Greg McKeown (gregorymckeown) is famous for simplifying his life and calling on others to do the same in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His newest book is called Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most. He is also the host of the podcast “What’s Essential.” Greg and Mark talk today about his journey and learning that the best choice doesn’t always have to be the hardest.
- Training your mind to ask “How can I make this effortless?” brings results like never before
- It’s best to “Yield to Win”— it’s not always about going the harder way
- Defining “What does done look like?” already simplifies the next step
Listen to this episode and hear how going effortless brings you exactly where you need to be.
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Hello everyone. This is Mark Divine, your host of the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining me today. Super-appreciate you being here and supporting the Unbeatable Mind podcast.
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Now, I’m super-stoked to talk to Greg McKeown today. Greg and I met – gosh – four or five years ago when his outstanding book Essentialism came out. “Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Fantastic read.
We may get into a little bit of that today, but that’s not the focus of our podcast today.
Greg has done it again: I just read his new book last night called “Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most.” And this is going to be an extremely valuable and interesting conversation for us because here’s the point – once you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, and then we charge ahead and try to do it using our old methods.
And we end up hitting a wall. And we find burnout… we find things aren’t working. So even though you’ve got the “why” down, you don’t have the “what.” And that’s what “Effortless” seeks to solve. Super-stoked.
So Greg is a top podcaster, and his podcast is called “What’s Essential,” so you’re going to want to go subscribe to that. Let me repeat that – go subscribe to “What’s Essential,” because it’s an excellent podcast.
He’s been covered by all the major outlets – New York Times, fast company, fortune, politico… he’s a popular blogger on LinkedIn. He’s part of a group called the young global leadership forum at the world economic forum.
Gosh, his book “Effortless” has sold over a million copies – New York times bestseller.
I probably said something wrong, or maybe I gave you too much credit. What do you think, Greg?
Greg: (laughing) definitely too much credit. My wife agrees on that…
Mark: I know, right? When everyone introduces me like that, I’m just like “what? Who is that person? Come on.”
Greg: It’s so nice to be with you, Mark. Thank you for having me.
Mark: Yeah, thanks for doing this and congrats on the book. And as we were talking about earlier – what a year it’s been – or 18 months – and equally good and bad, right? So it’s going to be interesting to hear how the pandemic has affected you, but it certainly gave you some space to finish up this book, it sounds like.
Greg: Well, your comment there just makes me think of one of the lessons of the pandemic for me which is this – if you focus on what you lack, you lose what you already have. But if you focus on what you have you start to gain what you lack.
Mark: I love that. Right.
Greg: That really to me is a lesson that is relevant in bad times and in good times. And my experience is that you have to distrust both the bad times and the good times. It’s like Rudyard Kipling wrote in his beautiful poem “if.” “If you can meet with triumph and disaster,” he says, “and treat those two imposters just the same…”
Mark: That’s right.
Greg: The highs and the lows are both to be distrusted – and to me focusing on what you have, being grateful for what you have – is a good antidote to both of those imposters. And that’s one of the lessons -the deepest lessons to me – of this last 16 month’s experience.
Mark: Yeah, no doubt. And that relates to spiritual truths – like, the buddha said – take the middle path, right? The middle path is to avoid the extremes.
And so like you said, you could have extremes of success and bliss. And then that’s going to contrast with the extremes of suffering and pain, and so the middle path is to not be attached to either. And just take every day, every experience as an opportunity to grow good or bad. Or indifferent.
Greg: I love what you just said. I wasn’t gonna necessarily even get into this story, but sort of the reason behind “Effortless” was an experience…
Let’s say it this way – I was going to say it was an agonizing experience – but I will say it was an experience that could have been endless agony. And it certainly was challenging.
But what happened is my family we had just moved to a new, quite idyllic area – quite beautiful white picket fences, horse ways, children are thriving… anna and I have four children. And they’re all just loving playing with the dog, playing tennis and going horse-riding…
It’s just great.
Mark: (laughing) I think I saw the movie…
Greg: Just so. It was like that. And then one of our daughters, eve, especially was thriving. I mean, she just loved walking barefoot and naming the chickens – we have chickens…
And just… she was so just vivacious in life – she just can’t even stay angry if she tries – she just burst out laughing. I mean, this is who she is until she turns 14. She starts taking longer to do her chores. She’s speaking to us in just less words – just a little quieter, and a little more physically awkward.
And we just thought, “well, I think it’s pretty age-appropriate. It’s going to be okay.”
But then it turned out in a routine physical therapy visit that she failed a reflex test – which you can’t fail – that’s the whole point of them. And this therapist just said to anna, “look, you just take eve to a neurologist. Not going to alarm you, but just would do that as a precaution.”
Well, it turned out that what we were seeing as sort of age-appropriate were, in fact, symptoms of what very rapidly became a crazy situation of her capability just being lost on a daily basis.
Mark: Wow. No way.
Greg: So she went from being everything I’ve just described – writing in a journal, voluminously reading endlessly – she didn’t stop talking for like an hour once, when I took her on a business trip…
To like, one word sentences, monotone. No emotion. The right hand side of her body just stopped – was certainly slower – working slower than the left. Personality gone.
Took her two minutes to write her own name, hours to eat a meal, and on and on…
And it’s like just rapid free-fall of capability. This total slow motion. And every neurologist we met with was saying the same thing which was… one of them just like shrugged his shoulders – he’s like, “I just don’t know. I have no idea what’s happening.”
Because all the tests came back in the normal range. And so we are watching our daughter go from being a picture of health to a shell of her former self. And then it just gets to the point where the light almost goes out altogether. And we have no idea what to do about it.
And in the midst of this, really… they’re like these two paths to choose between… I didn’t have words for it at the time, but now I would call them the heavier path and the lighter path. The heavier path is one where yes, you’re relentless in working. You’re consumed in the work. That would be heavier.
