If your goal is to perform optimally, as an individual, team, or organization, cultivate the power of not forcing.
A friend asked my view on Wu Wei or Flow. “In work and life, should one apply the notion of Flow in full?” My response was, “Yes, aspire to apply Wu Wei in work and the rest of life, being effortlessly present and aware, focused and active.”
Wu Wei – Flow
“The Taoists speak of wu wei, “non-doing,” and the paradox of wei wu wei, “doing without doing” or “action without effort.” In more modern terms, it is Flow – the quality of being totally immersed in action so that there is a loss of the sense of self and time and a natural application of skills, knowledge and awareness unencumbered by self-consciousness, worry, judging and other distractions.”
Wu Wei is not about being passive and accomplishing nothing – floating down the river on a raft and going with the current. It is about working smart. It is about not forcing.
Action without Effort
Life is a stream of thoughts, feelings, sensations, conversations, actions, decisions, intentions, plans and all the rest of the things we do. It occurs in a complex social and physical environment that is constantly changing.
It is as if you were in a fast-moving river. If you go against the current and try to force things, you use a lot of energy and risk getting nowhere. If you go with the current, navigating as best you can to achieve a goal, you use the energy of the stream’s current to your advantage. There may be times when struggling against the current is necessary, but for the most part it is a poor choice.
The Master Butcher
There is the story of the master butcher who says the knife he has used for nineteen years needs no sharpening. He says it is because he goes at his work by spirit,
“Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So, I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.” His knife never touches bone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart … . Then I stand still and let the joy of the work sink in, … I wipe off the knife and put it away.” Chuang Tsu
Mastering Your Work
There are many stories like that. They point the way to optimal performance, to master your work and let go into it with confidence and mindful focused care. Then there is a joy in not only completing the job but in the process, in the work itself.
Managing people in projects and organizations is more complex than cutting up an Ox. Master managers work with communication and collaboration tools. They use them so skillfully that they cut through the conflicts, complexities and ambiguity to clarity and a way forward that optimally applies the team’s energy to achieve common goals.
The master manager works towards personal and team Flow.
In Flow, stress and its causes dissolve, time becomes irrelevant, doing happens effortlessly, perfectly in sync with the needs of the moment. The ego steps out of the way and lets intuition and knowledge do their things. Master managers let their mastery do the work.
Flow experiences are common in activities that fully engage the body and mind. Many people experience Flow while immersed in sports, writing, dancing, or doing whatever turns them on. Some experience it during threatening events that trigger fight, freeze, or flight responses.
The challenge is to make everything you do a Flow experience. Imagine being in Flow in a boring meeting (which becomes no longer boring), or during a crisis or conflict.
As I told my friend, aspire to be effortlessly present and aware, focused and active in everything you do, everywhere.
Presence and Aware Knowing
In Flow, in the Zone, you are entirely immersed in the activity at hand, while there is presence and knowing. The doing is unfolding. There is a felt sense of being fully engaged and aware of what is going on.
Note how it feels when undistractedly watching a good movie, identified with the characters and feeling their emotions as your own. Is there a heightened sense of awake awareness of the overall experience? You are not thinking about what is going on or critiquing the film. Your thoughts are not getting in the way of fully experiencing the movie. There is awareness.
When not in Flow your mind is in a monolog of judging, commenting on, and monitoring what you are doing. Distracting thoughts take you out of Flow. You think-about instead of experiencing.
It is like a football player thinking about just where and when he or she is going to kick the ball with what part of their foot, worrying about it, as opposed to letting his or her training and natural capacity kick the ball.
Distracted doing is far less efficient. Thinking about the action creates stress and takes the focus away from the doing. It gets in the way of optimal performance, the kind of performance that happens when you are in Flow.
Being in Flow is sailing as opposed to rowing. The sailor works the natural movement of wind and water, steering the boat and adjusting the sails as the wind shifts. The master sailor is in Flow. Distracted doing is more like rowing against the current, much more effort, less effect.
Transition to Doing without Doing
It takes training to go from distracted doing to “doing without doing.”
Learn the skills required to do your work. Become an expert user of your tools and fully know your process. Learn from each experience. Shoot for but do not expect perfection.
On a deeper level, cultivate the mindfulness and concentration required to avoid the distractions that take your focus away from your performance. Cultivate the trust in your capability to perform so you can let go of the reins and let yourself go into the flow.
Be self-aware enough to know when you are reacting rather than responding.
Learn to let things happen, confident in your abilities, as opposed to forcing them to happen.