A Short Guide to Effortless Learning

by ChristinaPilkington on December 14, 2011 · 27 comments

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I’ve recently finished reading Leo Babauta’s The Effortless Life (not an affiliate link). For those of you who haven’t heard of Leo, he writes on his blog Zen Habits about living a simple, mindful life and by creating positive habits by taking small steps one at a time.

The Effortless Life speaks about having a life that is fluid and mindful. It’s about making conscious choices to really live in the moment, appreciate the things you have and create a peaceful, natural way of living.

It’s getting away from a life of stress, the need to always be “productive” and to constantly be busy and moving. He argues that when you move towards a slower, mindful lifestyle, you’re actually more creative and living a richer life because you’re focused on doing only those things that bring you joy.

The more I read the book, the more I realized that his six guidelines align perfectly how I want to live and learn with my family. I’d like to break down Leo’s six guidelines of living the Effortless Life and show how they translate to learning effortlessly with your children, too.


Six Guidelines for Effortless Learning

 1. Cause no harm.   Children are damaged every day when their desires and needs for the way they learn best are disrespected and ignored. We harm our kids when we don’t allow their interests, passions and talents to be the core foundation of their learning

This doesn’t mean that what you believe is important for your children to learn should be ignored. But it does mean that if your child is angry, upset, frustrated or resistant to what you’re asking them to learn, you need to consider if the damage to your relationship is worth it.  

2. Have no fixed goals or plans.  Did you ever make a list and then fail to do what was on the list? How did it make you feel? Did you make a list the next day, tell yourself that no matter what, you’d complete all your to-do tasks THAT day, and then fail again? 

What if you made a completely different type of list?

Maybe this list was full of great suggestions for things you wanted to get done, but if something else more important or exciting came up, you knew that you could do that instead and it wouldn’t mean you had failed? What if you were open to the day and all the wonderful, exciting opportunities that came up without worrying checking things off a piece of paper or following a prescribed curriculum with your children?

3. Have no expectations.  Schools have something called “grade level expectations.” They expect that each child at the end of a numbered grade will acquire proficiency in certain skills. But they miss a key aspect of human nature.

We’re not all alike!

We all have different talents and skills. We’re never going to be at the same “level” as everyone else. Why would we want to be anyway? Wouldn’t that lead to a pretty boring world?

When you expect your child to do certain things, like read well by the end of age 6, do multiplication effortlessly by the age of 8 and take on Algebra when they’re 13, then you’re setting up expectations that may be beyond what your child is ready for or even needs at the moment. When you step away from your child and really see all they are learning and doing, that’s when you’ll get better at releasing your hold on the learning expectations you have for her.

4. Don’t create false needs.  This is similar to the above guideline. Does your child NEED to read by the age of 6? Does he NEED to memorize every state capital?  What do they need in their lives? Some things I can think of are: food, shelter, love, respect, intimacy with you and the family, a way to create and produce, having their questions answered, doing meaningful work, and discovering and fulfilling their unique purpose in life.

When you think your child needs to learn something, ask yourself the question:


Why do they need to learn it? Do they need to learn it now? Is there a way to learn something while keeping the needs of your child first?

5. Do nothing you hate.  But we all need to do things that we don’t want to do right? Isn’t that a part of life that’s impossible to get out of? There may be things in the moment that are not as exciting for me to do as other things, but whatever I do, I make sure that it’s helping me accomplish or do something that is important to me.  If it doesn’t lead to me accomplishing something that brings me joy and purpose, I avoid it at all costs.

I do the dishes, laundry and clean the house because I like to make a cozy, warm environment to live in.  I don’t always like it in the moment, although I’m learning how to slow down and even appreciate and be thankful for those things I used to dread before. If we truly hate something, there’s almost always a way to stop doing those things, or get someone else to do them for us.

But what about our kids? Aren’t some things important for them to learn whether they like it or not?

I believe that when you connect important skills – those skills that will truly be helpful to them in their daily adult lives no matter what they do as a career- to things kids already love doing, then they’ll have a natural, authentic reason for learning those things. When they find a reason to read for their own pleasure or knowledge, they will read. When they see how getting better with numbers will help them budget for something important, figure out the best deals,  or even play awesome new games, then they will learn math. 

Surround your kids with things they love, introduce them to new things they might grow to love, and be amazed at the wonderful amount of learning they do every day.

