Greg McKeown


Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most

by Greg McKeown, 238 pages

Finished on 15th of July, 2023
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The ”Essentialism” follow-up called “Effortless” advocates working smarter, prioritizing, and recovering adequately. Reading, learning, teaching all have high returns. Removing decisions and taking the direct route towards our goals helps.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. We need to start being aware of our wrong belief that nothing worth while comes without effort because effort alone is no indicator for success.
  2. “Work smarter, not harder.”
  3. Learning to say “No” to opportunities with minimal benefit and focussing on high leverage activities instead brings us closer to a fulfilled life.

🎨 Impressions

Many people are convinced everything has to be done with the greatest possible effort. If no effort went into it, it wasn’t worth it or the outcome isn’t valuable. That’s certainly what was ingrained in me during my time at school. During the later years there, I lost almost all my motivation to work for good grades or listen to what the teachers were telling us. And I often heard the critique of “He is just doing the bare minimum here. Only that which is necessary, nothing more.” – which was meant in a negative way, but on some level I was always perplexed by that way of thinking behind the statement. Isn’t doing what’s necessary for reaching whatever goals you have and nothing more the best and most efficient way? Minimum input for maximum output? In my world, that’s a good idea, especially if the way towards the goal isn’t that enjoyable.

So this book struck a chord. The adult life often is no different: in order to shine at many jobs, you need to be able to do lots of pointless work and put in more hours. On the other hand, there’s this notion that the book’s message might be directed at the Generation Z, who are known to be looking for more meaningful work and are not satisfied with tedious repetitive jobs, but seek a work-life balance and make use of Sabbaticals instead.

I myself went into the book searching for answers for my own situation. Ever since I started my company 12 years ago, it felt like I was putting way more effort into it than I got out of it in the form of energy gained or simply financial rewards. Developing the company went too slowly, measured by my expectations. I would love to know how I could make faster and more significant progress without as much effort. In the end, though, I’m afraid to say that this book didn’t offer the answers. Most of the ideas weren’t new to me, because I had read them in other books before.

And that’s one of my main critiques of the book: It feels like not much effort went into writing Effortless. Ironic, but also very fitting. Can’t blame Greg McKeown, honestly, because he did what the book promised!

Many chapters are just extended summaries of other books I’ve read, like Jim Collins’ classic “Good to Great”, or Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”. These books aren’t mentioned once in passing, they actually provide the content for the book. If you haven’t read them before, fair enough, you get some value from Effortless. For me, it leaves a bad aftertaste, because Effortless was a quick follow-up to the successful book Essentialism, which I haven’t read so far but probably should, in order to squeeze some more money out of the market. The cover is nearly identical, for example, just so you think you’re going to gain some similarly groundbreaking new perspectives from it. Far from it, unfortunately. Just a money grab.

Another weak point is that many stories in the book are supposed to illustrate concepts, but lead nowhere and aren’t even entertaining in itself. You could just have deleted them and book wouldn’t have been much different. It’s a rather short book, which is a plus, but since the content is so thinly spread, I’d say it should have been a blog post instead.

Or even, just one sentence. “Work smarter, not harder.”

I took a few small ideas out of it, still. Those are the benefits of power naps, the information that having a hot bath will increase quality of sleep if done sixty minutes before bedtime, the concept of “Swedish Death Cleaning” which is an intriguing form of material minimalism, and the idea of starting a new task with a ten minute “Microburst” to get things going properly. Time not wasted.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • Asking the question “What would this look like if it were easy?” when encountering a difficult challenge has already helped me in making a few important decisions.
  • The concept of a “Microburst”, which is a ten minute high focus work sprint when starting a new task or project to get things going is interesting to me and could be a viable way to beat procrastination. Once you’re in that burst, it’s easier to keep going until significant progress is made.
  • It’s another book advocating the benefits of a mid-day power nap. I’m still quite reluctant to take the time for these, but this book has pushed me more towards the tipping point.

📔 Highlights

Not Everything Has to Be So Hard

“Working longer and harder had been the solution to every problem,” McGinnis said. But all of a sudden, he realized, “The marginal return of working harder was, in fact, negative.”

What about you? Do you ever feel as though you’re running faster but not moving any closer to your goals?

Essentialism was about doing the right things; Effortless is about doing them in the right way.

Puritanism went beyond embracing the hard; it extended to also distrusting the easy. But achieving our goals efficiently isn’t unambitious. It’s smart.

[..] in the words of George Eliot, “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”

Part I: Effortless State: How Can We Make It Easier to Focus?

