If you’ve ever tried, and perhaps succeeded in achieving a big goal, you know that great results require hard work (and lots of it). The sacrifice and struggle associated with accomplishment are part of the puritan work ethic, bootstrap-it-up mythology many of us have been marinating in since birth, both in our culture and in our family of origin.
But what if that collective tough-it-out story and the beliefs behind it are making things harder for us than they need to be?
In the new book, Effortless: How to Make It Easy to Do What Matters, author Greg McKeown puts forth a simple yet bold principle: getting great results doesn’t have to be so hard.
As someone who grew up seeped in the belief that hard work is noble and shortcuts are character defects, making things easier for myself feels like sacrilege. No pain, no gain, right?
Maybe not. Think back to the times when you were producing your best results. Was it all grinding hard work? Or were there moments when you were operating in the coveted (and much written about) state of flow? When things came easily, when you were so fully immersed in the activity you were performing at a high level, yet it felt effortless?
My own high-impact, low-effort moments in writing, speaking, consulting and even parenting, are those instances when everything seems to line up; it becomes easy. I find that in those magic moments, I’m actually doing my best work, and with much less effort. In Effortless, McKeown suggests that we can create more of this for ourselves by shifting our thinking and changing some of our habits.
He writes, “We’ve been conditioned to believe if we want to overachieve, we have to overexert, over-think and over-do. That if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we’re not doing enough. The problem is the more depleted we get, the harder it is to make progress.”
Have you ever had the experience of putting forth more effort for diminishing returns? I certainly have, like when you find yourself reworking the same presentation, and it’s not getting any better, or you keep rereading the same documents and finding yourself even more muddled. “Instead of pushing yourself harder,” McKeown suggests, “You can choose an easier path.”
McKeown provides concrete strategies for making the most essential activities the easiest ones. His recommendations range from shifting your mental approach, to defining expectations differently at the start of a project, to leveraging the best of what others have to offer.
For example, to shift your mental approach, it’s crucial that we recognize how frequently unhelpful (and often unconscious) emotions drift into our day, cluttering our minds and diverting our attention. McKeown, whose previous book was Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, explains that our brain prioritizes emotions with high affective value like fear, resentment, or anger – these win out “leaving us with fewer mental resources to make progress on the things that matter.“
If you’re trying to get a critical and complex project done, if you’re struggling with focus, the problem might not be the challenge of the project itself. Instead, it may the mental load of unrelated emotions that cluttering the hard drive of your brain.
McKeown describes our brain’s cognitive overload like a slow-running computer, that speeds up when you clear the browsing data; we can hit reset on our minds to get to our original effortless state. Small things like a warm meal, a shower and a good night sleep make once challenging things feel doable.
In Effortless, McKeown writes “Life is hard, really hard, in all sorts of ways ranging from the complex to the weighty, the sad to the exhausting. To pretend that we can eliminate these hardships would be fanciful.” His research and recommendations are “Not meant to downplay these burdens but to lighten them.”
One strategy for making important things easier is to look for simpler solutions. Far from dumbing down your challenges and goals, the mental discipline of stripping away complexity, enables you to see crucial issues more clearly. As Reed Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn has said, “I have come to learn that part of the business strategy is to solve the simplest easiest most valuable problem. And actually, in fact, part of doing strategy is to solve the easiest problem.
Some of McKeown’s other strategies include creating building blocks of joy by inserting fun things into mundane tasks (think dancing to Frozen’s Let It Go while you clean up with your kids) and clearly defining what done looks like. Instead of vague goals like walk more, take one minute of full concentration to clarify exactly how many steps and how often, and what it will feel like when you’re done. McKeown, writes, “This gives your conscious and unconscious mind clear instructions.”
To accomplish even bigger things, McKeown suggests, that sometimes the best approach is to “Weaken the Impossible.” He describes how abolitionist William Wilberforce was able to eliminate the British slave trade by tackling a seemingly smaller issue of “neutral flags” the policy that enabled slave traders to sail safely without fear of being attacked. William’s seemingly boring pamphlet recommending eliminating the neutral flags policy was the Trojan horse. By getting policy agreement to a smaller pivot point issue, he weakened the slave trade. A mere two months later, the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed.
As you consider what’s most important to you, McKeown suggests asking yourself, “How am I making things harder than they need to be. When you have your answer to that question, you will have something of great value: You will know what to do next.”