Greg McKeown is a bestselling author and host of the podcast What’s Essential. Below, he shares 5 key insights from his new book, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (available now from Amazon). Listen to the audio version—read by Greg himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. There are two paths to getting results.
Not long ago, my family and I moved into an idyllic community: white picket fences lined the streets, no street lamps, and there were more horse trails than roads. Our children spent long days playing outside with our happy dog, riding horses, or playing tennis. We took morning walks and planted a garden with apple trees, grapevines, and melon plants. In short, we found ourselves living in a little piece of heaven on Earth.
One of our daughters, Eve, especially thrived. She is a slim, brown-eyed, blonde-haired girl with a mischievous grin. She simply cannot stay cross, even when she tries to be grumpy. She can only do it for a few seconds before bursting into laughter. She loves to be in nature. Some family friends of ours still recall how she climbed to the top of their massive 50-foot fir tree the first time she visited their home. She ran barefoot whenever she could, wrestled with her younger brother on the trampoline for hours at a time, named the chickens, carefully caught lizards by the dozen and gently released them. Eve read endlessly, devouring books about horses, bees and insects, and wrote about her own adventures in a journal every day.
Then Eve turned 14, had a growth spurt, began to feel tired often, talk to us less, and took longer to do her chores. Pretty age-appropriate behavior—or so we thought. On a routine visit with a physical therapist, he noticed Eve didn’t respond properly to basic reflex tests. He said, “you might want to see a neurologist.” From there, her symptoms worsened daily. Within just a few weeks, she could answer in only one word sentences, and spoke in a slurred and monotone voice. We noticed the right-hand side of her body responded at a slower speed. It took her two full minutes to write her own name, and hours to eat a meal. The light, once so vibrant and bright in Eve dimmed, until it seemed to go out entirely when she was hospitalized after a major seizure. What made the situation worse was the doctors couldn’t explain any of it. They could not offer us even the beginning of a diagnosis.
“If your job is to keep the fires burning for an indefinite period, you can’t throw all the fuel on the flames at the beginning.”
Every day brought more visits to respected neurologists who looked at us with furrowed brows and, in one instance, literally shrugged his shoulders. The doctors couldn’t find anything as to why a vivacious daughter would go into free fall. This is the stuff true suffering can be made of. With each unfruitful doctor’s visit, it became harder and harder to see the road ahead. The challenge felt impossible. All we wanted in the world was for Eve to get better.
What came into view was that there were two paths open to us. One made this challenging situation heavier, the other made the challenging situation lighter. Maybe this choice seems obvious, but it wasn’t. As parents, our instinct was to attack the problem full force from all directions, reaching out to every neurologist in the country with a million questions, pulling all-nighters poring over medical journals and Googling for a cure or even a diagnosis, even researching alternative medicine. What the gravity of the situation called for, we assumed, was near superhuman effort, but such an approach would have been unsustainable and produce disappointing results. We took the second path.
We realized that the best way to help our daughter, and our whole family, was not by exerting more effort. In fact, it was quite the opposite. We needed to find ways to make every day a little easier because we needed to sustain this effort for an unknown length of time. If your job is to keep the fires burning for an indefinite period, you can’t throw all the fuel on the flames at the beginning. So, we decided there were things we couldn’t do. We wouldn’t torture ourselves with unanswerable questions. We wouldn’t worry ourselves sick. We wouldn’t complain that the doctors didn’t have the answers. We wouldn’t live in denial. We wouldn’t try to force the timetable. We wouldn’t ask “why us” and we wouldn’t try to do it alone.
We decided to focus on the simple, easy things we could control. We got around the piano and sang. We went on walks, read books, played games. We looked for the positive and pointed it out. We prayed together, ate dinner together, toasted each other. We told stories. We laughed. We were grateful. We did these things each day and almost immediately noticed a magical force at play. We felt less burdened, less exhausted, and we didn’t burn out. If this story were a Disney movie, this would be the part where Eve was healed and we all lived happily ever after, but after a round of successful treatments, she started to regress. The troubles returned. How could we have dealt with this setback had we depleted all our energy the first time around?
“In each moment, we have a choice: the heavier path of suffering or the lighter, effortless way.”
