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The Law of Least Effort
This past year I began working with the University of Arkansas men’s track and field team. Chris Bucknam is the head coach of the team and one of the best coaches in the country. He has a witty sense of humor and an infectious laugh. However, he does not suffer fools and clearly speaks his mind.
I think he initially had some doubts about some of my ideas, especially the Law of Least Effort. This law basically states that you can get a high level of production without exerting a high level of effort. One thing I had noticed working with both runners and swimmers is that they go the fastest when they don’t exert a maximum effort. We talked a lot about the idea of helping athletes find the optimal level of effort in order to perform their best. After discussing this idea, I returned to campus several months later to work with the team. During that visit, Chris shared with me that 87 seems to be the magic number. He said that when he tells an athlete to exert 87 percent of his effort, he finds that tends to lead to the best performance.
A true “100 percent performance” is not just a complete physical effort. In order for us to maximize our abilities, we must also be in an optimal mental state.
What is remarkable about this condition is that the individual does not have an experience of trying hard or fully exerting themselves. In fact, the person may have the sensation of effortlessness while performing at this high level.
Many times, effort is about resistance. I believe we are truly at our best when we accept what is and work with it versus trying to change or stop it. Exerting force against something is quite different than working with it.
Think of paddling a canoe in a river. You can go with the current or against it. The greatest of us figure out how to go with the current, while the rest fight the current and then brag about their 110 percent effort.
When we talk about someone’s being in the “zone” or “flow”— that is, in the mental state associated with the highest level of performance—we are talking about someone who is not resisting the forces around him or her but instead working in concert with them.
The Problem with Perfect
Many of my clients struggle because they are attempting to do a task perfectly. They believe that “perfect” is the only route to success when in fact, attempting to be perfect is a guarantee that you will not perform to your ability.
When I work with people who are struggling and performing at a level that is lower than their normal ability, I usually advise them to lower their effort when doing the task. I also suggest that they intentionally make a mistake. When they stop trying to be perfect, the conscious mind relaxes and allows the natural ability to surface, and an increase in performance is usually the response.
For most people, realizing that less is more comes as a big surprise. They just can’t believe it to be true because it is so contrary to what most of us have been taught our entire lives. Instead of focusing on percentages—which are subjective and largely a result of rhetoric and drama—just focus on doing your best.
At the end of each day, ask yourself this question: “Was that the best I could do?”
If you are honest, you will discover that you can rarely answer yes to that question. You’ll also realize that the best you can do on Monday may be very different from the best you can do on Tuesday. After all, we are humans—not machines. And with this awareness, you will witness significant differences in your effort level and performance over time.
There will be days when the best you can do is get out of bed and get dressed. There will also be days when you could not make a mistake if you tried. Your stars are aligned, and everything is coming to you with minimal effort. Long-term success is learning how to acknowledge those differences and not struggle too much on a bad day.
A bad day is only a day, not a life.
About the Author: Stan Beecham is the author of ELITE MINDS: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success, a sport psychologist, and director and founding member of the Leadership Resource Center in Atlanta, Georgia.