When we’re failing to do the things that are most important in our lives, the typical diagnosis of the problem is to believe we’re simply not working hard enough, and the typical solution to the problem is to put in more effort, apply more discipline, and grind it out.
My guest would say that we’re thinking about both the root and the remedy of the issue in the wrong way. His name is Greg McKeown, and he’s the author of the bestseller Essentialism, as well as his latest book, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most. Today on the show, Greg shares how he came to realize that life isn’t just about focusing on the essentials, but making those essential things the easy things. We discuss why it is that we commonly make things harder than they need to be, and how while the right thing can be hard, just because something is hard, doesn’t make it the right thing. We then discuss the role that emotions like gratitude play in making things feel more effortless, why you need to have a clear vision of what being done looks like (including having a Done for the Day list), how to overcome the difficulty of getting started with things through microbursts of action, and how to keep going with them using a sustainable pace marked by upper and lower bounds. We end our conversation with how seeking an effortless state applies to one’s spiritual life. Along the way, Greg shares stories from history and his own life as to what it means to get to your goals using a more effortless path.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What led Greg to exploring this topic of effort and essentialism
- What do you do when there isn’t room for all the big rocks?
- Why do we make things harder than they need to be?
- Why it’s especially important to have a clear vision of what “done” looks like
- The value of a “Done for the Day” list
- How a micro-burst of productivity can change everything
- Keeping life and work from getting overly complex
- The benefits of a slow and steady pace
- The philosophy and spirituality that undergirds this idea of effortlessness
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Greg about Essentialism
- Put the Big Rocks in First
- Limiting Your Choices
- My interview with Patrick McGinnis
- Motivation Over Discipline
- Be Less Disciplined
- Get More Done With the Rule of 3
- What’s Your 20 Mile March?
Connect With Greg
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When we’re failing to do the things that are most important in our lives, the typical diagnosis of the problem is to believe we’re simply not working hard enough and the typical solution, well, is to put in more effort, apply more discipline, and grind it out. My guest would say that we’re thinking about both the root and the remedy of the issue in the wrong way. His name is Greg McKeown, and he’s the author of the bestseller “Essentialism” as well as his latest book, “Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most”. Today on the show, Greg shares how he came to realize that life isn’t just about focusing on the essentials, but making those essential things the easy things.
We discuss why it is that we commonly make things harder than they need to be, and while the right thing can be hard, just because something is hard doesn’t make it the right thing. We then discuss the role that emotions like gratitude play in making things feel more effortless, why you need to have a clear vision of what being done looks like, including having a done for the day list, how to overcome the difficulty of getting started with things through a microburst of action, and how to keep going with them using a sustainable pace marked by upper and lower bounds. And we end our conversation with how seeking an effortless state applies to one’s spiritual life. Along the way, Greg shares stories from history in his own life as to what it means to get your goals using a more effortless path. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/effortless.
Brett McKay: Greg McKeown, welcome back to the show.
Greg McKeown: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the show back in 2017 to talk about your book, “Essentialism”. That’s episode number 331 for those who wanna check it out. You’ve got a new book out called “Effortless”. And in this book… In “Essentialism,” you tried to… The whole idea of that is that you gotta pare down what you do to what you think is the most essential because by doing that, you can actually get more done ’cause you’re focusing on what’s really important. And you’ve been preaching that your entire career. You did that in your own life. But then a few years ago, you reached this point in your own life where you felt overwhelmed despite winnowing everything, all the projects in your life to the most essential. So what happened there?
Greg McKeown: Well, I just got to a point where I was feeling that the metaphor of the big rocks, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, started to just crack a little bit for me. So the Big Rocks Theory says, well, if you put the big rocks into a container first and then the small rocks and then the sand, it all fits. But if you put the order wrong, if you put all the sand in and then the small rocks and then the big rocks, then it doesn’t fit. It’s a geometric problem. And if you get the order right, it works. In other words, if you put the essential things in first and then the less essential and then leave the non-essential either out all together or at the end, it all works. But I found in my life, in addition to becoming the father of essentialism, I was now the father to four children, growing responsibilities, more selective than I’d ever been. And I found myself faced with the question, what happens if you have too many big rocks?
And in the midst of that, we then have a family crisis where one of my daughters, Eve, goes from the picture of health to suddenly having an undiagnosed but discombobulating and what turned out to be neurological disease. And that just pushed everything over the edge. There’s no room for all these rocks. What do you do now? And the journey that followed in our lives I outlined in the book, but also I have the chance to codify it. It’s not just about doing the right things. Of course that’s important, of course that’s essential, but you’ve also got to do them in the right way. So essentialism is about prioritization. Still completely believe that vital first step. But you’ve also got to… If I had to summarize in one word the new book, I would say simplification. You have to remove all of the unnecessarily complicated ways you’re going about the work that you’re doing. That is so key in being able to be successful at what matters most, even with the great challenges that come along that get in the way of doing that.
Brett McKay: No, so I’m a big… I’ve been a big fan of that, the rock metaphor, the jar in the rock metaphor. But as you explained in this book and you just discussed right now, something that happens you don’t take an account for, sometimes the size of the rocks change. So they’re all still important, but sometimes, like in your case, your family rock became really big because you had to deal with your daughter’s health issue, but you still have to… You have a career, you have a job, people are depending upon you, you need to… That’s still an important rock. So sometimes it doesn’t work. You can’t fit them all in because the size of the rocks have changed.
Greg McKeown:Well, and what you’re really faced with in that situation is you can either put some of those big rocks down, which is sub-optimal, and a lot of people do. They say, “Okay, well, I’ll just put my health down.” Someone just said that to me the other day, “Well, right now, so much is going on. I’m just not going to worry about health,” so they’re eating terribly, they’re not exercising and so on. And in one sense, I’m sympathetic to that because I understand how challenging and hard life can be. On the other hand, if you’re putting down the essential rocks, they’re still essential. And so it begs the question, well, is there an easier way to achieve what’s essential? Maybe there’s a way that you can say, “Well, let’s not be so perfectionist about it. Let’s not over-engineer this. Maybe there’s a simpler path to being able to do the things that are essential so you can actually achieve them and you don’t just have to put them down.” And that’s one of the driving points that I explore in this new book.
Brett McKay: Okay, so in “Effortless”, you lay out a game plan for creating an upwardly positive cycle, which you call “Being in an effortless state.” And this effortless state tends to produce effortless action, which tends to produce effortless results. So achieving this effortless state is an important foundation. That’s where the positive cycle starts. So you describe this effortless state as being physically rested, emotionally unburdened and mentally energized, where you’re aware of, you’re in the present, you know what’s important, you’re able to bring all your intelligence, all your faculties, all your capabilities in that moment. And you know what is the most important thing you need to focus on in that moment. So that’s the ideal state. Everything just feels easier, the effortless state. But most people operate most of the time from a very different state. It’s marked by frustration, burnout, suffering, Everything just feels harder than it needs to be. So let’s talk about why that is. Why aren’t more people trying to do things in a more effortless way, and why do we make things harder than they need to be?
Greg McKeown: We’ve been sold a bill of goods about this. Partially with a sort of Puritan undertone, where we have been taught that good, essential, right way of doing things is the hard way, and that the easy way is inherently not the right way, it’s the wrong way. And of course, there are times that is true, but it means that we have… For many of us, many over-achievers distrust the easy and pursue just more self-sacrifice, more exhaustion, because that is… That’s the only correct path. And so we leave all this low-hanging fruit, these alternative strategies that, could you make the essential things, the easiest things in your life… Now, what would happen if you could do that? I was just coaching somebody through a process, I said, “What’s something that’s essential for you that you’re under-investing in?” And he said, “Well, eating, just eating healthier. I’m just not doing that. It really matters to me for longevity, it matters for overall health, or just my being able to achieve the other things I want right now in my life. For all these reasons.”
And we just take him through a few simple questions, “Well, how could we make this effortless?” We just try to invert it using a different question. Instead of, “How can you work harder to achieve this?” “How could we make the task 10XF but more effortless?” And we spend just about 10 minutes talking through it. We identify, well, really all that needs to happen for him is he wants food, a lunch that’s healthy, delivered to him 11:30 or 12:00 each day, because normally he’s hungry then but he doesn’t eat until he’s so hungry, he just eats fast food, and that’s the predictor for [0:09:08.8] ____. So I said, “What could you do to make that happen? What’s the first obvious step?” “Well, I’ll just go online, go to Google. That would be the first obvious step, and search for an app that could deliver food.” I said, “Okay, if you did that, what could you do in 10 minutes if you did micro-burst?”
And in this awkward pause, he says, “I think I could do everything. I think I could get the app. I think I could put my credit card information in, choose the meals, choose when to arrive, have it all set up. I think the whole thing is 10 minutes.” I say, “How long have you struggled with the problem?” “Ten years.” So we have a 10… It took 10 minutes to come up with a 10-minute plan that will solve a problem that he’s been struggling through for 10 years. That’s an example of what I observe. If people are so focused on, “Well, if it’s essential, it must be hard,” it traps them to feel overwhelmed by the problem and then just to give up on it almost before they’ve begun. If you can invert the situation by asking a different question, “How could we make this effortless?” Suddenly you open yourself to new solutions. Sometimes so simple, it’s hard to believe, but they work and they allow people to achieve the results that they have struggled with for years and years before. If you can make it 10x easier, then you can get 10x the results for the same amount of effort.
Brett McKay: I can imagine this thinking things are hard as sort of a barometer of what is good and essential, is also… Can also get people off track. I’ve done this in my own life, I think, “Well, this is hard. Hard things are good, therefore, I need to be doing this hard thing.” Even though I probably don’t even need to be doing that thing, it’s not even essential.
Greg McKeown: Yeah. As soon as you say, “Hard equals good,” you can set yourself up for a lot of misery. Patrick McGuinness, I just had him on the What’s Essential podcast, and he’s the person who first put the word FOMO into print and now it’s in the dictionary, so that’s pretty great bragging rights, but he told me a story of when he was just working harder and harder all the time as an investment banker, and everybody… I remember he said one time he was so sick that he had to leave a board meeting three times to throw up in the bathroom. He looked green, and yet still he felt like, “I’d got to… Hard is good. You’ve got to… Therefore, self-sacrificial is always better.” And it ended up almost discombobulating his whole life, and… But he was at the point before the breakthrough where he said, “If someone wasn’t working long hours, their job must not be very important.” So he’d completely gone to that point where just hard equals good. And this is… You’d think you didn’t have to teach this to people. You’d think that this is maybe so obvious. But I found you absolutely do, especially to over-achievers, to the hit squad, the people who are hard-working, intelligent and talented. They’ve taken a true principle and gone way too far with it.
Brett McKay: Just to be clear, you’re not saying avoid hard things completely. Hard things can push us beyond our comfort zone, and get us to a next level we need to get to. But the… I guess the challenge is figuring out whether this hard thing has some sort of return on investment or if it actually costs you, is detrimental to your return on investment.
Greg McKeown: Well, I think one of the things I’m advocating is that we pay attention to our return on effort, our ROE, so that we make sure that we aren’t using up this limited resource in a way that doesn’t actually produce great results. I’m not saying don’t try to do the things that seem hard or impossible. I’m saying if you can start to work in a different way, you can achieve impossible things. You can do extraordinary things. Whereas in right now, you might be struggling just to even stay afloat. And so that, to me, is the value proposition of effortless, is that the impossible can become achievable, then doable, then attainable, then done, and then flowing to you. It’s a big shift once you start to orchestrate your life about in a way that results flow to you rather than only when you put in the effort.
Brett McKay: Alright. So this first step of achieving the effortless state then is overcoming this bias that we have, this puritan streak that we have, where if it’s not hard, then you’re doing something wrong. Instead, invert that and say, “What would… How could I make this easier?” So if you’re… This could… You can apply this in any aspect of your life, your family life, whether it’s trying to organize how to get kids different places, if you’re at work, if there’s some sort of procedure that just mucks things up all the time, or if you’re a part of a church, there’s just this constant reoccurring problem. Instead of asking, “How do we do the same thing we’ve always done, but more efficiently,” to say, “Now, what would… What would it look like if this was just a lot easier to do?” And you’d be surprised the answers you’d get.
Greg McKeown: That reminds me of a manager that I was talking to about these ideas. This is someone who’s normally up till 4:00 AM in the morning doing various projects, pushing herself to and well past the rejuvenating, sustainable level. She’s the kinda person who feels guilty even if she eats lunch, and she really feels that more and more sacrifice is the only way for her to be able to be successful. So I said, “Look, let’s inverse it. Let’s ask a different question.” And the next time that she was asked to do a project, so she worked at a university, the professor calls, says, “Look, I’d like you to video my whole semester in my class,” and she is just ready. She’s well-oiled mental pattern to be able to go into action, to over-achieve, to over-exert. She’s imagining, “Well, I’ll get a whole team, a videography team there, we’ll do multiple angles, we’ll edit them all together, we’ll have intros and outros and graphics and music, and he’ll be wowed by this.” And then she remembers the coaching, is, how could this be effortless?
Let’s really get clear, what does done look like for him? What is the small… What really is a solution if I don’t jump in with all of this? And it turns out that this is just for one student who’s going to miss a few classes because of an athletic commitment. So the solution they come up with on the phone in about 10 minutes of a conversation is that another student in the class will just video it on an iPhone and send it to him any time he’s gonna miss. The professor’s happy. Totally delighted with that solution. He hadn’t thought about it either. And suddenly, she has saved four months for herself and for her whole team, just instantly, just so. And that really was the breakthrough for her, a tipping point, that there was this whole world of a way of working that was unfamiliar to her, not one that she had actually developed competency in. And by just asking a different question, by getting into a different mindset, she could start to unlock this alternative and incredibly valuable approach to the work that she thinks matters so much.
Brett McKay: Another factor that you argue plays a role in achieving this effortless state are our emotions. So what role do our emotions play in making something feel hard or harder or easier?
Greg McKeown: When my… I mentioned earlier that my daughter became suddenly very ill. It really was a tremendous challenge, because she went from being articulate, energized, humorous, always physically highly active on the rock climbing team, just so much good going on in her life, reading, constantly writing in a journal, all of this, to suddenly just imagine someone going really, just turning really slow, so that it took her two minutes to write her own name. There was no emotion left in her. She was very monotone. She would answer in only one-word sentences. And she was fast on the path of becoming fully comatose. And falling into a coma. And all this while the neurologist that we’re meeting with cannot even give us the beginning of a diagnosis and this is over, let’s say, a four-month period. And every day, the capability is being lost.
So in the midst of this challenge, what suddenly became clear to me was that there were two parts, two ways of dealing with this. There’s a sort of a visual that came to me, and I realized that we could either take this inherently hard situation and make it harder and heavier, or we could take this inherently difficult, challenging situation and make it lighter and easier.
And it sounds so obvious. Well, of course, I guess you choose the second path. But for lots of reasons, actually, the first is the one that we thought we needed to take, because it matters so much this has to be brutal, this has to be… That we should forget everything else, we should put all the other big rocks down. And a lot of people do that when they’re faced with crisis. And so it’s not… It’s quite easy for me to imagine operating with that problem in a way that breaks our health, that turns our family culture toxic, that weakens or damages or even breaks my marriage with Anna, because you deal with the trial in such a heavy way, you become more and more obsessed and more depressed and more powerless, and there’s a downward spiral to that. And we began to feel what that would feel like at the very beginning, certainly enough to sense that there were these two paths.
What does the other path look like? It doesn’t mean ignoring the problem, it doesn’t mean pretending it’s not there, it doesn’t mean not feeling anything. We definitely wept through this experience at times. But it also meant that we would find things to be grateful for, anything, and talk about it loudly. It meant that we would still build on our culture, so that the feeling in the home was lighter and more hopeful. We’d still get around the piano and sing, we’d still read together, we’d still eat together, we’d still laugh together, we’d still… We’d still pray together, we would still… Well, we would still trust, trust in God, trust in a future, to not take a path that’s so heavy and so downward spiral. And what we noticed was that as we did this, there was almost this… Almost a magical force at play. It was so fast that we just could see hope and feel hope. Even when there was no external evidence of it, we could feel that that was real. And so it kept us going.
Brett McKay: And because of that, we were able to discern better which things not to do and which things to do, which are all just to work with or not, and so on. And it just was a key element of why things seemed to start working in a situation where something was so clearly not working. And it’s been about two and a half years now. There have been so many ups and downs along the journey, treatments that worked, and then didn’t, and symptoms that came back and so on. And we’ve gone through this whole cycle. And as of this conversation, she’s doing really well, and she’s thriving again, and she’s physically, mentally, emotionally doing so well. But if we had taken the heavier path, I literally think it could have… It could easily have taken us down on a path that both burned us all out and didn’t achieve the results.
So another aspect too to making things easier is, it’s important to have a clear vision of what done looks like. Why is that important for achieving the effortless state?
Greg McKeown: One of my favorite stories in the research for effortless is the story of the Vasa. The Vasa is this huge ornate ship that was commissioned by Gustav II, the King of Sweden. He wanted to upgrade his armada of ships, wanted to protect his people from a growing naval power, all the powers that were surrounding them at the time. He thought this was… This is of the utmost importance. This is essential to him. And one could certainly argue that he was right about that. But how did he go about it? Unfortunately, he did not have a clear vision of what the final product would look like. In other words, he just kept changing his vision. So at first, he wanted the thing to be 120 feet long. And all the lumber had been cut to the specifications. But as soon as the ship builder had completed that, the king changed his mind. It needed to be 135 feet long. So all of the wood had to be redone. At first, he wanted it to be 32 cannons in a single row, then he asked 36 canons in two rows plus 12 other small cannons, 48 mortars, 10 more smaller caliber weapons. [chuckle] This is this tremendous effort from 400 people to make it all happen.
But then, even as they approached completion, the king changed his mind again. Now it’s 64 large cannons. And the stress of the news is said to have killed the shipbuilder Henrik from a fatal heart attack. His second in command is suddenly put in charge. The budgets continue to escalate, the effort continues to expand. And the king just keeps changing his end goal. In an utterly non-essential edition for a gunship, he asked for 700 ornate sculptures, which would take a team of sculptors more than two years to complete, to add it to all the sides, the bulwark, everything. And so it is, we’re now 1628, and the Vasa leaves Stockholm for its maiden voyage, still unfinished and before it’s been tested, because the king has had time to create some celebration, invite foreign diplomats, all of this, the pageantry. And so as the ship sails away, the gun ports were open so that they could fire a salute to the dignitaries on the shore. A gust of wind catches the sails of the ship, causing this massive vessel to tilt to one side, and…
As the can is tipped into the sea, water suddenly enters through the gun ports, so despite a strenuous all-out effort on the crew to just try and get this water out, save the ship everything, tragically it goes down, 53 crew members with it, and this is all within three quarters of a mile from shore, so the most expensive naval project in Sweden’s history, sails less than one mile before being buried in the sea, and really all because they just did not… That king did not ever actually define what done looks like. So, it sounds like such an obvious thing but many of us set goals in a way that is not dissimilar to how Gustav II approached it. We were very vague, we say, “Okay, well, I want to lose weight,” but that’s not, that is not what done looks like. What does done look like or what done looks like might be I look down at the weighing scale and see number 177 staring back at me. That’s what done looks like. And as soon as you can create done that clearly, it sets a precise signal to our brains to produce that outcome. You can say, “Oh, I wanna walk more,” that is very different than reach 10,000 steps a day on my Fitbit for 14 days in a row.
That’s what done looks like. We could say read more books, it’s so vague. Instead you say on my digital book reader, it will say finished next to War and Peace, and so on. It’s about getting so clear about what done looks like that you remove all of these extra complexities, all of this tinkering that we add on, and what it also helps us to do, another maybe application of the same question is to make a done for the day list, so that you actually look at it and you say, “Okay, I cannot do everything on my to do list,” no one can, but if we have a done for the day list that you say, “Okay, today once I have completed these things, I am done,” and those things are precise, it allows us to have a boundary that is so necessary in a world where right now so many people are in this sort of Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat life where nothing ends, the day doesn’t end and you don’t even know what day it is because they flow into each other. It’s so important to re-embrace this question, this strategy, what does done look like?
Brett McKay: How did you do that with your daughter’s health issues ’cause that’s something I was like, what does done look like there everyday?
Greg McKeown: Well that is a great question. I mean what done looked like for us with Eve, as a whole was that she would be completely healed, that she would miss nothing, like that she would lose out on nothing, and that wasn’t just something that we just chose entirely because that’s what we wanted, although of course we did, it was in the investment in getting back to a state of clarity where we can really sort of sense even spiritually, what was possible, that we felt that this was possible, that this is what could happen in the future, and so we just said, “Okay, well, we don’t know how long it will take, we have no control over that. We’re in this for the long run,” and so what it would mean would be… It’s just the same as making any other to-do list. It’s just saying, “Okay, what can we do today to help? What’s the next step?” And in fact that’s its own chapter in the book and its own strategy, is just to say, “Look, what’s the first obvious action that we can take? What is next?” Rather than worrying about or whether you’ve particularly, rather than worrying about all the things we couldn’t control, which was almost everything to do with this situation.