But also, you start blaming, complaining, focusing on what you’re lacking – what you wish was different, what you can’t control…
And we just realized quite early on – if we took that path, we wouldn’t be in a state that would allow us to know what to do, and how to help her. And how to get the right results for her.
And so we just discovered that there was this alternative path, where we could just be grateful in everything that happened. Everything. Good things and bad things.
We could laugh together. We could focus on what we could control. We would get around the piano and sing, we would eat dinner together…
It was a different way of doing life… and out of that different way… that kept us in a certain state of hope, even in faith in our spiritual life… it helped us to trust… to trust God, to trust that we weren’t alone.
All of that gave us, I think, a place to discern best what to do next. And directly out of that came answers and solutions.
And it’s been a two-year journey, and I don’t attempt fate and say I think we are now out of it, but she is – as time of this conversation – back.
And it was in the midst of that experience… there was a phrase came to my mind, in the midst of the darkest times or the most challenging times and the phrase was “she will find what is lost.” Based on a painting of the same name.
And there was no evidence to support that that’s what would happen, but it was this assurance… and I’ve often thought that there were moments like that through this experience. If we’d been so stressed and so burdened and taken a heavier path, we wouldn’t have been able to notice those other gentler voices, and guidance.
And so and so it just to me… well the book “effortless,” grows out of what we learned there. I went on to research it neurologically, and then psychologically and through all different genres.
But in the end, it grew out of the experience that even when you have something very hard going on -= maybe, especially when you have something hard going on – if you take the harder path, you’ll burn out, and you still won’t have the results you want.
Mark: That’s right.
Greg: If you can find an easier approach, then you can achieve the results you want without burning out. And that clearly mattered in this instance.
Mark: Yeah. It’s an amazing story and I’m sorry for your daughter, and that you guys had to go through that.
But also grateful that it seems to be working out. So our blessings to you guys and her for that.
Greg: Thank you.
Mark: When I read that story in your book – which comes at the end – I was thinking this heavier path and lighter path is a very spiritual principle. If we contract into the negative energies – we call it feeding the fear wolf – if we contract into that then we shut down the flow of life force.
And life force is a combination of life energy, intelligence, healing, love, forgiveness… it’s all the positive qualities that we possess as human beings. So when you shut that down and you contract into fear, and shame, and guilt, and victimization… then literally you’re cutting yourself off from that.
And you’re cutting yourself off from information that could lead to the right things, right? Asking better questions.
So I was like, “wow, that’s such a spiritual principle.” And then you were able to kind of dissect that into very practical steps – into these three steps you call, or you frame in the book in terms of effortless state and effortless action. And effortless results.
So it’s neat how sometimes work like this presents itself, because it needs to, through who it needs to. Or through who’s got the capacity, or the life experience to be able to bring it out into the world.
I think my work is very similar to that – like, I don’t sit down and say, “oh, I’m going to write another book about leadership.” It’s more like it just kind of comes out.
Greg: Mm-hmm. It’s a manifesting process.
Mark: Yeah, it’s a manifesting process. It needs to be written. Not all authors are that way, but I think your work – especially with this one – it seems to me it kind of happened in that regard. It’s like, yeah you might have been contracted to write it, but what came out and through you was probably really different than what was originally…
Greg: Well, it was a completely different book. Literally the title that I was contracted to do is completely different than what ended up happening.
And I can go beyond that, which is that as soon as “Essentialism” did well, there was – not necessarily the pressure – but certainly the open door opportunity to do another book.
So my agent texts or emails once a month, “hey, you ready? You want to do something? Let’s talk, let’s get on the phone…”
Like, it was there… but I felt… I actually wanted to go through the door… but I felt sort of little promptings and tappings going “nope, not yet. Just wait.”
And until like, maybe five years after “Essentialism” came out – which a long time in the publishing world… what I didn’t know then – which of course I couldn’t have known then – is that I couldn’t write this book through those years. Like I needed this experience to even be able to understand this journey.
And so that’s why I wrote it. That’s my personal story behind it, but I can say it a little differently… which is that life is hard in a hundred ways for people.
Like, I didn’t write the book because I think life is easy. It’s because it’s hard, but we make it harder than it needs to be. So that’s often why you burn out without the results. And so, what I’ve discovered is that there is… maybe not always, but very often… and maybe always… a virtuous, but easier path.
That there is this option. And for a lot of reasons we tend to emphasize only the first which is, “well, if it’s important, it’s going to be hard. No pain, no gain.”
And people say these things as if they are purely truisms – “well, if it’s important, it’s going to be hard. If it’s very important, it’s going to be very hard – people talk like this, leaders talk like this…
And I just think it’s like not even questioned – I’ve discovered for myself there is a path where the essential things are just a bit lighter, a bit easier. And if you can find it, it’s not just the burnout you avoid, you can also achieve far more results. Because it’s not so burdensome.
Compare – how far can you push a boulder uphill, compared to pushing one down a hill? If you can find an easier path, you can build momentum, you can do amazing things… things that seemed impossible before, suddenly become plausible. Then possible and doable. Then they’re done.
I mean, that’s the process that’s exciting to me. It’s what if the essential work that seems currently impossible to us could be done. In fact, could actually be made significantly easier.
To me there’s a big upside here.
Mark: Yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, I love it, because it aligns a lot with some of my philosophy at unbeatable mind, where we try to teach people that first) develop the skills to be able to optimize flow in your life – and that’s different than peak performance flow – but optimize is basically your body’s working well, you’re healthy… you’ve de-stressed through the breathing practices. You’re eating well…
All that kind of stuff. You’re developing the skills to be more mindful and present, and to concentrate – all the training that we know from meditation and whatnot.
But then what are you gonna do with that? Well, you’re gonna do what you’re supposed to do. And that’s your calling in life, right?
