4 Essential Ideas

  • What got you to your present position, will not get you to where you want to go next.
  • The way you deal with what’s important is as important as the things themselves.
  • Trying to make things easier does not equal laziness.
  • An effortless pace allows you to reach your goals faster “without particular effort”.

1 Essential Action 

  • What are you making harder than it needs to be? How can you start with zero and get to the solution in one step?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The 10X Dilemma (2:45)
  • 5 things you can do right now to get great results without burning out (6:10)
  • Greg’s own 10X Dilemma (6:22)
  • Strategy 1: Invert (10:06)
  • Strategy 2: Limit (16:21)
  • Strategy 3: Pace (19:58)
  • Strategy 4: Simplify (25:04)
  • Strategy 5: Leverage (29:17)
  • The two paths to achievement (34:00)

Connect with Greg McKeown

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Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:03  

My primary motivation in creating this podcast was as an opportunity to connect with you, in a personal way, week, on week, because I recognize the challenge is to do what’s most essential, day in and day out when there’s so many forces pulling us away from those things. And something that I have felt drawn to do recently is to create a regular opportunity for me to talk directly with you without having an interview or a conversation with somebody else. But just to talk with you directly. And this today is just such an opportunity. So let’s get to it. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been thinking about you have been thinking about what this last year and a half has meant, what that experience has been like. And if I had to summarize it in a single word, I would just say relentless. I’m thinking about the surreal. April and May of 2020, the pandemic shuts everything down, the uncertainty is as high as it could possibly be. I’m thinking of all the pivoting that immediately had to take place in business in family, home education, and all that we’re so familiar with the stay at home orders, the uncertainty about the stay at home orders, the differences between countries, and states. And all the above. I’ve been thinking about the always on, always pivoting, always changing, always innovating VUCA world in which we now find ourselves where it’s constant volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity. And it’s got to the point, I would say that there are really two kinds of listeners right now to the podcast, there are people who are burned out. And then there are people who know they’re burned out. And the implication of this is what I would call the 10x dilemma. And you can test this on yourself right now by saying, Do you want to achieve better results, even 10x results? And then the second question is, can you work 10 times harder. And as the chances are, that almost everybody will say yes to the first and almost everybody no to the second, you faced the real dilemma of this moment. And it leads people to feel like they’re teetering right on the edge of burnout. Like you want to make a higher contribution, but lack the energy sometimes where everything is so much harder than it needs to be. And my position in all of this is that what got you here in life will not get you there.

Now, if we could take all of the stories, all of the full life narrative of every person listening to this conversation right now, we would have some extraordinary tales to tell. There are so many people listening to this who have overcome great trials that have succeeded far beyond what they were expected to that have handled disappointments kept going through suffering and agonizing experiences, who have been rewarded at times for pushing well beyond your known limits. But with all of that, there is a risk that we over learn the lesson that we take on a partial paradigm and think it tells the whole story. Yes, working will produce results. Yes, plenty of times working harder will produce better results. But there comes a point at which overexertion will lead to underperformance. And I would say for the first time in my lifetime, this has become a norm across industries across across countries. That a year and a half into this pandemic. As we sort of wake up to an environment that is not as it was before even though there are countries opening up and generally speaking, it’s more stable than it was a year ago. There’s also this chronic exhaustion, tiredness and awakening to this zoom, eat, sleep, repeat life isn’t going away this working from home, or is it living at work type existence is here to stay. And there’s some upsides in all of that I’m not trying to say it’s all negative. But nevertheless, enormous numbers of people are experiencing their well being declining.

