Effortless Effort: Relaxing While Trying Hard

By Leo Babauta

I’ve noticed that a lot of us will be pretty wiped out at the end of a long day of work or social activity, to the point where we need time to recuperate from exhaustion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s talk about the possibility of doing hard things without exhausting ourselves.

We might call it Effortless Effort (similar to “wu wei” in Daoism) – the idea of acting without a huge amount of tension or extraneous physical effort.

When you talk to someone about “trying hard,” they usually will put a lot of energy into something, and quickly exhaust themselves. “Trying hard” is equated to being very tense, pushing hard with your body and mind, and putting everything you have into it.

If you talk to someone about “relaxing,” they will usually think of that as the opposite of “trying hard.” They think of lying on the couch, muscles relaxed, not doing anything. “Relaxing” is equated with “laziness” for a lot of people.

So “trying hard” and “relaxing” are seen as two opposite things.

What would it be like to try hard while relaxing?

An Experiment

Try this experiment: Relax the muscles of your torso, neck, jaw, head … so that you’re sitting upright but relaxed. Now read a few sentences of this article, while keeping that upright relaxed posture. Breathe easy, feel peaceful, while reading.

Notice what it’s like to give focus to the reading, while not tensing up. While remaining peaceful and relaxed.

Now try it while drinking a glass of water, or walking around the room. Upright and relaxed, doing things without spending more effort than is needed.

Practicing & Adjusting

We can practice in meditation as well – can you have a relaxed upright posture and keep your focus on the present moment, without straining? Can you rest your attention gently on one spot, not forcing the attention but just resting it?

This is the essence of effort without extra effort. Giving something your focus without spending all your energy. Moving without too much tension.

Of course, it takes some tension to move – otherwise you’d collapse on the floor in a puddle. We need to spend some energy to move around a room, or to sit upright. But we don’t need to spend more than the minimum required. It’s like spending what you need for food, without needing to splurge on every bite.

Sometimes a lot of energy is required. And if so, you try hard with that burst of energy. Just what’s needed. And then go back to relaxed upright posture, without needing to spend more.

You can practice all day, if you keep “effortless effort” in mind. You can cook, wash dishes, talk to people, answer email, without needing to be tensed all the time, without needing to exhaust yourself. Notice if your torso is tensed up, your jaw clenched, your temples tight. Then relax.

Notice what it’s like to spend just what’s needed, and not everything.