The way we think about productivity hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. We hear the same tropes repeated ad nauseum on social media. Laziness is the enemy. Procrastination is a sin. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
We put pain on a pedestal and deify the daily grind. But what if overworking is the reason you’re not getting anywhere? What if there was another way to reach your goals? What if you’ve been thinking about productivity all wrong?
That’s exactly what Greg McKeown argues in his book, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most. I sat down with Greg to talk about how we can flip our hustle mindset, pursue meaningful goals, and how we might be able to make our work and life just a little bit more effortless.
Read the edited interview below if you want to rethink what it means to be productive, or watch the interview here.
The 10x Dilemma
In your new book, Effortless you argue that we often make life much harder than it needs to be. Why do you think that is?
Everyone is faced with a 10x Dilemma right now. Otherwise insecure overachievers all want to get 10x results, but none of them can work 10 times harder. If they try to work 10X harder, then they just burn out and they still haven’t got the results that they really wanted to achieve. And in the midst of the pandemic, that’s even more true.
There are sort of two types of people in the world right now. There are people who are burned out and there are people who know they are burned out. And in that environment, you have to find an easier, smarter, different way of doing things.
And the beginning of that change starts with a mindset shift. The mindset that we have to get rid of is a Puritan idea, which not only taught that hard work is a virtue — which I absolutely think it is — but that also ease is something to be distrusted, that it’s inherently something that we shouldn’t be doing.
Even our language shows that. We say, ‘easy money,’ ‘an easy day’s work,’ and all sorts of language that demonstrates that we shouldn’t even consider it.
That’s been baked into our hustle culture. That the only way to get through to the next level is through backbreaking, exhausting, endless hours. And that’s just not what the data shows.
So we need a new mindset because the old mindset is just not true.
How long has this “harder is better” mindset shaped our culture and the way we look at work?
It’s part of the foundation of Western civilization. And I think it has a great virtue to it. Of course, we want people to work. Of course, we don’t want people to do nothing and expect that everything will work for them. I mean that’s not at all the argument in the book, but there’s a shelf life to it.”
There’s a limit to that principle. And when you have people who are working hard, pushing themselves to the point of diminishing returns and then they think, ‘Well, the only way to get better results is to keep pushing.’ They end up not with better results, but with negative returns.
Their return on effort becomes terrible. And a lot of people know just what I’m talking about. They’re teetering right on the edge of exhaustion. They’re highly engaged, but in fact, they’re burning out. And so what we want to do is find a new way of thinking, a new way of doing and that’s what Effortless is all about.
Slow & Steady
While hustle mentality certainly has a hold on our culture, there’s a slow movement brewing. People are beginning to talk more about how we can reach our personal and professional goals without burning out. Even so, it’s difficult for people to break away from the toxic workaholic mindset. What are some ways that we can start to slow down without completely losing our progress?
One of the key things we can do to slow down, while still making higher progress is to look at the pace that we are going at.
A lot of insecure overachievers actually make their progress slower by pushing themselves to the absolute limit and beyond. There’s a marvelous example of this during the Age of Exploration.
The imagination of the world was fixated on who would be the first to get to the South Pole, because no one had ever done it — not in the history of the world. Two teams set off, a Norwegian team, and a British team.
The British team took this insecure overachiever approach. That is, ‘We’re going to go to our absolute max. The furthest we can go in a day, every day. We’ll do 20, 30, even 50 miles if the conditions allow it.’
They thought that’s the way to go fastest. But what they actually got from that pace was a boom and bust cycle of execution. On the good weather days they maxed out. But that meant they were exhausted on the bad weather days and made no progress at all and felt the psychological burden of not making even an inch of progress forward. In fact, they bemoaned on those days, wrote in their journals, ‘We have the worst weather of any team that’s ever tried to do this.’ They were quite wrong about that, but it felt like that was right. Meanwhile, the Norwegian team, the expedition leader said, ‘Here’s the rule. On the good weather days, we’re going 15 miles no more, no less.’
And that meant on the bad weather days, they also went 15 miles, no more no less. That pacing had a dramatic effect.
