In this episode we’re continuing our recurring “Productive Reading” series, this time talking about my key takeaways from Effortless, by Greg McKeown.
Making life’s most meaningful tasks enjoyable and effortless
We are continuing our Productive Reading recurring series, which I started two or three years ago. In the past, we’ve talked about the lessons and key takeaways I found in books such as Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing (episode 133), The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg (episode 147), 3 books written by Brené Brown (episode 166), Soulful Simplicity, by Courtney Carver (episode 182), The Free-Time Formula by Jeff Sanders (episode 211), James Clear’s wonderful Atomic Habits (episode 230), Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt (episode 250), Attention Management, by Maura Nevel Thomas (episode 271), and most recently, The Minimalist Home, by Joshua Becker (episode 324). This time I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from a new book by Greg McKeown, who’s the author of one of my favorite productivity books, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His new book is called Effortless, and I’ve been looking forward to talking with you about it. [Note: Unless otherwise identified below, all quotes in this post are from Effortless.
Who is Greg McKeown?
From the back cover copy:
“Greg McKeown is a speaker, a bestselling author, and the host of the popular podcast What’s Essential. He has been covered by The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Politico, and Inc., and has been interviewed on NPR, NBC, Fox, and The Steve Harvey Show. He is also among the most popular bloggers for LinkedIn and is a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum. McKeown’s New York Times bestselling book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Originally from London, England, he now lives in California with his wife, Anna, and their four children.”
Why did I read this book?
Essentialism is one of my top three most influential books on productivity and one I return to periodically for inspiration, motivation, etc. When I learned Greg had released a new book, I ordered it immediately and read it as soon as it arrived, pencil in hand, taking notes and marking key passages.
On the front flap, it says,
“Getting ahead doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. There is a better way: Instead of pushing yourself harder, you can find an easier path. Effortless offers actionable advice for making the most essential activities the easiest ones, so you can achieve the results you want, without burning out.”
The cover copy goes on to say: “Effortless teaches you how to:
- Turn tedious tasks into enjoyable rituals.
- Set a sustainable pace.
- Simplify your processes; remove unnecessary steps.
- Make one-time choices that eliminate many future decisions.
- Prevent frustration by solving problems before they arise.
- Make relationships easier to maintain and manage.”
This is a lofty goal for one book to accomplish but I feel like it really does do these things. The book is subtitled: Make it Easier to Do What Matters Most. This reminded me of something my former horse trainer said about training horses: make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. And that’s what this book is about: figuring out ways to make it easier to do the things that are the most important.
The introductory section of the book says: “Not everything has to be so hard.” This really got my attention and pulled me into the book. Our culture tends to equate hard work and success, to glorify the hustle, and to see busyness and exhaustion as a badge of honor. This, I think, makes it harder to be truly productive, rather than easier.
“It doesn’t help that our culture glorifies burnout as a measure of success and self-worth. The implicit message is that if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we must not be doing enough. That great things are reserved for those who bleed, for those who almost break. Crushing volume is somehow now the goal.”
I found myself nodding as I read that quote because that’s how it feels sometimes, especially in my profession as a lawyer. I appreciated his reminder that working harder and harder doesn’t always achieve the better results we’re hoping for.
“It is true that hard work can equal better results. But this is true only to a point. After all, there’s an upper limit to how much time and effort we can invest. And the more depleted we get, the more our return on that effort dwindles. This cycle can continue until we are burned out and exhausted, and still haven’t produced the results we really want.”
I don’t know about you but I’ve felt that–just going and going, working long hours and feeling exhausted, but not achieving the results I want. And yet if we don’t work as hard as we think we should, we feel guilty.
“For some, the idea of working less hard feels uncomfortable. We feel lazy. We fear we’ll fall behind. We feel guilty for not ‘going the extra mile’ each time. This mindset, conscious or not, may have its roots in the Puritan idea that the act of doing hard things always has an inherent value. Puritanism went beyond embracing the hard; it extended to also distrusting the easy. But achieving our goals efficiently isn’t unambitious. It’s smart. It’s a liberating alternative to both hard work and laziness: one that allows us to preserve our sanity while still accomplishing everything we want.”
I wonder if this mindset is more uniquely American, or if those in other countries also have this mindset. I know Americans notoriously don’t use up their vacation days, while those in some other countries routinely take long vacations each year. If you live somewhere other in America, what’s it like where you are?
The book has three main sections of the book, each answering a key question:
1. Effortless State
Question: How can we make it easier to focus?
- “the first step toward making things more effortless is to clear the clutter in our heads and our hearts.”
- “when your brain is filled with clutter, like outdated assumptions, negative emotions, and toxic thought patterns, you have less mental energy available to perform what’s most essential.”
I found very interesting his discussion of concept of inversion: “to turn an assumption or approach upside down, to work backward, to ask, ‘What if the opposite were true?’” For instance, our assumption that “worthwhile things take enormous effort” — inversion turns that on its head and asks “What if this could be easy?”
“When we feel overwhelmed, it may not be because the situation is inherently overwhelming. It may be because we are over-complicating something in our own heads.” I can personally relate to this, as I tend to overthink things.
2. Effortless Action
Question: How can we make essential work easier to do?
- He encourages us to define what “done” looks like to us. We are more likely to accomplish our goals if we define very specifically the outcome we’re looking for.
“If you want to make something hard, indeed truly impossible, to complete, all you have to do is make the end goal as vague as possible. That’s because you cannot, by definition, complete a project without a clearly defined end point. . . . To get an important project done it’s absolutely necessary to define what ‘done’ looks like.”