It’s been two years now and Eve continues to get better. She smiles, laughs, and jokes. She walks, runs and wrestles. She reads, she writes, she is thriving again. There are two paths to achieve results. The first path is the path of suffering, stress, strain, and struggle. The second is the effortless path. 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 moment, we have a choice: the heavier path of suffering or the lighter, effortless way.
2. Make a “done for the day” list.
It seems to me that there are two types of people in the world right now: people who are burnt out and people who know they are burnt out. One reason is that the pandemic created an environment with no boundaries. It’s not like there were a lot of boundaries before, but now even the physical, geographical boundaries of the commute and office have been replaced by a 24/7 Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat world. We look at our Fitbit at the end of the day and it’s literally 300 steps. We can hardly tell the difference between what day it is, so people send as many emails on Saturday and Sunday as they do through the week.
What can we do about this? Well, we can apply a “done for the day” list. A done for the day list is not a list of everything we theoretically could do today, or a list of everything we would love to get done. These things will inevitably extend far beyond the limited time available. Instead, this is a list of what will constitute meaningful and essential progress. One test is to imagine how you will feel once this work is completed. Ask yourself, if I complete everything on this list, will it leave me feeling satisfied by the end of the day?
“Inversion can help you discover obvious insights that you missed because you’re only looking at it from one point of view.”
3. Use effortless inversion.
Carl Jacobi was a German mathematician, and he developed a reputation for solving especially hard and intractable problems. He learned that one of the easiest ways to do that was to always invert, meaning to turn an assumption or approach upside down, work backwards, or ask what if the opposite were true. Inversion can help you discover obvious insights that you missed because you’re only looking at it from one point of view. It can highlight errors in our thinking and open our minds to new ways of doing things.
Kim Jenkins used effortless inversion to transform the way she got important things done. She’s the kind of person who was up at 4:00 a.m. photoshopping for a youth event the next day at her church. She’s the kind of person who felt incredibly guilty if she even took time to eat lunch. She felt that if she wasn’t exhausted, she was being incredibly selfish. She was holding onto a paradigm that says the answer to every problem is to work harder. I suggested that she invert this problem and ask instead, what if this could be easy, or even effortless?
Armed with that query, she got a call from a university professor who asked to get her videography team to record his entire semester. She was ready to jump into action. This was a paradigm she was familiar with: “Let’s overachieve. This will wow him. I’m going to get a whole team in there, we’ll have multiple camera angles. We will edit it all together with intros and outros, graphics, music.” And then she realized, “Oh, I’m operating out of the old paradigm, I’ve got to break with that in order to break through to a higher level of contribution without burning myself out. So, she explored, for just a few minutes with the professor, what an easier solution might look like. It turned out that this project was entirely for one student who would miss a few classes because of an athletic commitment. Another student in the class could just record the classes this student would miss and send it to him on his iPhone. The professor was delighted. He hadn’t thought of such a simple solution. Kim walked away surprised. She had just saved four months of effort from a few minutes on the phone. That is the power of effortless inversion.
“So many of us put up with problems, big and small, for so much longer than we have to because it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it.”
4. Find your effortless pace.
In the midst of the great age of exploration in the early years of the 20th century, the most sought-after goal in the world was to reach the South Pole. It had never been done before in all of recorded human history—not by anyone. In November 1911, two rivals for the pole aimed to be the first to achieve this elusive goal. Captain Robert Scott from Great Britain and Roald Amundson from Norway, also known as the Last Viking. They began within days of each other. One team would be victorious, the other would not return. However, you would never guess that the two teams made almost the exact same journey under the exact same conditions.
On good weather days, Scott would drive his team to exhaustion, and on bad weather days he would hunker down in his tent and lodge his complaints in his journal. One such day, he wrote that the “weather is preposterous. It makes me feel a little bitter to contrast such weather with that experienced by our predecessors.” On another, he wrote, “I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.” On a similar day of blizzard, Amundson recorded in his journal, “It has been an unpleasant day, storm drift and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.”