The plot thickens when they got within 45 miles of the South Pole. [The Norwegian team] has perfect weather conditions. They have flat great sledding conditions. They know that if they put one big push, they can get there in one day. And to make it even harder, they don’t know where the British team is. For all they know, the British team is ahead of them.
And that’s really a point of reflection, what would we do? What would you and I do in that moment? What would we do if we followed the norms of our times? I mean, we’d push. We’d just do one big push. Even now I think I’d probably do that.
But they didn’t. The Norwegian team leader said, ‘No, 15 miles.’ And they averaged 15 miles a day for the next three days.
So what happens? He gets to the South Pole with his team intact more than 30 days faster than the British team.
Even that’s worth reflecting on because that’s not what we think should happen. We think that maxing out is the way to make the fastest progress in our life. And it’s not, that’s just not right. But not only did they make it there first, they also had enough energy and health to be able to make the massive journey back to Norway, intact, alive, which is non-trivial because the British team died on the way home.
So when you read the biography, which is brilliant about this story, the biographer chose an unbelievable description of the progress made by the Norwegian team. He said:
“They progressed every day without particular effort.“
Even now, I find that breathtaking. What a thing to write, what a thing to say, how outrageous. It’s the most physically arduous, literally impossible thing to do up to that point, but they achieved it ‘without particular effort.’ That’s the spirit of what we can do differently. And a simple rule to live by for the rest of us is this. Don’t do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow.
How to Set Better Limits
How do we take the principles from this story and apply them to our modern work life with always-on notifications and email in our pocket? How do we take this slow approach when it seems that everything and everybody is trying to tell us to do more and always be on?
I think the key is not only to have a minimum boundary, like a lower bound of focused energy on a particular project, but always to have an upper bound.
So when I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a journal every day.’ The minimum bound was one sentence a day. I made it very low and doable. But my upper bound was five sentences a day. And by having the upper bound, it left enough in the tank to do day two and three and four and five.
This is now more than 10 years ago, and I don’t think I’ve missed a day in 10 years. That’s not some extraordinary accomplishment. It’s just the power of having an upper and lower bound.
The same can be done for our schedules. Have a time when we start work, have a routine, but also set a ‘done for the day’ time.
My ‘done’ time through the last couple of years has been 5:00 PM. So I call out to my family like a town crier when it gets to 5:00 PM as my accountability moment. ‘It’s five o’clock.’ Of course, sometimes it’s 5:03 or whatever, but it gives you an excuse to be done otherwise in our Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat life.
There’s just no natural bound. There’s no natural end. And so an end of the day time gives us that space to then recuperate and relax and rest before the day gets going again the next day.”
Another specific way to apply what we’re talking about here is to have a ‘done for the day’ list.
So instead of having a to-do list that gets longer by the end of the day than it was at the beginning, you have a simple list and you think through what do I need to do today to feel satisfied by the end of the day. And when you complete the list, you’re done, no more sneaky work.
You actually take the time to recuperate, to rest and it’s like a slingshot. You’re able to get into the next day with the energy to be able to do the most important work and to do it sustainably.
It seems really counterintuitive for a lot of people, this idea that rest is productive and rest is a vital part of success. Why do you think that is? Why do you think people inherently think that rest is actually going to hold us back or slow us down when in fact in the long run, it’s going to get you to the South Pole.
We’ve been conned by an Industrial Age mindset of human productivity.
The Industrial Revolution increased productivity 50 times. That’s real, and it totally transformed the productivity of the world and the quality of life of the world. That’s well documented and almost miraculous to compare what life was before, not the romanticized version of it, but just how desperately hard life was before that.
So there’s this great transformation and the risk as with every transformation is you throw the baby out with the bath water. Let’s get rid of the old way. Everything can now be applied to this new factory based system.
And the nature of a factory is you want it on 24/7, or at least you think you do. And so those ideas got applied into management and also into people’s stories about their own productivity.
Well, we’re not machines. We’re biological creatures. And so the data we need to look at is not a factory system, but what actually helps humans perform.
