Author: Greg McKeown
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:
- Effortless State. Clear the clutter in your head so that it’s easier to process new information and can make clear, level-headed decisions.
- Effortless Action. Simplify the process by which you get stuff done. Find ways to sustain your momentum.
- 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.
Similarly, avoid holding onto grudges. They’re easier to focus on than being grateful for things, but is far more toxic to your mental well-being. Holding a grudge means that someone who slighted you holds agency over your happiness.
Accept the things you can’t control. People have their flaws. If you can’t control something, you have the choice to ruminate on it or to accept it as it is. The latter frees you from having to worry about it.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” — Maya Angelou
Chapter 4: Rest
Consistently working hard will lead to burnout. To be able to grow and maintain peak performance, rest is also required.
The amount of work you do should be no more than you can recover from and should not completely exhaust you.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.” — K Anders Ericsson
- I have personally felt this back in 2019; I wrote about it on my blog
- The Stress-Rest cycle is also talked about in Peak Performance.
To keep up a healthy amount of work, do the most essential things at the start of your day, when you have the most discipline and energy. Break that time into work sessions that are no more than 90 minutes each. Schedule 10-15 breaks in between them.
Don’t ignore fatigue. If you feel it building up, take a break and rest so you can continue later. The break doesn’t need to be long; even a one minute break in some situations is enough.
Sleep is one of the most common things that we neglect, yet is critical for us to be able to perform well. A single night of “good sleep” is not enough to make up for the past several days of poor sleep; we have accumulated too much sleep debt. This is one of the easiest and simplest things you can do to improve your life.
When a full night’s sleep isn’t possible, take a nap. (See: Naps) Aim for a 90 minute nap for a full recovery.
Chapter 5: Notice
There are countless things competing for our attention. This interferes with our ability to observe and notice things. If we can train our “attention muscles”, then we can take more information in with less effort.
Listening isn’t hard; it’s stopping our mind from wandering that’s hard.
Give your full focus and attention to those you’re speaking with. If a relationship bid comes your way, respond with either turning toward or turning against. This ensures you’re present.
If someone comes to you for advice, avoid providing recommendations. Instead, aim to ask questions to help the other person come to their own conclusions. They may not be telling you the whole story, and your situations are going to be different compared to theirs. Quakers had a system called the Clearness Committee which effectively performed that.
Part II: Effortless Action
The primary goal with action is continuous practice: to get to the point where you try without trying, for your actions to become instinctive. Getting to this point requires deliberate practice, but too much time invested and you’ll hit the point of diminishing returns (or possibly even negative returns).
When practising, you want to invest just enough time so that you hit that optimal juice-to-squeeze ratio of time-to-value.
Accomplish what matters by trying less.
Chapter 6: Define
The easiest way to kill a project is to not define what “done” looks like. By defining “done”, you can perform the steps required, finish it up, then move on to something else.
When you have lots of things to get done, consider a “done for the day” list. When looking at your to-do list, if you see something on there that will haunt you if you don’t get it done today, put it on the list. You then work from that list first.
Chapter 7: Start
The first step taken by Netflix to test out the product was to mail a used CD from one person to the other, just to see if sending CDs and DVDs in the mail was even viable (in software development, we’d consider this the MVP: Minimum Viable Product).
To begin, first take the first thing you believe you need to do. What’s stopping you from actioning it? Find the first thing preventing you from performing the action. Repeat until you have something you can comfortably action. The remaining items are your To Do list.
Apply April Perry’s concept of a Microburst: ten minutes of highly focused work that has an immediate impact on your project.
Do your best to avoid distractions in the now. Twitter and social media can distract you from your goals.
Chapter 8: Simplify
No matter how simple the step, it’s still easier to take no step.
Amazon holds the patent on one-click purchasing of online goods after Jeff Bezos set that as the goal for the online marketplace.
For any project, ask the question: what are the minimum steps required for completion? The goal is to identify what is unnecessary. This isn’t getting rid of critical pieces.
When being asked to do something, you don’t have to go the extra mile. You can do exactly what was asked of you. Going beyond has limited value, because by definition, going beyond is doing more than is necessary. Don’t add anything extra. Similarly, don’t start with complex and then make it simpler; start with nothing, and then add on to it.
Chapter 9: Progress
There is no mastery without mistakes. And there is no learning later without the courage to be rubbish.
We learn the most by making mistakes. Our goal should be to make those mistakes as quickly as possible, and to have the cost of those mistakes be as low as possible. For example, you’d rather waste $20 than $2,000, and you’d rather find out it was a waste now rather than in a month.
Over-achievers tend to be obsessed with perfection. In this case, perfection means unnecessary things got done (see Chapter 8: Simplify). Avoid this by starting off with the ugly.
