Law of Equal Effort: Do Big Things Without Burning Out

The problem: Our biggest goals are hardest to achieve because we burn out early. We burn out because we work hard and slack off at exactly the wrong times.

The solution: Do the opposite of what feels normal. Work hard when it’s easy and scale back when it’s hard.

I run marathons, but I’m hardly a leading expert on running. I’ve never followed a formal training schedule, hired a coach, or joined a running club. And I’m not fast—my PR is just under four hours—but I’ve always finished.

Training matters, but what gets me through a race as difficult as a marathon is an approach I take in my life that just happens to help my running, too.

I call it the Law of Equal Effort, and it’s pretty simple: Regardless what life throws at you, put in the same effort.

Following this theory, the progress you make over time can vary significantly but, in the end, you get to the same place and you feel a lot better when you’re done.

Most importantly, you actually make it to the end.

The Law of Equal Effort will help you when you’re taking on a big challenge and you don’t feel confident. You don’t always get to decide when things will be easy or hard, but you get to decide how to deal with the ups and downs when they come.

Here’s how you can put the Law of Equal Effort to work in your day-to-day life, as well as a few situations when you should take a different approach. We’ll apply it to three examples: running a marathon (naturally), building a business, and maintaining a relationship.

Define Your “Forever Pace”

Every long-distance runner is familiar with the idea of pacing. When you’re trying to go a certain distance, it’s the speed that—if you successfully maintain it—will get you to the finish line on time.

Steady Pacing

If you go too fast, you risk burning out. Any marathoner who’s ever “hit the wall” knows the misery that comes from running over pace.

I know my “forever pace” is around 9:45/mile. That’s the speed where it feels like—no matter what comes my way—I can keep running… forever.

Pacing applies to every area of your life, and knowing your forever pace will help you make smart decisions about how to take on big challenges.

Pacing When You’re Starting a Business

Say you want to start a business. First, you’d ask yourself if it’s your passion project you want to run forever or if you’re starting something to sell after a few years. Each of these scenarios needs a pace, but it will be different depending on the goal.

If you want to run your business forever, you pick a pace you can stick with forever. That doesn’t mean you will stick with it forever. But, if you don’t set a reasonable pace from the beginning, you’ll burn out and give up early.

On the other hand, if you’re building something you want to sell in two years, you’d ask yourself, “What needs to get done in the next two years?” and “What pace can I maintain that will get me there?”

You may need to push yourself pretty hard to make the goal, but you’ll at least know what that pace is so don’t go too fast (and hit the wall) or too slow (and miss the target).

Pacing for Relationships

What if you’re an introvert and you’re building a relationship with a new friend or partner? You don’t normally build relationships with an end in mind, so being aware of your forever pace is important.

Sprint in the beginning and you might get tired of them. Or you might burn them out and cause them to push you away.

If you go too slow, you might get frustrated things aren’t progressing or make the other person think you’re aloof.

Whatever you’re working on—a marathon, a business, a relationship, or anything else that takes time—knowing the pace you can maintain will help you make the best choices to get what you want in the time you want it.

Law of Equal Effort: When to Deviate From Your Pace

When you know your forever pace, you know what effort you have to put in to meet your goals. For example, if I want to beat my marathon PR, I know I have to keep a pace of at least 8:44 throughout the race.

The problem with pacing, though, is it’s one-dimensional while life has many dimensions that complicate things. This is where the Law of Equal Effort really shines.

In a marathon, there are physical complications—steep uphills that slow you down, long downhills that make it easy to coast, and joints that start hurting at random intervals.

Psychological complications, too. The people around you influence your actions. In the beginning, you’re surrounded by energetic people who make you want to sprint even though you have 26 miles left. By the end, you’re sore and surrounded by exhausted people. You want to slow down even though there’s only a tiny distance left.

A novice runner will ignore their pacing when it’s most important and try to stick to it when it’s least important.

They’ll get caught up in the excitement and run too fast at the starting line not realizing they just used up everything they need at the end. Or They’ll feel their pace slowing on a difficult hill and push themselves to speed up.

