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What if this could be easy? Essentialism author's new book Effortless

Author and speaker Greg McKeown on the benefits of making less effort


Image: Greg McKeown

Computer scientist Reed Hastings could have started Netflix in the most complicated way possible. Instead, he and co-founder Marc Randolph mailed themselves a music CD in the post to see if it would break. It was a CD because it was the same shape and size as the DVD, which in 1997 were new and hard to buy. The CD arrived un-broken and Netflix became a goer.

It's a great story in the new book Effortless, and it teaches us a counter-intuitive lesson.

Take a beat – Hold on, could this be easy?

Greg McKeown, author of EffortlessMake It Easier to Do What Matters Most, said in our book club interview it's about challenging the assumption that the "right" way is inevitably the harder one. Before you start a major project or task, take a beat. Ask yourself: What if this could be easy? 

Essentialism author says we make things harder

Best known for his million-copy bestseller Essentialism, Greg says we can all improve work that feels overwhelming by asking How am I making this harder than it needs to be? We all know that making an effort leads to better results. But sometimes we make things harder than they need to be, and this leads us down the wrong path. What if we considered the possibility that the reason something feels hard is that we haven’t yet found the easier way to do it? 

Turn the assumption upside down

If you assume all worthwhile things take enormous effort, try inverting the assumption. Turn it upside down and ask yourself before you start a project or task What if this could be easy? Then make sure you're not taking extra steps or adding complexity where it's not needed.

Greg’s own lesson that hard is not always better

Greg said he learned this the hard way. A big moment in his career was being asked to share his successful presentation on leadership to a large corporate organisation. If it went well, he would secure a pipeline of work that could last years. The night before the presentation Greg decided he would rework the slides and the messaging. Nobody had requested any changes. It was hard work and took him most of the night, so he arrived tired, and unprepared. Fumbling through unfamiliar material, he bombed. The client cancelled. 

Is it done? Do I have time to recover?

Greg took from this experience of failure that you should never do more today than you can recover from tomorrow. Also, know what “done” looks like. How will you know when the presentation, proposal, project, or task is finished? Because once you get to that point, you stop.

The tragic story of the Vasa

To show the consequences of not knowing what “done” looks like, Greg recounts the tragic story of the Swedish warship Vasa, launched in 1627. The King of Sweden kept changing his mind on what this most magnificent of all ships would look like when it was finished. After changes to the length of the ship and the number of rows of cannons, he changed the types of cannons and added hundreds of carved wooden sculptures. After its launch, the ship lasted one hour afloat and many of the crew drowned. Today you can see the extraordinary ship almost intact in a museum in Stockholm.

Done-for-the-day list

With remote and hybrid work, it’s become harder to know what “done” looks like. So, instead of a to-do list, write a “done-for-the-day” list. This is what you plan to achieve that represents meaningful and essential progress. Ask yourself “If I complete everything on this list, will it leave me feeling satisfied by the end of the day?”

The effort to start

If you find starting too much of an effort, try microbursts of effort. Do a 10-minute run at it. Greg recommends a “zero-draft” approach which is putting words, any words, on the page. In the book Effortless, he calls this “starting with rubbish.”

The effort to keep up momentum

Set yourself a minimum amount of time to work on something, but also a maximum time. Knock off after the maximum time is reached. This will leave you feeling rested, motivated, and less likely to burnout. It’s important for your mental health and wellbeing, and helps you keep momentum so you last the distance.

Multiply your output for effortless results

Finally, find ways to achieve effortless results. Instead of a linear result, look for ways to get some multiplication of every piece of effort. 

·       Learn. Learning is a personal capability that compounds over time.

·       Teach. Teaching others is a way to get exponential impact.

·       Automate. Automate something once and it will continue to work perpetually.

·       Trust. Hire the right person once and they’ll produce results hundreds of times.

·       Prevent. Solve a problem or fix a small issue and save time and aggravation later on.

Greg’s personal journey of pulling back on effort

Greg leaves the most powerful story of the book to the end. It’s the story of his own family, and the health struggles of their daughter Eve. At 14 years old, this happy, intelligent, chatty, and academic child diminished into a shell of her former self – with no medical explanation. She spoke in slurred one-word sentences and took hours to eat a meal.

“The light, once so vibrant and bright in Eve, dimmed,” Greg says in Effortless. “Then it seemed to go out entirely when she was hospitalised after a major seizure.”

Greg and his wife checked their instinct to go at the problem full force, especially the temptation to worry and complain, to overanalyse medical journal articles, or force faster answers from the confused doctors. Instead, they took a second path.

“We realised that the best way to help our daughter and our whole family through this time was not by exerting more effort. In fact, it was the opposite,” he tells us. “We needed to sustain this effort for an unknown length of time. We could not now nor ever burn out.”

They read books, played games, went on walks, told stories, and were grateful. It was a gentle time that left them feeling freer and lighter. It’s been two years and Eve has some way to go but continues to get better. “She smiles, laughs, and jokes. She is thriving again.”

He ends the book with this message from the heart: Each moment is a chance to start over. A chance to make a new choice. For all of us, we can choose: Do I choose the lighter, or the heavier path? 

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