1 Big idea to think about

  • Life has created a false dichotomy between things that are “essential and hard” and things that are “easy and trivial”.  We can make hard things, important things, easier by inverting the equation and asking, “What if this could be easy?”

2 ways you can apply this

  • Reject the time-honored idea that the easier path has to be the inferior path.
  • When you feel overwhelmed, stop and examine if you are overcomplicating the situation. Is there an easier way to reach the solution?

3 Questions to ask

  • What’s the simplest way to achieve this result?
  • Am I trying too hard, simply because I believe to achieve I must overdo?
  • Is there an indirect way to accomplish a difficult task?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Is the “right way” always the harder way? (3:20)
  • The danger of trying too hard (8:14)
  • Making things effortless through inversion (10:57)
  • How to weaken the impossible (14:37)
  • Free yourself of assumptions to find an easier way (18:09)
  • Finding things that are highly valuable and simple and easy (20:35)

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*The audio is excerpted courtesy of Random House Audio from Effortless by Greg McKeown, Read by the Author.


Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:03  

Come with me on an exploration of self discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day to day work, to learn how to build an essential life. Welcome to the Watson central podcast. I’m your host, Greg McEwen. And I am so excited to be with you today. Because I’ve been channeling my inner Oprah because as we approach the holiday season, I’ve been thinking of some of my favorite things to share with you. And the first is like a national treasure in Great Britain. It’s a British sitcom, and it’s a show called Yes, Prime Minister. This show was famously Margaret Thatcher’s favorite TV show, because some of you listening to this know exactly what it is. It’s a cult classic, probably for you already. But for some of you, you’ve never even heard of this show, which is a crying shame. It’s become a national treasure. But you could start with Episode Four from season one. It’s called the key. Okay, this is one of my favorite things. Number two favorite things right now, my Roan pants that spelled our h o n e, they are the most comfortable pants I have ever owned. Nobody’s paying me to say anything like this. These are my pandemic pants. You know what I mean? These are the pair of pants you wear that are so comfortable, really, I should probably use them to exercise in them. But I use them instead to sit. I’m literally wearing them right now. And I probably wear them more often than I’d like to admit. Number three, I just have discovered that many people listening to this podcast, don’t know how to get the show notes. You get the show notes. By signing up for my free newsletter. The One Minute Wednesday, you just go to Greg mckeown.com, you can sign up for free, it will literally take you 30 seconds to be able to go on there. Put in your email, and then you’ll get a one minute Wednesday email, and also an email giving you the shownotes for the what’s essential podcast. So that’s number three. Number four, you’ve probably all know about this already. But there’s a little twist to it. The calm app has these 10 minute meditations. My wife Anna is the one that introduced me to them. But the twist is that we’ve been doing it as a whole family. And actually I’ve been initiating it most of the time. I am loving doing it in general. And I think that is a small microburst of meditation. Okay, number five is completely different kind of favourite thing. It’s Crime and Punishment. You know, Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, but his his way I’m saying it like that, because? Because I always thought when I heard that title, this would be a very legalistic, heavy book. Yes, fine. It’s a classic. But that doesn’t sound much fun. But then, when I read it, it’s completely different than what I expected. It’s so brilliantly written. It’s funny, it’s powerful. Although, to be honest, I listened to it. And I probably recommend that approach. This is magnificent rating. And the story feels fresh, it feels fascinating. It grabs you from the beginning, it pulls you along. To the end, I won’t give away anything about it. Other than it’s a high stakes book. And and this is definitely one of my favorite things from this year. 

Okay, and now a bonus, I said I was gonna do five things. But a bonus, I want you to watch an episode of Seinfeld. It’s the episode called the opposite. It’s where George remarks to Jerry, in, you know, amongst cafe, that every decision he has ever made has been wrong. And his life is the exact opposite of what it should be. And Jerry convinces him that well, if every instinct you have had is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right. So he starts making exactly the opposite decisions of what he would normally do and it just works for him. It absolutely works and he’s enraptured with a success. And he comes to regard the opposite as his personal philosophy. It’s season five, Episode 22. Actually, one of the things I love about this is that you now have an excuse to watch an episode of Seinfeld for your self improvement, because insecure overachievers need to do the opposite of their intuition, at least sometimes. And today 

You are going to hear effortless chapter one, which is titled invert. The audio is exerted courtesy of Random House audio from my book effortless but you will learn the mindset for going from exhausting overexertion to effortless execution, he will learn a simple question you can ask in any situation to make life less hard. What happens when you try too hard? How to weaken the impossible goals in your life? How to make progress as easy as pushing a project downhill? And overall, how to unlearn that results only come from heroic effort,

I can’t wait for you to hear it. Because I know how exhausting how hard life can be how hard your life can be. And you’re part of the hit squad. The hard-working intelligent, talented group of people otherwise you wouldn’t even be here wouldn’t even be listening to this wouldn’t be participating week in week out. And although that’s all sounds like the right problem to have to be hard-working, intelligent and talented. It comes with a set of problems. And this chapter this episode contains a simple key to switching from exhaustion to effortless so let’s get started. 

