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Right Effort: How much effort is enough to achieve the success we want?

Right Effort: How much effort is enough to achieve the success we want?

I think a lot about the idea of Right Effort when it comes to our work. Too much effort and we can burn out. Too little and we can sell out on our life purpose and get depressed. Even doing your life’s work can lead to burnout if we overwork. I’ve done the “too little” and the “too much.”

So then what is Right Effort and how do we get there? I like to look for a feeling of *swimming* downstream. Not the same as floating downstream which is like taking a break (also good to do sometimes). I’ll explain.

Look for the Swimming Downstream Feeling.

Swimming downstream is moving forward on what matters, with a sense of purpose and action-taking, and with the added energy from using natural strengths that draw you forward, feeling the natural water current is with you.

When the current is with you, you might finally start that business, launch a new program, write that book, or explore a calling. Doing these hard things can feel fun like this, even amidst the challenge of it.

Even choosing to set out on swimming downstream brings a sense of joy. Partly because of the challenge.

Ever notice that life’s high points are also some of the more challenging experiences? Try listing your high points and you’ll see what I mean about enjoyable challenges. You might mine those experiences for when the most joy happened and that’s probably when there was some downstream current with you.

dolphins riding the waves - swimming downstream
Dolphins riding the waves, in the joy of swimming with the current.

With swimming downstream, there is still definite effort. Swimming is no small thing even when the current is with you. There’s a lot involved with swimming — getting dressed to swim, warming up the muscles, facing fears, commitment, discipline, perseverance.

But when it’s right effort, you can also sense deep in your heart that effort will be worth it, even to try.

Doing something just for the challenge is not what I mean. That’s often too much effort. Choose what has a natural sense of drawing you forward and that’s the right effort that’s worth it.

And of course we still have to pace ourselves and find that elusive midpoint between too much and too little. Marathon runners and other high level athletes have mastered this. They have rest times and push times and you can find all kinds of systems for marathon peak performance. We could learn from them.

The key is to keep your eye on the feeling of peak performance, which feels like swimming downstream. Push forward when bored or stagnant, and pull back when feeling tired or foggy. When you find your sweet spot, notice how you got there and start your own peak performance system: rest times, go times.

It’s a marathon to achieve your goals, so maybe we need to treat our goals like marathon runners do.

A Visual for the Peak Performance Zone

This bell curve, below, is my sketch based on peak performance studies. It shows where stress and performance are known to meet at their happy middle.

Too little effort leads to boredom and inaction. Sometimes we get stuck here due to overthinking or avoidance.

Too much pressure leads to low performance too, and worse than that, it comes with the delusion of being productive. Sneaky! I get so caught in this story: “I need a break but I’ll just do this one more thing to catch up, so then I can rest. And this one more thing…” Nope. That’s delusion talkin’. 🥹

The happy middle is where right effort and the most enjoyment lives. (Work should be fun, and moving toward that middle is how to get there.) 😎

Image of a bell curve showing the optimal high performing zone in the middle, with low performance areas: on the left - bored and inactive, and on the right - too stressed and potentially burning out.

By the way, it’s normal to be all over this chart in one day, except hopefully not all the way to burnout.

We don’t stay in an optimal zone all the time but with conscious practice we can live there more of the time. We can continue to course-correct as we feel ourselves slipping into too little and too much. Our bodies know, if we pause to listen. Simple, but not easy.

Watch out for Inner Resistance and too little effort.

Sometimes it’s not that we are overdoing, but we actually start avoiding doing the thing we feel called to do, so we stay in the comfort zone, or distract ourselves with mundane things. You might feel busy but it’s actually in the “too little” effort zone.

Moving forward on a calling could get you to that optimal zone, BUT it is very challenging mainly because all that inner resistance gets even louder! Ugh. Not to mention external judges (real or not) that encourage the inner judges.

Resistance is so sneaky and it can sound so reasonable! It sounds like “it’s too hard”, “it’s impossible”, “that’s for other people.” Oh no, I hear myself in all of those.

I’ll say this quietly so Resistance doesn’t hear: Those are false voices. Their only fuel is when I listen to it. It weakens when I get in the water anyway and just start swimming. #notetoself

I’m reading The War of Art, a classic on winning the battle with our sneaky inner resistance. Recommended. (Maybe it will help me with getting some exercise today, a classic area of resistance for me.)

Breaking through resistance and putting real time into your creative efforts that matter is how to move towards your optimal zone. It doesn’t have to feel too hard when you are doing what is aligned with you. Downstream swimming.

What Helps for Returning to Your Peak Zone

I captured the essence of a list created in my group for SOULpreneurs when we talked about this. Here’s what we turn to that helps us. Maybe one or two will remind you of what helps you:
1. human scaled life
2. build in time for rest and play
3. breathing, breaks, get outside, meditation (grounding methods)
4. conscious scheduling
5. play and physical activity midday
6. block off spacious time
7. writing to clarify thoughts.
8. keeping priorities front and center
9. conscious management of the “never enough” inner critic, by consciously naming accomplishments/ progress.
10. self-compassion
11. camaraderie
12. tuning in to your sense of purpose
13. afternoon breaks
14. shrink it down: such as smaller steps, or share it with a smaller audience
15. saying no to what doesn’t truly matter (as described in the book, Essentialism)

Right Effort takes time to cultivate.

In Buddhism, Right Effort, sometimes called Wise Effort, is part of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s roughly about finding the middle ground between trying to force something to happen and not using enough discipline. It takes a lot of practice, with right effort of course.

I find that the gesture of opening my palms toward the sky helps me to let go of the grip of too much effort, and open up to wisdom and compassion. The body posture can lead the way.

Bottom Line

Bring some compassion as you try to find your own Right Effort sweet spot, because it’s an ongoing practice.

There is no perfect success nor perfect timeline to reach it, nor perfect amount of effort. You might be doing better than you think.

Picture of Val Nelson

Val Nelson

I’ve been a self-employed career/business/purpose coach since 2009. I help introverts and HSPs (like me) who want to make a difference — in a way that fits our practical needs too.
Val Nelson | Coaching | Groups | Courses | Newsletter | LinkedIn

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