So then it’s incumbent upon us to align with that calling. And then when you bring those two together your “why,” with the essential work – as well as the optimal performance. Then you find that kind of life flow where everything seems easy.
And so I’ve been talking about that in those terms, and teaching people from those kind of perspectives – the yin and the yang – the doing and the being. And it was really cool to see your work kind of poke into that from a completely different set of principles and perspectives. And to see all the different overlaps.
And I love that. I love that when you can see things and be like, “oh, it’s like a hologram.” The hologram was exposed from a completely different angle through the lens of your brain. And it’s cool.
Greg: I’m a big believer that all truth can be organized into one great whole. Like whole truth is coming at it – and that I love that hologram description that you have of it… but I also love hearing you describe the relationship between state and action. It’s such a familiar idea.
It isn’t always to people. And it’s so satisfying to me – and quite reassuring – to sort of not feel so alone in the universe when I hear you describe it – it’s like yes, exactly what you just said.
If you can get the state right. If you can get into that sort of state-of-ease – life is at ease – then it helps you to take action that is less forced.
Mark: That’s right.
Greg: A mentor of my wife once said to her years ago – it was introduced into my family – like, don’t force anything. And so we have that as one of our family mantras. And when you start to find yourself in a certain way of acting, where you’re forcing it…
Yes, you want it – it’s not a motivation problem. But you’re over< /em> trying it. It’s like, “okay, we’re going to stop. Take a pause.” Maybe there’s a different path. Maybe you need to wait. Maybe it will open up at another time.
But allowing almost for that to be an instruction like a teacher – that when it feels like you’re forcing it -that’s its own teacher, that resistance… let it go. Step back a bit. See it from a different angle.
So I love hearing you describe this appreciation for effortless state, leading to effortless action…
Mark: Yeah, I mean I first learned that… I mean, I was doing mental practices for four years or so before I went in the SEALs… but in the SEALs, we had a very practical approach to that.
And first is we really understood what the outcome we were looking for – and this is one of your principles too – we understood what you call “done” looked like with a mission. And we visualized it.
But we also knew that the path there wasn’t going to probably look anything like our plan. So we called that no plan survives contact. And so what that allowed us to do was to any time we hit an obstacle or that resistance where we were like, “this is going really hard. This is being forced,” right?
It’s like we were trying to dam the water – then we were taught to like shift fire. And to find an easier path around. Find a simpler solution, right? To yield in order to push forward as opposed to just keep pushing against that obstacle.
Greg: Yield to win…
Mark: Yeah, yield to win. And to constantly find a way or make a way instead of just to push against the one way that you thought was the way.
Greg: So I want to build on that – I know you’ve got more, but I want to just focus on this – I was just talking to somebody who spent years in special forces, and they made a distinction between what they called – now you’ll correct the phrase – but like the big green machine or something like that, they were talking about… just in the military…
Mark: Conventional military, right?
Greg: And then special forces. And they made this distinction that in special forces there’s a lot of attention given to trying to find an easier strategy. Which seemed counter-intuitive, because I think most people’s sense – outside of the military would be “yeah, this is just about force.” It’s just about, “we’ve got more force that you’ve got. And then we win.”
And it’s like, no not at all. Especially as you move up into the elite forces. It’s like exactly not that. Of course, you want force, but it’s all about finding an easier path.
And they gave me the brilliant little example – they said that when they’d been deployed into Afghanistan and into Iraq, they would often on their team be assigned to find this high value target behind some metal door. And if they can’t think of somethi8ng better, they’re gonna blow off the hinges of the door and get access that way.
And he said, “but of course there’s cost to that. Which is to the personnel themselves – they can only do this for so long, because you have so much blow back and that affects you physically. So you’re wearing out your own military personnel.
Also, of course, you’ve got a big hole in the door – you can hurt people that are innocent on the other side. You can damage the person you’re trying to find.
You let the whole area know that you’re there, so that increases your risk – all of these things and then somebody on his team said who’s a son of a carpenter literally said, “look, if you could get me like a small hydraulic drill, I can just get the hinges off in like two minutes. There’s no blow back. There’s no sound, there’s no anything – it’ll just totally work.”
And I love that example, because it illustrates the difference between this “just through force” versus like – no, there is a smarter easier path. And to try and train the mind to ask the question how could this be effortless?
Mark: That’s right.
Greg: Just even to explore that. Sometimes maybe there isn’t one – or maybe it isn’t one immediately, or maybe you just put a little effort and you’re going to get the thing the way you’ve normally done it.
But what I have experienced myself on this journey is that most people aren’t asking that question. So they can’t find that answer. And by asking a new question, “how can this be effortless?” You suddenly find that there are strategies that you didn’t know existed that are present before you, just like the hydraulic drill and the hinges.
Mark: Yeah, I love that. I have a fun story around that, but I’ll frame it up with the quality of the solution, depends upon the quality of the questions. And anytime we’re trained or conditioned to do things a certain way that that word “conditioning” speaks volumes, because you become conditioned to think that’s the only way. And then you stop asking different or better questions.
My fun story is I had a friend… I was supposed to go to the first Persian Gulf war – “desert storm” – but literally it ended before we got there. It was one of the beautiful ones that was short and sweet.
Mark: But I had a lot of good friends over there, and one of them – Tommy Dietz – was running an op to confuse the Iraqi military on the coast into thinking that there was going to be a big amphibious invasion.
And so their job was to swim all these haversacks into shore – haversack is c4, which is an explosive – but the problem was the water was like 110 degrees, and it was full of sharks, and it would have been extremely challenging to bring the amount of demo they had to bring in to the shore.
And they were like really puzzled – they couldn’t bring boats in, because they would have been compromised – and they had to swim this stuff in at night. And they just couldn’t figure it out.
And one of the young, new members of the SEAL team was a southern California guy. And he said to the team, “hey, you know what? I think we should get some boogie boards and swim this stuff into the shore with the boogie boards.”