Over the last 25 years, the top performing experts in biological systems — the top coaches, athletes, and performers in almost every industry — have collected data to demonstrate that the very highest performers rest far more.
This rest allows them to do concentrated, focused work when they are working. They build rituals of rest and recuperation. And that really is a very different thing than just saying, ‘Well, go and rest.’
Most insecure overachievers don’t even know how to rest. I mean, literally their competence at rest is at zero on a scale from 1 to 10.” It’s very uncomfortable to suddenly rest or to suddenly go on vacation. They don’t know how to do these things. So you have to admit that level of competence and develop rituals that recuperate you individually. And as you do that, you’re going to find how false the old view is and how productive it is to actually build in these rituals of rest and relaxation, and to take that seriously.
How to Build ‘Effortless’ Rituals
It’s funny when you talk about these ‘insecure overachievers.’ How they want nothing more than to get more done, and the way that they can do that is actually by slowing down. But it’s easier said than done because many of us have a toxic work relationship where we get our sense of accomplishment and value, like all of our accomplishment from this one thing — from work.
When we actually allow ourselves to rest a little bit more, it opens up space for more in our life, whether it’s our relationships or hobbies or doing anything outside of work and not letting our lives get defined by work. When it comes to living an effortless life, I love what you talk about in your book and this is really deeply rooted in a lot of great habit science and habit research, where you take everyday tasks that might feel mundane, but you turn them into something that you and your family can actually enjoy. I’d love it if you talked about that a little bit.
Here’s an example from real life with our four children — all of them teenagers. We have dinner together and that goes fairly well most of the time, but where it really fell through was in the cleanup afterwards.
My children would suddenly just be gone, like ninjas disappearing. I said, ‘How can we make it effortless?’ And so I put a decent amount of effort into building a better system. We trained each person on a specific job. We had an actual calendar. Who’s doing what, when? We went through it multiple times, and the day comes when we’re going to launch this new program and I’ll tell you what happened.
Nothing. Everyone was gone again. It was ninja city. Now all of that helped, but the tipping point was when one of my daughters put on music.
She chose Disney Classics. For some people they’re like, ‘I would not want to be part of that family.’ But for us, it just made it less of a chore and more of an enjoyable ritual. So now it was more like singing. You’ve got almost a little dance party going. Everyone, I won’t say ‘looks forward to it,’ but when it starts to happen, there’s an energy around it.
And the key is this. You’re not just trying to create a habit. This is a habit with a soul. And this is the difference.
A habit is something where you get the reward after the behavior. You want the right behavior so that you get a result later. But a ritual is something that you enjoy in and of itself so that you have some pleasure in the experience and in the result afterwards.
And that really is a way that we can take things that are normally just chores and make them into something that is enjoyable and therefore, of course, more effortless.
Have the Courage to be Rubbish
I know that a lot of people, myself included, struggle with perfectionism. It can often hold us back from finishing our projects and it can even stop us from getting started in the first place. What advice do you have for those people that get trapped in this perfectionist cycle?
We need to embrace a simple new principle that’s counterintuitive to insecure overachievers, and it’s this — have the courage to be rubbish.
For example, in 1959 there’s an industrialist, Henry Kremer, who wanted to try and increase the progress that was being made in human-powered flight. This is years after the Wright Brothers performed those miracles in Kitty Hawk and only 10 years before we’re going to have men walking on the moon.
So he thinks, ‘Look, this is not so impossible. A sort of a bike with wings. We can do this.” And he sets up the rules of this engagement, and a £5,000 prize for whoever achieves it. But 17 years go by and still nobody has done it. And lots of people have tried. They’ve put in massive effort, they’ve put in enormous resources and talent, institutions have been involved and no one’s done it.
Enter the story of Paul MacCready.
Paul MacCready is broke and he has no team behind him so can’t be a perfectionist about it. He can’t build these beautiful machines like his competitors are doing. He says, ‘Look, my young teenage son is going to be the test pilot. And my job is to try and build a machine.’ Well, he has a breakthrough in his thinking.