Think about how a computer slows down when its hard drive gets cluttered with files and browsing data. The machine still has incredible computing power, but it’s less available to perform essential functions. Similarly, when your brain is filled with clutter—like outdated assumptions, negative emotions, and toxic thought patterns—you have less mental energy available to perform what’s most essential.

It’s like we all automatically accept that the “right” way is, inevitably, the harder one.

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.

In [Warren] Buffett’s words, “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.” 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?”

Rituals make essential habits easier to sustain by infusing the habits with meaning. For example, think of Marie Kondo’s approach to tidying up. She doesn’t simply invite us to get rid of the things cluttering our closets, she suggests a ritual for letting go.

Do you have any items like this, living rent-free in your mind? Outdated goals, suggestions, or ideas that snuck into your brain long ago and took up permanent residence?

We live in a complaint culture that gets high on expressing outrage: especially on social media, which often seems like an endless stream of grumbling and whining about what is unsatisfactory or unacceptable. Even if we don’t get caught up in it directly, it can still affect us.

When you focus on something you are thankful for, the effect is instant. It immediately shifts you from a lack state (regrets, worries about the future, the feeling of being behind) and puts you into a have state (what is going right, what progress you are making, what potential exists in this moment).

BJ Fogg, founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, says that to create a new habit we simply need to look for something we already do and then attach a new behavior to it.

But as we conduct a performance review, we discover grudges perform poorly. Grudges cost us resources but don’t deliver a satisfying return on our investment. So we must relieve a grudge of its duties.

Recent research in physiology supports Maddon’s counterintuitive response. Studies show that peak physical and mental performance requires a rhythm of exerting and renewing energy—and not just for athletes.

We can miss the signs that we’ve reached the end of an energy cycle. We can ignore the loss of focus, low energy, and fidgeting. We can power through. We can artificially try to compensate with caffeine or sugar to get past our energy slump. But in the end, our fatigue catches up with us, making essential work much harder than it needs to be.

[..] research shows that today we get less sleep—almost two hours less on average—than fifty years ago.

Getting more sleep may be the single greatest gift we can give our bodies, our minds, and even, it turns out, our bottom lines.

As you try to fall asleep, banish all thoughts about what you “could be doing.” Your to-do’s will all still be there when you wake up. Only now, you’ll be able to get them done faster, and with greater ease.

The Effortless State is an experience many of us have had when we are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely aware, alert, present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in this moment. You are able to focus on what matters most with ease.

Part II: Effortless Action: How Can We Make Essential Work Easier to Do?

For example, when you have an important project to deliver, take sixty seconds to close your eyes and actually visualize what it would look like to cross it off as done:

“What are the minimum steps required to complete this?”

There is rarely a need to go that second mile beyond what’s essential. It’s better to go just the first mile than to not go anywhere at all.

There is no mastery without mistakes. And there is no learning later without the courage to be rubbish.

“If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release,” he says, “you released it too late.” Or put another way, “When it comes to product launches, imperfect is perfect.”

Part III: Effortless Results: How Can We Get The Highest Return on the Least Effort?

Reading a book is among the most high-leverage activities on earth. For an investment more or less equivalent to the length of a single workday (and a few dollars), you can gain access to what the smartest people have already figured out.

Use the Lindy Effect. This law states that the life expectancy of a book is proportional to its current age—meaning, the older a book is, the higher the likelihood that it will survive into the future. So prioritize reading books that have lasted a long time. In other words, read the classics and the ancients.

Whenever we want a far-reaching impact, teaching others to teach can be a high-leverage strategy.

It amazes me how easy it is to forget previous generations. Most people cannot tell you the first and last names of their eight great-grandparents.

It turns out there is a far simpler way to pass our history on to future generations: through the sharing of family stories. Stories are bridges from past to present. They make history come alive. They expand our sense of self.

Think about how hard it is to recall the route we’ve taken dozens of times until we have to give someone else directions—or how hard it is to fully absorb the plot of a novel you read until you’ve described it to someone.

If you try to teach people everything about everything, you run the risk of teaching them nothing. You will achieve residual results faster if you clearly identify—then simplify—the most important messages you want to teach others to teach.

Making decisions is mentally draining. Making decisions that will satisfy dozens of other people, each with different preferences, constraints, and priorities, is both mentally draining and close to impossible.

When you have low trust on teams, everything is hard. Just sending a text or an email is exhausting as you weigh up every word for how it might be taken. When the response comes back you may experience a jolt of anxiety. Every conversation feels like it’s a grind.

Warren Buffett uses three criteria for determining who is trustworthy enough to hire or to do business with. He looks for people with integrity, intelligence, and initiative, though he adds that without the first, the other two can backfire.

Now: What Happens Next Matters Most

Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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