1 Big idea to think about

  • Changing our culture from one that glorifies heroic efforts to one that values sustainable effort begins at the individual level. As we learn to work better and live better, the culture in our homes, businesses, and society will begin to change as well.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Set personal boundaries. Don’t do more today than you can recover from tomorrow.
  • Talk about creating an effortless culture. Find a partner or create a group where you can begin to share ideas and create a common language based on these ideas. 

3 Questions to ask

  • Which areas of my life suffer because of unclear boundaries?
  • What signs act as warnings that I may be doing more today than I can recover from tomorrow?
  • How can I begin talking about Effortless principles more often in my life?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Is the glorification of burnout an inherent part of modern society? (1:33)
  • Why high functioning teams require clarity and collective goals. (8:21)
  • How you can begin to change a culture that rewards you for being busy. (16:43)
  • How you can improve your mental health by taking an effortless approach. (22:30)
  • The importance of valuing sustainability over heroic effort. (24:49)

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Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown  0:05  

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.

Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the What’s Essential podcast. A few weeks ago, I used this solo episode, this opportunity to talk directly with you that I love so much to answer some questions that a Brazilian newspaper had sent to me, something amazing is happening in Brazil with both effortless and essentialism. And you see it elsewhere as well in various community forums, that there’s just a whole hub of enthusiasm for these ideas there and that they’re being embraced in a disproportionate and exciting way. And the questions that they presented to me were so interesting and thoughtful. I didn’t get through all of them in the first episode. And so I just wanted to continue today with answering the questions that they presented. And let’s, let’s get into it. 

So here’s the first question. They ask about the pandemic with its excesses of screens. Inflammation and stress, caused more fatigue and society, the same one that in 2010, was called the Society of tiredness, by the philosopher, BM Chohan. I really love that phrase, society of tiredness, doesn’t it conjure a certain image where all of us find ourselves now? Is this a form of exhaustion and glorification of burnout, an inherent characteristic of Western countries? That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? An inherent part of it, I think it is inherent although unintended, characteristic of successful countries. So I don’t know if it’s quite right to say Western countries, but industrialized countries. And the Industrial Revolution and perhaps sometimes, in a way we forget this, because we’re so used to having lived in the post-industrial world or the industrializing, or the industrializing world. Increased productivity, 50 times, not 50%. But 50 times increase in, in productivity. Sometimes we can romanticize the agrarian age. But in truth, that life, in fact, the life for ad for an item, generations before the Industrial Revolution, was very hard. For most of human history, it has been a battle for survival against the elements. I remember somebody recently saying it this way that we come into the world starving, and alone. And I might add that we spend the rest of our lives trying to address those two problems. And so that has helped me to think that there really is a legitimate busyness. But what we have to be careful about coming back now to this question, is activity without purpose. You wherever the bit flips, and busyness itself becomes the goal. 

To say it explicitly now. Yes, I think it’s an inherent part of an industrialized society that there will be a source of relentlessness. There will be lots to do and much, much more than we possibly can do. So what do we do about it? It’s an inherent part of it, but that doesn’t mean that we have to give way to it and make that the goal. I grew up in Leeds, England. It’s an industrial town. Yorkshire Of course, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution was thought of as the factory of the world and war. mills in particular, thrived. In that area, there is an Armley Mills, in Leeds, which was one of the major wool factories of that time. If you go there with me, imagine these new, massive machines they’d never been seen before, they’d never been created before. And they were enormously disruptive. They were increasing this productive output massively. They were clothing, the world. They, they did this enormous good. But there were these unintended consequences. You’d have these bobbins, which now that I think about, it might not be a name you’re particularly familiar with, it’s a cylinder wound with a thread or yarn or something. And these could fly off, hit the women in the face, we’re working on those machines. There’s all sorts of trouble as you had child labor, itself, not a new phenomenon at all, children were working in the fields from very early on. That’s normal in agricultural industries, also through time. But now when you put the children into the factories, there are some terrible stories of children being injured or even killed on these on these cloth machines. Well, all of this created some seriously negative reactions. This is the birth of the Luddite movement, where they, you know, actually just wanted to destroy these machines, and often did destroy them. 

