Book Notes: Effortless by Greg McKeown

Author: Greg McKeown
Year Read: 2022
Overall Satisfaction (1-5): 3

🚀 Summary

“[Greg McKown] was burned out. I had literally written the book on how to be an Essentialist, and here I was, overwhelmed and spread far too thin.”

Effortless is about creating a framework to do the right things the right way for the rest of your life without burning out.

🙋 Who Should Read It?

Anyone genuinely interested in looking at their life from a meta-perspective. Are you doing the right things? Are there ways they can be done better so that you have more energy?

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

The ideas presented were just a remix of things learned elsewhere, but the book was a strong reinforcement of best practices to get things started AND done.

There is also a strong collection of excellent meta-thinking questions, many of which I plan to journal on or could use as starting points to resolve trouble areas in my life.

✍️ My Top 5 Takeaways

– What if the biggest thing keeping us from doing what matters is the false assumption that it has to take tremendous effort?
– Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
– In order to succeed at something, you have to get it done. That means starting with a “zero draft,” which is so bad it wouldn’t even qualify as a first draft, having a clear definition of done, and remembering there is rarely a need to go that second mile.
– K. Anders Ericsson: “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.”
– Every relationship has a structure. A low-trust structure is one where expectations are unclear, where goals are incompatible or at odds, where people don’t know who is doing what, where the rules are ambiguous and nobody knows what the standards for success are, and where the priorities are unclear and the incentives misaligned. Low-trust relationships generally happen by default.

🤔 Questions

– What could happen in your life if the easy but pointless things became harder and the essential things became easier?
– What if the biggest thing keeping us from doing what matters is the false assumption that it has to take tremendous effort?
– What If This Could Be Fun?
– How can I make xxx enjoyable? (What can I combine it with?)
– What are the minimum steps required to complete this?
– High-Trust Agreements
    – Results: What results do we want?
    – Roles: Who is doing what?
    – Rules: What minimum viable standards must be kept?
    – Resources: What resources (people, money, tools) are available and needed?
    – Rewards: How will progress be evaluated and rewarded?
– What is a problem that irritates me repeatedly? What is the total cost of managing that over several years? What is the next step I can take immediately, in a few minutes, to move toward solving it?

📒 Highlights

– When you simply can’t try any harder, it’s time to find a different path.

– Eventually, I recognized the situation for what it was: I was burned out. I had literally written the book on how to be an Essentialist, and here I was, overwhelmed and spread far too thin. I felt self-imposed pressure to be the perfect Essentialist, but there were no nonessentials left to eliminate. It all mattered. Finally I said to Anna: “I’m not well.” Here is what I learned: I was doing all the right things for the right reasons. But I was doing them in the wrong way.

– When the essentials become too hard to handle, you can either give up on them or you can find an easier way. Essentialism was about doing the right things; Effortless is about doing them in the right way.

– What I learned is this: we all want to do what matters. We want to get in shape, save for a home or for retirement, be fulfilled in our careers, and build closer relationships with people we work and live with. The problem isn’t a lack of motivation; if it were, we would all already be at our ideal weight, live within our means, have our dream job, and enjoy deep and meaningful relationships with all the people who matter most to us. Motivation is not enough because it is a limited resource. To truly make progress on the things that matter, we need a whole new way to work and live.

– For some, the idea of working less hard feels uncomfortable. We feel lazy. We fear we’ll fall behind. We feel guilty for not “going the extra mile” each time. This mindset, conscious or not, may have its roots in the Puritan idea that the act of doing hard things always has an inherent value. Puritanism went beyond embracing the hard; it extended to also distrusting the easy. But achieving our goals efficiently isn’t unambitious. It’s smart. It’s a liberating alternative to both hard work and laziness: one that allows us to preserve our sanity while still accomplishing everything we want.

– What could happen in your life if the easy but pointless things became harder and the essential things became easier?