And the lieutenant was like, “that’s such a simple idea.” And he sent the request back to HQ for these blacked out boogie boards.
And the uproar was hilarious, because they’re like, “what the bleep? I thought these guys were fighting the war over there, and they want boogie boards?”
Anyway it worked. Because they asked a different question. And I mentioned, you break down your principles into effortless state, effortless action and effortless result.
And the very first part – or the first principle in effortless state – is really about asking better questions. Inversion or inverting it.
I love that because one of the things that I stumbled across – and maybe you’ve heard of this – is a Russian theory called TRIZ. It’s the theory of invention.
And it was this Russian – I’ll probably butcher his last name it was like Altucher, or Altshur or something like that… and he worked in the Russian patent office, and he studied like a half a million patents. And he found out that there were really only a certain number of types of problems these patents sought to solve. And that there were only 44 solutions, types of solutions.
And then he codified these solutions and created this theory of invention. Stalin… his reward for him was to throw him in a gulag as a spy.
But anyways, one of them was inversion… like, look at the problem you’re experiencing from upside down or from the opposite end. And then one was upside down and one was to look at it from a different material… like, if it’s a mechanical problem, look at it fluidically.
It’s really brilliant, actually, right? So how did you come up with this idea of inversion? And let’s talk about that principle. And I want to go through some of these other principles that are really interesting…
Greg: Well I mean, the inversion is as you describe it – I mean, inversion alone – invert, always invert comes from a mathematician who became highly skilled at solving insolvable mathematical formulas. And one of the things he would do is he would literally just invert the way people are asking questions.
So sometimes they would be studying something for months or years and he would just come in and almost within a few minutes could solve something. And it wasn’t because he was better at mathematics or that he understood the problem better… but he was asking an upside-down question.
I’m applying it just specifically to this question – what’s the easier way to do this? Is there an easier way? What might easy look like?
And I’ve had – fortunately now the book’s just been out just a few days – and already actually it’s been quite surprising to me how many people have either reached out to me or commented on social media that they’re reading it the second time. That really surprised me.
And some of the people that have commented are talking about things they’ve done with the inversion question. And I could go through those examples, but one I came across for the book that I liked is a woman who is a manager at a university.
She’s at BYU and she’s in charge of these different groups including videography in her department. She’s the type of person who she says, “if I’m not exhausted, I’m not doing enough.” She’s the type of person who’s up until 4am in the morning photoshopping for her youth group at church the next morning…
Like no one is asking for this. This is just internally… this is how she tries to solve problems. A certain way.
So, if she eats lunch – even eats lunch – she feels guilty. Because there’s so many things she could be doing.
So this is who she is. And I said, “okay, look we need a simple intervention. It can’t be overwhelming, because you won’t do it. And we don’t want you to be all perfectionist about it.”
“One change. Change your question.” And so I said, “next time someone calls you, you just pause and ask – after they’ve talked about what they need – is there an effortless way to do this? What would an easy solution look like?”
And so the next time professor calls says, “look, I need you to video this semester, it’s four months, my class – I just need you to video it all.” And she almost jumped into action, just like she normally does. She’s thinking perfectionist, she’s thinking, “let’s get my whole team involved. We’ll have multiple angles of cameras. We’ll edit it together.”
“we’re going to have music; we’re going to have graphics. We’ll have intros, outros – everything… we’re going to wow him. He’s going to be so impressed.”
And then she remembers the question, “okay, let’s explore it. There’s not much to lose here. Just ask him. Look what an effortless solution might be.
And in the process of having that conversation found it’s for one student who’s going to miss a few classes because of an athletic commitment. And the solution they’d come up with together is that another student in class will use their iPhone to record those classes and send it to him.
Professor is so happy with that outcome, and she hangs up the phone it’s been a 10 minute call that saved her four months of time for a whole team of people. And she really could hardly believe that. It was just like so different.
And that’s what the inversion helps us with. Is that instead of saying, “well, if what got me from point a to point b was 10 units of effort, so to get from point b to c is another 10 units” – you say, “well hold on, what if there’s a different way of doing this?”
And what if you’re trying to get to z? And you’re like, “well, that takes a thousand units.” It’s like well that’s fine… that’s one way to do it, but what if it’s just an alternative? A creative solution you haven’t thought of yet?
What if this could this be effortless? What might the effortless path be? It opens up your creativity, the possibilities and suddenly what seemed impossible is possible.
Mark: I love that.
Mark: In a way, those types of questions are levers, right? So if you’re trained and we’re habituated as humans to think in this linear cause and effect timeline, which is pushing the rock uphill. And a good question like that can be a lever that throws the rock over the hill.
And also you can look at it from the metaphor of the hologram that we talked about earlier, right? A good question penetrates the hologram from a different angle. Which then exposes to you new images, new opportunities, new insights…
Greg: When I was young – 10 years old – I had my first job. And it was delivering papers, right? The paper route. And I could get paid about a pound for about an hour’s worth of work… it was hard work. In England you can’t just throw a paper on the doorstep – you have to put them through these through these little mailboxes – they’re tiny…
Mark: I think I’ve seen those…
Greg: Absolutely unfit for the job. Because these papers, some of them – especially like the telegraph or the guardian or the times – they’re just massive. And on the weekend, it’s just… You cannot push these things through.
And my bike would always tip over doing it… so okay, fine… I did it for a week or two… it’s just like “okay, I can work six hours and earn six pounds. Now we have it.”
Now if you stay in that mindset you start to say “okay, well if I want to earn 25 pounds to go and buy these pair of tennis shoes that I want, okay now how many hours do I have to work?”
Like, that’s a certain way of thinking about the problem. And I think this happens to a lot of people that they get fixated in a certain – as you say – cause and effect.