I’m sharing all of this is context to come now to the precise point I wish to make, which is that our own modern life. Now a digitized revolution, not just an industrial revolution, makes a good servant, but a poor master. And we like those industrialists before us have to think carefully about how to try to extract the advantage of the progress in our day, while minimizing the disadvantage. You can’t just go into this new age that we’re living in, and just embrace everything without even thinking about it. So what you want to do is set boundaries, just like eventually happened in the mills, where they invented various mechanisms to protect the people who were using the machines. Similarly, we need to protect ourselves. If we don’t create boundaries, there simply won’t be any boundaries. So one end, you’ve heard this from me before, is don’t do more today than you can completely recover from by tomorrow. That’s one clear simple rule that we can utilize. Alright, a second question here. 

Do you believe that a work routine based on collective goals would be a solution? 

Okay, let me come to answer that competition within a team can be incredibly damaging. But just think of a time when you worked on a team with a low level of clarity around what the team itself was trying to accomplish? Or what the individual roles within the team were? What was it like? Describe it, in your mind in one word, now think, what was the result of working on that team? 

I’ve asked that question to 1000s of people now that’s, you know, without any exaggeration and gathered the answers, they have quite a deep pool of answers across industries. And if I had to summarize it in one, I would just say, total frustration is what the experience is like, and the output is mediocre, or sometimes just nothing and it ends up. People just leave teams or the teams get cancelled or people are fired, and it just does not end well at all. So let’s just think about the contrast to that. Can you think of a time when you worked with a team that had a high level of clarity about what it as a whole was trying to accomplish? And the people were clear about who was doing what within the team? And describe what was that like? And what was the result? Again, in gathering this data from really around the world now I found that the answer is that that clarity produces an experience. And of course, you’ll recognize this word that starts to approximate effortlessness. And that the output is success. That’s the relationship. Clarity, of purpose of what we’re trying to do, produces a way of working together. Of course, it’s an exaggeration to say it’s completely effortless, but that it’s smooth, that it works, operates together, and it becomes highly satisfying to people. They’re not forcing anything, they’re not straining. It’s a team in flow, and it produces success. And it also produces some of the fondest memories of people’s lives. So it’s more than just some business or corporate objective being met is also something rich, and, and rewarding in the journey itself. So I cover this in a chapter in Effortless, called Trust. So there’s course lots in this, but But the distinction I’m trying to make in that chapter is, there’s a big difference between hiring high trust people, which of course you need to do, but also then putting them into high trust structures and agreements. 

I, at one time, was trying to remodel a house and hired a whole series of people to help with that remodel. And they just never worked together as one team. Because they were so focused on their individual objective and optimizing for that the whole project as a whole is suboptimal. Yeah, the the planks of wood are arriving one day, and then the workers don’t know about it for two weeks. And then they can’t get going because the dry war hasn’t arrived yet, and, and so on. It’s this, this idea of no one’s coalescing together as one team. So I found it interesting when I do some work for the Lean construction Institute. The LCI is a trade association, working to address the decline in efficiency within the construction industry. So one more aside here, while other labor intensive industries have seen massive increases in efficiency, perhaps 70%. Contrast this frustrating experience. With my remodel, with the opportunity, I had to work with the Lean construction Institute, this is the LCI. They are a trade association, who are working to address the decline in efficiency within the construction industry. So while other labor intensive industries have seen efficiency improved since the 1960s, today in the United States, a startling 70% of construction projects are still delivered late and over budget. And yeah, even more Concerningly have 800 construction related deaths and 1000s more industries being reported per year. So one of the innovations, let’s say that the LCI have developed and are implementing is what they call the deal. That is a single agreement, a contract that every party to a construction project sign on to. So there’ll be various incentives for delivering the project on time and on budget. And so now everybody is incentivized to work together. So instead of optimizing for their individual objective, they’re optimizing for the collective objective, and it changes everything. That level of clarity, it’s not that the individual workers are now more capable than they were before. It’s just that they perform in a more capable way. Because they’re doing it, you know, in the collective. 