- Make it easy to start.
“We often get overwhelmed because we misjudge what the first step is: what we think is the first step is actually several steps. But once we break that step down into concrete, physical actions, that first obvious action begins to feel effortless.”
He talks about the concept of “the minimum viable first action”, meaning the action that will allow us to gain the maximum learning from the least amount of effort”. What the tiniest first step you could take?
“Perfectionism makes essential projects hard to start, self-doubt makes them hard to finish, and trying to do too much, too fast, makes it hard to maintain momentum.” It’s better to create a sustainable pace so it’s easy to keep going.
3. Effortless Results
Question: How can we get the highest return on the least effort?
I’m still thinking about how to incorporate into my life the things he writes about the idea of “residual results” — “you exert effort once and reap the benefits again and again”. That might include things like:
- Setting up systems that work for you–an investment of time at the beginning that gains you benefits (in time and energy) over the long haul.
- Creating “cheat sheets”, or checklists, that you think through once and use each time you do a particular activity to make sure things get done efficiently and right. “The idea of a cheat sheet is simply to get things out of your brain so you can do them automatically, without having to rely on memory.” The concept of creating a checklist is so simple and something even pilots and surgeons use. Even if you have done something many times and think you know how to do it, it’s still so easy to miss a step. Make it easier to get the results you want by using a checklist.
Greg wraps up the book with some thoughts on how “what happens next matters most.” This was a section that really spoke to me, because I have a tendency to periodically get hung up by regret over the past, specifically mistakes I have made or things that haven’t gone well. That’s why I found these words so encouraging:
“Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now. . . . [Each] new moment is a chance to start over. A chance to make a new choice.”
We can learn from what’s happened in our past, but what happens next matters most.
Key takeaways and quotes
One of the most important takeaways for me was the importance of doing the thought work around the ideas that the most important stuff has to be hard or tedious. For a lot of us, this is something we relate to. We have an assumption–maybe even an unconscious one–that what is most important to us will be a challenge.
“Believing essential activities are, almost by definition, tedious, we are more likely to put them off or avoid them completely. At the same time, our nagging guilt about all the essential work we could be doing instead sucks all the joy out of otherwise enjoyable experiences. . . . Separating work from play makes life harder than it needs to be.”
“But essential work can be enjoyable once we put aside the Puritan notion that anything worth doing must entail backbreaking effort. Why would we simply endure essential activities when we can enjoy them instead? By pairing essential activities with enjoyable ones, we can make tackling even the most tedious and overwhelming tasks more effortless.”
For me, this was the key message of the book: To buy ourselves the time we need for what matters most, make the essential easier and the non-essential harder.
Figure out what the essential activities are in your life and brainstorm ways to make them easier and more enjoyable.
What do I need to do to make things easier? Do I need to get the right tools? Do I need to streamline the process (what steps am I including that could be dropped or simplified)? Creating rituals can help, or what Greg calls “habits with a soul”, that give meaning to the activity.
What do I need to do to make things enjoyable? Can I adjust the environment, maybe change the location to one I like better, or change the lighting, or add music? Can I pair it with another activity I enjoy?
Along this same theme, Greg reiterates the importance of gratitude in making the essential things easier.
“[The] more you complain–and the more you read and hear other people complain–the easier it is to find things to complain about.”
“When you focus on something you are thankful for, the effect is instant. It immediately shifts you from a lack state(regrets, worries about the future, the feeling of being behind) and puts you into a have state (what is going right, what progress you are making, what potential exists in the moment). It reminds you of all the resources, all the assets, all the skills you have at your disposal–so you can use them to more easily do what matters.”
“Gratitude is a powerful, catalytic thing. It starves negative emotions of the oxygen they need to survive.
In order to change the habit of complaining to a habit of gratitude, Greg created a “habit recipe”:
“After I complain I will say something I am thankful for.”
So important to remember: the power of the power to choose.
I quoted this above but it’s worth saying again: “Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now.”
“In each new moment, we have the power to shape all subsequent moments.”
Some final thoughts
Most of us in the TPW community care very much about making a life that matters. For a lot of us, part of that is feeling that we’re making a contribution, making a difference, making the world better in some way. We spend a lot of time, energy, and attention on pursuing different ways of doing that, whether in business, in our relationships, or wherever. We want to be the best version of ourselves so we can make the best and most meaningful contribution to the world.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve our skills, grow and be better. But one thing Greg said in the book that has stuck with me and provoked a lot of thought and self-examination is: “The greatest gift we can offer to others is not our skill or our money or our effort. It is simply us.” This quote is in a section talking about the power of presence: being there, in the moment, especially when we’re interacting with people. Be there, be present, in a way that lets them feel noticed and heard. It’s what we all want, which is why it’s the greatest gift we can offer others.
Maybe the best thought to end with is the one he says is the one message he wants us to take away from the book:
“Life doesn’t have to be as hard and complicated as we make it. . . . No matter what challenges, obstacles, or hardships we encounter along the way, we can always look for the simpler, easier path.”
This book didn’t have the “wow!” impact on me that his Essentialism did. But it provided a lot of “hmm” moments–moments when I read something that made me pause and think–and lots of ideas for practical steps I can take to make the best use of my time. Highly recommended.
What do you think?
Have you read Effortless? If so, what did you think? Share your takeaway with us. If you haven’t yet read it, what’s a productivity-related book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
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