focus: effortless action
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~Lao Tzu
There’s a concept in Taoism, “wei wu wei”, which is often translated as “action without action” or “effortless doing”. I prefer to think of it more in the sense of “action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort”.
This is an important concept, because effortless action is a way to not only achieve focus in a world of chaos, but to be effective without stress, to respond to any situation with economy of effort and action, and to pursue our passions while beating procrastination.
Think for a moment of times when you’ve struggled to work, and instead procrastinated by heading for your distractions — email, social networks, blog reading, games, whatever your flavor might be.
This struggle is often a losing battle for most people. They fight against it, but only win occassionally.
Effortless action is an easier way to find focus and beat procrastination.
Be like water
An appropriate mental image is that of water, which seems naturally effortless in its action. It isn’t necessarily still, nor is it passive, but it flows naturally around obstacles and always gets to where it’s going.
This is effortless action. It uses gravity and the natural contours of its landscape, instead of forcing things. Water can never be anything but effortless, and yet it is quietly powerful.
Be like water. Flow, respond to the landscape, move around obstacles, and be graceful in your movement.
Position yourself effortlessly within the moment
In “The Civility Solution”, academic P.M. Forni writes:
“We must learn to position ourselves effortlessly within each moment, rather than stumbling through time. We can either escape from the moment or stay with it as it unfolds and do something good with it.”
And this is exactly right. Are you trying to escape the moment, fleeing from it and struggling against it? Or are you inhabiting the moment effortlessly?
One way to do this is to stop yourself when you find yourself struggling, and just pause. Be present, sensing your breath, and then everything around you. See the situation with some objectivity, instead of fleeing from it blindly. Carefully consider your options — all of them. And then respond to the situation mindfully and with the appropriate response — not an overreaction.
In this way, you respond flexibly, appropriately, and effortlessly.
Steps for effortless action
There is no step-by-step guide to learning effortless action, but here are some things you might try:
- Act because of passion. Not because you “should”, but because you’re excited to do so. It will feel as if you’re going downhill, because it’s what you want to do.
- When you’re going uphill, change course. Whenever you find yourself dreading something, procrastinating, forcing yourself and hating it, stop and ask yourself why. There must be a reason — you’ll never sustain any action for long if you hate doing it. Change course to something you’re more excited about, and things will get easier. You may end up getting to the same destination, but you’ll do it with a different course and things will flow more naturally.
- Don’t try to control what you can’t control. When we try to control others, or obsessively control our surroundings, we are trying to control things that aren’t in our control. This will inevitably end up in failure, frustration, and conflict with others. Instead, accept that we can’t control these things, and flow around the obstacles with a minimum of effort.
- Be in the moment. Be aware of the full situation, accept the situation, and respond appropriately.
- See the possibilities. When we have our minds set, and our vision set, on one destination, we are often blind to other possibilities. We’ll miss opportunities this way. Instead, see all the possible paths and pick the one that will work best for you. That doesn’t mean to become indecisive because there are so many choices — to be paralyzed by choice — but instead to learn to move effortlessly among all the possible paths instead of being stuck on one path. This gets easier with practice, as you learn to trust your intuition.
- Be flexible. When we are rigid, we will often break. Be like water, flowing around obstacles rather than trying to push them out of your way.
- Find the pressure points. Sometimes, if you find the right spot, achieving something takes very little effort. Hitting a baseball with the sweet spot of the bat will cause it to go much further with less effort. Finding these spots of maximum effectiveness and minimum effort takes mindful effort, which is why effortless action isn’t mindless action.
- Do less and less, with less and less effort. Effortless action isn’t something that is achieved overnight. In fact, if you try too hard to achieve it, you’ve defeated yourself already. Instead, when you find yourself in a whirlwind of activity, and pushing hard, slow down, relax, and do less. Eliminate some of your motions so that you’re moving with economy. Push less, and flow more. Slowly learn to do less, and then do less, finding ways of doing that require little action but lots of effectiveness. Learn to let things unfold naturally instead of pushing them to happen. Let people learn on their own instead of controlling them. Set things up so they happen without you having to steer everything. Slowly learn to use less effort, and then less than that.
- Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy. Another famous quote by Lao Tzu, it’s timeless and wise. If you can manage the easy, small things now, you’ll save yourself the time and effort of having to do the difficult things later. This allows for more effortless action — you work less to achieve the same results.
Next chapter: three strategies for prioritizing tasks