The 2-Word Concept That Makes Everything You Do Feel Effortless

written by

seagull from the back flying in the sky

A few months ago, a 15-minute run changed my life forever. For the first time in my life, I experienced the true power of Wu Wei. I know, I know, it sounds stupid.

But let me explain.

I used to have a toxic relationship with running. On every run, I’d tell myself, “You have to run for at least 30 minutes, at least 5 miles, or at the very least until you’re completely exhausted. Otherwise, you’re not a real runner.”

And so, running became a struggle.

But this one magical morning, that changed. It was shortly after 7 am, the sun just climbed the horizon, and I felt a surge of energy. Yet, instead of bolting out of the door, I selected a smooth pace. Deep, comfortable breaths.

And after 15 minutes, I simply stopped.

Of course, my ego didn’t like that. “What the hell are you doing?! You still have energy left in the tank!” But I realized that was exactly the point. I finally stopped relating running to an eternal battle. Now it felt as if I could do this over and over again.

It felt effortless.

Ever since the core idea behind this has deeply enhanced my entire life. It’s the Daoist philosophy of Wu Wei. Here’s everything I’ve learned after researching and practicing it for the past six months.

The Philosophy of Wu Wei

Wu Wei (Woo-Way) is Chinese for non-doing or non-action. But this literal translation conveys a false sense of laziness. Wu Wei is not about doing nothing. Rather, it’s about doing things more effortlessly.

Now, what does that mean? It means letting things happen the way they happen, not how you want them to happen. It means to let go of certain expectations, certain outcomes. To stop acting against the natural current of life.

Think about it — too often we’re told the more effort we put in, the more we get out of something. But every day, we experience that this is simply not true.

For instance, when you want to fall asleep quickly, you’ll only stir up restlessness. The harder you try, the more you roll around in bed. Or maybe you’ve noticed that fighting your anxiety actually increases anxiety. You’ll get anxious about being anxious.

Embracing Wu Wei is to be in harmony with nature. When you stop trying to fall asleep, you finally drift away. Likewise, when you can acknowledge and sit with your anxiety, it loses its grip on you.

The feeling of Wu Wei is almost as if you’re tipsy. You still have complete control over yourself and all of your senses. But you’re less tense, less insecure, and less serious.

It has a light, effortless quality.

A huge misconception

One thing that many people get wrong when hearing about this concept is that it means total surrender. Yes, Wu Wei implies giving up on forcing things. But never giving up altogether.

For instance, when you’re experiencing injustices, Wu Wei doesn’t suggest resignation. It’s quite the opposite. Wu Wei suggests a persistent amount of pressure. This pressure isn’t a metaphorical jackhammer or wrecking ball. It’s a soft strike in the right spot. It’s like water quietly working through the toughest cliffs and rocks.

Bruce Lee said it best:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves… Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Let’s look at another case study that illustrates this art.

The Art of Not Trying

Charles Bukowski, one of the greatest writers of all time, struggled most of his life to make something out of himself. He wrote hundreds of short stories without any merit, bounced around hellish jobs, and lost himself in alcohol and prostitution.

It took him 30 years of relentlessly writing thousands of pieces, living from hand to mouth, and even going through a near-death experience to finally make it as a writer.

Bukowski’s story seems like the embodiment of the American dream: work hard, never give up, fake it ‘till you make it. But the truth was far from it. Here’s how Bukowski put it in a letter:

“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more.”

This is Wu Wei in a nutshell.

Bukowski was incredibly prolific, sure. But he never wrote to become rich, famous, or respected. To him, writing was effortless because he felt a burning desire to craft stories and poems. And not even substance abuse, grueling jobs, or death could hold him back.

Despite all his misery, Bukowski acted in harmony with his inner nature. In fact, the worst thing he could’ve done would’ve been to deny his urge to create and sink into a hole of meaninglessness.

So, there are many expressions for Wu Wei. Choose the two words that appeal most to you:

  • Be Water
  • Don’t Try
  • Act Effortlessly

Let’s see how we can put those into action.

3 Simple Ways to Apply Wu Wei

Integrating Wu Wei into your life should feel — like the concept itself — effortless. Ironically though, we tend to struggle with that because we’re tangled in webs of hustle, consumption, and brute force. We’re stuck on the Western treadmill of meritocracy.

Wu Wei, on the other hand, is a gentle approach from Daoism — an Eastern philosophy. It’s not some hack or tool to get what you want in life. It’s more like a feeling. A lifestyle.

That’s why the practice of Wu Wei cannot be learned through an easy 10-step guide to greater wealth and happiness. But there are a few small things you can do.

1. Ask yourself this question

What would this look like if it were easy? This simple prompt from Tim Ferriss reminds us that there’s often simplicity and effortlessness in rough situations. It encourages you to find your Why and identify potential bottlenecks, needless perfectionism, and simpler alternatives.

It’s one question with dozens of implications. Remember it whenever you feel stuck or overwhelmed.

2. Visualize an effort scale

This scale goes from one to ten, whereas one is minimum effort and ten maximum effort. Keep that in mind whenever you’re doing something difficult — running, working, playing an instrument.

Now, the trick is to start as low as possible on the effort scale. Maybe at one or two. And only when your task feels ridiculously easy, shift up a gear. Then, another. And another. But as soon as you struggle, go back to a lower number or quit altogether.

That’s how you enter a state of flow and make hard things easy.

3. Be a scientist

Why does life feel so hard? Why do we force things? Why do we burn out?

These questions share the same root cause: We desperately want things to be different than they are right now. And if we cling to this mindset we’ll never be truly content. We’ll always find a flaw, something to optimize, something to force into our cramped world view.

One of the greatest antidotes to this is to live like a scientist. When everything you do is an experiment you can detach yourself from preconceived outcomes. There’s simply the experience and you, the observer. And then something beautiful happens: You adjust yourself to the experiment as it evolves.

You can still make changes, of course. But you finally let go of the belief that every experiment must go exactly as planned. That’s the essence of Wu Wei.

A Reminder for a Simpler Life

Whenever I go running these days, often early in the morning, my friends and family are all surprised. “Wow, you’re so eager!” they say. “Where do you find all this motivation?” they ask. “Wouldn’t you rather stay in bed a bit longer?”

But honestly, running doesn’t feel like a struggle anymore. It’s become something I look forward to because it’s one of the most effortless parts of my day. I simply slip into my shoes, jog for a few minutes, and return home.

That’s it.

It’s funny when you think about it. We’re masters at making life harder than it is. But we forget that we also have the power to do the opposite.

Wu Wei is the reminder we all need to make life a little bit simpler. To try without trying. To be like water. To act effortlessly.