And so we can do a similar thing in almost any team. And it’s well worth the investment. You may be invest a little bit more upfront in getting this level of clarity, but once you have it, for goodness sake, it rewards you back many, many times over. There’s five pieces to the agreement. First is results. What does success look like? For us as a team? Number two, who is doing what? That you divide clearly the responsibilities so the People know which part is theirs and which part is not. There’s rules, what are the minimum viable standards that must be met? Resources? What people money are available? And number five rewards, how will progress be evaluated and rewarded? That’s it. Those are the five questions that create a sort of social construct a high trust agreement, if you like. And the moment you get it, everything changes, the moment you have it, politics goes down. game playing goes down between the team members competition within the team goes down, because instead of everyone playing their own game, they all now know how to win the game together. And that really is the best antidote I know, to the kind of in team competition, that creates so much activity without purpose. 

Alright, onto to the next question. Today, we are pleased to be recognized for overwork overtime, and extreme dedication, how to deconstruct a culture that is intrinsic to our lives?

That’s an interesting question. I think what I would say to that is that creating a more effortless culture begins with creating a new language. Many people are fluent in overwork, overtime, extreme dedication, ways of communicating. But they don’t necessarily have the words for how to talk about getting great results without burning out. So they’re stuck. Because if you can’t talk about a thing, then you can’t, you can’t move towards it. Language is far more than describing the world around us, it’s causative, and it’s absolutely necessary. In order to create the future, the relationship between what you can talk about and what you can achieve, I indelibly connected. And you could go very deep on that subject, you could think about Freud, and one of the tremendous breakthroughs that he made that if you can put people in a room, and they can talk about anything they want to talk about, without being interrupted without being immediately judged, then they will tend to move towards the thing that is most uncomfortable, and challenging, the thing that is most unspeakable, and that in speaking about it, they start to claim a kind of ownership kind of freedom from it. And they can start to use language, to think about it in new ways and to construct a new version of themselves into the future. I mean, the entire business of psychotherapy is based on that rather extraordinary discovery words have a creative force about them. 

So now coming back to the point here, that’s one of the reasons I write books at all. And one of the key reasons for writing Effortless, is because even what seems like a very vanilla type activity, like holding a book club, on a team, like actually reading, effortless together, can have a disproportionate impact for good because people can suddenly have the ability to talk about things they can’t normally talk about, in this case, for fear of looking or sounding lazy. People just shy away from that. And so they, you know, don’t, don’t make any progress on it. So what I’m advocating here is, is don’t try to do this alone. Don’t try to do use your phrase, deconstruct a culture all on your own. It just won’t work. Read the book together, read it with your spouse, read it with your team. And don’t really worry about this heaviness, deconstructing a culture I mean, that’s so Heavy, just read it and talk about it. And here’s what will happen, you’ll find the culture-changing without being focused on that. Because in the end, one of the best definitions I’ve ever been able to name for what culture is, is that it is what you can and can’t talk about. But that’s really what culture is the invisible force of what’s allowed. In some families of origin on some teams, it’s not only that we can’t talk about certain subjects, we can’t even talk about not being able to talk about certain subjects. 

And in businesses that were born, in thinking from the Industrial Revolution, some of that thinking, made it impossible to distinguish laziness from easiness. Because in a machine, you want to have something going 24/7, that’s what produces productivity, but with people is very different. So to be able to maximize and optimize what people can do, you have to come at it from a very different way. So it’s natural, but there will be certain subjects we can’t talk about yet. And to discover together as a team, my goodness, easy does not equal lazy, to even just read that together. And suddenly to discover that we held that opinion before without ever expressing it. This is this is what I would encourage people to do. This is the simplest, fastest way that I found for actually helping people to change culture without really focusing about it. 

Next question here. Today’s capitalism is based on delivering results and achieving goals. Through the current economic model, would it be possible to constellate effort with mental health?