– We’ve all experienced how the effortless way can feel. For example, have you ever been in a relaxed state and found it easier to get in “the zone”? stopped trying so hard and actually got better results? done something once that has benefited you multiple times?

– When your computer is running slowly, all you have to do is hit a few buttons to clear all the browsing data, and immediately the machine works smoother and faster. In a similar way, you can learn simple tactics to rid yourself of all the clutter slowing down the hard drive of your mind. By hitting a few buttons, you can be restored to your original Effortless State.

– The Effortless State is one in which you are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in that moment. You are able to do what matters most with ease.

– What If This Could Be Easy?

– What if the biggest thing keeping us from doing what matters is the false assumption that it has to take tremendous effort?

– This bias is sometimes called the cognitive ease principle, or the principle of least effort. It’s our tendency to take the path of least resistance to achieve what we want.

– Our survival as a species grows out of innate preference for taking the path of least effort.

– Here is what I learned: trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want. Here is what I realized: behind almost every failure of my whole life I had made the same error. When I’d failed, it was rarely because I hadn’t tried hard enough, it was because I’d been trying too hard.

– To invert means to turn an assumption or approach upside down, to work backward, to ask, “What if the opposite were true?” Inversion can help you discover obvious insights you have missed because you’re looking at the problem from only one point of view.

– Marketing author Seth Godin once shared the following: “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?’

– Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, has said, “I have come to learn that part of the business strategy is to solve the simplest, easiest, and most valuable problem. And actually, in fact, part of doing strategy is to solve the easiest problem.”

– 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?”

– What If This Could Be Fun?

– People say, “I work hard and then I can play hard.” For many people there are essential things and then there are enjoyable things. But this false dichotomy works against us in two ways. Believing essential activities are, almost by definition, tedious, we are more likely to put them off or avoid them completely. At the same time, our nagging guilt about all the essential work we could be doing instead sucks all the joy out of otherwise enjoyable experiences.

– Once, after a week of travel, I came home to find a backlog of voicemails to respond to. This task initially felt arduous and burdensome. My first thought was “Why do I have so many messages?”—which indicates that I must have been a bit burned-out. But then I realized I was asking the wrong question. So instead I asked, “How can I make calling these people back enjoyable?” After just a few seconds the idea came to make the calls from my hot tub.

– You’re going to watch your favorite show, or listen to the new audiobook you just discovered, or relax in your hot tub at some point. So why not pair it with running on the treadmill or doing the dishes or returning phone calls?

– Anna and I once made our own list of twenty building blocks of joy and shared them with each other. They included “tidying up a room, or drawer or cupboard that was a mess (i.e., creating order from chaos),” “listening to a particular song, on repeat, again and again,” and “eating dark chocolate covered almonds.” These lists were easy to create. And once we had them it became even easier to create signature experiences that were essential and enjoyable.

– Rituals are similar to habits in the sense that “when I do X, I also do Y.” But they are different from habits because of one key component: the psychological satisfaction you experience when you do them. Habits explain “what” you do, but rituals are about “how” you do it. Rituals make essential habits easier to sustain by infusing the habits with meaning.

– Complaining is the quintessential example of something that is “easy but trivial.” In fact, it’s one of the easiest things for us to do. But toxic thoughts like these, however trivial, quickly accumulate. And the more mental space they occupy, the harder it becomes to return to the Effortless State.

– The broaden-and-build theory in psychology offers an explanation for why this is the case. Positive emotions open us to new perspectives and possibilities. Our openness encourages creative ideas and fosters social bonds. These things change us. They unlock new physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources. They create “an upward spiral” that improves our odds of coping with the next challenge we face.

– Once Anna got into the habit of looking for things to be grateful for in her co-worker, it became easier and easier to see her strengths. Then Anna was able to compliment her on those strengths. That caught her co-worker off guard. You can imagine she wasn’t getting much positive feedback in general, and it seemed to improve her mood. Over time, she began to trust Anna, and they grew to become friends—not just colleagues who could tolerate each other, or even colleagues who could get things done together, but friends.

