The Law of Reversed Effort: When Taking Action Isn't the Best Option
“Keep going! Give your all! Don’t give up! You can get what you want if you try hard enough”. How many times have you heard these expressions? Many, for sure. What’s more, you haven’t only listened to them, you read them daily on social media. In fact, you probably even drink your morning coffee in a mug emblazoned with this kind of message.
To achieve some goals, you have to invest certain resources. After all, they don’t just turn up on your doorstep. Achievement requires competence, dedication, enthusiasm, and even a few strokes of luck.
In recent decades, the social unconscious of the population has been highly conditioned by the well-known ‘law of attraction’. This is the idea that you only have to desire a specific objective and you’ll get it. However, this model, together with the idea that you only have to make an effort to achieve a goal, can form the basis of many of your disappointments.
In reality, achieving a dream depends on many factors, and not all of them are under your control. What’s more, in certain cases, the fact of not doing anything or taking a step back can be the most suitable strategy. This is surprising but true.
We live in a competitive society that makes us believe that the more we do, the more we’ll achieve. Sadly, this rule of thumb isn’t always followed.
The law of reversed effort
Time isn’t money, time is work. Therefore, the more you do, the more benefits and success you’re supposed to achieve. After all, you live in a competitive society. You have to prove your worth by doing your best. In fact, you do this to the point that sometimes, even taking a break makes you feel guilty.
As a matter of fact, the culture of effort has turned us all, almost without realizing it, into frustrated and unhappy beings. This is experienced by those who’ve spent many years training yet can’t get a job in line with their qualifications. Despite knowing that they’re competent and trying their best, they don’t achieve recognition.
Consequently, many of us spend a great deal of time trying to get somewhere with no success. We’re a tired and often disillusioned population. So, perhaps we should consider the model proposed by the British philosopher, Alan Watts. This is the law of reversed effort. It suggests that, often, the more you obsess about achieving something, the more you distance yourself from it.
“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax and float.”
–Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity-
The more you try something, the further away the goal becomes
It’s ironic that we’ve all been taught the extraordinary value of effort, but not the value of applying, on occasions, a more serene and calm attitude. However, Watts’ theory of reversed effort states that, although it’s necessary, at certain times to give the maximum of yourself, at other times, it’s better to distance yourself or not to act if you want something to happen.
Slowing down and looking at things in a more thoughtful way and without the need for investing great energy can also bring results. Indeed, the paradoxical art of doing nothing shapes that effortless action capable of bringing you closer to a goal. That’s because there are times when you give so much of yourself toward a certain purpose that you end up diluting yourself, losing your own essence, and even negatively affecting your health.
This is something often seen in today’s world. For instance, an employee might work ten hours a day to get a promotion. But, instead of achieving their goal, they end up suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression. That’s because there are times when putting all our mental and emotional investments into certain goals moves us further away from them.
Don’t move and the butterfly will come to you
Viktor Frankl said that happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it flies away. But, if you turn your attention to other things, it’ll come and perch lightly on your shoulder. According to this famous Austrian psychiatrist, happiness follows the same dynamic. The law of reversed effort also emanates from his lucid and inspiring vision.
This perspective is also reminiscent of the wu wei mentality that appears in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. According to this philosophy, it’s advisable to learn that force doesn’t always bring the expected results. Non-action or effortlessly responding to life events often brings better results.
Research published in the Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology claims that an athlete can achieve peak performance when they calm their mind, release it from any kind of pressure, and allow their body to act on its own. In effect, when you let yourself go, you often give your best.
“The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
When to apply this approach
The law of reversed effort, or giving up the investment of efforts in favor of an objective, isn’t a suitable resource for all circumstances. Ideally, you’ll know in which contexts to develop this more reflective and lucid vision and recognize when it’s better not to act and take a step back.
However, you must understand that backing down or not pooling your resources doesn’t imply you’ve surrendered or that you’re incompetent. You must forget the kind of bias that makes you believe that you demonstrate your worth by dedicating yourself, heart and soul, to achieving a specific goal. On the contrary, your value also emanates from your own intelligence and recognizing which dimensions are worth the investment of your energy and which aren’t.
Being calm and collected in an always hectic world is an exceptional competence.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Slingerland, E. (2007). Effortless action: Wu-wei as conceptual metaphor and spiritual ideal in early China. Oxford University Press.
- Yang, S. J. (2013). Shen Dao’s Theory of fa and His Influence on Han Fei. En P. Goldin (Ed.). Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei (pp. 47-63). https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-4318-2_3
- Kee, Y. H., Li, C., Zhang, C. Q., & Wang, J. C. K. (2021). The wu-wei alternative: Effortless action and non-striving in the context of mindfulness practice and performance in sport. Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(2-3), 122-132. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2667239121000319
- Watts, A. (1987). La sabiduría de la inseguridad. Kairos.
- Norton, M. (2014). Non-Present Non-Action: The Good Life in the Zhuangzi. En D. Butterton, S. Davis, E. Leahy, M. Santos, N. Schonsheck y C. Stormes (Eds.), The Good Life (pp. 15-24). The Vassar College Journal of Philosophy. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/1-NON-PRESENT-NON-ACTION-%3A-THE-GOOD-LIFE-IN-THE-Norton/353291f16f47a14d8354926f38b948c75e05aaa7