I think what I will say is that there is something about our modern culture that seems to fry our minds. Which is why we need to discover this new, more effortless way of working, we have to discover that that is even an option. Mental health issues are rising sharply. The pandemic has clearly increased people’s sense of isolation, exhaustion, mental fatigue, I’ve said it before. There are broadly speaking, perhaps two kinds of people in the world, there are people who are burned out, and there are people who know they are burned out. So in that kind of environment, we actually will find a better way of working, the old ways of working will eventually be exited, because they’re operating against sort of the the natural laws of human flourishing. And so, you know, they will give way but the challenge is for us to make changes in our own lives before management, as a whole becomes more enlightened, or you know, that we have to make changes as soon as we possibly can and what we can do about this, this doesn’t sound like a dramatic thing. But I always think about it as being quite revolutionary. And that is, by take a nap. For the insecure overachiever. It’s easier in their minds to go run a marathon and take a nap. And that’s because they’ve bought into a whole way of thinking about performance, about what it means to be a high performer. But just literally today, I could feel that sleep burden growing. And I took a nap. And if I hadn’t done that, there’s no way I could be doing this now. I have found in my own experience, that perhaps taking a nap will double productivity in a day. 

On to the next question. In your book, Effortless, you say that instead of trying to get better results by trying harder, we can transform the most essential activities into the easiest ones to be performed. How to do the easy and be valued? 

That’s good. How to deal with this in a company, for example, that values the employee who works beyond the standard? Yes. This is a real challenge. You know, I’ve worked with organizations that have heroics awards, literally not not somehow just in conversation, I mean, actual heroics wards that they hand out at their annual meeting. And this is for the people that pulled the all nighters, the people that never stopped for a week straight to get the deal done, and so on. And in the same conference, they’re asking me to come and speak about this new way of work, this more effortless way of getting great results. And I, I had to point out to them, the contradiction that will hold them back, you can’t say, we care about well being in the way that you work, and then also literally reward people for doing the opposite. So as managers, we have to be very careful about that. To celebrate instead, the people that are working consistently, sustainably. Yes, they’re good performance, but they’re your sustainably good performance. This, to me is a more important group of people. They’re highly engaged, they’re doing the work, they’re low maintenance. And so sometimes they don’t get the the attention that they ought to get, we ought to have a burnout is not a badge of honor award. 

I was talking to a senior leader of a major tech company just a couple of weeks ago. I mean, he said to me, pulse survey results are showing that wellbeing scores are down, because he could see that in a war for talent, that’s a flight risk for your high achievers who are on teetering right on the edge of exhaustion, he doesn’t want to have all of his talent suddenly disappearing. So this company has a very particular formalized process of how to get everyone in the organization to be focused, but until you build it into the goals and the systems and the structures of your business, then it will easily be bumped out by all the things that do exist formally in your structures in your systems. 

That story, to me, is a huge growing awareness of these problems. But there’s a lag indicator of changing the systems to support that awareness. The awareness, I don’t think is fake, I don’t think it’s that people don’t really want to do anything about it. It’s just that currently it’s spoken and it’s being developed. But it hasn’t yet been turned into formal policies, systems and structures. And I believe, really, inevitably, it will be. 

And there we have it, that’s a wrap, we’ve come to that time. Again, the end of the show, and I just can’t help or say it. Thank you. Thank you for listening, thanks for being a part of this conversation today. For engaging on the subjects that can make a believe, a real difference in your life in the life of the people that matter most to you, the people on your team, the people who you influence. And in fact, if you can think of somebody right now who could could benefit listening to the conversation that we just had, please send this to them, please let them know, please share it in your own social media community. And if you want to go one step further, to reinvest back into the community. I’d love for you to take a moment to write a review on Apple podcasts. The steps are a simple that will take you end to end less than really a couple of minutes. And then once you’re done, take a photograph and email it directly to me send it to info at Greg mcewen.com For a chance to win an annual membership and all access pass to all of the content at the essentialism Academy, which you can learn about@essentialism.com Again, thank you for listening. Today as in every day, ask yourself what’s essential and eliminate everything else.

Greg McKeown


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