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Effortless

Author: Greg McKeown

Introduction

He felt like the tragic character Boxer the Horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, described as the farm’s most dedicated laborer whose answer to every problem, every setback, was “I will work harder” — that is, until he collapsed from overwork and was sent to the knacker’s yard.

Burnout is not a badge of honor.

The focus of this book is to do things the right way such that you’re accomplishing what you want to get done without burning yourself out. Motivation isn’t enough to get things done. One challenge is to do the right things, the second (which this book addresses) is how to do those things so that you don’t burn out.

The goal: easy but pointless things become harder, and hard but worthwhile things become easier.

This process is broken down into three parts:

  1. Effortless State. Clear the clutter in your head so that it’s easier to process new information and can make clear, level-headed decisions.
  2. Effortless Action. Simplify the process by which you get stuff done. Find ways to sustain your momentum.
  3. Effortless Results. Find ways to turn your linear results to residual results.

“What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other”? —George Eliot

Part I: Effortless State

The Effortless State can be defined as feeling lighter. This is both from the feeling of being burdened (i.e. “I feel like there’s a weight off my shoulders”), but also a from a happiness perspective (i.e. “I’m not about to snap at everything”).

Chapter 1: Invert

We tend to equate “hard” with “valuable” and “easy” with “trivial” — that the amount of effort put in has a direct correlation to the value it has. We apply this to our work in most cases, and feel guilty if we got a lot done with little effort, as if we cheated.

An alternative way of looking at this could be “how can I make this essential task easy?“. In general, McKeown suggests always asking “what if the opposite were true?“. Take a fact or opinion then ask that question, and evaluate the results.

If something seems impossible to achieve, look for indirect ways of making incremental progress. William Wilberforce attempted to abolish the slave trade in Britain, but the British Parliament was not interested in making changes here. Instead, Wilberforce was able to remove a maritime law that prevented search and seizure of ships flying under a neutral flag (under which most slave traders flew). By doing so, slave ships were able to be seized, cutting off a lot of the maritime slave trade.

Make decisions based on what you deem to be important, not what everyone else is doing. When every other airline had fancy tickets, Southwest Airlines opted to print their tickets on ordinary paper. The information on the ticket was more important than what the ticket was printed on.

“If you can think about how hard it is to push a business uphill, particularly when you’re just getting started, one answer is to say: ‘Why don’t you just start a different business you can push downhill?’ ” — Seth Godin

“Easier” does not mean “inferior”. Look for situations where even the smallest bit of effort moves the important stuff forward.

Chapter 2: Enjoy

Having fun when you haven’t accomplished the important things becomes the dark playground1. So if you want to actually enjoy your fun time, accomplish something first.

Often things that are good for us in the long-term are not enjoyable in the short-term (exercising, meditating, eating healthy, etc). This is known as a lag indicator. Look for ways to reduce the lag between effort and reward. For example, do chores while listening to a podcast or music.

McKeown suggests pairing mundane, must-do work with fun things. Music is one of the things McKeown touches on frequently. Almost everyone likes music, so find something that matches the task before you.

Don’t underestimate the power of the right soundtrack to ditch the drudgery and get into a groove.

Other examples provided:

  • Treating the weekly family financial meeting as a date rather than a chore by bringing out chocolate covered almonds and putting on good music on repeat.
  • Putting on Disney songs while cleaning up after dinner so the whole family sings along.

Find rituals to form our habits around. Rituals are how you perform the habit. If you can embrace the ritual, the habit will also form.

Chapter 3: Release

Keep an eye out for Stormtroopers2: outdated goals or desires that you’re continuing to work toward but don’t actually want or need. As these pile up, they take up more brain power and cause you to not be able to focus3.

As a real world example, social media tends to thrive on complaining. The more we complain, the more you hear complaints and the easier it is to complain about things. By contrast, the more you practice gratitude, the more you notice things you should be grateful for and the easier it becomes to be grateful for everyday things.

Gratitude is a powerful, catalytic thing. It starves negative emotions of the oxygen they need to survive. It also generates a positive, self-sustaining system wherever and whenever it is applied.

Part II: Effortless Action

Part III: Effortless Results


  1. I first heard this term used by Tim Urban during his TED Talk.
  2. The origin of “Stormtrooper” here came from McKeown’s wife Anna. After McKeown went had it in is head for a long time that he wanted a Stormtrooper costume, he went to try it on and then immediately realized that he didn’t want it. Now Anna will ask “Is this a Stormtrooper?” if something McKeown is working toward doesn’t seem like it holds value anymore.
  3. I see callbacks here to Tiago Forte’s PARA organizational method: move things into the archive when they no longer serve a purpose.