Chapter OneInvert

What if This Could Be Easy?

Four AM and I’m up photoshopping pictures really. Kim Jenkins wanted to do what really mattered. But it was hard not to feel overwhelmed. For one thing. The University where she worked was undergoing an immense expansion. The client base had doubled in the last few years. But they were operating with virtually the same staff and resources as before. 

With the expansion of the organization had come an expansion of complexity everywhere. There were new and difficult to decipher internal policies. There was a tedious new system for handling complaints, processes had grown cumbersome, and now all of their projects and programs took more energy and time, well-intentioned people had added but never subtracted. They had taken work that used to be simple and made it maddeningly unnecessarily complicated. 

As a result, the effort required to get her work done had become Herculean. And Kim had a tendency to be really hard on herself. She said, I thought if I wasn’t putting in tremendous effort, sacrificing any time for myself than I was being incredibly selfish. 

Then one day it hit her. This was also much harder than it ought to be. And with that realization, she said, I could see it all for what it was layers and layers of unnecessary complexity. I could see how it was expanding all the time, and how I was suffocating underneath all of it. 

She decided it was time to make a change. When faced with a task that felt impossibly hard, she would ask is there an easier way. She soon had the opportunity to put this method to the test when a faculty member called her and asked if she could have her videography team record a full semester of a class. In the past, she would have jumped in with both feet, put her team to work for four months, and look for ways to go above and beyond adding music intros and outros and graphics. This time, she wondered if there was an easier way to get the desired results. A brief conversation revealed that the videos were intended for a single student who couldn’t make every class due to a sports commitment. He didn’t need a highly produced recording with lots of bells and whistles. He just needed a way to avoid falling behind in his class. So she thought what if they simply asked another student to record those lectures on a smartphone. The professor was delighted with the solution, Kim said and it cost her just a couple of minutes of planning instead of months of work for her whole videography team.

Hard Work May Not Be Well Named. 

All too often, we sacrifice our time, our energy and even our sanity, almost believing that sacrifice is essential in and of itself. The problem is that the complexity of modern life has created a false dichotomy between things that are essential and hard and things that are easy and trivial. It’s almost like a natural law for some people. trivial things are easy, important things are hard.

 Our language helps to reveal our deeper assumptions. Think of these revealing phrases. When we accomplished something important we say it took blood, sweat and tears. We say important achievements are hard earned. When we might just say earned. We recommend a hard day’s work. When day’s work would suffice. 

Then there ways our language betrays our distrust of ease. When we talk of easy money, we are implying it was obtained through illegal or questionable means. We use the phrase that’s easy for you to say, as a criticism. Usually when we are seeking to invalidate someone’s opinion. 

It’s curious to me how we default to saying things like, it won’t be easy, but it’s worth it. Or it’s going to be really hard to make that happen. But we should try. It’s like we all automatically accept that the right way is inevitably the harder one. 

In my experience, this is hardly ever questioned. Indeed, if you do challenge the sacred cow, it can be uncomfortable. We don’t even pause to consider that something important and valuable, could be made easy. 

What if the biggest thing keeping us from doing what matters is the False assumption that it has to take tremendous effort? What if instead, we considered the possibility that the reason something feels hard, is that we haven’t yet found the easier way to do it? 

The Path of Least Effort

Our brain is wired to resist what it perceives as hard and welcome what it perceives as easy. 

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. 

We don’t need to look far to see the principal in action, we buy something at the overpriced convenience store on the corner. Because it’s easier than getting in the car and driving to the store where prices are lower, we put our dishes in the sink instead of the dishwasher because one less step is required. We let our teenager text through dinner because it’s easier than inviting an argument by trying to enforce the no phones rule. We accept the first minimally credible information we find online about a subject because it’s the easiest way to get our questions answered, and so on. 

From an evolutionary perspective, this bias for ease is useful. For most of human history, it’s been crucial to our survival and progress. Just imagine if humans had a bias for the path of most resistance. What if our ancestors had been wired to ask? What’s the hardest way to obtain food to provide our family shelter to maintain relationships within our tribe, they wouldn’t have made it our survival as a species grows out of innate preference for taking the path of least effort. 

What if rather than fighting our pre programmed instinct to seek the easiest path, we could embrace it, even use it to our advantage? What if instead of asking how can I tackle this really hard but essential project? We simply inverted the question and asked, What if this essential project could be made easy. 

