Posted in Of Life's Dramedies, Of Philosophy, Of Psyche

Of Effortless Effort


It is the holiday season and I assure you I’m the last when it comes to being Debbie Downer ( I’d rather be Debbie Harry, thank you very much ), but maybe because it’s the holidays, we might finally have some time to reflect on what we do when we are not holidaying. Of course, work and effort aren’t the same thing. We understand work to be simply what we do, primarily to serve the dual ends of making (another kind of) ends meet, as well as give us something to define ourselves by. Hi, my name is Amrita, and I am an aspiring writer. Notice the word, “aspiring”, a fancy, positive word with quite deep connotations but in this context it just means – I don’t get paid. Focusing on the other word, “writer”, which is what I do, effort would then imply the actual writing that gets done. To put it more precisely, writing is what I sometimes do to generally call myself a writer. Now, how much writing do I have to do, quantitatively and qualitatively, to think I’ve made enough of an effort to justify calling myself a writer?

That is really two questions in one. Think of it as an equation where we call the doing of the work action, sufficient work effort and the justification of that work the job title, in this case writer. Therefore,

n * action = effort = job designation


n * writing = enough writing = writer

Now, according to a recent study that confirms an ancient Chinese concept wu wei, which means “effortless action”, our efforts are best when there is some lack of effort involved in it. And that means, you go the distance when it comes to reaching your goal, but you also stop in between, an arbitrary number of times, to smell the roses. Now, we humans like to design our lives obeying symmetry. We wouldn’t exactly call it perfectionist, because it isn’t the 1980s any more when perfectionism was cool. We still work hard, but we also understand the importance of fun, which is why we have created social media to do both simultaneously. But, that amalgamation of work and fun isn’t exactly effortless action. Effortless action is best understood as that old cliché – do your best, and leave the rest. Now, the problem with being in a competitive world, whether you are competitive or not, is realizing that your best is only understood relatively from what is best around you.

Nearly every inspirational story out there is about a person who breaks away from his or her background or community – where the best is clearly defined and is not them – and goes off and becomes the best somewhere else. But, while you are in your setting, you constantly have pressures, obvious or subliminal, pushing you to do your best. Teachers, parents, gym instructors, work reports, all forms of assessments, whether emotional or statistical, try to obey that same underlying perfectionist symmetry humanity wants to achieve, The Best. Not your and my, but some unknown the, which can never be known qualitatively or quantitatively.

So, effortless action isn’t just doing your best and leaving the rest. It is being realistic about your best. It is knowing when to stop, when to draw the line. Let’s face it, work isn’t exactly an attractive word. Maybe for Type A personalities, but we’ve managed to figure out over the years that people can’t be reduced to types, no matter how scientific they look. And effort is different. Even more different is action. Marlon Brando shared a lovely idea with Al Pacino, one that definitely needs to be applied to things besides acting. He said that even when the director shouts “action!”, you don’t need to do anything. Because, action is even possible in apparent inaction. Our problem with work is that we tend to see it as this giant, colossal thing that must be done to keep us going. People advise you to break it into small, manageable chunks, take frequent breaks and just keep going at it. And that is great advice, but another way of looking at it is, just focus on the action. You may have a pile on your desk, or a long to-do list. And the best thing to do isn’t necessarily plan your efforts around that symmetry the world has taught you. But just to start, and then to stop a while when you can’t go any longer. Do it, but only till the point when it feels right for you.


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

7 thoughts on “Of Effortless Effort

  1. Interesting approach. There is much about my work I enjoy; actually it’s only the being with people parts I like. I struggle with finding enough motivation to keep up with the more mundane parts; mostly admin. I have devised endless strategies, my Save the Day being the most useful. It includes doing five small things and going home early to make a good dinner. My latest reward system is down to a present from a friend. She gave me one of those colouring in books for grown ups. So when I get to an impasse with the admin I let myself do some colouring in for a few minutes. It works for me 🙂

    1. I agree, and there was a recent post by The Daily Post on this. They suggested things like playing music and drawing as well, I think. I’ve always found art relaxing too, though I have no talent in it. People around you make mundane jobs bearable but if its interesting ( unless it’s also collaborative ), I find it’s better to work alone!
      Hope you had a lovely Christmas!

  2. I have a slightly different take on the effortless-action thing that comes from running. I am a distance runner (thought not a great one, by any means.) When I started running, years ago, I got better by working my tail off. I had to push myself, and running was a forced and very deliberate act. But after making slow, steady progress, over a long period of time, I reached a point where running became partly effortless.

    I think the same transition happens with other activities. I can only get to the effortless-action stage after I’ve put in the hard work of training, until the skills become part of me, so ingrained that I don’t have to really think about them. And I have to cut myself slack along the way, because it takes time to work to that point and remind myself that the quickest way to get to ‘good’ is by working through the ‘hard’.

    1. Wow Bor Bor, that is a great achievement! Running does seem to be very challenging from the outside, so it is really commendable of you to have put in the initial hard work to reach the stage of effortlessness.
      I am good with things I’m passionate about. It may not appear in the way I conduct this blog, but if I am doing a project I’m deeply interested in, I don’t care about the hard work, the obstacles or the failure that comes with it. Sometimes, I even forget to eat or get very little sleep, which I won’t recommend! However, despite my avid interest, if the thing intimidates me( like learning to play a musical instrument ), it just seems impossible to cross the first big task of getting past the basics. I hope I don’t always remain like this. In fact, I very much hope it changes in year 2015!

      Happy New Year! Hope you keep up with the great cartoons!

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