“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.”― Aldous Huxley
I’ve recently written a book which will be published in the spring of 2023. While overall the experience has been deeply satisfying, at times it was incredibly frustrating. I often struggled to find the right words or the right example. When I’d go back and read what I wrote I’d be hit with a wave of nausea at how bad it was. There were times when no words would come — I’d be stuck against a mental wall that seemed too substantial to overcome.
I found that just pounding against the mental wall didn’t work — trying harder just made it worse as my inability to move forward felt like I was sliding into a dark pit of inadequacy. I found that to get unstuck I had to stop trying so hard. Instead of trying to move forward, instead I’d take a walk, listen to an album on my stereo, take a nap, or read a book. The key was to relax and focus on things other than writing and only gently and sporadically noodle on my writing challenges. These sessions broke my logjams and allowed me to move forward.
Doing Without Trying
I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience where you only made progress at something once you stopped trying so hard. This phenomenon is common enough that there’s a name for it: “The Law of Reversed Effort.” It states that there are things that can’t be improved by greater effort. Instead, improvement comes when we relax, when we stop striving. It’s like flying dreams where if we think about the fact we’re flying we fall and only by not thinking about flying do we stay aloft.
A common example is falling asleep: Sometimes when you can’t fall asleep it helps to stop trying: count sheep, read a book, focus on your breath, etc. Likewise, golf pros instruct their pupils that they must relax to hit the ball well — too much effort ruins the swing. Playing piano requires relaxed effort, as does shooting free throws.
Leo Tolstoy described this concept perfectly in Anna Karenina where he describes a day of labor undertaken by Konstantin Levin, a member of the upper crust of Russian society, as he mows hay with a scythe alongside his peasants:
“A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.”– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The concept of doing without trying to do has been known by Taoists for centuries; they call it “wu wei” and it means “effortless action” or “action without action.” Philosopher Alan Watts describes wu wei as “not forcing.” Sometimes we experience wu wei when we are “in the zone” or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” We’re practicing wu wei when we align our movements and actions with the greater flow of life. At its core, wu wei means relaxing while doing.
“Wu wei shows that when we stop making waves and learn to wait and watch, we see outside forces more clearly and make wiser moves. Act hastily, and every step is a potential blunder, with emotion and ego driving our decisions more than reason.” Source.
Sometimes Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly
In his book, Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, economist John Kay describes what he calls “the profit-seeking paradox.” What he means by this is that companies that grow the most usually have non-profit-related goals; growing profits are a result of other goals. (Check out this related IFOD: There are two types of companies.)
This concept has broad applicability — tackling problems head-on isn’t always the way to achieve success. For example, diets lead to the dieter obsessing about food restrictions which makes losing weight harder. Instead, tackling weight loss in terms of what you want to eat versus thinking about what you can’t or shouldn’t eat can be more productive. This might be achieved by focusing on drinking a full glass of water before a meal and making sure to include more vegetables in a meal.
How to Use the Law of Reversed Effort in Our Lives
The law of reversed effort doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and that effort doesn’t matter. Rather, it means that we can’t always power our way directly through our goals. Sometimes it is best to relax, take a break, or think about other thing. To shift from striving to playing (mastery often looks like play).
Here are some tips for using the law of reversed effort:
- Relax. When you are keyed up or frustrated this is hard. Try the relaxing breath. Remind yourself that the problem isn’t life or death (unless it is LOL).
- Do Something Else. Take a walk. Listen to music. Chat with friends, family, or colleagues about something unrelated. Take a break from thinking about the problem/issue/goal.
- Sleep. When stuck see if a good night’s sleep will help solve the problem. It’s not uncommon to wake up with a solution that came to you during sleep.
- Invert. Charlie Munger advises to approach problems in reverse — what he calls inverting a problem. I wrote about this concept my Forbes article Five Ways to be a Terrible Investor.