I aspire to a life that feels effortless.
For this reason, “effortless” is the word I’ve put at the top of my to do list, as an often mocking reminder of how I would like to feel. Because in all the important ways I find I’ve lost the ease of flow.
It’s a problem that feels particularly acute right now; I moved last weekend and am coming off of twelve months of an unfortunate roommate situation which often cost me significant sleep. All of which is to say that I’m tired. Deeply, hopelessly, profoundly tired all the way down into the marrow of my bones.
But I’m sick of feeling mired in exhaustion.
I’ve felt like this off-and on (more on than off) since sometime during my junior year at MIT. I feel that around my twenty first birthday I tapped out and never really managed to find the way back in. And years later, I’m sick of feeling stuck because I’m too tired to manage more than my day-to-day — the cooking, cleaning, and working that eat up so many non-negotiable hours each day.
I’m ready for a new adventure.
And yet I’m so tired that every necessary step feels awful. Every necessary step feels like it requires a Herculean effort, even when it’s as small as writing up a new blog post to share with you each week.
I’m still working on healing the exhaustion, but it’s been years now since I graduated from MIT and I’m done waiting until I feel less exhausted to move on.
Instead, I’m choosing to focus my efforts on effortlessness.
When you’re tired, you only ever do the things that feel easy. If you want to get things done despite being tired, then each individual task has to feel absurdly easy — so easy you’d rather just have it over with. In order to get things done when you’re tired, those things have to feel effortless.
But here’s the secret about effortlessness — it’s not really about the difficulty of the task, it’s actually about the weight of resistance you have to doing the task. Which means that the problem I’ve really been tackling is the problem of resistance.
Whole books have been written on resistance (Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art is an oft-cited example). But most of those books focus on powering through the resistance with grit and determination — the “do it anyway” approach.
I don’t have the energy to “do it anyways” anymore.
I spent my “determined misery” allowance while I was at MIT. I bullied myself into powering through impossible mountains of homework, often staying up multiple days without sleep in a slap-dash effort to make the impossible possible. And for the most part, I demonstrated alarming success.
But this kind of energy is a finite resource — you only have so much to give and mine is all used up.
Instead, I’m having to find a gentler, more effortless way of getting things done.
And what I’m learning is a whole new way of getting things done that feels easier and even (sometimes) effortless.
Here are a few of the forces I’ve been harnessing in my life:
- Tiny tasks = momentum and completion. Martha Beck calls this taking turtle steps. Anna Kunnecke suggests we give ourselves the gift of completion. What they mean is that small wins build momentum and are easy to accrue. Hard things become easy when we break them down into tiny tasks so simple we’d rather do them than not-do them. “Finish writing book” is a huge overwhelming task that might be impossible and this brings resistance screaming into the picture. But “Write in bed for 20 minutes before sleep” feels cozy and lovely and so doable that I might do it even on a night when I’ve just moved and am exhausted.
- Play and celebration. When I was at MIT I almost never celebrated my accomplishments. Always there were so many pressing items still on my to-do list that I plowed straight from one into the next with hardly a moment for reflection and celebration. But when we celebrate our achievements it changes our to-do list from a gauntlet to be run into a game to be played. Like a game of “hot lava” every time we make it to a new surface without being “burnt” we give ourselves a little cheer — a cheer which bolsters us as we prepare to take the next leap.
- Honoring desires and joy. Here’s possibly my favorite trick. Move items from your “to-do” list to your “want to do” list. This was a big help with my writing practice. When my writing was a “to-do” I resisted it because I was tired and I didn’t want to do anything except rest. But I wanted to write, too, I just didn’t want to have to. By honoring my desire to feel prolific and my desire to write I reclaimed the task of writing and moved it from a duty to a joy. Are there things in your life that you love but that you resist doing? Is it perhaps because you’re not honoring your wants and turning joy into a duty? I invite you to ponder the question.
- Caring less. This one feels a bit like cheating, but it’s true. I’m not sure who said it first but this is the principle that encourages us to not let “perfect be the enemy of good (or done)”. It’s the wisdom in Anne Lamott’s suggestion to write “shitty first drafts”. It’s about taking a leap, taking a risk, fearing it won’t be good enough and doing it anyways. It’s about letting go of perfection and letting your successes be wildly, improbably imperfect and messy. It’s about making mistakes and not worrying too much about the consequences.
- Letting failure be ok. This is important because you’re not always going to succeed. I try to write every day but I don’t manage it. I try to make a plan for the things I need to do every day and I don’t often stick to it. These things don’t mean I’m a “bad” writer or that I’m doing anything wrong. They just mean that life is messy and often unexpected and no one can predict the future. One of my writing mantras has been to “tread gently” — to learn to take it easy on myself and to let it be ok if I don’t meet my own expectations. Because my expectations for myself are usually broken and unrealistically high. And that, too, is ok.
Now it’s your turn! How do you make the work in your life feel effortless? Let me know in the comments below.
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