Not every pursuit in life rewards greater effort with a better result. Some things don’t improve with more effort and can even be made worse the harder you try. There are many activities that reward patience, a lack of activity, and self-control.
The linear curve of effort versus results works best for simple productive output tasks and less for things that involve finesse, people, and precision. Complex tasks take accuracy and skilled tasks take experience more than a large amount of effort. Effort starts having diminishing returns for things that don’t reward greater effort but reward different things like accuracy, patience, and experience.
The key concept for the backwards law is that there is a limit to returns on effort and time and after a certain threshold doing more is not only not helpful for better results but actually causes worse results.
The backwards law can be summed up with the popular sayings: “Less is more” or “The harder you try the worse it gets.”
Adding complexity doesn’t always make things better, sometimes simple is best. The art of knowing what’s important and what doesn’t matter helps in using the Backwards Law. For most things more value can be added by subtraction than addition. Knowing when to stay silent can help with communication and relationships more than saying too much. Saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing.
Removing obstacles to results can help more than adding more rules and processes many times.
Doing less and doing nothing can be an edge more times than we know. The less we do, the less mistakes we tend to make. The more simple a process is the less steps happen where mistakes can occur.
Knowing when to be proactive and when to just wait is just as important of an edge as activity itself.
What is the Law of Reversed Effort?
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.”
“Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent unknown quantity may take hold.” – Aldous Huxley
His quote sounds a lot like what we now call being “in the zone” or achieving a “flow state.”
Being in the zone is the state athletes use to describe when they get into a rhythm in a game where their muscle memory and experience takes over and they put in a performance with little conscious effort.
Flow state was popularized by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The flow state is the feeling people get under the right conditions where they become fully immersed in what they are doing. This is different than conscious effort and straining to achieve results.
The Backwards Law states that increasing effort can decrease results in some pursuits. The more we pursue something can actually cause it to flee from us. Trying too hard can cause us to achieve the opposite of what we want to accomplish and lead to disappointment. In many things, the harder we try, the less likely we are to succeed in getting the results we want. The Backwards Law says that in these cases that when we stop trying so hard, we will achieve our goals.
Even if you know how to play golf, trying harder doesn’t help improve. Getting into a zone of muscle memory helps with your swings and results, staying calm and focused mentally matters more than physical effort. The same applies to playing tennis and shooting a basketball, games of finesse don’t improve through outward effort they improve with timing and calm execution of what you already know.
If you don’t know how to swim and are drowning then the more you struggle the more energy and oxygen you expend and will sink, if you calm down and flip on your back you can float with little effort.
In the financial markets increased activity doesn’t give a fundamental investor greater results, the longer they simply hold a good investment the more they are rewarded with capital gains.
Many day traders can make money in the first hour of the trading day but if they don’t walk away from their trading desk will end up giving back their profits through the rest of the day and maybe even losing money.
In many romantic relationships, the harder you try the more you turn someone off, most the time relaxed effort and playing hard to get works better than continuous effort.
You can’t make yourself fall asleep, they harder you try the more awake you become, all you can do is relax and let yourself fall asleep.
Is the Backwards Law true?
The Backwards Law is true for any activity, sport, or pursuit that requires skill, experience, and precision over just large amounts of effort and time. You must know what you’re doing and also do the right thing a the right time to reap the benefits of the backwards law. It doesn’t mean do nothing at all, it means to put in the right effort in your timing and then do nothing when nothing else is required. Stop doing the wrong things is the primary principle of the Backwards Law.
Who created the Backwards Law?
The Law of Reversed Effort was first coined by the author Aldous Huxley as he explained a lot of great work happens when we let go of the ego and let creativity flow through us unimpeded.
The Backwards Law was popularized by Alan Watts who studied Asian religion and philosophy is likely to have learned it from the Tao Te Ching, a popular 2000-year-old Chinese text which became the base of Taoism. He essentially explained the Backwards Law in the context of Buddhist thought that the more you try to cling to something, the more it will slip away from you. Forcing your will upon things, circumstances, and people can actually have a repelling effect.
“Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.
The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching