Effortless by Greg McKeown

Maybe life doesn’t have to be so hard.

Author Greg McKeown experienced firsthand some of the difficulties of modern life, when he experienced his own case of burnout and exhaustion. He wondered, “What does one do when they’ve stripped life down to the essentials, and it’s still too much?” (9). Unable to push himself further, he wondered if there was an easier path.

The key question that McKeown poses is this: “What if this could be easy?” What if the essential and important work we wanted to accomplish was easier? What if we inverted the problem and thought, “What’s the simplest way to achieve this results?” (39).

McKeown’s work is interesting because he doesn’t start where most productivity gurus start: with an examination of what you’re currently doing. Instead, McKeown starts with mindset. If our mind is clogged and cluttered, of course things will be hard! Things become especially difficult when we hold onto grudges and ingratitude. Therefore, he proposes asking, “What job have I hired this grudge to do?” (63) When we examine why we’re holding a grudge, we can adequately deal with it.

McKeown also examines the physical side of work by emphasizing the need for rest and recovery: “Do not do more today than you can completely recover from today. Do not do more this week than you can completely recover from this week” (71). By making sure that we are mentally and physically sharp, we can then give people one of the greatest gifts it’s possible for someone to receive: our own presence. It is in presence than true transformation occurs.

Once we get down to work, we must be willing to work up to the point of diminishing returns and then stop (96). At a certain point, more effort produces worse results. To help stay focused on the job, it is important to know what “done” looks like. Ambiguous goals leads to overwork and exhaustion. But when we’re clear as to the finish line, we can complete our projects. While finishing jobs is important, we cannot finish what we do not start. And so McKeown encourages us to take the “first obvious action” (109). Oftentimes, we stay paralyzed because the work seems so big. Instead, we should break down the first action to something tiny.

Another important way to get work down in an effortless way is to find a right pace. You don’t want things that are too difficult, which might paralyze us, but not too easy to be trivial. Furthermore, we can hold back even when we have more in the tank so as to not completely drain ourselves (137). To gain good results, McKeown encourages us to leverage “compounding” results, or those that continue over time. Learning is one of the best ways to see continued results. Another way to see continued results is to automate processes and procedures. Something as simple as a checklist can help us clear away the clutter and focus on the essential (178).

He not only focuses on individual results but also how teams can work together. And essentially, trust is the key to any well-functioning team. He elucidates the “Three I’s Rule” of hiring. Look for someone with integrity, intelligence, and initiative (189). When we create trust among our teams, we can accomplish better results. McKeown then closes if an appeal to solve problems before they happen. Too often, we put up with so many problems because “it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it” (196). Yet, if we view a problem from a longer time scale, we will find that we actually lose so much more time managing the problem than solving it. We should focus on “striking at the root” rather than dealing with merely superficial issues (198).

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