– There are times we hire a grudge to give us attention. When people hear our story of victimhood, we get their support and sympathy. We are thus incentivized to tell our story again and again. This is easy and even satisfying in the moment. But it delivers an unsatisfying ending. Behind the sympathy people express, there is also fatigue.

– We hire a grudge to protect ourselves. We think that by being wary of the person or people who hurt us once, we can protect ourselves from being hurt again. We think the grudge creates emotional armor. But this too turns out to be a scam. The grudge makes us more vulnerable, more fearful. It becomes harder to trust, to let anybody in.

– “To maximize gains from long-term practice,” the study’s lead author, K. Anders Ericsson, concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

– Listening isn’t hard; it’s stopping our mind from wandering that’s hard. Being in the moment isn’t hard; not thinking about the past and future all the time is hard.

– When we’re fully present with people, it has an impact. Not just in that moment either. The experience of feeling like the most important person in the world even for the briefest of moments can stay with us for a disproportionate time after the moment has passed. There is a curiously magical power of presence.

– The goal is to get to the point where you try without trying—where your movement becomes smooth, natural, and instinctive. That is what is meant by Effortless Action.

– If you try too hard when shooting a free throw, you’ll tense up and move too fast. This is similar to what happens to many overachievers who have been conditioned to believe that more effort leads to better outcomes. When they invest a lot of effort and don’t see the results they want, they lean in harder. They work longer hours. They obsess over the situation more. They are trained to see the lack of progress as a sign that yet more effort is required. What they haven’t learned is that: Past a certain point, more effort doesn’t produce better performance. It sabotages our performance.

– The goal is to accomplish what matters by trying less, not more: to achieve our purpose with bridled intention, not overexertion. This is what is meant by Effortless Action.

– DEFINE What “Done” Looks Like

– If you want to make something hard, indeed truly impossible, to complete, all you have to do is make the end goal as vague as possible. That’s because you cannot, by definition, complete a project without a clearly defined end point.

– I define “done” as the point just before the effort invested begins to be greater than the output achieved.

– It’s surprising how much clarity on this you can achieve in a one-minute burst of concentration. 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: “I’ve addressed each of the questions the client posed and proofread it once.” It takes only one minute of concentration to clarify what “done” looks like.

– “Swedish Death Cleaning” means getting rid of the clutter you have accumulated through your life while you are still alive.

– We often get overwhelmed because we misjudge what the first step is: what we think is the first step is actually several steps. But once we break that step down into concrete, physical actions, that first obvious action begins to feel effortless.

– After a couple of weeks of this, I happened to be researching process simplification in complex organizations. Suddenly I could see it: we were making this process so much more complicated than it had to be. By adding so many steps—even if just mentally—we were making it harder for ourselves to take any steps at all. So we took a step back and asked, “What are the minimum steps required to complete this?”

– In order to succeed at something, you have to get it done.

– For example, being asked to do a presentation isn’t a good enough reason to create slides with videos and fancy graphics and pages upon pages of data. How often have you been forced to sit through a presentation with too many slides? Or too many words on each slide? Or too much of everything, period? Is that really the kind of experience you want to create for someone else?

– So the next time you have to write a report, give a presentation, or make a sales pitch, resist the temptation to add unnecessary extras. They aren’t just a distraction for you; they’re also a distraction for your audience.

– 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.

– If there are processes in your life that seem to involve an inordinate number of steps, try starting from zero. Then see if you can find your way back to those same results, only take fewer steps.

– One of the twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto states, “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.”

– Ed Catmull, the former CEO of Pixar, once said, “We all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way.” Their earliest sketches are, according to Catmull, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” This is why Catmull has always worked hard to foster a culture that creates space for such “rubbish”: because he understands there would be no Buzz Lightyear without hundreds of awful ideas along the way. As he puts it, “Pixar is set up to protect our director’s ugly baby.”