And so I found out about somebody that had started a car washing business and I was like, “okay, well I’m definitely gonna try that.” And found that I could earn six pounds an hour – even very young, 10 years old, washing people’s cars. I was like “okay, well that’s like six times more effective to do it.” It’s a far easier way to achieve the outcome you’re trying to achieve.
And on and on it goes. And I find that the same thing happens – that little, small example – is the same as an adult that people get into a sense of like, “if I want to achieve x, this is the only way to achieve it. If I want to achieve 2x, I therefore have to work twice as hard.”
Instead of saying, “well, what if there’s something else?” And even now in my life, one of the biggest shifts actually for me personally writing “effortless,” was this mental shift between linear results and residual results. It’s not a new term to me, but I just discovered how the ratio is wrong in my life.
Linear results, you put in effort once, you get paid once. It can be financial in the way I’m now illustrating, but it can be in any kind of result you want. You put in the effort once, you get results once.
Mark: And when you stop doing that, it stops…
Greg: Exactly so. You stop doing it, it’ll stop happening. So it’s an everyday thing – if you decide you’re going to exercise every day, you’re making a linear decision. You’re just every day having to… well, “am I going to and when am I going to?” And it’s exhausting. And if you stop asking the question then you’ll stop doing it.
The residual results are you put in the effort once, you build the system once – maybe it takes a little more effort to build it up-front – but then it works for you – for potentially forever, but certainly many times over.
And what I noticed there were things in my life that were residual, right? Writing “Essentialism” is residual – that’s residual income, but also residual impact… every day people from around the world reach out, email “just read “Essentialism.” Big impact. I just wanted to talk to you about it.”
That’s amazing to me – I’m not writing “Essentialism,” but the impact is being had. I love it.
But I just discovered that the ratio was still way too much in favor of linear work. And actually it grew out of – I mean, I don’t know how to share this without sounding self-serving – but I was like, “okay I’m done. I’m done with just doing keynotes – I’m going to have an online academy that exists that we can keep building and improving and growing. But that if I literally died tomorrow, it would exist. That it would go on and on. And so that is literally why we built Essentialism.com – it’s brand new actually – but it’s just a place where we’re going to keep building content that works residually.
And I just think that that shift – for anybody listening or watching this – life changes the day you say, “I’m going to see in every action I take, how I might make it residual.” Every shift – a podcast, right? You’re doing this podcast. The podcast is a residual mechanism.
Yes, you’re doing it each week, each episode – but it exists for so long afterwards. We could be having the same conversation on the phone; we’d still benefit in the moment – but that would be the end of the impact.
If you can build a system as you have, it goes on and on… it can be a thousand times, it can be a million times… the downloads can keep happening, it can happen for years…
That’s the multiplication effect once you get into residual results, and that to me has been a big…
Mark: Yeah, residual results compound upon themselves, too. So the more things that you can get that are residual, then the more compounding the effect is.
And then to kind of close off this discussion about state – if you can learn, or if you can do things, you can enjoy that have a residual effect, or if you can learn to enjoy yes things, and reframe them or reshape them, so they have residual effect… then you’re getting some serious effortless state.
What are some of your ideas for how to learn how to enjoy something – especially for someone who says “well, I’m just doing a job. I don’t enjoy it.”
Greg: Yeah. Well, I mean look… there’s three stages in this. Like, three stages in doing What’s Essential. People often do know What’s Essential in their life. They’ll say, “okay, health matters to me… my key relationships matter to me… these key projects are things I want to do.” Like, they can make that list quite quickly.
But then they often think the more important it is, the more of a chore it has to be. They just see that relationship…
So there’s three stages. You can see the essential work as a chore. You can see it and develop it as a habit. People think those are kind of the two options, but there’s a third and that’s like to build it into a ritual.
A chore we already get, right? That’s like “okay, I’m doing it. I don’t really want to do it. I don’t enjoy doing it, but I’ll just do it anyway.” That’s a chore. By definition we don’t want to do them.
A habit is pretty much like you’ve taken a chore and you now have just done it so often, you don’t really have to think as much about it. So it’s become easier through repetition.
So that’s good, that is clearly an asset. You don’t have to use as much mental attention on it, because it’s routine and it’s built in there…
But then there’s this other thing… and often people use the term habit and ritual interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Ritual is different to habit – habit is what you do, ritual is how you do it. Ritual is like you enjoy the experience itself – the ritual is a habit with a soul.
Mark: I love that. I was going to say that a ritual has almost a sacred feeling to it. You would not breach or skip a ritual, because it’s that important to you.
Greg: And it’s something that is meaningful in and of itself. So what you’re doing is you bridge, or you reduce the gap between action and outcome. Because many of our essential things, we’re doing now, but we’re doing them because in the end there’s an advantage – we exercise today, because we want to live longer, we want to be healthier six months from now.
A ritual is something that doesn’t take away from those long-term advantages, it just means that the act of doing it becomes enjoyable in and of itself. And I mean there’s so many examples of this – but in my family we used to have terrible time after dinner getting people to clean up. We have great dinners… we have all sorts of rituals in dinner that make it enjoyable, we like to be together. We laugh a lot together. We do toasts to each other, we do cheers that we’ve come up with, we tell stories… I mean, it’s a very rich experience.
We don’t get it great every time… sometimes it’s a disaster – but this is good… but afterwards, oh my goodness, I’ll tell you our children, they turn into SEALs or something – like that, they’re just suddenly, silently gone. It’s just like everyone is gone… it’s like, where do they go? Just cat and mouse, I’m bringing them back. “Look, you gotta clean up. This is not okay. You’re gonna do this” and the lectures… and nothing’s working…
So we say, first we say, “how can we make it more effortless?” We do a few things that we think will help. We’re going to divide up responsibilities, we’re going to make sure that that seems about fair. Everyone can choose, they can buy into the piece they want to do.
