It has happened to all of us at some time: we try hard to achieve something, but we do not succeed. Even if we dedicate all our attention, strength and energy to it, we do not advance. The goal that we yearn for so much becomes more and more elusive and vanishes. It also happens in interpersonal relationships: the more we try to get closer to a person, the more that person moves away.
So when we finally throw in the towel, we wonder what we’ve done wrong. We look back, we obsess and try to find the wrong step, the moment we failed, the word out of place, the reason why we didn’t succeed.
However, although it may seem like a contradiction, sometimes we fail because we try too hard. Because sometimes, to achieve a goal, we simply have to calm down and relax a bit.
What does the backwards law postulate?
“If you don’t know how to swim and you fall into the water and try desperately to stay afloat, full of anguish, with all the natural fear that you have for not knowing how to swim, the more you move and shake, the more you will sink and faster. The Law of Reversed Effort is simply to relax, to think that if you are calm and fill your lungs with air, that will make you float and you will not drown”, wrote the philosopher Alan Watts.
With the law of reversed effort or backwards law, Alan Watts reminds us that, although we often have to make an effort to learn, grow and overcome obstacles, other times we must calm down and slow down so that things turn out well. Instead of moving forward no matter what, it encourages us to take a step back to assume the psychological distance that allows us to fully assess the complexity of the situation we are experiencing.
More effort is not always synonymous with more achievements
In a world based on the culture of effort, detaching ourselves from the drive to achieve something is particularly difficult and is even confused with apathy or mediocrity. However, overexcitement, agitation and precipitation are not usually good advisers, much less in situations that demand reflection, equanimity and time.
Impulsiveness and stubbornness prevent us from reaching the degree of lucidity necessary to better understand the scenario in which we find ourselves and weigh our options. If we get agitated, rushed, and take actions that dissipate our energy left and right, it will be more difficult for us to reach our goal.
In that state, we can move, but not go forward – or at least not in the direction we want or at the speed we need. When we become obsessed with a goal or stubbornly following a path, we can waste a great deal of energy. In these situations, stubbornness prevents us from seeing and taking advantage of other opportunities.
When we struggle to achieve something, we can get to a point where we feel like we’re not moving forward. At that point we start to feel bad for not doing enough and push ourselves even more. We force ourselves to continue. But that pressure only serves to add more stress and obstruct the path.
In fact, research on work productivity shows that we’re really productive only during the first four to five hours of each workday. Everything that follows implies a considerable decrease in performance, to the point that the difference between working 12 and 16 hours is practically non-existent, except for the fact that we punish ourselves mentally and physically.
The law of reversed effort also explains something as everyday as insomnia. If we wake up in the middle of the night and can’t catch up on sleep, the worst thing we can do is constantly think about how to sleep because that will lead to frustration and keep us even more awake. It is better to accept the presence of insomnia and let the body gradually relax until we fall into the arms of Morpheus.
That same pattern is repeated in interpersonal relationships. The more we crave a person to be by our side and the more we seek his company, the more likely it is that he feels suffocated and withdraw. In this way, what we fight so hard for ends up slipping through our fingers. What we work so hard for, vanishes before our eyes.
The proper attitude to apply the Law of Reversed Effort
The law of reversed effort is not synonymous with resignation nor does it push us to assume a passive attitude. On the contrary, it encourages reflection. It motivates us to stop along the way to assess the circumstances and assume the best possible attitude, both for our well-being and for the achievement of our goals.
The law of reversed effort tells us that it is of little use to achieve what we want if we lose mental balance or health along the way. It warns us that “chasing” or “tying” a person is not always the best strategy to attract or retain him/her by our side.
Instead, it proposes that we adopt a different strategy and learn to flow. Watts used a very illustrative metaphor: water runs out when we make a fist, but we can retain it when we relax our hands making a bowl.
The world, the people around us and even ourselves need that essential vital space to be and flow. The pressure causes a psychological suffocation that often exerts a force in the opposite direction and takes us away from our goals.
Even Aldous Huxley wrote: “The more we try to do something with conscious will, the less successful we will be. Competence and results only come to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing: combining relaxation with activity”.
It’s about realizing that there is a time to persevere and another to let go. This attitude of mental detachment allows us to achieve our goals without adding so much tension, anxiety or anguish, with a more serene and detached attitude.
How is it achieved?
It all starts with awareness. That is, being aware that sometimes we cannot swim against the current and it is much more intelligent to flow with it. This insight will allow us to face the situation in a different way, thanks to the poise that comes from serenity and temperance, which in turn become two of our best allies when it comes to acting.
Alan Watts recommended that we behave like a mirror because it “Holds nothing, rejects nothing. It receives, but it doesn’t keep”. This attitude helps us to undertake our goals from serenity, reflection, understanding and, ultimately, action.
When we begin to relax, we also allow other faculties to surface, such as intuition. Thus we are learning to discern when it is better to act and when it is better to wait. When it is convenient to move forward and when it is convenient to stop. And best of all, we protect our health and balance along the way.
Collewet, M. & Sauermann, J. (2017) Working hours and productivity. Labour Economics; 47: 96-106.
Watts, A. (1994) La sabiduría de la inseguridad. Barcelona: Kairós.