What Does It Mean to Work Effortlessly?
What Does It Mean to Work Effortlessly?
Photo by Justin B. Cook
“Some of us think that if we’re not exhausted, we must not be doing enough,” says Greg McKeown, the New York Times–bestselling author of Effortless and Essentialism. “And if something’s easy, it can’t be the right path.”
McKeown has found this to be inaccurate, unfun, and the way to burn out. Instead, he suggests a three-step approach that’s designed to simplify tasks, enhance your ability to problem-solve, and allow you to work at your optimal level and not beyond it.
A Q&A with Greg McKeown
The effortless model is a guide created to help us prioritize our well-being and avoid burnout. It’s to help make our lives easier and more manageable. Many of us are depleted and stressed. We need to focus less on pushing ourselves above and beyond to achieve our goals and instead focus on how to make the most essential activities the easiest ones.
The effortless model includes three states: effortless state, effortless action, and effortless results. Getting into an effortless state is the first step, which means getting into an optimal state of mind to begin to think through the best or easiest way to approach a task or project. Then comes the action, which comes with less effort because of the state of mind you were in when you were thinking about the task. Consequently, this creates effortless results.
Applying the effortless model means choosing the path of least resistance—the simplest way. Whatever your next challenge or project or task (life is full of them), make an intention that you’re going to make it effortless. You can ask yourself: How can I reduce the complexity? How can I simplify this? Could I do this in one step instead of twenty? Whom could I find who can do this and take it off my hands completely? Whom can I go to who can give me the answers that I don’t have yet? By applying these questions, you can start to make your days a bit more effortless.
I believe in work, but I believe it needs good boundaries. It needs to be healthy. It needs to be sustainable. Some of us think that if we’re not exhausted, we must not be doing enough. If we’re not sacrificing ourselves to the point of exhaustion, something is wrong. And if something’s easy, it can’t be the right path. Our language reflects that. We say things like “We had to do a hard day’s work” with pride because we think achieving important things has to be difficult. And we tend to think that from the first moment you wake up in the morning to the last thing at night, you have to be working. That’s the way to burn out; it’s not a way to live.
Effortless ideas and effortless practices help prevent us from burning out. Having a good work ethic is great. That’s important, but it’s a limited resource. You can work only so hard. And as soon as you work past a certain point, you start to experience diminishing return on your efforts. As we’re working, we hit a point where for every ounce of extra effort you put in, you’re not going to get as much back. If you go beyond that point, eventually you’ll have negative returns on your work investment. That happens for lots of people. At that point, you should stop, because for every minute more you do, you’re going to make everything else worse.
I experienced this while I was writing Effortless. If I worked for a couple of hours, I got a lot done. If I continued for three hours, I was still able to be productive. If I worked on the book for four or five hours, I started to make things worse. My writing or the edits I was making were making the book more confusing instead of clearer, and I then had to put in even more work to fix it the next day. If you find yourself in this situation, you can ask yourself at any time: Am I working beyond my optimal level?
We all have endless to-do lists of all the things we would like to accomplish for the day—or in the long term. And that’s fine. But it’s helpful if you can do a short planning session in the morning to help prioritize the things that are most important. These are the things that will make you feel more satisfied when you’ve completed them. When you’ve finished your priorities, give yourself permission to stop. And remember to schedule in relaxation. I believe relaxing is also a responsibility.
When you’re in an effortless state, you’re in a more peaceful, centered, rested state. When you’re in that state, you can take more positive actions, and then your results will be more positive. You can see options that you couldn’t see before. And so that makes you more resourceful.
We find that when people get into an exhausted state, they can become more negative, stressed, worried, and angry. And their sense of options and ability to problem-solve shrink instantly, in their own life and in their relationships. That’s why in the effortless model, I start with effortless state, because it helps to think through a problem and find the easiest solution instead of approaching a problem with fear and anxiousness. And your actions and results reflect which state you start in. If we don’t start from an effortless state, we can become a bit paralyzed by the fear, keeping us from being bolder and doing things we really want to do.
I understand that they would. In our culture, we generally make things more complicated than they need to be. But I suggest trying it. Use the model and ask the questions: What could make this easier? How could we remove complexity? How am I making things more complicated than they need to be? You may just start to avoid the hard stuff.
Greg McKeown is a speaker, a bestselling author, and the host of the podcast What’s Essential. He has been covered by The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Politico, and Inc., has been interviewed on NPR, NBC, Fox, and The Steve Harvey Show. He is also a young global leader for the World Economic Forum. McKeown has written two New York Times–bestselling books, Essentialism (which has sold more than a million copies worldwide) and Effortless. Originally from London, he now lives in California with his wife, Anna, and their four children.
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