And so we set it up and train people. What’s a minimum, viable, acceptable outcome? And what does clean really look like? We do all of this and we’re like, “this is gonna be great.”
Day one, it’s Thursday, let’s do this and I’ll tell you what happens is nothing. It’s exactly the same as before. The children are gone – quiet, silently, stealthily gone.
And it was just sort of this little tipping point thing that my eldest daughter just said “hey, listen…” she just put on sing along like karaoke music. And that just changed the dynamic, all the other stuff helped, the system helped, but that was what made it fun. That’s what turned it into a ritual.
Because someone starts singing, and then somebody else starts singing, and we’re all singing, and we’re just cleaning away. And it actually is fun and enjoyable in and of itself.
And look, maybe that doesn’t work for everybody. But for us that is a distinction between it’s no longer a chore, it’s no longer a habit, it’s a ritual. And I just grabbed some video of it and put it on Instagram just like recently because I thought “people aren’t going to believe that this really works with four teenagers.”
But it does. And other people, of course, you come up with your own – you design your own signature rituals that help you enjoy the thing rather than thinking essential stuff over here. And enjoyable stuff over here. You make them together. You bind them together in something that you enjoy, that you love.
Mark: That’s awesome. That whole story is beautiful, thank you.
So let’s shift to effortless action, and I know we’ve already covered some of these principles just in our dialogue, but so many people have difficulty taking action because they don’t really know how to define the action and the outcomes.
And then they really don’t get started. They don’t know how to start effectively, I think those two actually the principles you outline – I know we don’t have time to go through them all, but just so the listener can know.
But define start and then simplify. And then prioritize and pace. I love all these.
But how do we define it and start it? Let’s see if we can get through that, quickly.
Greg: I love that. Define what “done” looks like. If you don’t know what “done” looks like, you can’t get it done. Like you can’t be done.
Mark: This is like the navy SEALs visualizing the outcomes that are acceptable.
Greg: Yes, vision. I like that. Visualize acceptable outcome. Knowing what done looks like, simplifies in and of itself. When I say I’ve got to write a book – or write my book – that’s vague. What does it mean?
Here’s what done looks like. I have sent a chapter to my editor, and she has said in email “this is great.” That’s what done looks like. Now I know. I know the state.
And it immediately organizes the mind. It immediately cuts, defluffs, declutters all the messiness. All the unhelpful complexity. All the bells and whistles that I can add. All the unhelpful cycles where I’m researching stuff that isn’t actually useful. All of that stuff and just gets you focused. “Okay, what do I actually what I need to really do to achieve that?”
So just that question alone is a lever question – “what does done look like?”
There’s an amazing unbelievable story of the of Vasa – which is a Swedish boat – you can go and see it. That’s an incredible story.
But this crazy story – the king wants to build the most enormous ship to kind of show off his military prowess to the other surrounding naval powers… and so he starts this ship, gets the ship builder…
First, it’s gonna be 135 feet long and there’s a thousand trees – they cut down this whole forest, they cut it to shape they do it – and then he goes “I’d actually rather it was this length.” And of course all the wood doesn’t work, so they have to go back to the beginning.
And this goes on literally for years. The king just changes again and again what he wants the size, the number of cannons – where the cannons are.
Then in another sort of illustration of just total non-essential nonsense adds 700 – what’s the word I’m looking for? Just all these extra bulwarks and statues and just stuff…
Mark: Just adornments…
Greg: Yes. 700 of them. And so this is like… actually, apparently one of these decisions kills the original ship maker. Just heart attack.
His assistant ship builder becomes now in charge of it. And again the years just keep going by. And finally the day arrives – not I might add for the completion of the ship. No.
But for showing the ship off to a set of VIPs. So the moment comes, the Vasa is going to be rolled out – it has fanfare, they’ve got fireworks, they’ve got all these VIPs from all these other countries and they’re here. And they’re going to do this big gun salute. So they have these masses of cannons down the ship, and they shoot the cannons and then in the process – right then – there’s a big gust of wind comes along…
Tips the Vasa over. Just enough that because all the cannons are out – because they’re going to do this gun salute, they dip into the water and immediately water starts filling it – just pouring into the deck and then down into the base of the Vasa.
Within like an hour the whole thing is under water. It is done. The Vasa in its maiden voyage goes less than one mile… sinks – very tragically – this isn’t the funny part of the story, but like 53 people die.
And that’s the end of the Vasa. That is it. That is how that thing ends. And they found it ages later – they’ve taken the whole thing out, so you can actually go see this thing. I mean, it is beautiful – there’s no question it’s beautiful…
It’s not supposed to be beautiful, that’s not what it was designed to be. It’s not a work of art. It’s supposed to be something that was fit for purpose. That’s obviously just an example…
Mark: He didn’t know what “done” looked like, in his own mind…
Greg: He didn’t know what “done” looked like, so no one else could know what “done” looked like. And they just kept on adding and adding all these frills and these extra things…
And so one very simple way to make action more effortless is just to define that. What does “done” look like.
And in the next meeting you’re in. Somebody wants to talk about something, “hey, what does “done” look like? How will we know when the project is done?
In your own goals, don’t say “oh, I want to exercise.” Specifically, don’t say “I want to lose weight” – you know what “done” looks like when this exact weight is staring back up at me when I’m standing on the on the scales. You just visualize precisely what done looks like.
I think that’s a very quick way to make anything, and any action easier.
Mark: I agree. And what’s interesting – and you point this out – is knowing what done looks like, doesn’t mean that your product or your effort has to look like that when you first launch it. And in fact, you can have something that is partial, but you get it out the door. You call that the minimum viable product or effort, right?
And so those concepts are kind of related. It’s like, “yeah, we know where we’re going. But we don’t wait for all the conditions and everything to be in place to get out the door and get some feedback.”