6. Don’t rush.  Schools rush everything.  They set schedules on a bell system. There’s no regard for completing something, for meditating, and taking time to dream, and plan and create. There’s a certain schedule and curriculum that must be met or else the school, teacher and students are seen as failures.

You don’t have to rush learning with your child.

 Learning takes place all day long. When we get agitated that our child isn’t reading fast enough, we squander the time we could spend playing, creating, and doing other things with them. Sometimes it will seem like your child is plunging ahead full steam with a new skill they’re learning, and then it seems like they stand still for a very, long time in the same spot.

Enjoy the time you have together.  They will be out on their own before you know it. Take time to live in each moment as much as possible. Embrace the fact they are learning all the time.

7. Create no unnecessary actions.  When we pack so many activities and projects into our lives it creates unnecessary actions. We don’t eat as well and gain weight. Then we need to exercise even more. We rush around and don’t take time to keep things straightened. Then we spend unnecessary time looking for things that are lost. We bring so many things into our homes, that it causes unnecessary time keeping them maintained and clean.

What unnecessary actions are we taking with our kids?

Requiring them to do things that are really just busy work? Packing so many things in our schedule that we get sick, stressed out and start fighting with each other?  Bringing so many great “learning resources” into our homes that we rush through each one in order to get through them all so we haven’t “wasted” our money?

Think about each thing you are doing. Is it bringing you joy?  Is it something that aligns with your unique purpose and calling in life? What things are your children doing? Are they doing things that bring out their uniqueness?  Are they only doing those things that really matter?


Photo Credit: docentjoyce

How can you bring about more effortless learning in your home?

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  • Valerie

    Thank you for this post. I am in a rut because of my allergies and needed a reminder of what is important and why I chose to homeschool/unschool

    • christinapilkington

      I totally hear you about the allergies. It can bring you crashing down. I just started an essential oil treatment of lemon, peppermint and lavendar and it’s been helping. But, you’re right, that interest-led learning is such a wonderful way to live. When you’re feeling out of it, you can go with what works for the day and not worry about getting “behind.”

  • Natalie

    I enjoyed this post. The part of having no fixed goals really appealed to me. I am a planner, which often makes me stressed at the time when my best laid plans fall through. I want to try to follow my child more in 2012 rather than rush her along. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      I love planning, too, so I understand where you’re coming from. Even though I’ll still plan things, I’m practicing letting go of expectations so I’m open to things not going the way I’ve imagined in my head. It’s really been helping me to appreciate what comes up in the moment.

  • http://worldschooladventures.com/ Amy

    One of the things I struggle with most is the expectations. The other day my boys had a friend over and she could read effortlessly. My mind started the downward spiral; Why can’t my oldest do that yet? Am I doing something wrong? Should I be doing more? But I took a big breath and reminded myself of all the amazing things my boys are learning and how they have the freedom to play and learn without school. Deep breath. Its all good.

    • Anonymous

      Letting go of expectations is a really hard thing to do. I fall into the habit of if even among my two kids – if she’s doing something he isn’t yet, I wonder if there’s something wrong. But I think homeschooling families might have an easier time than this in some ways because we are with our children a lot more and can see the learning that happens all the time.

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/joyfulalways Julie

    I really enjoyed this post, Chris. I have been purging a lot lately: old curriculum that I never used or will never use, toys that never get played with or are broken, home items that are never used, etc. I have told my family that, if it is too difficult to remember to clean it up or I am spending more time cleaning than I am on the things that I love, then we need to get rid of the stuff that clutters our homes. I feel the same about our lives. We need to get rid of the clutter that wastes so much time and effort. You know that I am a big fan of focusing on relationships over requirements.
    I like the pointers about plans, expectations, and slowing down. All of those things create stress, disappointment, and discouragement. I have been in the habit of making a list of things I’d like to do and then just
    waiting for the right day to do them or, having a list of options to choose from rather than specific tasks for a given day. If we expect nothing, we will never be disappointed. It is hard not to have some expectations, though. Sometimes kids can amaze us when the expectation is high because they rise to meet the expectation. It is almost as though they are riding the wave of our belief that they can do something that is a little challenging to them.
    However, I acknowledge that this is different than holding my child to the same lockstep expectations of a school.

