Effortless offers actionable advice for making the most essential activities the easiest ones, so you can achieve the results you want without burning out.
Effortless is Greg McKeown’s long-awaited follow-up to his bestselling debut book, Essentialism. While I enjoyed Effortless, I couldn’t help but feel many of McKeown’s ideas have been covered elsewhere (and in greater detail).
For instance, Effortless Inversion is better known as inversion, a mental model with a chapter of its own in Shane Parrish’s, The Great Mental Models Vol. 1. Covering topics that have been written about elsewhere is fine, of course, but I was hoping to see a fresh take on the idea.
That said, I appreciate McKeown’s ability to simplify complex ideas and distill them in one book around one central theme. Surpassing Essentialism was undoubtedly challenging for McKeown, but he’s done a fine job writing a book that rivals his first.
The Five Big Ideas
- Invert to avoid overwhelm
- Reduce the lag indicator to make the essential effortless
- Start the first obvious action
- Start with rubbish to progress
- Establish an upper bound limit
1. Invert to Avoid Overwhelm
In chapter 1, McKeown shares an experience where a company invited him to present to an audience on leadership. However, due to his over-preparedness, he bombed. In his own words, “It was my most humiliating professional failure—ever.”
McKeown realized, later, that trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want. This is because we’re conditioned to believe that we must also overdo if we are to overachieve. As a result, we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.
McKeown invites the reader to look at problems from the opposite perspective and ask, “What if this could be easy?” as a means to reset one’s thinking. He calls this idea, Effortless Inversion and, while rooted in problem-solving, is helpful in other areas, too.
When Tim Ferriss needed to make a sales quota in an earlier job, he asked himself, “What would this look like if it were easy?” and realized he could close more prospects if he called earlier than the other sales reps. (For more on Ferriss’ other questions, read Tools of Titans.)
2. Reduce the Lag Indicator to Make the Essential Effortless
British activist Jane Tweson brought charity and comedy together as a way to make giving easier. As a result, Red Nose Day has managed to raise £1 billion for the most disadvantaged people in Africa and depressed areas within the UK.
McKeown writes that we all have things we like to do, and things we don’t, but must do due to their importance. He adds that, while not every essential activity is enjoyable, we can make them so when we reduce the lag indicator.
“It’s no secret that many essential activities that are not particularly joyful in the moment produce moments of joy later on,” writes McKeown. “But essential activities don’t have to be enjoyed only in retrospect. We can also experience joy in the activity itself.”
By pairing essential activities with enjoyable ones—such as listening to a particular podcast while washing the dishes after dinner—we can make tackling even the most tedious and overwhelming tasks more effortless and enjoyable.
For a similar idea, read about temptation bundling in Atomic Habits by James Clear.
3. Start the First Obvious Action
In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Reis invites startup entrepreneurs to build a minimum viable product, a version of a new product which “allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least amount of effort.”
Reed Hastings validated his idea for an over-the-top content platform (later Netflix) when he mailed himself a DVD. The founders of Airbnb posted a few photos of their apartment on a simple webpage to test the startup’s proof of concept.
McKeown posits that, while common in entrepreneurship, one can apply the same idea to any essential goal. He writes, “Instead of procrastinating, wasting enormous amounts of time and effort planning for a million possible scenarios, we can opt for taking the minimum viable first action: the action that will allow us to gain the maximum learning from the least amount of effort.”
When you’re struggling to name the first obvious action, either make it a little easier to get started on what’s important now or make it a little harder to do something trivial instead. The First Obvious Action is similar to James Clear’s idea behind an atomic habit and BJ Fogg’s insistence to make new habits super simple to start. For more on this topic, check out the titles below:
4. Start with Rubbish to Progress
In his excellent book Atomic Habits, author James Clear recounts the surprising story of Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida. On the first day of class, Uelsmann divided his film photography students into two groups.
He explained that everyone on the left side of the classroom would be in the “quantity” group, and he would grade them on the amount of work they produced. Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. Their grade would be contingent on the excellence of their work.
At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that the quantity group produced all the best photos. “It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change,” writes Clear. “We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.”
In chapter 9, McKeown expands on Clear’s idea, arguing overachievers tend to struggle with the notion of starting with rubbish due to holding themselves to a high standard of perfection at every stage in the process. To make effortless progress on what matters, says McKeown, we must “fail cheaply” by making learning-sized mistakes.
5. Establish an Upper Bound Limit
In 1996, Southwest Airlines declined offers from several major cities to expand its services to its locations. The reason was not due to insufficient funds, but rather, its leaders had added an upper bound limit to its growth. (Source.)
In chapter 10, McKeown later discusses a musician friend who decided to write a book about her songs. The artist was prolific, with 3,000 songs, 101 albums, and nine cantatas to her name. Her approach was to choose one hundred pieces and write two stories a week. Then, when she finished those two stories, she would stop work for the week, even if she had the energy and appetite to write more. Two stories a week, writes McKeown, was her upper bound limit. Within nine months, her book was finished and sent to the publisher.
McKeown writes that, when it comes to our desired outcomes, “all progress is not created equal.” We all mean well and have the right intentions, but life is complex and uncertain, and for that reason, we can’t commit to an even pace. That will always be outside of our control.
To make progress, then, we need to choose the right range and keep within it. The upper bound should be high enough to constitute good progress but not so high as to leave us feeling exhausted. Set an effortless pace: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Effortless Summary: Favorite Quotes from the Book
- “When you simply can’t try any harder, it’s time to find a different path.” (p. 5).
- “Essentialism was about doing the right things; Effortless is about doing them in the right way.” (p. 12).
- “Instead of trying to get better results by pushing ever harder, we can make the most essential activities the easiest ones.” (p. 12).
- “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 sustain momentum.” (pp. 16-17).
- “The Effortless State is one in which you are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in that moment. You are able to do what matters most with ease.” (p. 26).
- “Trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want. Here is what I realized: behind almost every failure of my whole life I had made the same error. When I’d failed, it was rarely because I hadn’t tried hard enough, it was because I’d been trying too hard. We are conditioned over the course of our lifetimes to believe that in order to overachieve we must also overdo. As a result, we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.” (p. 32).
- “Effortless Inversion means looking at problems from the opposite perspective. It means asking, ‘What if this could be easy?’ It means learning to solve problems from a state of focus, clarity, and calm. It means getting good at getting things done by putting in less effort.” (pp. 32-33).
- “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. Asking the question ‘What if this could be easy?’ is a way to reset our thinking. It may seem almost impossibly simple. And that’s exactly why it works.” (p. 33).
- “When a strategy is so complex that each step feels akin to pushing a boulder up a hill, you should pause. Invert the problem. Ask, ‘What’s the simplest way to achieve this result?’” (p. 39).
- “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. (pp. 70-71).”
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