Greg: Yes, I mean you can put these two ideas together. So what does done look like? As you say – you don’t have to have done the nth version of your thing. It moves to one more question, so this is the combination of like how do you know what done looks like, and how do you start, right?
And the start is like what is the minimum viable action? What is the next obvious physical step you can take?
Mark: And then you ask, what does done look like for that?
Greg: Yes, exactly. And so that’s just like the unit to get you going. So you know what done looks like.
So my son came to me when he was 12. He wanted to get his eagle scout at the time he turned 14. That was his goal…
Greg: Yeah, once he sets his mind to things, he’s really very diligent… and we went through the process and everything is done, including the final eagle project which is this major undertaking. Got 35 people involved one day building this whole fence – 180 foot long – all this is done…
There’s one thing that remains for done. And that is that he has to write up the report of that final project. That’s it.
But here’s the thing, that alone has cursed many would-be Eagle Scouts – I know myself someone who procrastinated that final report until the day after his 18th birthday when he finished it. He spent years having completed everything but that. And they wouldn’t accept it, because it was one day late and they’re just 100% sticklers. No exceptions.
He is not an Eagle Scout and he never was, and he just held that regret forever. And so first it’s days, then it turns into weeks, and we start thinking like, “this could become the thing.” Everything’s done and we go, “well, we’ll do this. We’ll get to it.”
And so we just apply the questions in part two of the book – the section you’re asking me about, effortless action – what does done look like? Well, we have taken the project in to the scout office, and they have said, “yes, this is acceptable.” We know what done looks like.
Then what is the first step. The first step isn’t to print up all the photos – the first step is get a three-ring binder. As soon as you identify the first step, there’s like a physical change, “I can do that. I know how to do that. We’ll just go to the store; we’re going to buy a three-ring binder.” And we went and did that.
What’s the next physical step that we can take? And breaking it down into very actually tangible, obvious next steps reduce the strains.
And so there’s other steps in that section of the book, other questions we asked “okay, what are the minimal number of steps required to get to completion?” Not all the fancy final reports that we’d seen -we’d seen some that were literally built in wood and designed together and looked glorious and probably took 100 hours to do.
And we were like, “well, none of that’s necessary.
Mark: Maximize the steps not taken…
Greg: Maximize the steps not taken. Just can you do it in one step? Not even looking at other people’s glorious things and simplifying it. Start from zero. What is the minimum I need to do to actually get this done?
And we did get it done and these questions in that section of the book literally helped us to do it. And he got his eagle one week before he turned 14.
Mark: I love that, because that could really break through people who suffer from perfectionism. Which is a lot of people listening to this – including myself, used to suffer from that. Because we always think that everything and every step has to be like this maximal effort. And it doesn’t.
And, in fact, this was – in this very good example – this write-up was just the last step of a very long project, which he had already done an exceptional job on. And so to have that hold you up, or like in the case of the 18 year-old, to not do it, just because you’re afraid that you can’t be perfect on that.
Greg: Exactly. Perfectionism is one of the clearest ways that we make life more difficult than it needs to be. When I started the podcast – when I started the “What’s Essential” podcast – it was a very deliberate choice, and it actually was uncomfortable for me.
And that was, “do you, Greg, have the courage to be rubbish on this podcast? Are you willing to be rubbish?” And that’s not false modesty. Like, for real. It was the middle of the pandemic, I’ve got no recording equipment – well, we found a microphone that was terrible…
You couldn’t buy any equipment, anywhere… like, nothing was open, nothing was available, you couldn’t buy a proper microphone. I didn’t know how to do it. Didn’t know how to use ZenCastr, I didn’t know how to do the… we didn’t know anything.
It was an overwhelming idea, if we tried to be perfectionist about it. And so the choice – really the biggest choice, was like are you willing to be rubbish to start? And by being willing to be rubbish and to learn, it meant that instead of learn to do, you do to learn.
And what’s interesting about that, I have to admit that I’ve been a little uncomfortable with that. It started – not a year ago yet, so we’re sort of 10, 11 months… whatever…
I felt uncomfortable almost the whole time, because I’ve struggled with a feeling of, “you’re kind of failing at this. You’re just not doing this the way you would sometimes do things. Where you just pay attention to every detail and want to get it all beautiful, and perfect.”
And literally just two weeks ago, the podcast became a top 10 podcast in self-improvement on apple. And then last week top five percent of self-improvement on apple.
And those were kind of the first pieces of good news since we started it, in one sense. But we would never have had that – there was someone else I talked to on the same week that I started “What’s Essential” podcast, and they bought the equipment on the same week, same idea…
They never started theirs, and now we are here and “What’s Essential” is starting to become something. (laughing) starting to not be a failure.
But that’s the thing, the courage to be rubbish… to start and to progress and not worry about perfection. And not having to pretend that you know all the answers and you’ve got it all sorted out. You don’t.
We don’t admit it. It’s messy, but you’ll make progress. And that has started to happen now.
Mark: I love that. Fail forward fast is what we say. Failure is not an option, because when you fail forward fast, then all you have is just successive learning moments.
Jon Acuff just did a – you should have him on here, I think he’d be terrific – he wrote a book called “Soundtracks,” and basically, he’s saying you have to rewire the soundtracks in your head from all the negative things to more positive things. One of the soundtracks he came up with was this, you either have success or you get a story.
I love that one-liner. And it just builds with what you were just saying, it’s like you try and if you fail you get a story. And you’re going to need to have some stories along the way.
Mark: One of ours in the SEALs was either you’re a winner or you’re a learner. In which case, you’re a winner
Oh, man. We are running out of time, but I do want to kind of move to results and just talk about one of the core principles – and I’ll summarize them for the listeners – effortless results come from learning how to learn – and you mentioned aptly that teaching is one of the best ways to do that.
Lifting – use teaching as a lever.