And so I wanted to share today, five things you can do right now to get great results. But without burning out, I first decided to write about this subject in effortless, because I was facing my own 10x dilemma. It was after essentialism had been written after it had become a success, I’m traveling all over and being more selective than I’ve ever been, but the options and opportunities had grown exponentially, and my family had grown to. And then in the midst of already feeling the dilemma as being real. I have a family emergency, where suddenly, one of my daughters who is completely healthy, happy, thriving, full of light, full of energy, can’t be angry, humorous, claiming trees out, riding bikes, naming the chickens suddenly became exceedingly ill, with no diagnosis. 35 years in that industry, veteran neurologists shrugging their shoulders, all the tests coming back within the normal range. It’s a bit like the big rocks theory, you know, the old story, the teacher comes along with a container puts in the sand, small rocks, and then the big rocks on top, and it doesn’t fit. And then they say, Look, if you operate in a different paradigm, from a different perspective, and you have the container, when you change the order, you put the big rocks in first, then the small rocks, and then the sand afterwards, then it all fits. But I was experiencing a challenge where the question could be posed this way. What happens if you have too many big rocks? What do you do then? And that was my experience. But I mean, the temptation of course, or, or the really, the only thing you think you can do is to put down some of the big rocks, they don’t fit. And that’s exactly the temptation, I felt, well, health. Well, can’t worry about that. Let’s put that down. Self improvement, self development, forget about it, let’s just put that down. And most important relationships, well, they’ll understand what put them down. And what I was experiencing in that very personal experience is what I think largely enormous numbers of people have experienced in the pandemic, and now through it. And it led me down this journey. How can we handle a situation like that? Is there a path where we don’t just drop the big rocks, we don’t just give up on them. And if you find yourself in such a position, if you find yourself strained in the way that I’m describing, the good news is that there is a way out to the multi year journey I’ve been on leads me to be more confident today more confident, than when I wrote effortless or when it was published, more confident now than I’ve ever been at all that there really are two paths, two ways to deal with the things that are most important. And the way you deal with those things that are most important, are as important as the things themselves.

So it’s not just knowing what the right things are, you must approach them in the right way. And let’s talk about some of those ways practical things you can do right now, to be able to get through to the next level of contribution, but without burning out.

So the number one thing you can do right now is to invert, that is to do exactly the opposite of what an otherwise insecure overachiever would do. So if you’ve spent years perhaps being rewarded, or at very least living out of a paradigm that says the only way to get better results is to work harder. Then As soon as you want to get better results, regardless of how burned out you feel you’re going to tend and tilt towards trying to push harder. You think the answer is not to do less to do any of the things I’m about to share, it will be to double down on exactly the things that lead to the problem in the first place. So to invert is literally to shift the mindset and to change the question that you’re asking, instead of asking the question, How can I work harder? To accomplish more? You say? How am I making it harder than it needs to be? How am I making it harder than it needs to be to get the result that I want? I was working with a manager at a university. She is the kind of person who feels guilty of if she’s even eating lunch, nevermind taking time to eat lunch, if she even eats it, she feels guilty, because again, you know, she could be spending those moments doing more. She’s the kind of person who literally is up till 4am In the morning photoshopping for her youth group at church the next day, no one’s asking you to do that. No one’s expecting that from her. But nevertheless, that’s what she finds herself doing and thinks that’s the way to make a higher contribution. So she gets a call from a professor at the University who asks her to record his class for the rest of the semester. And this is part of her responsibility. She has a videography team that reports to her as well as other teams. And she because of exactly how she thinks about results jumps in, you know, with both feet, and she’s just thinking, how can I maximize this? How can i Wow, him, I’m going to have a whole team arrive. And we’ll record from multiple angles. And I can spend time editing all of that together, I can have one of my editors doing that. We can add some music at the beginning. And at the end, we can add some graphics and slides going through it. And we’ll do this for the whole semester. And then she remembers the coaching, invert, ask the opposite question, How am I making this harder than it needs to be? And that led her to ask, well, who is this really for? And what does done look like for you? And it turns out that this is for one student who’s going to miss just a few classes because of an athletic commitment that you’ll have sometimes. So the solution they come up with is that they’ll have another student in class just record on their mobile phone, the classes that this one student will miss. Well, the professor is delighted with that solution and a 10 minute phone call is an amazing and surprising and delightful outcome. For the manager in question. She said four months of effort for her and an entire team, and at the same time produced a better result than if she had spent all of that time and resources to do it. So that’s the key idea. To invert the question, you normally asked to invert the mindset behind that question, instead of thinking that is is something to be distrusted. You welcome it, you stop thinking that ease equals lazy, because it doesn’t ease the definition of easy is that something doesn’t require a lot of effort. Whereas in lazy means that someone is not willing to put in the effort. So it’s a completely, actually quite radically different ideas. And if you simply say, well, easy as lazy, think of the enormous set of the strategies of the tactics that you are completely wiping off the table. Just putting them all aside, only leaving yourself with them the hardest, most complex, perhaps most over-engineered solutions to the problems that you face. Well, that’s number one to invert.