We would say, instead of worrying about the thousand step, what happens if this and that, the other, what’s the next right step? And that took some discernment, that was really important actually to create space to discern, to be peaceful, to be able to receive sort of revelatory moments where it happened to Anna. I remember we were going to do all of this alternative medicine, we perfectly believed that there can be health benefits to anyone by looking at those options and try to in our lives, but there was this whole part, and I remember her coming to me as she was just getting, really trying to discern the right path forward and the right way to do this. She’d, “I just feel like I don’t need to do any of that. We’re gonna put all of that on hold.” And so I just freed her up to be able to then discern, and I remember her also coming Monday and saying, “I’ve been pondering this, thinking about it and I think this is one neurologist that we need to go and see.” He had a nine-month waiting list, but that’s the focus, and we really felt well that was what we needed to then focus on and see what we could do to bring it about and open to say, pray specifically that that miracle…
And it did come that he suddenly had an opening 30 days later, instead of nine months later, and he was really the main breakthrough for being able to help Eve. He came and he treated the whole situation differently, brought a whole team with him. He took a very particular approach to the medicine, instead of saying, “Okay, we’re gonna get a full diagnosis and then treat,” he said, “We can… There are things you can do to treat in order to diagnose and we’re gonna act in order to learn, not worry about the perfect treatment system, but take action and we’ll learn right then.” And so, it was this pattern that helped us make progress rather than being completely over-burdened for the journey.
Brett McKay: And another aspect that makes things harder than they need to be, besides thinking that it has to be hard for it to be good, is we just have, people have a hard time getting started or they don’t even know how to get started. Why do you think that it is? Why do you think it’s… Sometimes it’s often the thing that keeps people from taking action is that first step and then how do you make the first step easier?
Greg McKeown: I think that we’re so in our heads that we forget that all we actually have when it comes to execution is this moment. Neuroscientists and psychologists have done cycles on trying to study now, what we mean by the term now. And for a long time, it’s just been in the realm of philosophers, now is this… We all live in the now. And we’ve heard that idea, but they’ve measured it, and they found it’s between two to three seconds. Yeah, so everything is really the next two to three seconds, you can’t take any action other than in this next two to three seconds. And so it’s about trying to get your head back into this moment and say, “Okay, fine, you want to do a thousand things, there’s all sorts of things you want to do, but you actually live here and this is the only place you can take action. So what can you do in the next few seconds to move this forward? What can you do immediately, and of necessity?” That means taking a small step, a single step, the next thing. And it’s literally something… It’s what you can do with your hands, with your body, you have to do something in this moment.
And an example of this I love is from… When Netflix was just a brain child of Reed Hastings, he’s imagining what Netflix is today, having video that’s downloaded all over the world, so you just don’t even need a blockbuster. But he knows that the technology is no where close yet, he knows it’s gonna be 10 plus years before, even literally, the digital pipes are large enough to be able to download video at this speed, and so he could have just spent… He could have put all of that energy into, I don’t know, I guess, making plans and forecasting, and trying to raise 100 millions of dollars, but instead he said, “Okay, hold on, what is the first actual step I could take in this moment and what the options are available to me right now?” And he and his co-founder said, “Okay, well, maybe we could just go right now buy a CD, take it to the post office and mail it to ourselves, just to even see if there’s a version of what we’re trying to do that’s possible with our current technology.”
And so that’s exactly what they did, that was the first step. And the next day they found, yes, it has safely arrived, not scratched, not broken, so maybe we have an idea. It was never… The big dream isn’t to have CDs delivered to people’s homes, that’s just preliminary, but this is the California role of our idea, this is the entry point. And so it’s… To me, it’s a really vital part to discover what your minimum viable… Not minimum viable product is, but your minimum viable action, that we don’t have to be so overwhelmed by essential projects. If we can name the first obvious step, then we avoid spending too much mental energy thinking about the fifth, seventh or 23rd steps. It doesn’t really matter if your project involves 10 steps or 10,000. When you adopt this strategy, all you have to do is focus on the very next step. And having identified literally what is the next step, you then can build on that quickly by saying, “Okay, well, what can you do in a magic microburst?” First step and then you say, “Okay, if I can add to that 10 minutes.”
So for example, you say, okay, the project is, I wanna remove the cluster from my garage, and the first obvious action might be literally just find the broom, it’s not… It doesn’t sound amazing, but it’s the next thing you need to do, and what can you do in a microburst? Well, you can sweep out the shed and move the bikes into the shed. That’s what you can do in 10 minutes. That’s a real example from my life. You could say, “Okay, I wanna launch a product,” that’s the project. But your first obvious action is, open some cloud-based document of some kind to put the ideas in. You don’t have to worry about all the 50th step and the 100th. So overwhelming that people don’t get there.