Automating – and I think that’s key, and I love how technology is allowing us to automate.
Trusting and preventing – preventing mistakes before they happen.
But I think trust is one of the most critical ones. Let’s talk about trust and how trust plays into effortlessness and we’ll kind of close on that.
Greg: Look, here’s the simple thing. When trust is high, everything is easier. When trust is low, everything is harder. And everybody knows those two things are true.
When you have a relationship and the trust is low, you can barely – literally barely – send them a text or them you a text without it causing huge discomfort for everyone involved. Everything’s hard.
I use the metaphor in that chapter of like oil in an engine. If you don’t put oil in your engine, you don’t notice it at first, but as it starts running low – all those different parts in your engine start to grind against each other. So everything is creating friction.
And if the oil goes to zero, the engine will completely stop working and basically, you’ve damaged it, too. And that’s like the metaphor for your level of trust in a relationship that you have. As you increase the trust, everything is easier. It starts to flow together, it works together.
And there’s just two specific things I identified there to help people with building higher trust so that you can get more results without pushing harder.
And the first is to hire high-trust people – work with people you trust. If you want a high trust relationship, work with high trust people. Warren Buffett used three things – the three “I”s to choose who he works with – integrity, number one, intelligence, number two, initiative is number three…
He says, “if you don’t have integrity, the other two will hurt you.” So, that’s the most important one.
I love these three criteria. I use them now all the time when I’m trying to evaluate. I explain them to people directly for people that already work in my organization – like, these are the three things -integrity, you’re gonna try and do the right thing, whether someone’s looking or not – intelligence, you’re gonna figure things out, but then there’s initiative, which is where someone’s thinking for you. They’re not waiting to be told.
I’m looking for people that nine or ten out of ten on all three. And when I find them, which is easier to do now that I have the criteria – I have somebody now working with me – he anticipates so much. He just figures it out.
It’s such a pleasure to work with him. He’s just easy and suddenly I have things in my inbox – “well, I was thinking that this might be a challenge for you, so I’ve solved this problem in this way.”
So high trust people. That’s the first thing.
And then the second is high trust agreements, but often you have a situation where the trust starts to go lower with people and you start to go, “well is it them? Or is it me?”
And either of those answers could be true, but sometimes it’s neither. Sometimes it’s the agreement we are working under is so low trust – meaning it’s unclear what you want from them, what they want from you. It’s unclear what the rules of the relationship are, unclear about what the rewards are going to be.
And so I just have five things in a high trust agreement. Get clear on the results, on the roles, on the rules, on the resources, and on the rewards. Those are the four r’s. We have three I’s we’ve got the four r’s.
And what is the priority result you want from someone? Let’s get clear about that.
Number two is roles, who is doing what? The rules are just if there’s anything that really matters to you. You’ve learned, because people violated it in the past. You express it clearly.
The resources that could be, “hey, here are all the resources you’re welcome to use. Let me explicitly tell you what they are and where they are.”
And then rewards are like when are we going to actually have accountability? When are we going to sit down and talk about this? What’s your reward if you do or don’t do it?
If you get those things clear, you will make almost any relationship easier. Because everyone knows how to win now. And often people are guessing and that just adds friction to everything.
So those are two ways to utilize trust in making it easier to get results.
Mark: That’s awesome. I love it. And you have maybe five or six principles, actionable principles, in each of the three methods for finding effortless – or making things effortless. Effortless state, effortless action, effortless results…
But it’s true that you don’t have to master all of them. You’ll find that momentum, that leverage, that compounding effect. But just like dialing in one or two from each category, right? Each bucket.
Greg: Yeah, it would be ironic to try to make it easier, to try and make things easier by doing 50 things at the same time…
Mark: Right. To master being effortless would complicate things.
Greg: Yeah, start with one thing. Start with asking a better question. How can we make this effortless? Or how can I make this more enjoyable? Or next project, what does “done” look like?
Just something in this conversation will already have struck somebody. You start with one thing.
And just the same when they read the book – you read it, don’t try and do everything in it. But at least allow yourself this new possibility, there’s a different way to do life if you ask new questions…
Mark: I love “am I okay with rubbish?” That’s awesome.
Greg: Yeah, do I have the courage to be rubbish at least at the beginning? I like that, too.
What a pleasure to be with you today. Thank you.
Mark: Likewise, Greg. It’s been a really fun conversation and super-valuable. Super-appreciate your work, I know everyone who’s listening does as well.
And so I’ve already read the book, but folks you’re going to want to read this book. So go get “Effortless,” and you’re going to want to subscribe to Greg’s podcast – “What’s Essential.” Greg McKeown’s “What’s Essential” podcast.
Did I get that right, Greg?
Mark: Yeah. Where can people find you? Essentialism.com. I heard you put that out we’ll put these in show notes. And then social media, what’s your social media? Just your name?
But really, I actually think the podcast is the thing. Like that’s the place. I love podcasts and I love your podcast. And people should seriously share this podcast with people. It’s a free resource I mean, this is like amazing – it won’t always be free. Podcasts are not always going to be free. That’s just like because it’s still a relatively new medium.
And this is like a great time to be learning and gaining from people that you have access to. So that’s the thing, I think. Everyone should tell everyone to go subscribe to yours, they should go rate your podcast right now.
And as you go subscribe to “What’s Essential” as well. Like be part of the conversation.
Mark: I agree with that. Awesome. Well, it’s been an honor, Greg. Thanks very much. I’d love to meet you in person someday. If I ever come across the pond and visit your neck of the world. (laughing) I want to see your family doing dishes and playing karaoke. That’s awesome.
Greg: Nice to be with you. Thanks, Mark.
Mark: Thank you very much.
All right folks, that’s it. Check out Greg’s work – amazing, amazing contribution. And thank you very much for supporting the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Stay focused and let’s become effortful at becoming effortless.
See you next time.