. But I think it especially applies to this habit of best effort.

It’s human nature to put forth more effort when someone else is standing there, watching you, and expecting it. It’s much more difficult to keep that effort sustained when no one is noticing how hard you are working at the task. So for a child who is still starting out on this habit, you may get that neuron path in place quicker if you stay with her during the task. 

Now, let me just give you a quick tip here. Your attitude while you are standing there or sitting there beside your child can make a huge difference. Charlotte actually described what the parent’s face should look like in those moments. 

The child goes to dress for a walk; she dreams over the lacing of her boots—the tag in her fingers poised in mid air—but her conscience is awake; she is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her, hopeful and expectant.

(Home Education, p. 120)

That’s what our attitude and expression should convey to our children as we are supervising their efforts: “I know you can do this. I know it’s hard, but you can do it!” We are cheering them on as fellow human beings who also struggle to do our best.

So start with supervising the entire task. Then, as that neuron path becomes more ingrained, you might start by her side at the beginning, excuse yourself for a moment in the middle, then come back for the rest of the task. Gradually, you can begin to stay away longer and make your check-ins shorter; but that is a gradual process over time. Eventually, you can encourage a child to apply the habit of best effort with no supervision at all. 

It’s a process, just as with all habit training. As we mentioned before, habit training is not a once-and-done thing. It is an ongoing opportunity to help your child grow in the art of living. But we have to be intentional about it. Good habits don’t just happen; they take effort. Our best effort. 

Perhaps our own application as parents, and the question we can ask ourselves every evening, is Did I do my best to help my child grow in good habits? 

“Did I do my best?” It’s all about the effort. Not perfection. Faithful effort. 

You can do it. I know it’s hard sometimes, but you can do it.