What can you do in microburst, in 10 minutes? You can brainstorm your product features, that’s an achievable amount. The advantage of doing this is that as soon as you identify the next obvious action, and what you can do in a microburst, is that I’ve seen it many times and experienced it too. As soon as you identify, you relax, your body relaxes and the thought comes, I can do that. I can do that. That is an achievable next step. And so our belief goes up, our confidence goes up because we’re not focused on all the things we can’t yet do, we are not focused on vague things you cannot… As David Allen puts it, you cannot do a project, all you can do is the next obvious step of the project. And this is very liberating because as soon as you start taking that step, you actually start to see progress, and you’re not wasting cycles on worrying about not taking progress, you’ve actually done something about it.
Brett McKay: Okay, let’s say you get going, you take that first step and you’re… Basically, what I like about this idea of take the first step and… You’re reducing the stakes, you call it failing cheaply. So you just do something that if you fail, it’s not gonna cost you much time, money or status. Like getting a broom, that’s not a big fail if you fail to do that. But let’s say you do all those things, you get going, something that people run into is they get a project going in their work or in their life, and then for some reason, there’s a tendency for things just to get more and more complex as you go, and then things start becoming a slog. So how do you prevent that from happening? And how do you keep the momentum going that you had when you first started?
Greg McKeown: Well, I think that what’s vital is to achieve the effortless pace, that is to have an upper bound and a lower bound to your behavior, it’s easy when we start to get moving on something to overdo it. We’re highly motivated and so we go big, but the cost of that is that the next day, it’s already overwhelming, and so we don’t actually have a sustainable pace, and as soon as you don’t have something sustainable, the results, you’re going to get are far worse. You don’t get any of the compounding benefits of actually achieving consistency. Intermittency is a completely different game to consistency, a story that some people are familiar with, but I went back and read some of the original sources for this is the great… It was in the great age of exploration in the early years of the 20th century, where the most sort after goal in the world was to reach the South Pole, it had never been done in all of recorded human history, not by the Vikings, not by the Royal Navy in all of its power and prowess, but in November 1911, you have the rivals for the pole, two different teams who are going to try and make the 1,500 mile race, the race of life and death really.
One team returns victorious and the other team would not return. If you read the journals, you find that that they just had a completely different experience. The first team, the British team, on the good weather days, would drive their team to total exhaustion, “Just go as far as you can. It’s good weather we’ve got to make the most of it. Let’s push it, force it.” On the bad weather days, they largely because of how exhausted they were, hunkered down and he would write his complaints in his journal, I remember one time he wrote, “Our luck in weather is preposterous. It makes me feel a little bitter to contrast such weather with that experience by our predecessors.” On another he wrote, “I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.” I mean, by the way, he had better weather conditions than his predecessors, he just didn’t realize that or believe it. And there was one party who could deliver in that same weather conditions and that’s the competing team, the Norwegian team, he wrote in his journal separately, “It’s been an unpleasant day, storm, drift, frostbite but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.” So what’s going on here, the plot thickens, because as the Norwegian team gets within three miles.
No, not three miles, excuse me, within 45 miles of the South Pole with a perfect weather day, he could push and force it right here at the end, he could have said, “Okay, we don’t even know where our competitors are, they could be ahead of us for all we know.” And they could have just pushed and forced at that moment but even then, he averaged 15 miles a day, it took him three days an average 15 miles, that was his rule. The beginning of this, he said, “Good weather days, bad weather days we’re going 15 miles.” And that pace proved absolutely critical for both being victorious but also for sustainability, they survived, they’ve got all the way to South Pole and made it safely all the way back, and then get this which I find so breathtaking, I find it shocking, what a terrific biographies that was written about this experience, Cat said that the Norwegian team reached their destination, and here’s the phrase, “Without particular effort.” That’s Roland Huntford, by the way. And his book is just fascinating on this race to the South Pole, but “Without particular effort?” What a shocking thing to say?
He accomplished a feat that no one had done for millennia and I don’t think he was saying, of course, that no day… That every day was easy. That isn’t the point. But nevertheless, to use that language to describe an experience under the harshest conditions imaginable is to me really fascinating. And so, by the way, the other team, the British team, arrived 34 days later, their intermittent approach had cost them time, energy, it had left them absolutely exhausted and on their way home, they all unfortunately died. But that’s what we’re talking about here, when we say effortless pace is to be aware of the false economy of trying to power through. And what we can do, of course, we’re not going to the South Pole, but we can all create upper bounds to whatever we do, so I just took up swimming again, the community pool had been closed through the pandemic, it’s open again, the last time I swam, I swam a 100 lengths and it was tempting to just try and go and do that the first day, but I realized, Well, yeah, but if I do that without having… Being out of the cycle for a while, I’m not going to enjoy it, and chances are, I’ll tail off in my work.
So instead, say, “Okay, upper bound 40 lengths. So I still going to go, I want go at least two times a week, and I want to go at least 40 lengths. So those are my lower and upper bounds, but that means that now, here we are a month on and I’m still swimming, that’s the benefit that you want sustainability, you want consistency. If somebody says, “Okay, I wanna hit my sales numbers.” “Fine have a lower bound, never call less than five sales a day, for example, but also have an upper bound never more than 10 calls a day, so that you can do it consistently.” Even with the writing over Effortless, the project is to complete the first draft of a book… Okay, that’s a goal that I set at some point. And the lower bound, “Will never write less than 500 words a day.” You have a lower bound, but you also have an upper bound, “Never more than a thousand words a day.” The upper bound is key for over-achievers because it helps them to not use up more energy than they can recuperate today. That’s what you want, you don’t want to use up more energy today, then you can recuperate today, and some days you will make exceptions to that, but over the long run, you’ve got to get back to approximately that pace, otherwise you will become suboptimal in your performance and actually you won’t achieve your breakthrough performance and you’ll still be burned out, so its an important… It’s an important approach for sustaining momentum.
Brett McKay: So you’re a business consultant in this book “Effortless.” It’s very practical with these practical things you can do to make things effortless, but as I was reading the book and just even listening to our conversation, it seems like underlying all of this, there’s a spiritual or philosophical component. Even the epigraph of your book, you’ve got Matthew 11:30, where Jesus says, “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Maybe this is sort of meta, but how would you describe the philosophy or the spirituality that’s underlying this idea of effortless-ness?
Greg McKeown: One of the ideas that has been powerful to me spiritually, is that I can either work hard with the world or easy with the Lord. It’s the idea that I can struggle and do it, take life, which I think is inherently hard and make it harder on my own being limited in my perspective, or I can join with the most powerful force in the world and be strengthened, be uplifted, so that sometimes the burdens themselves are the same as with Eve, but it doesn’t feel so hard. You have strength to deal with the problems that inevitably come. I do think that’s a key idea. For someone who’s listening, who is Christian, I sometimes think about it this way, that there’s a lot of Christians trying to… It’s like trying to be Christian without Christ or something, where you say, “Well, I’m gonna try and do it all myself. I will save myself. I will sacrifice my way forward.” And that just isn’t actually the path. I think it’s a breathtaking injunction in scripture. When Jesus writes, “My yoke is easy, My burden is light.” Is it? [chuckle]
Is that what most people experience when they’re going to church? Is that what’s… Why isn’t that the description that most people have when they think of this? And of course, I don’t want to limit the conversation explicitly to Christianity either. This idea is that when you have deep meaning and you can tap into these forces around us, that we’re not doing it on our own anymore, I think is really powerful. It reminds me of a story that didn’t make it into the book, but I love this story, is of a woman who was with… It was of a mother who was with her dying son in the hospital. And she gets up next to him to be close to him right at the end, and he’s not really fully in the here anymore, but he’s not fully there either. And in that moment, he opens his eyes, and he just says, “Oh, Mom, it’s all so simple. It’s all so simple.” And those were his last words, and he died, and that became a new soundtrack for her to live by and for us if we want to take it. It’s all so simple, and it comes with the question, “How am I making life harder than it needs to be?”
And when we have the answer to that we have something deep and I think profound, which is we know what to do next. And what we do next matters so much more than anything that’s happened to us in the past. No matter what pain we’ve gone through, no matter what mistakes we’ve made, no matter what grievances we’ve had before, no matter what trouble has gone on, they pale in comparison of what we do next. And so if we can choose in the next moment between either taking a step that makes life heavier or the path that makes things lighter, we are on our way. Each moment gives us this opportunity. Each two and a half second moment. What can I do to make life lighter for me and for the people around me? It becomes a really thrilling way to live. It may be as simple, it may be as easy as that.
Brett McKay: Well, Greg, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Greg McKeown: I would encourage people to go to essentialism.com, where there’s a whole academy that we’ve launched that helps people to be really able to design a life that the essential things, the most important things become as simple and easy as possible so that they can do them consistently. That’s, if there was one thing, I would just encourage people to do that.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Greg McKeown, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Greg McKeown: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Greg McKeown. He’s the author of the book, “Effortless.” It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, gregmckeown.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/effortless where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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