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The Law of Reversed Effort: How to Get Better by Doing Less

You should be able to enjoy yourself on the long road to mastery. And no matter how much it’s worth it to arrive, you should also aim to make the journey worthwhile. Be confident that doing the work is enough; relax the self that gets in the way.


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Jonas Ressem

4 months ago | 5 min read
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Why relaxation is the road to masteryem

I relaxed my breath and lowered my shoulders. Instead of forcing my stride, I now began to relax it. Looking at my watch, I noticed my heart rate go down as well. Paradoxically, I was running faster.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Is it really possible to get better but with less effort, strain and worry?

The Problem With Trying

Improving is something most of us desire. And some of us would even like to achieve mastery — if not world-class level, at least to the best of our abilities.

But improvement doesn’t come for free. You know this — perhaps painfully so. In your quest for improvement, some days are harder than others. And though that’s only natural, you have a tendency to make them worse than needs be.

If you’re struggling, you try to force it. And though you might feel like you’re being productive for a while, you realize it doesn’t improve your output’s quality.

Eventually, you give up. And then you make yourself feel bad for not doing “enough”; and guilty for not being as productive as you know you “should be”. This, in turn, spike your stress, wreck your self-image and obstruct your subsequent productivity.

I know how it is. I’ve gone through this scenario many times, and I still fall for it occasionally. Our issue is this: we think working hard is the only way improve. Indeed, it’s an idea that runs deep in our society. But working hard doesn’t automatically mean you’re improving; it only means you’re busy.

In most cases, trying too hard actually makes it harder to improve. Relaxation is the road to mastery.

Mastery Should Look Like Play

When asked about their process, few athletes are able to describe what they thought during a big performance. Contrary to what’s reasonable to think, the best athletes in the world don’t think — not when they’re performing at their highest level. In the midst of action, their mind is blank.

In addition to this little effort on the inside, it also looks effortless to those watching it from the outside. Their mind and body work together — so harmoniously, so effectively, but yet so effortlessly. And it’s not just athletes. In every field, mastery looks the same: effortless. Like play.

But the question is, how did they get there? Well, as with anything, it starts with practice. And the best practice is that which mimics the result you desire. As the writer Aldous Huxley described it:

“Take the piano teacher… he always says, relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity…”

What Relaxation Gives You

While it might be difficult and unfamiliar in the beginning, you have to start your relaxation somewhere. But in doing so, you might get hooked once you experience what it gives you. Namely, relaxation can lead to:

  • Better results.
  • An increased chance of entering flow.
  • Energy to sustain your performance over time.
  • A more enjoyable approach to your work.

I’ve experienced these effects of relaxation. Not only in the running-example above, but in writing and music as well.

Take music, for example. I’m not particularly good at it, but I still notice my best work happens when I don’t think too much about it. If I sweat it, the things I make doesn’t sound as good.

My brother, who’s a more experienced musician than I, describes the same process: Something clicks. You shoot off, and without thinking, you end up on the other side with some of your best work.

And the weird thing, you somehow work faster too. Relaxation is the road to mastery; both in quality and quantity.

But how can you relax and work at the same time? What is it with relaxation that enables all this?

The Self That Gets in The Way

Well, alongside his descriptions, Huxley also proposed a solution. He said:

What has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what... This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.”

When you start to relax, you tune down your rational thinking and enable other faculties to shine through, such as intuition and automatic motor skills. This is advantageous as it leads to the benefits mentioned above.

To actually relax this “self that tries too hard”, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • First of all, you have to get rid of the idea you have to work hard to improve. Sure, you might still have to work a lot, and it might be difficult at times, but at the core of it you can still relax.
  • As you work, check in with your body from time to time. If your shoulders are high and your breath is tense, it might be a sign you’re not relaxed. Try to refocus or simply take a break.
  • Don’t try to work if you absolutely don’t want to. Listen to your bodily signals. Trust your experience.
  • Relaxation is easiest when you work at the level you’re currently at. Keep your goal in mind but focus on what’s right in front of you. Improvement is a step-by-step process. Allow it to unfold.

Relax, It Takes Time

By following these suggestions, you won’t magically arrive at mastery. You knew that though.

What it will do, however, is lead to a gradual increase in better results, easier flow, more energy and larger enjoyment. And ultimately, this is precisely what will take you to mastery over time.

This doesn’t mean you should, at all cost, avoid working hard or for long hours. It just means you don’t have to stress about it and try too hard. It’s possible to get better with less effort, strain and worry. If you’re having a particularly hard day, take a break. If the work isn’t flowing, relax.

As with most great things, mastery takes time. So why not relax and enjoy the ride? As Warren Buffett put it:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

You should be able to enjoy yourself on the long road to mastery. And no matter how much it’s worth it to arrive, you should also aim to make the journey worthwhile. Be confident that doing the work is enough; relax the self that gets in the way.

You see it now: Relaxation is not only the road to mastery, but to a better life.

Want to live a more meaningful life? Get my free PDF here.

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Jonas Ressem

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From Norway. Building onliving.life. Exploring life through psychology, philosophy and entrepreneurship. Come explore with me: http://eepurl.com/dAtfdv


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