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The Backwards Law and The Law of Reversed Effort

The Backwards Law and the Law of Reversed Effort.

Dr Jeff Stoker

They say that the more you struggle in quicksand the quicker you will sink, and the less you struggle the better your chances are to get yourself out safely. Your density is half that of the quicksand the physics says you should float, the difference how much you struggle, the more you move, the more you panic, the more you wave your arms and legs around the more likely you are to sink. The trick I’ve been told is to slowly start edging your way towards solid-ground, and this quicksand analogy is an excellent example of the fact that sometimes making progress in certain things is really dependent on you doing less, this is something called The Backwards Law.

The philosopher Alan Watts, wrote in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity about The Backwards Law;

‘When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float’.

The backwards law is all about doing the opposite thing to what you think you need to, sometimes it’s not what you do it’s just the effort you are putting in that’s the key, this is called The Law of Reversed Effort, and it’s when you notice in life that the harder you try to do something the less likely you are to succeed.

Trying too hard is sometimes self-defeating, often things just take time to happen, sometimes growth often only happens organically, and things take time to heal. In life, it may be that the compounding effect of all your efforts, also needs the time to compound for you to get the results you really want.

Sometimes faith, a little gentle persistence, and time is perhaps the only thing you need to do and trying too hard creates tension, pain, undue stress, getting back to Alan Watt’s again he is also quoted to have said on this subject that; ‘Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone’. Here he’s referring to an old Zen proverb about stamping your feet up and down in a puddle and how this will only mean that it will take longer for the water to clear and for you to see your reflection.

Call it the backwards law or the Law of Reversed Effort, there are some things that just need time to work themselves out, often clarity only comes when things settle down, or maybe we just need to develop a quieter state of mind to allow us to see the way out and through the brain fog that occurs in a busy mind.

‘When your mind is still the universe surrenders’ – Lau Tzu.

I often say to people that the only thing we haven’t done is to give it time to heal, and often it’s ironic but the blank stare that they give me in return is what they really need to help their anxiety too.

Some things in life only sort themselves out only when we don’t push too hard, this is the embodiment of The Law of Reversed Effort. Yet some people have a mind so full of chatter, stress, worries, problems and anxiety that they just can’t see the way out of their problems.

‘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’.

Aldous Huxley

So it seems strange that in a course where I am discussing the concept of doing, of consistency, of compounding, and that of emergence I am also talking about ‘not doing’. The take-home message is that sometimes trying too hard can be counter-productive and these are the times when we need to apply The Backwards law or the Law of Reversed Effort to that situation.

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About the author

Dr Jeff Stoker

Clinician, writer, educator, speaker, and problem expert. Helping people to think better, to solve problems, and get their lives unstuck.

Winner of the Coaching and NLP in Healthcare Award at the 2018 ANLP International Conference.

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