He suddenly sees, everyone’s trying to solve the wrong problem. They’re trying to build the perfect machine, beautiful, amazing ribbed and plastic and wood and so on. But he said, ‘We have to build something ugly and the key is it must be cheap to rebuild.
So they built the Gossamer Condor.
They’d fly it for five minutes. It would crash, but it only took five minutes to fix it. And so that they would have maybe four or five tests per day, that was as many tests as some of his competitors had in the lifetime of their so-called ‘perfect machines.’ It was in that way that he made far more progress than his competitors. And within just a year or two had solved it, won the first prize and then within two years of that, won the second prize, crossing the English channel entirely through human-powered flight.
That’s the Paul MacCready story, the genius wasn’t really an aeronautical breakthrough. It was a mindset shift. That is the power of embracing, celebrating and having the courage to be rubbish.
When it comes to the most essential, the most important projects of our life, be it professional or personal, they often take months, sometimes years to come to fruition and to finally get off the ground. How can we take this effortless approach to something that seems to be filled with so much effort?
Well, that’s exactly the idea. Your approach has to be as important as your important workers. A lot of people think, ‘The more important it is, the more effort I have to put in upfront.’ But this does not produce the results they want.
When you don’t know how long a project or a goal or a dream or a mission will be to achieve, you can’t use up all your firepower, all your fuel in the first day, the first week, the first month. I learned about this from the most exquisite personal experience — it’s really the ‘why’ behind writing Effortless.
In the midst of already feeling at the edge of my capabilities, despite eliminating non-essentials from my life, I had a family emergency. One of my daughters, Eve, 14 years old, suddenly becomes inexplicably sick and increasingly sick over a four-month period. Neurologists would shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I just don’t know what to tell you, because every test came back in the normal range.’
In the midst of this really calamitous situation for us — she is almost becoming comatose before our eyes — in that situation we know what the essential mission is. We know that having her completely whole again is the goal, but how do you go about it?
It was in the midst of that I discovered not one path, but two. One path was actually the more obvious one. The one we thought was the only path at first. That looks like, well, you barely sleep. You’re going to do nothing else. You’re going to cancel every other appointment. There’s nothing else but to be consumed by this problem because it’s so important.
But we found out almost immediately that was going to destroy everything. We were going to burn ourselves out, burn out our family culture, our marriage, everything. And fortunately, gracefully, we found that there was a second path — a different way of doing and being. That looked like instead of complaining about what we couldn’t control, being grateful for everything that we possibly could. It looked like finding humor in the situation. It looked like getting around the piano and singing. It meant going on walks. And that different approach changed our state, made it more effortless than it otherwise would’ve been.
That gave us insight so we knew which things to do and what not to do. And it allowed us to endure for an undefined period of time. Well, it’s been two years since this all began and she is as of this conversation, completely back. And we are of course grateful for that. But if we burned ourselves out at the beginning, she literally might not have made it. That’s why the way we do things is as important as the things we’re trying to achieve. That’s the ‘why’ behind Effortless.
How to Build an Effortless Life
When it comes to living this ‘effortless’ life and trying to solve these problems, how can we go about doing that? What are some questions that we should be asking ourselves?
One of the simplest fastest ways to start switching the mindset to an effortless one is to ask a new question.
I’m thinking of Kim Jenkins. She works at a university and she’s just the epitome of an over worker. She’s up at 4:00 AM in the morning, photoshopping for a youth event at church the next day. No one’s asking her to do it. She just has that sense of ‘this is the only way to make a contribution.’ She feels guilty if she even eats lunch, not stops for lunch, just even if she eats it.
And I said to her, ‘You’ve got to invert that perspective. It’s almost the opposite of what you’ve done in the past. Remember George Costanza in Seinfeld when he had the opposite day? He did the opposite of every impulse, because he’s totally failed at everything his entire life. And suddenly he succeeds at everything at least for a while. Well that’s basically the idea. Instead of saying, ‘How can I work even harder to get better results?’ You say, ‘How can I make it easier? How can I make it effortless to get the results I’m trying to get?’