It’s worth noting that this is not an excuse to not try or to deliberately produce garbage. The goal is to try something and have the failures come quickly so that you can learn from those failures and make better mistakes — and better quality work — afterward.
Chapter 10: Pace
Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
Never less than X, never more than Y.
A common approach to getting things done is to “power through”: to push yourself so hard that you need to take a break. What then happens is you rest, then feel like you need to make up for lost time, so you “power through” again. This cycle repeats itself until burnout hits.
Instead of setting a lower bound, set an upper bound. Set a value that is below your usual limit, so at the end you’re wanting to do more and haven’t gotten tired. This is, effectively, pacing yourself.
Pacing yourself has two benefits. The first is the aforementioned lack of burnout. The other is your focus is more maintained. If you get tired, you’re more likely to go off on tangents.
Pacing yourself means being able to handle the unexpected issues that will get in the way of your goals. You have “gas in the tank” so you can respond appropriately and still be able to maintain your momentum going forward.
Part III: Effortless Results
Chapter 11: Learn
If our goal is residual results, we want to focus on learning things that can be applied over and over, rather than one specific thing for a specific purpose. While those can be useful, they yield linear results instead.
Aim to learn principles, not methods. A principle is a concept that can be applied broadly and repeatedly. An example of this is understanding why something is done a certain way or how something works.
Look for commonalities between seemingly distinct principles. By doing so, you’ll be able to apply principles from different disciplines to new areas. Newton’s third law has applications across the world.
Aim to understand the core concepts first. As you learn more, you will begin to figure out what is critical, what is not, and what can be related to other topics.
Combining principles from different disciplines pays off. You get to combine the best knowledge gathered by some of the smartest people in each discipline into something new. The combining of that knowledge breeds novelty and new ideas.
Reading is an excellent way to gain this knowledge. But don’t read to say that you’ve read; instead, your goal should be to absorb as much of that information as possible.
- Take a few minutes after each chapter to summarize the key points from what you just read. Distill it down into no more than a single page.
- Collect and share that information in a Zettelkasten or digital garden so you have an easy-to-use reference.
Our goal is residual results; taking this knowledge and synthesizing it means we can gain a reputation as someone who knows things that nobody else knows. Leverage what others know, combine together, and produce something that nobody else knows.
Chapter 12: Lift
Two effective ways of exponentially passing along information to others:
- Stories. Stories connect the past and present together, keeping the knowledge and the lessons alive.
- Teaching others to teach. First learn how to teach. Then teach others how to teach what you’ve learned. Don’t just teach what you know; that’s just regurgitating knowledge. Someone truly knows the information when they can teach it to somebody else. The Sesame Street Rule is that you should go for the straightforward message that can be easily understood and repeated.
Teaching others has an exponential effect. If you teach a small group about something and they are able to teach that information, then they can go and do the same thing.
Chapter 13: Automate
The limits of human memory breed avoidable errors.
There’s only so many things that the human brain can remember or retain for quick access. Especially for complex tasks, we are likely going to forget some critical part of the process.
We can offload this cognitive complexity by writing down lists. For example, if you need to winterize your home, writing down each tasks required will prevent you from missing something critical each year. This frees up your mind to think about other tasks.
Another form of automation with high value is automatic scheduling. Tasks such as automatic re-booking of appointments, automatically ordering a consumable on a regular basis, etc eliminates the need to remember to do them.
Chapter 14: Trust
When working in a team, high levels of trust are required for a high-performing team. Information is openly shared, team members ask questions, and work is split quickly between others. If you have low trust in your team, then communication slows and you feel the need to constantly check the work of others. No delegation takes place.
Trust is made up of several factors:
- That they will do the right thing when nobody is around
- That they will uphold their responsibilities
- That they will use good judgment
- That they’ll do what they say they’ll do, and do it well.
Warren Buffet looks for integrity, intelligence, and initiative.
This is critical when hiring employees.
While hiring quickly may lighten the load at first, hiring well will lighten the load consistently and repeatedly, saving you many more headaches in the long run.
Develop a high-trust structure around your team. Goals are shared. Rules and standards are understood and communicated. The right results are prioritized and rewarded consistently. That agreement should ask:
- What results do we want?
- Who is doing what_
- What minimum viable standards must be kept?
- What resources are available and needed?
- How will progress be evaluated and rewarded?
Chapter 15: Prevent
Avoid problems before they occur in the first place.
Identify something that causes you a lot of frustration. Take one small step to reducing that (obligatory xkcd).
When taking action to prevent problems, deal with the root cause, not a symptom.
Look for ways to be proactive rather than reactive. If you’re reactive, then everything is a crisis.
- I first heard this term used by Tim Urban during his TED Talk.↩
- 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.↩
- I see callbacks here to Tiago Forte’s PARA organizational method: move things into the archive when they no longer serve a purpose.↩