Both scenarios—especially combined—lead to burnout and poor performance.

Newbie Pacing

A better approach is to maintain an equal effort throughout the race regardless what happens along the route.

When it’s early on and everyone’s sprinting, hold yourself back and conserve energy. Near the end, deploy that energy while the people around you are slowing down.

Most important, don’t try to maintain the pace at any cost. Instead, aim for an average speed.

If there’s a big hill, slow down and take it easy on the way up. It’ll take you “off pace,” but hills don’t just go up. They go down, too. So,  push yourself on the downhills—when it’s easy—to make up time.

Law of Equal Effort

Marathons are a metaphor. You can take the same approach in all areas of life. You don’t always control when thing will be easy or hard, but you do control how you react to either scenario.

Law of Equal Effort for Business

When you start a business, you’re signing up for a roller-coaster ride. One day, everything’s going your way. The next, “OhmygodthisissohardIjustwanttoquit!”

If you’re motivated to succeed, it’s normal to want to dig in your heels when things get hard. You work longer hours and push your willpower to the brink.

But what happens next?

  1. You burn out when the hard times keep coming and you’re out of gas, or
  2. You make it through, but have to slow down while things get easy again (the best time to make big gains).

You end up in a cycle where you’re working too hard when you should be slowing down and slacking off when you should be pushing harder.  It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t get you any closer to creating your vision.

What if you do the opposite?

What if, when times get hard (the uphills), you just keep plugging along with the same effort. You won’t make as much headway. But you’ll be strong and ready to make massive progress at exactly the moment things become easy again (the downhills).

Law of Equal Effort for Relationships

What about building a relationship? Watch any movie with a hint of romance, and it’s easy to be convinced that, when something strains the relationship, it’s time to step up and use all your energy to get things back on track.

But anyone who’s had a long, happy relationship in real life knows that isn’t how it works.

Wearing yourself out to fix a relationship snuffs out the flame. It makes it hard to enjoy the good times when they return. And that leads to the next crisis—a neverending cycle.

Instead of emptying yourself when things are hard, slow down. Take a calm, measured approach—one that doesn’t make things worse, but doesn’t try to fix them immediately, either.

When you get a signal that moods have softened, take it for all it’s worth!

It’s hard to make progress in a relationship when times are hard. Trust is low, feelings are hurt, you go into protection mode. The more you push here, the worse it gets.

But if you carefully nurture things back to a good place, you can make tremendous progress during the happy times. You have the energy to pour into the relationship exactly when you can get the most from it.

And that progress prevents the next crash. The hard times get further and further apart.

When the Law of Equal Effort Doesn’t Work

The Law of Equal Effort has served me well, but it’s important to note there are times it shouldn’t be used.

  • Existential risk: When you’re on the brink of collapse, it doesn’t work. This could be a major crisis at work or your husband/wife/business partner is heading out the door right now. When you’re in that spot, suck it up and fight. Deal with the consequences of the burnout later.
  • Severe burnout: If you’ve given it your best effort and you’re still exhausted and ready to give up before the end, it’s time to take a break. No, you won’t stay on pace, but you may at least finish. Trying to fight through an all-encompassing burnout doesn’t usually work.
  • The end is in sight: Equal effort goes out the window once the end is in sight. When you can see the finish line, you don’t need to leave anything in the tank for later. Turn it up and let your adrenaline carry you to the end. You’ll collapse in exhaustion at the end, but who cares?

Final Thoughts on the Law of Equal Effort

If you’re a highly motivated person, the Law of Equal Effort feels unnatural and even wrong at first. But if you stick with it a while, you’ll see it works beautifully for so many areas of life.

It works because you’re still putting in the same effort, but you’re better aligning that effort with life’s uncontrollable circumstances so you’re not struggling unnecessarily and screwing up the future.

When you apply it right, you stay happy and motivated throughout the process. When you stay happy and motivated, you have a better chance of achieving your goals.