For some the idea of working less hard, feels uncomfortable, we feel lazy, we fear will 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

How to Try Too Hard

At a key moment in my career. A client at a high profile technology company asked me to give three presentations on leadership. They told me that if all went well, they were prepared to hire me for the next year or more. It was exactly the career break I needed. I understood their needs. Well. I had ready made content they had already approved

The afternoon before the first presentation, I decided to add some finishing touches. It already looked good, but I worried it didn’t look good enough. I decided to scrap it all and start over. 

I got consumed with a new idea that I was convinced would wow them. I ended up staying up all night rewriting my whole presentation, new slides, new handouts, all of which were of course, untested. 

As I drove to the company’s offices the next morning, I was exhausted, my mind was foggy. When I arrived, I was running on the fumes of my nervous energy. 

As the presentation began, my stomach sank. My opening story was unpolished. The slides were unfamiliar. I kept having to turn around to see what was on the screen. One of the first slides failed to convey the point I was trying to make. 

In short, I bombed. 

And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now back to our conversation. 

As I left, I was hyperventilating. I had been given this incredible opportunity and I had blown it. 

The client canceled the other two presentations. They did not hire me for the extended engagement. It was my most humiliating professional failure ever. 

I was burned out from the experience and I didn’t even walk away With the results I wanted. 

As I reflected on how this had all gone so wrong, the answer was obvious. nailing this presentation was so important to me. I had overthought it, I’d over engineered it. I tried too hard. And as a result, I’d snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Here is what I learned. Trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want. 

Here’s 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’ve been trying too hard. 

We are conditioned over the course of our lifetimes to believe that in order to overachieve, we must also overdue as a result, we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.

Effortless Inversion 

Carl Jacobi, the 19th century German mathematician developed a reputation as someone who could solve especially hard and intractable problems. He learned that to do that most easily. Man, moose, iMail and Catlin, which translates to, one must invert, always invert.

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. It can highlight errors in our thinking, it can open our minds to new ways of doing things. 

Assuming that all worthwhile things take enormous effort is one way of looking at a problem. For many overachievers, it’s the only way they have learned how to solve problems, even when exhausted or overwhelmed. They are good at getting things done by powering through.

Effortless inversion means looking at problems from the opposite perspective. It means asking, What if this could be easy, it means learning to solve problems from a state of focus, clarity and calm. It means getting good at getting things done. By putting in less effort.  

There are two ways to achieve all the things that really matter. We can a gain superhuman powers so we can do all the impossibly hard but worthwhile work or be get better at making the impossibly hard but worthwhile work easier. 

Once we invert the question, even everyday tasks that seemed too overwhelming to tackle become easier. 

For example, the other day, I was tidying up my office. As I scan the room, I saw an old printer we had recently replaced, it had been sitting on my office floor for a couple of weeks taking up space. It bothered me every time I saw it there. Still, every time I looked at it, I thought of all the steps required to deal with it, deciding whether to keep or discard it, checking the costs of replacing the color ink, potentially finding a place to give it away. Every time the work involved was enough for a voice in my head to whisper too much trouble. So I quickly resigned myself to it staying on the floor. 

However, this time, I asked, What if this could be easy? What if all those steps I’d assumed this task entailed were not in fact required steps at all. I then looked up from my desk and happened to see one of the building workers through the window of my office. I walked outside and asked if he wanted the printer for free. He said yes and took it. The problem was solved within two minutes of asking the question. 

When we feel overwhelmed. It may not be because the situation is inherently overwhelming. It may be because we are over complicating something in our own heads, asking the question, what if this could be easy is a way to reset our thinking. It may seem almost impossibly simple. And that’s exactly why it works. 

Weaken the Impossible. 

The abolitionist William Wilberforce approached his impossibly hard worthwhile work with great conviction. As a member of parliament in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century, he fought for the moral case against slavery, he rallied his generation to do the same. He wanted to attack the slave trade with sweeping legislation to end this barbaric and inhumane system. 

But for all his effort, and for all his fervor, he couldn’t make a dent in the law. The forces working against him were massive. There were powerful parties intent on protecting the status quo. There were bystanders who were too consumed with other things to care. There were others who cared but not enough to make the necessary sacrifices. The barriers were too great. The interest too entrenched, the distractions too many. 

Then one of his fellow abolitionists, James Stephen had an idea. Rather than continuing to attack the system head on, he suggested a more indirect approach. 

In 1805, Stephen wrote a pamphlet entitled war in disguise, or the frauds of the neutral flags. In it, he argued against the use by warring nations of neutral flags on ships. At a time when France and England were at war, French cargo ships were sailing under the neutral American flag to take advantage of maritime law that protected them from seizure by the enemy. The majority of slave ships sailing to the West Indies, were also flying the American flag because under the law at the time, this meant they could not be stopped by the British Navy. 