On December 12, 1911, the plot thickened. Amundsen and his team got within 45 miles of the South Pole, closer than anyone who had ever tried before. They had traveled some 650 grueling miles and were on the verge of winning the race of their lives. The icing on the cake was that the weather that day was working in their favor. Amundsen wrote, “Going and surface as good as ever. Weather splendid, calm with sunshine.” There on the polar plateau, they had the ideal conditions to ski and sled their way to the South Pole with one big push. They could be there in a single day. Instead, it took three days, because, from the very start of their journey, Amundsen had insisted that his party advance exactly 15 miles each day, no more and no less. The final leg would be no different. Scott allowed his team to rest only on the days when it froze, and pushed them to the point of inhuman exertion on the days when it thawed. This one simple difference can explain why Amundsen’s team made it to the top while Scott’s team perished.
“Some tasks that don’t seem worth it in the moment may save us 100 times the time and aggravation.”
Setting a steady, consistent, sustainable pace was ultimately what allowed the party from Norway to reach their destination and, according to the biographer Roland Huntford “without particular effort.” They accomplished a feat that had eluded adventurers for millennia. Even under the harshest of conditions, the goal was doable thanks to that simple rule that they would not exceed 15 miles a day, no matter what.
We can apply a similar rule in our own lives. We can establish upper and lower bounds. If you want to hit your sales numbers for the month, never make less than five sales calls a day, but never more than 10. If you want to complete the first draft of a book, never write less than 500 words a day, but never more than a thousand. Similarly, in this time of pandemic, we can have an upper bound on the amount of time we spend working. I was inspired by Ben Bergeron, a coach to elite athletic performers, to have a set end time for my day. I chose five o’clock, and just to make it playful, when that time comes, I walk out of the office and announce it like a town crier to my family: “It’s five o’clock!” That playful accountability has helped me stay consistent, and that consistency has helped me stay at an effortless pace.
5. Invest in the long tail of time management.
John opened a desk drawer to take out a pen. When the drawer stubbornly refused to shut, he went through his usual dance, opening it as far as it would go, shaking it, closing and opening it again, moving things around. This went on for a while. Intrigued, his colleague, Dean Acheson, a mentor to productivity guru David Allen, asked what was going on. It turned out that a pencil tray was in the way. How long had it been a problem? For two years, he had been bothered by that every single day. How long did it take to solve? Two minutes. So many of us put up with problems, big and small, for so much longer than we have to because it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it.
“Ask yourself, how am I making things harder than they need to be?”
In John’s case, while 30 seconds of jostling was annoying, it took less time than dislodging the tray and resolving the problem. But, once we add up the cumulative costs of the time and frustration from today plus tomorrow, plus hundreds of tomorrows after that, suddenly it makes sense to invest in solving the problem once and for all. Using that time frame, fixing that drawer was an absolute bargain. Two minutes’ worth of effort to prevent hundreds of future frustrations—an impressive time rebate.
This is what I call the long tail of time management: When we invest our time and actions with a long tail, we continue to reap the benefits for a long period. Sometimes we get so used to the little irritations, like a pencil tray lodged in a desk drawer, that it doesn’t even occur to us to do anything about them. Even if we are bothered and complain, we still don’t really see them as a problem worth fixing. What we often fail to recognize is that some tasks that don’t seem worth it in the moment may save us 100 times the time and aggravation.
Ask yourself first, what is a problem that irritates me repeatedly? Second, what is the total cost of managing that over several years? Third, what is the next step I can take immediately, for a few minutes, to move towards solving it? The goal is to find the most annoying thing that can be solved in the least amount of time. Once you start asking these questions, you’ll start noticing the small actions you can take to make your life easier in the future.
Let me conclude with the story of a mother who was with her dying son in the hospital. It was the very end and she knew it, so she climbed in the bed to be with him. In that moment when he was no longer fully here, but not yet fully there, he opened his eyes and said quite suddenly, “Oh, mum, it’s all so simple.” And then he died. That was his singular message to her and to us. In the end, when we see our lives in perspective, perhaps we will all understand that it’s all so simple. Ask yourself, how am I making things harder than they need to be? When you have your answer, you will have something of great value: You will know what to do next. It is that simple.
To listen to the audio version read by Greg McKeown, download the Next Big Idea App today: