One of the most useful skills we can learn in life is how to put just the right amount of effort into whatever we are doing. We often have a tendency to either over-exert ourselves, or else complete our tasks half-heartedly and absentmindedly. We think we save energy by not giving ourselves fully to something, and that we will achieve extra by trying really hard. Unfortunately, neither of these is true – it probably takes more energy to not pay attention to what you’re doing, because your mind is in two places at once. It’s also inefficient, and we often need to go back and fix up our mistakes when we’ve tried to get by on automatic pilot.
Using too much effort to achieve something can be more insidious, as we may not even notice we’re doing it. Take, for example, a simple action such as picking up a cup. We can do it carelessly, and drop it or spill it. Or we can grab at it and hold it with a tight grip, although it’s not very heavy. We can type using a lot of effort with our fingers, or hold the phone with more force than is needed, perhaps with a great deal of tension in our shoulders as well. There are many daily actions where we might notice ourselves doing this, once we start to pay attention. Years ago I became aware of tightening my stomach muscles while I was driving, as if my body were propelling the car forward rather than just my foot on the accelerator.
Another problem with using too much effort is that we tend to look terribly busy and important while we rush around expending our energy all over the place. The adrenaline kicks in, and we can feel quite elated and enthusiastic. We might get positive feedback from colleagues or managers, and if someone asks us how we are, we can say quite truthfully (with a little sigh),
When we are having a challenging conversation with someone, we can also easily fall into the trap of either becoming overly aggressive (raising our voice perhaps, or trying to hammer home our point by repeating ourselves and bombarding the other person), or else becoming avoidant (not speaking clearly, mumbling something vague and avoiding eye contact before wandering off).
Daniel Siegel, who has written extensively on the physiology of mindfulness, has a nice phrase to describe how mindfulness can assist us to regulate our arousal levels by ‘balancing the break and accelerator function’. There are times in our lives when we need to give every ounce of energy we have, and other times when we can relax a bit and let ourselves be mindlessly entertained. We can save ourselves from wasting our precious energy, and from drifting through life on automatic pilot, if we become more aware in each moment of the amount of energy we’re using, and regulating ourselves to whatever is appropriate under the circumstances.
Weekly practice idea:
Take a moment to stop from time to time, and ask yourself – am I using too much energy here, too little, or just the right amount? Simple actions, such as chopping up vegies or making the bed, can be illuminating – how often do we end up performing these tasks with either little awareness or else far too much effort?