Number two, is to limit it’s to create boundaries that will help make you limitless. This sensation of having no boundaries, which is so familiar as we’ve lived through the pandemic. Yes, the zoom, eat sleep, repeat life. But it’s also beyond that. It’s not just infinite email inboxes. And we’re living out of our inboxes all of that, although that’s true as well. It’s also the limitless to-do list. I mean, just ask yourself, think about it. Have you ever found your inbox got longer by the end of the day that it was at the beginning? The answer is almost inevitably Yes. What is that like when you’re laying in bed at the end of the day, and you’re just Thinking about your day, even when you’ve done an enormous amount even when you’ve had a successful day. It’s a familiar sensation for many overachievers to just focus on all that isn’t done. And in fact, what I think it is, is an unwinnable game. Because if the list is always getting longer, no matter what you do, or even, in some ways, because of what you do, you can never win that game. And so you’ll always have a sense of discouragement, even in the midst of achievement. So an alternative simple thing you can do is to make a done for the day list, I find the list is approximately three to six items long. It is not the exhaustive list of everything you could do, it’s not the total list of everything you want to achieve. It’s a different list. It’s the list of things that if you do them, you can feel satisfied today, that once you’ve done them, you’re going to be done, done really done for the day, and no more sneaky work. After that, you actually get to be done, you get to put that aside, you get to start moving into rituals, you move into rituals of rest, and relaxation. And you might have to build those and learn how to build those over time. And the reason you want to move into that gear is because it’s like a slingshot in life. I mean, just think of the difference. Between that sensation, we’ve all had it for one time or another. We’re mentally and physically fatigued, we lose our keys, we don’t even know where they are, we get an email in that state from someone on our team or a client and they’re complaining about something and we just start fixating on it frustrated by all that that means. Maybe our daughter asks us to braid her hair, and we just even that feels a little resented inside of us. Then we have a good meal, a hot shower, and a full night of sleep. And what is it like we wake up the next day, we find the keys right where we left them. That email that seems so complex and frustrating, oh, we understand their real intent. Now we can see what’s going on, we are able to respond gracefully. The requests from our children, we have the energy, the emotional space, and buffer to respond and everything’s different. That’s the difference when we have a done for the day list and actually recuperate, versus just going on and on with the endless, impossible to-do list game that we often play.

Number three thing we can do is to set the pace as the one-word pace. Now, I would think that most of you know a little about this case study. But some of the details may not be as familiar to you. This happened in the midst of the great age of exploration was in the early years of the 20th century, where there was a sort of moonshot type goal that had grabbed the imagination of the people of the time. And it was who would be the first to reach the South Pole because no one had ever done that in all of recorded history. Not piteous, it was the first polar explorer 320 BC, not by the Vikings. 1000 years later, not by the Royal Navy and all of its prowess in the Great British Empire. And in the midst of this excitement, there are two rivals for the poll, who aimed to be the first to do it two teams, British team and a Norwegian team. They set off on almost the same day. But from two different locations. The goal is exactly the same. The first team, the British team had a particular strategy, on the good weather days, they would push as hard as they possibly could. And then on the bad weather days, they would just hunker down in their tents, they would make no progress. It was absolutely exhausting. They were already totally exhausted from the big push, and so that the weather was too much for them. They were demoralized, sitting in their tents they would write journals are nobody could make progress. In weather like this. I can’t imagine anyone being able to do this. And yet one team could and that was the other teams the Norwegian team who had a very different strategy theirs was while the expeditions leader made the rule. We’ll do 15 miles a day in good weather days. 15 miles a day in bad weather days. 50 miles a day, we’re going to have a steady pace. Now the plot thickens in the story when that Norwegian team came within 45 miles of the South Pole. They don’t know where the British team is for all they know the team could be ahead of them. And they also know they can get there in one day, if they push because the weather’s perfect, because it’s smooth sledding conditions, one big push, they’ll get there. And you just tell me, what would you do? I mean, honestly, even after studying this, even after, you know, really trying to get my head into this other alternative paradigm, I still think if I’m honest, I go for the big push me one day you’re going to get there. I think most people listening to this, if they’re honest, that’s what they would do. But what do we have to believe, to do what he did, which is no, we’re going to do 15 miles per day, they took three days to do that. 45 miles, well, what happened? They arrive 30 plus days before the British team. And that’s counterintuitive, because you think as a, as a, you know, as a burnout type person, as an overachiever, you think the opposite would be true, pushing as hard as you can, and then you know, just waiting till you can push again. But the steadiness, the effortless pace, proved much faster. But not only that, is that they had sufficient energy, sufficient wellness, to be able to make the 16,000 mile journey back to Norway, that’s non trivial, because the British team did not have what it took to go back. They were so exhausted, that they literally not one of that expedition team made it back alive, they all died on the way from the south pole. This is all happening at levels. But this approach that he took this effortless pace is so significant. Let me tell you, one of the most surprising things in the whole story. When you go back to the excellent biography about this encounter. The biographer uses the following phrase, he said, The Norwegian team achieved their goal, here’s the phrase, without particular effort, without particular effort. What kind of a phrase is that? How can we possibly accept a phrase like that? This is the greatest physical challenge the world could imagine at that time, it was utterly impossible. And yet the Norwegian team achieved it without particular effort. That’s the power of creating an effortless pace. There’s lots that we could talk about with this, but let me offer one rule that seems to be resonating with people. And it’s this, do not do more today than you can recover from by tomorrow.

The fourth thing that you can do right now is to simplify. But to simplify in a different way, than most of us approach simplification. In order to set this up, I want you to go back to time machine. Going to go back to when DVDs were first new, and DVD burning was even newer, it was a very industry specific technology. And it might cost you $30,000, to buy a machine and the software that goes with it. And in fact, if you did buy the machine and the software with it, then what you would also get was a 1000 page manual. I mean, just think of that compared to how we currently adopt new technologies, new apps, and so on. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is at the very beginning of what would lead to the renaissance of Apple. And he’s trying to create the breakthrough product, the new Mac, and he wants to put


DVD burning software as a standard feature. So it’s a leap ahead of where the competition is where the industry is. And so they purchase this company that I was just describing. One of the engineers on that team, his name was Mike evangelist, real name was part of the team who was given two weeks to prepare for a meeting with Steve. And then mandate was to take their existing software and to simplify it to its absolute minimum. So that this would be easier for the consumer to adopt. And they do this they spent two weeks focused on it. And they are very proud of what they have produced me they have removed so many features and additional things that would be only relevant for from a pro in the recording industry. Steve comes into the room. He draws a rectangle on the whiteboard. Here’s what we’re going to do. People are going to drag the file they want to record into the rectangle and press a button right here that says burn. That’s the app. That’s what we’re going to go do. And everybody in the room including mine suddenly feel not proud but embarrassed of the presentation that we’re about to give. And they never gave that presentation. But he told me, what I learned from that interaction was a totally different way to approach simplification. Instead of starting with complexity and removing piece by piece, you start with zero. You say, can I achieve what I’m trying to achieve in a single step? Can I do it in one tiny, simple step. And if you can do it that way around that you end up with a much more simple overall solution. Here’s what you can do immediately to apply this idea. Any process that you’re working with that feels harder and more complicated than it ought to be? You start with zero and ask how can I do it in one click in one step, to get to the solution.

