Effort is a more complex issue than its dictionary definition would have us believe. To say nothing of diminishing return phenomenons, there are many different kinds of effort, some of which can do more harm than good.
Any description of the word “effort” contains many other words like “vigorous“, “strenuous“, and “exertion“. And this is what we tend to think of when we need to accomplish something. A secondary definition of effort is “the result of an attempt”. When this is paired with all of those determined adjectives, the result is a lot of stress. We think that in order to have any kind of results, we have to exert a tremendous amount of effort.
When I am preparing for a recital or hiking a mountain, it is easy to get into a pattern of trying too hard. When practicing flute, I neurotically repeat technical passages until I induce tendinitis. When I am backpacking up a large hill, I end up pumping my arms furiously and stomping in an effort to make it easier.
Some effort does appear in this form: vigorous determination. However, I have to remind myself that there is another kind of effort which can be equally effective but without the stress.
I’ll call it Zen Effort.
It is possible to achieve results though a process of clearing away and allowing musicality to enter into a situation. Rather than forcing an occurrence of something specific, we can open up to possibilities.
This all sounds very new age. But from a more practical standpoint, it just requires allowing time for things to come together. Advanced planning is critical as a means of allowing this kind of non-effort to occur. It requires a kind of ritualized daily preparation that removes the panic and stress from practicing.
It also requires a knowledge of personal limits. If I am backpacking, I know not to plan 30 miles in a day because I will be stressed out about making camp before dark. If I am planning a recital, I know not to program Chant de Linos (a very difficult flute piece) with 3 weeks of preparation time.
Lastly, it requires a non-judgmental, mindful head space. It requires that I am not too critical in the early stages of preparation because that criticism can hinder the artistic process.
If I ever find myself getting stressed out or frustrated, I have to remind myself to shift the effort compass back toward the Zen side.