The next day she gets a call from a professor at the university who says, ‘I’d like you to get your team to video my class for the semester.’ She knows how to do that. She knows how to wow him. She’ll have a whole team of people there. She’ll have multiple camera angles. We’ll edit it all together. We’ll make this pristine, we’ll do it perfectly. He’s going to love this. And then she pauses. She remembers the coaching. How can this be effortless?
How can I get the result he really wants in a way that’s much, much easier?
And it turns out when she asked a few more questions, that the video is for one student who’s going to miss a few classes because of an athletic commitment. And the solution they come up with is that another student in the class will record it on their phone and send whatever lecture they’re going to miss. It took 10 minutes to come up with a solution. The professor was delighted and she hung up the phone and realized she’d saved four months of time for an entire team. And the result was as good or better than what she would’ve otherwise done.
That’s the power of just that little mental trick. When you’re about to start any project, especially the important ones, ask yourself, how can I make this effortless? What would this look like if it was easy, simpler? What would this look like if it was easy or simpler to do? And you can find that very often there are tools, strategies and ways to approach it that are much, much easier than the one that you are defaulting to.
Linear vs. Residual Results
Personal finance and investing are great examples of where you can put in very little effort up front in the beginning, a little bit of research, put your money in the right place and then see really huge results over the long run. Are there other areas in our lives where we can get a high return with minimal or less effort?
That’s the difference between linear results and residual results. As soon as you start to separate effort from results, it becomes clear that some things, if you invest just a little more effort, you can build a system that will produce results for you. And this is really effortlessness at its logical conclusion. That you can get results while you’re sleeping.
I’m thinking of a friend of mine, Jessica Jackley, who went with a team of people to try and make a difference in Africa. And she found an entrepreneur there who they wanted to help. And they found that a $500 gift would allow her to get out of the cycle of just on the edge of poverty entrepreneurship, renegotiate contracts, and have a chance to move up in her business. And then they just had this thought inspired by Muhammad Yunus. What if we did it as a loan?
Now you could have instead of a 1x contribution, a 10x contribution, because the loan gets re-loaned out and re-paid and re-loaned out many, many times. And then based on that insight, they said, ‘What if we could build a platform that would allow other people to provide micro loans and other people to get them?’ And that’s how kiva.org was born.
Compare that one-time gift of $500. It makes a difference, nothing wrong with that. But compared to kiva.org, which has loaned over $1.3 billion with 97% repayment rate? What’s the difference? It’s not even a 10x difference. It’s not 100x, it’s way beyond 1000x.
As soon as you make that shift between linear results — one-time effort gets one-time results — to residual results where you put in one-time effort to build something that builds the results for you, everything shifts.
And the question is what’s the current ratio in our lives? Even as entrepreneurs, what ratio is being invested into systems that repay you? We’ve talked before about a checklist. That’s an example of it, but you can think this way about everything you do. You can say, ‘How can I automate this? Is there a technical solution? And if I automate the process, I can do it once, build it once and then it flows to me 100 times, 1,000 times without even thinking about it.’
But the same is true for hiring somebody and training them. That takes a bit more work upfront. And so that’s why we don’t do it. Because we can do the job faster, quicker than someone else at first. But if you multiply that out 100 times or 1,000 times, well, now it’s much, much more efficient to hire someone else to train them to do it.
And so you start to realize it’s not like an idea none of us have ever heard of, but we start to shift the ratio so that we’re investing in things that have a high return on our effort. That’s the power of leverage and it’s an important shift to get effortless results.
Well, Greg, thank you so much for taking the time today. If people want to learn more about you and your work, where should we send them?
Well, let me just say Matt D’Avella, I love what you’re doing. I love the contribution that you’re making and I love slow growth. You can’t say it better than that. That’s exactly the right idea. And everybody knows it when they hear that.
There’s a new podcast that I’ve been building called the What’s Essential Podcast. That’s a free resource people can access. There’s also a 1-minute Wednesday newsletter people can sign up for. So either of those things are opportunities to continue the conversation.
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