– Overachievers tend to struggle with the notion of starting with rubbish; they hold themselves to a high standard of perfection at every stage in the process. But the standard to which they hold themselves is neither realistic nor productive.

– He has learned that when it comes to languages, embracing mistakes leads to accelerated learning. He teaches his language students to imagine they have a bag full of one thousand beads. Every time they make a mistake talking to someone else in the language they take out one bead. When the bag is empty they will have achieved level 1 mastery. The faster they make those mistakes, the faster they will progress.

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

– Instead, I decided to simply take the quiz without any preparation, knowing I would get roughly 50 percent of the answers wrong. That was in fact my goal: to get them wrong as quickly as possible so I could see the correct answers. I didn’t want to waste time and energy on what I already knew; I wanted to see what I didn’t know so I could focus only on that.

– As Reid Hoffman, one of the PayPal Mafia and cofounder of LinkedIn, once told Ben Casnocha, his newly hired chief of staff, “In order to move fast, I expect you’ll make some foot faults. I’m okay with an error rate of 10–20%…if it means you can move fast.” Ben recalls, “I felt empowered to make decisions with this ratio in mind, and it was incredibly liberating.”

– “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release,” he says, “you released it too late.”

– George Bernard Shaw once said, “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

– I recommend they adopt a “zero-draft” approach. That is, write a version of that first chapter that’s so rough it wouldn’t even qualify as a first draft. The idea with the zero draft is to write anything. The more rubbish the better. It doesn’t have to be seen by anyone. It never has to be judged. Don’t even think of it as a draft; it’s just words on a page. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get your creative juices flowing this way.

– When we try to make too much progress on a goal or project right out of the gate, we can get trapped in a vicious cycle: we get tired, so then we take a break, but then we think we have to make up for the time lost, so we sprint again.

– When we’re trying to achieve something that matters to us, it’s tempting to want to sprint out of the gate. The problem is that going too fast at the beginning will almost always slow us down the rest of the way.

– Holding back when you still have steam in you might seem like a counterintuitive approach to getting important things done, but in fact, this kind of restraint is key to breakthrough productivity. As Lisa Jewell, author of some eighteen bestselling novels, put it, “Pace yourself. If you write too much, too quickly, you’ll go off at tangents and lose your way and if you write infrequently you’ll lose your momentum. A thousand words a day is a good ticking over amount.”

– We can establish upper and lower bounds. Simply use the following rule: Never less than X, never more than Y.

– Effortless Results: not to achieve a result once through intense effort, but to effortlessly achieve a result again and again.

– As our lives become increasingly busy, overwhelming, and fast-paced, it’s tempting to seek out easy instructions or methods that we can apply to a problem right away, without expending much mental energy. This is a mistake. Why? A method may be useful once, to solve one specific type of problem. Principles, however, can be applied broadly and repeatedly. At their best, they are universal and timeless.

– If it’s residual results we’re after, we must look to principles. In fact, the word principia means “first principles, fundamental beginnings or elements.” First principles are like the building blocks of knowledge: once you understand them correctly you can apply them hundreds of times.

– Different ideas in isolation represent linear knowledge. But those same ideas form residual knowledge when interconnected. Munger acolyte Tren Griffin gives the following example: A business raises the price of its product, yet sells more of that product. This does not make sense if you consider only the discipline of economics and its rule of supply and demand. But if you also consider the discipline of psychology, you understand that buyers think that a higher price means higher quality and therefore buy more.

– 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.

– Distill to Understand. When I finish reading a book, I like to take ten minutes to summarize what I learned from it on a single page in my own words.

– Being good at what nobody is doing is better than being great at what everyone is doing. But being an expert in something nobody is doing is exponentially more valuable. To reap the residual results of knowledge, the first step is to leverage what others know. But the ultimate goal is to identify knowledge that is unique to you, and build on it.

– 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.

– Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician turned American philosopher, once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them”—another way of saying, “As many essential steps and activities as possible should be automated.”

– Extreme complexity only increases the cognitive load, making us that much more prone to errors. So what we need is not more knowledge but new skills and strategies that allow us to apply that knowledge without taxing our working memory.

– A cheat sheet is one of the most effective, albeit low-tech, tools we have at our disposal to automate almost anything that really matters. The checklist is one type.

– One caveat is important to make at this juncture: automation can work for you or against you. If nonessential activities are automated, they too continue to happen without you thinking about it.

– Consider taking the high-tech, low-effort path for the essential, and the low-tech, high-effort path for the nonessential.

– When you have trust in your relationships, they take less effort to maintain and manage. You can quickly split work between team members. People can talk about problems when they come up, openly and honestly. Members share valuable information rather than hoard it. Nobody minds asking questions when they don’t understand something. The speed and quality of decisions go up. Political infighting goes down. You may even enjoy the experience of working together. And you perform exponentially better, because you’re able to focus all your energy and attention on getting important things done, rather than on simply getting along.

– The best way to leverage trust to get residual results is simply to select trustworthy people to be around.

– In hindsight, Steve admits, “My mistake was even worse than hiring someone I didn’t trust. I hired her, she lost my trust, and I continued to have her stay on long after she lost my trust.”

– 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. I call this “The Three I’s Rule.”

– When you can say these four little words, “I trust your judgment”—and mean them—it’s like magic. Team members feel empowered. They take a risk. They grow. Trust is strengthened. And then it tends to spread.

– Hiring someone is a single decision that produces Effortless Results. You get it right once, and that person adds value hundreds of times over. You get it wrong once, and it can cost you repeatedly. It’s like skimping on a shoddy oil filter.

– There are three parties to every relationship: Person A, Person B, and the structure that governs them.

– Every relationship has a structure, even if it’s an unspoken, unclear one. A low-trust structure is one where expectations are unclear, where goals are incompatible or at odds, where people don’t know who is doing what, where the rules are ambiguous and nobody knows what the standards for success are, and where the priorities are unclear and the incentives misaligned. A high-trust structure is one where expectations are clear. Goals are shared, roles are clearly delineated, the rules and standards are articulated, and the right results are prioritized, incentivized, and rewarded—consistently, not just sometimes.

– Most people can agree that this type of relationship is preferable. The problem is that low-trust relationship structures generally happen by default rather than by design.

– High-Trust Agreement
    – Results: What results do we want?
    – Roles: Who is doing what?
    – Rules: What minimum viable standards must be kept?
    – Resources: What resources (people, money, tools) are available and needed?
    – Rewards: How will progress be evaluated and rewarded?

– Why do so many of us put up with problems—big and small—for so much longer than we have to? Because on any given day it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it. In John’s case, while thirty seconds of jostling was annoying, it still took less time than dislodging the tray and resolving the problem. But looking at the equation from a longer-term perspective changes our calculation. Once we add up the cumulative costs of the time and frustration from today, plus tomorrow, plus hundreds of tomorrows after that, suddenly it makes sense to invest in solving the problem once and for all. Using that time frame, fixing that drawer was an absolute bargain: two minutes’ worth of effort to prevent hundreds of future frustrations, an impressive time rebate. This is what I call the long tail of time management. When we invest our time in actions with a long tail, we continue to reap the benefits over a long period.

– To break this habit, ask yourself: What is a problem that irritates me repeatedly? What is the total cost of managing that over several years? What is the next step I can take immediately, in a few minutes, to move toward solving it?

– It was not negotiable: we simply could not now or ever burn out. If your job is to keep the fires burning for an indefinite period of time, you can’t throw all the fuel on the flames at the beginning.

– The word now comes from a Latin phrase, novus homo, which means “a new man” or “man newly ennobled.” The spirit of this is clear: each new moment is a chance to start over. A chance to make a new choice.