Stephen saw that if England were to change the law to remove that protection, no slave trader would dare allow his vessel to make the journey. Without the protection of neutral flags, the bulk of the British slave trade would be eliminated. 

Fearing that he mentioned the slave trade his arguments might be dismissed. Steven confined himself entirely to issues of war. His outwardly uncontroversial treaties, was swiftly published and went largely unopposed. 

This seemingly innocuous, deliberately dull paper was in reality a Trojan horse. Beginning in January 1807, the British Privy Council issued the first of a series of war measures against Napoleon, inspired by Stephens approach, the effect was as had been hoped for while there were still many battles left to be fought in the name of abolition and racial justice. And still today, the unconscionable practice of trading enslaved people was formally outlawed across the British Empire, just two months later, with the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. 

And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now back to our conversation. 

There’s no question that some goals are incredibly almost impossibly hard to achieve. However, even these can sometimes be made less hard. Once we find an indirect approach. 

A One-Way Ticket to Easy

Southwest Airlines did just that when they faced a different kind of crisis. Ever since the airlines founding its business model had depended on keeping costs low and turning planes around on a dime after they’d landed. Both of these goals were incompatible with the traditional system for printing out tickets, passengers were accustomed to the industry standard of being handed a printed ticket when they checked in for their flight. But because of the reservation system technology available at the time, producing paper tickets for each passenger was expensive, and they took too long to print at the gate. So executives were forced to decide whether to pay $2 million to build a modern ticketing system. 

The case for creating the new system was compelling. If we don’t do it, management thought we risked going out of business, but $2 million was a major hit to the bottom line for a low cost carrier, especially for something that served no practical purpose other than to conform to the practices of the industry. 

Southwest co founder Herb Kelleher insisted that there had to be a better way. We are sitting in a management meeting trying to figure out what to do. He recalls, when someone piped up and asked, Do we really give a damn what United thinks that ticket is? Isn’t it more important? What we think a ticket is? reflexively we all said, No, we only care what we think a ticket is. So then the manager says, Then why don’t we just print out a single piece of paper that says this is a ticket.

And that’s what they did. Instead of wasting time and resources. on building an expensive ticketing system, Southwest decided to issue tickets that could be printed out on ordinary paper and obtained from no frills automatic dispensers. Merely questioning the necessity of the complex features and functions of an expensive ticketing system revealed a fast, simpler, cheaper and easy to execute solution. 

Free of the assumptions that make your problem look hard. You will be surprised how often an easier solution appears. 

Can you push something downhill? 

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 co founder of Link Tim 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. 

We think that to be extraordinarily successful, we have to do the things that are hard and complicated. Instead, we can look for opportunities that are highly valuable and simple and easy. 

Arianna Huffington used to buy into the notion that anything worth doing required superhuman effort, but she has since said that she didn’t become truly successful until she stopped overworking herself. It’s also our collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed. she says. 

Of course, there are hard paths to success. Of course, there are examples of people who have succeeded against all odds, they push their boulder up the steep hill through sheer effort. It’s heroic, and heroes make for great stories. 

But such stories have created the false impression that pushing uphill is the only path to success. What if for every person who has succeeded through heroic effort, there are others who have employed less heroic, and thus less newsworthy strategies to achieve success. Take for example, Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in history, who has described the investment strategy at Berkshire Hathaway as lethargy bordering on slough. They are not looking to invest in companies that will require enormous effort to achieve profitability. They are looking for investments that are easy to say yes to no brainer businesses that are simple to run, and have long term competitive advantages. In Buffett’s words, high don’t look to jump over seven foot bars. Hey, look around for one foot bars that I can step over.

When a strategy is so complex that each step feels akin to pushing a boulder up a hill, you should pause, invert the problem, ask what’s the simplest way to achieve this result? 

When we remove the complexity? Even the slightest effort can move what matters forward, momentum grows with the force of gravity, execution becomes more effortless. When we shelve the false assumption that the easier path has to be the inferior path, obstacles fade away. And as these obstacles disappear, we can begin to uncover our effortless state. 

Thank you for being here. You are part of the essentialist tribe, your rooting out non essential ism, one trade off at a time, unlearning ideas that hold you back. So thank you really thank you for listening. to today’s episode, we’ve covered the story of Kim Jenkins and how it illustrates the opposite mindset. This inversion, we’ve covered a simple question you can ask in any situation to make life less hard. You’ve learned how to weaken the impossible goals in your life, how to make progress as easy as pushing something downhill, and how to unlearn. The results only come from heroic effort. And also as a thank you the first 10 people who write a review of this episode of the podcast on Apple podcasts. We’ll get a signed copy of effortless. So you just send a photo of your review to info at Greg mcewen.com along with your mailing address. Well, enjoy the holidays. Be safe. Don’t make things harder than they need to be. And I’ll see you next week.

Greg McKeown


  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown Team
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown