The Effortless Effort


I first heard that phrase when I was a teenager and was friends with an elderly mystic. I remember thinking at the time that it must be some weird, complicated spiritual thing of unknown origins. Being a teenager, I promptly forgot about it.

The next time I remember thinking about it was one day when I was doing yoga. I’d had been practicing yoga consistently and strenuously for years, but during this one class I felt it, the Effortless Effort! It felt as though I was so strong and confident that I could just relax into a pose and hold it and enjoy it—no shaking, no quaking, no strenuous effort. It was an effortless effort!

And then I went to Sydney, Australia. Here was a whole city that seemed to be living the Effortless Effort. People appeared to be doing work and enjoying it, not struggling or walking around with intense looks of frustration on their faces. There seemed to be a peacefulness about the life there, a sense of living in the present and enjoying each moment—that elusive thing we all long for. It struck me especially when a brief rain shower came on suddenly. Instead of rushing through it and getting wet, people stopped and stood under big trees and waited it out, listening to the squawk of cockatoos.

America is so much about The Struggle. That was highlighted when I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Sydney. Our whole mindset is about fighting and working hard and trying to reach something that is always just out of reach. Hearing him sing his songs in Sydney made me even more certain that this city is on to something.

So I googled the Effortless Effort on my phone. It turns out it’s a Taoist concept known as wu wei. The basic concept is that if we align ourselves with our true nature, we live the way nature does. For example, a tree does not struggle and fight to grow. It just grows. When we fight against our true nature—if your true nature is an artist, say, but you are trying to be something else—you will struggle and fight and it will feel very hard. That may not be a good thing. If you follow your nature, surrendering to it, the idea is that you will succeed with much less effort. It’s not about not doing any work, it’s about doing the work you were meant to do and that you truly enjoy doing.

For me, writing this blog is a bit like an effortless effort. I still have to do it, but because it is so much in my nature to do it, writing these blogs comes easily. Only occasionally does it feel like an effortful effort! And it’s a good thing, too, because I don’t make any money doing it! It’s just a labor of love.

Think about it. Are you struggling more than you need to? Is what you are doing for a living aligned with your true nature? What would happen if you relaxed into what you are doing and stopped struggling so hard? If Sydney is any example, the world won’t end; it will just be a lot more relaxed!

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12 Responses to The Effortless Effort

  1. Laura Jo K April 8, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    I love that idea.

    I believe you are correct. But I also believe, people look down on you if you do not appear busy or struggling. If you are not struggling, you are not working hard enough. I have been wrestling with this for a while, trying to let go of the busy/stressed attitude. Nice post.

  2. maria (farm country kitchen) April 8, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    let’s imagine that people will look up to us instead! After all, doesn’t everyone search for “balance?” and more joy? By the way, it’s a beautiful day here in Pennsylvania…I think I’m going to go outside and enjoy a bit of it!

  3. AMJ April 8, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    I agree!! I think far too many are competing with an elusive ideal that they will probably never obtain – they ‘struggle’, they ‘battle’, they ‘fight’, I’d rather ‘go with the flow’ and obtain serenity and contentment!
    And Laura Jo K: I live in a neighborhood, where there are a few who look at me like I’m crazy, when answering the question “What have you been doing?”, with reading a book, watching a movie or any other self-indulgent behavior.

  4. Donna in Delaware April 9, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    I think the Chinese have been on to something for thousands of years. I love this concept. Which is why I told my husband that I will do the things I love to do from now on. I will become a horticulturalist, I will become a water color painter, I will teach children how to establish and maintain a public and private garden, so that they may always have something to eat, even though it’s just veggies and fruits and possibly grains. This is what I was meant to do and be, and I shall in the future.

  5. MsChick74 April 9, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    I love this post. I have been thinking this exact thing about jobs & life. It’s time for me to find that effortless effort career. I’m lucky that I have an opportunity to change paths since I’m about to move to a whole new state. Life is too short to constantly be struggling.

  6. Andrea April 10, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    This post is great. I am in my 20s, and I feel a constant struggle to make more money, to have the house, the cars, the “things” that everyone else has. I get so caught up in working (60-65 hrs each week), that when I am home, I have no motivation to do the things that used to make me feel happy and complete. I hate to waste my life being miserable and making money, when what I really want to do is be happy and live my life!

  7. Amy April 10, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    Check out Carol Tuttle’s “It’s Just My Nature.” She dedicates her life to this very topic in her book(s) and blogs and websites. I love this post btw. Thank you.

  8. Debbie April 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    I agree with Laura Jo. It seems in the US to be a badge of honor to say we are busy when asked how we are. It would be nice if we could reply “relaxed and happy” or “doing what I love” rather than “busy.”

  9. Janne April 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    The book “Your Money or Your Life” addresses how we trade our life energy (hours we are alive) for stuff! The stuff we buy (house, car, phone, clothes, etc.) doesn’t fulfill us so we trade MORE of our life energy (hours worked) for even more stuff.
    Get off the treadmill, THINK before you trade away your life, buy only what you truly NEED that fulfills you and you will be much happier.

  10. Amanda April 11, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    It feels like a luxury to do only that which aligns with your true nature. That would be lovely, but we don’t all have this as an option. So, the question remains, how can we strive for something better yet at the same time be happy with what we have? These seem like such opposing actions/forces…

  11. maria (farm country kitchen) April 11, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Yes, Amanda, that is the balance isn’t it? I’m not saying I’ve found it either!

  12. Amanda April 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    So true, Maria! It takes a certain level of bravery to evaluate what really matters to you and then make decisions that lead you closer to whatever it is. Goes hand-in-hand with Maya’s “lean in” article. Success and balance are so subjective…and that’s a good thing. Thanks for making me do a little personal thinking today :)

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