    My son, B, has been showing me that I need to let go of some activities. Both of my boys, actually, like just being home with me. Although the girls like going places. I have always tried to be careful about time commitments, but sometimes I forget. This, of course, is related to what we “need” to do and what we really could do without. Life is too short to be spending our time doing things we don’t need to do, learning things we don’t need to learn (unless it is something we are interested in, but wait, then we feel like we need to know it), and dealing with clutter.

    This is kind of like the whole “simple living” movement. Simple pleasures with people we love.

    • Anonymous


      I’m so hear you about needing to get rid of the clutter in your life. I’m going through a similar purging with the physical stuff around the house right now. I’m tired of the huge work of straightening things and want to spend more time doing the things I love. The fewer things I have around me, the more free I feel.

      I like your plan of having an options list. I’ve been doing something like that, too. I’ve found that when I get all my ideas for things to do, either for myself or things to do with the kids, than it brings immediate relief. I don’t feel like I have to do everything, but I like seeing a lot of options available to me. This way instead of having a planned schedule and feeling locked into it and guilty if you didn’t follow through on your plans, you can choose what to do in the moment based on what’s truly important for that moment, how you are feeling at the time, and what you are most excited about doing.

      In our family, we tend to like to go out and do new and different things outside the house a little more than I see most families do, but that’s what’s so great about interest-led learning – each family gets to do the things they love to do, and are most comfortable doing, the most. Even though we like to have periods where we have weeks packed full of out-of-the-house fun, we often break it up with entire weeks where we stay at home and don’t go anywhere at all. It’s all about finding your family’s perfect rhythm.

      I really, really like your comment on thinking that whenever we have an interest, it automatically means it’s something we need to know. I can especially see how unschooling parents can fall into this trap with their children. If every time our kids show a slight interest in something, we go all out and shove a million resources and activities their way, it kind of takes ownership for that interest away from them. I can see kids not wanting to share as many interests with their parents for fear of it being made into something bigger than they wanted it to be.

  • http://www.littlehomeschoolontheprairie.com/ Jenn

    Ha! Back again to this same post:) This time I am printing it out- beautiful wisdom that I want to be able to keep handy.

  • Rocknrolla28

    This is just what I wanted to hear right now. I have filled my days & that of my children with getting stuff done, worrying & stress, all while in the back of my head i keep hearing exactly what i just read. Thank you so much.

    • Anonymous

      You’re welcome! It’s a really easy thing to do to just let our days be packed full of things to do, even things that are really good to do, that we forget that less is really more with kids. It’s something I have to keep coming back to time and time again, too.

  • http://momto3feistykids.blogspot.com Steph

    This is a thought-provoking post and a good reminder to let go of everything that is unnecessary and put the heart of our relationships with our kids first.

    • Anonymous


  • http://twitter.com/mustntgrumble Louise

    Fantastic list… we do some of these things already but it’s great to have some explanations to refer to!


    • Anonymous

      You’re welcome :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/kacagle Karen Terry Cagle

    What a marvelous list! I love them all. I am going to print this out and read it often. Anytime I see a list of numbers on your blog it makes me happy because I know I am going to learn something or get some great ideas!

    • Anonymous

      I think you’re going to make me blush :) Thanks so much for reading here. I love that when I get inspired by something, I have a way to share it with others.

  • http://www.littlehomeschoolontheprairie.com/ Jenn

    This is great! Thanks for sharing:)

    • Anonymous

      You’re welcome!

  • Lori

    Hi Christina,
    Thanks for directing me here from A-list – simply brilliant – I joined your fb community and will also be passing along your wisdom to others. Thank you!

    • Anonymous


      Thanks so much for stopping by and spreading the word for me. A-List is an awesome place to be! Such awesome people there.

  • http://www.teachablemoments-jessica.blogspot.com Jessica

    Thank you for this insight and wisdom. I am sending this to my friend right now.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks so much, Jessica, for passing this along. I really appreciate it :) His principles fit in so well with how I feel about learning that I wanted to pass it along to you all.

  • http://thegettys.blogspot.com Susan

    I love, love, love this!! Thank you!
    I seriously think I might print this out and post it somewhere so I can re-read it when I need some extra support :)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I might do that too when I need a reminder, too :)

      • http://thegettys.blogspot.com Susan

        I did print it out, and gave it to my husband to read. He said “we’re doing most of this already!” :) I put in on my fridge to read again another time.

        • Anonymous

          Great! That’s awesome your husband read it, too :) I think most of the interest-led learning families I’ve met have figured out, like you guys have, that all these principles are pretty much required for it to work the way it should.

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