The fifth thing that you could do right now is to tap into leverage. This is really an idea that takes this whole conversation and elevates it to a different level. Because the ultimate representation of effortlessness is that you do nothing and get the result anyway. So a linear result is an effort for result. That is, today, I have to do something to get the result I want. And tomorrow, I have to start again. And I have to put in the effort again, in order to get the result. Again, there’s an example of this, in anyone who’s living in a subsistence way. For example, an entrepreneur, a true story, an entrepreneur who’s in Africa, their job is selling produce on the side of the street. If they don’t sell produce today on the street, then they don’t have enough money to eat or to feed their children. So they can never get ahead, enter into this real scenario. A friend of mine, Jessica, Jake Lee, with her then husband and a team of people who are trying to make a difference, and they meet this entrepreneur, and they start to talk about what how could we help you design a system leverage a system that would help you to get a bit ahead. And they discover that if she could just renegotiate with her suppliers, her original suppliers and cut out the middleman that she’ll be able to make a profit. And the reason she hasn’t done that so far is because she has to stay every day getting the result, they find that about $500 will be sufficient for her to take the time off, and to be able to go and make these renegotiations and to create the new contracts and so on. And they think that’s an achievable amount of money, they can just give her that money. And then they start to think about leverage and another level. And they said, Well, what if we could increase our results? Even beyond this, instead of just helping one entrepreneur go from linear results to a residual results situation? What if we could make it a micro loan, she pays it back then 10 People get the same kind of result for the same original effort on their part. And then they think, Well, if we can use leverage in that way, what if we moved it to a third level of leverage? If we create a website where other people like us from all over the world who they’re not rich, but they have enough to be able to make a micro loan could also do the same thing. And this is how kiva.org was born. Look at the difference, a $500 gift one time versus what has now become $1.3 billion in loans that are repaid at the 97% level 97% of those loans are repaid. So they get used again and again and again. And this residual goodness is extraordinary to think about. Well, think about it in your own life. Think about the ratio between the things you do that you have to keep doing again and again and again. You know, at home, it’s like, tell the children to pick up their things and put them in the dishwasher or to pick up their clothes and put them away. I mean, that is such a linear result still in my life right now. If I don’t do it today, it doesn’t happen today. And of course, in the moment, you just needs to be done. So you keep on following up, you do the thing. But how might I solve that problem? Or how might you solve a similar problem in your own life work or personally, where you’re able to identify a single way that you could get the results that you really want to get flowing to you. You create a system Once, it might take a little more effort upfront to create the system, but then it works for you again and again. And again over time. It works even when you’re sleeping, it works when you’re not even there, it works because the system is now stacked in your favor. Those are five things that you can do right now. To be able to achieve breakthrough results, better results, even a little better results, but in a way that you don’t burn out in a way that even if it isn’t effortless, totally, it’s just not as hard as it sometimes is. There are what I have learned, always two parts. The problem for overachievers is they think there’s only one. So no matter what the situation is, no matter how tired or burned out they are, they still think they must push harder, force more, do more sacrifice more. And the discovery that there is an alternative path, a lighter path, where you invert all of your preconceptions, and ask instead, how can I make it easier, simpler, better, smarter way to get the results I want to get that matters. I think it matters in all times. But surely, it matters in these times. When you’re tired, when you’re burning out, when you’re teetering right on the edge of exhaustion when you think you just have to put that essential big rock down. To discover that that just might be a easier way to achieve it is as vital as that rock really is. It’s as important as that. That’s, to me, that’s, that’s essential. And that at least is what I’ve been thinking about. As I’ve been thinking about you. Thank you for listening.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to that time again the end of the show. And I just want to thank you really sincerely for listening. You’ve been on this journey with me from the very beginning. When we started in the midst of a pandemic, with no recording equipment to speak of, and afford is through the year that’s followed up to now the podcast has become a real show, a top five show on Apple iTunes. And the adventure still lies ahead. Now if you found this podcast episode to be useful, if you think this podcast could make a difference to other people in your life, will you help me with something? Will you write a review of the podcast? I know you know how. But here are the steps just to make this easier. One, open the podcast app on your iPhone, iPad or Mac. To navigate to the page of the podcast, you want to leave a review for three scroll down to find the subhead titled ratings and reviews. And finally, fourth, under one of the highlighted reviews, select write a review. You just cannot believe how important this is to being able to attract the very best interviews. So thank you for your support from the very beginning. And thank you in advance for your support in doing this. Every month I’m going to choose somebody at random who receive a free annual subscription to the essentialism academy@essentialism.com as a $300 value, and it’s just my way of saying thank you for helping us to make this

Greg McKeown


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