Think of an NBA player stepping up to take a free throw.
First, they get into “the zone.” They find the “dot” on the free throw line, dribble the ball a few times: a ritual to help them get completely focused. You can almost see them clearing their heads—letting go of all emotions, blocking out the noise of the crowd. This is what Greg calls the Effortless State.
Second, they bend their knees, bring their front elbow to the right angle, and then “lift, flick, and pop.” They have practiced this precise, flowing movement until it has sunk deep into their muscle memory. They try without trying, fluid and smooth in their execution. This is Effortless Action.
Third, the ball arcs through the air and goes into the basket. It makes that satisfying swish: the sound of a perfectly executed free throw. It’s not a fluke. They can do it again and again. This is what it feels like to achieve Effortless Results.
Effortless is organized into three simple parts: 1) Effortless State 2) Effortless Action 3) Effortless Results. Each of these builds upon the last.
Anything Can Be Made Effortless, but Not Everything
Discovering the effortless way of living is like using special polarized sunglasses while fly-fishing. Without them, the glare on the water makes it difficult to see anything swimming below the surface. But as soon as you put them on, their angled surface filters out the horizontal light waves coming off the water, blocking the glare. Suddenly, you can see all the fish underneath.
When we’re accustomed to doing things the hard way, it’s like being blinded by the glare coming off the water. But once you start putting these ideas into practice you will start to see that the easier way was there all along, just hidden from your view.
What If This Could Be Easy?
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?’”
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.
Of course, there are hard paths to success. Of course, there are examples of people who have succeeded against all the odds. They pushed 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?
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?”
What’s the simplest way to achieve this result?
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 sloth. 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, “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.”
What If This Could Be Fun?
It’s not just that work and play can co-exist, it’s that they can complement each other. Together they make it easier to tap into our creativity and come up with novel ideas and solutions. Take Ole Kirk Christiansen, who had the idea to turn his struggling carpentry business into a toy company while tinkering in his empty warehouse. He called his company LEGO, from the danish term leg godt, which means “play well.”
When the Second World War disrupted the toy business, instead of giving up and shuttering his factories, he stayed curious as plastics entered mass production, eventually creating LEGO’s first “Automatic Binding Brick,” a breakthrough that led to a whole new suite of products. Later, Christiansen and his team invited children to their offices and in watching them play were inspired to develop entire “play systems”—towns complete with people, buildings, roads, and cars—which exponentially increased their business.
Productive play fuels creativity.
Today, LEGO’s offices bustle with activity and joy. And this culture of productive play continues to fuel their creativity, spawning everything from LEGOLAND theme parks around the world, to video games, to TV shows and blockbuster LEGO movies. In 2015 LEGO was named the world’s most powerful brand. It’s also a powerful example of how “playing hard” can make hard work feel effortless.
The Art of Doing Nothing
Many of us struggle with the tension between not doing enough and doing too much. We can miss the signs that we’ve reached the end of an energy cycle. We can ignore the loss of focus, low energy, and fidgeting. We can power through. We can artificially try to compensate with caffeine or sugar to get past our energy slump. But in the end, our fatigue catches up with us, making essential work much harder than it needs to be.
Relaxing is a responsibility.
The easier way is to replenish our physical and mental energy continuously by taking short breaks. We can plan those breaks into our day. We can be like the peak performers who take advantage of their bodies’ natural rhythm.
We can do the following:
- Dedicate mornings to essential work.
- Break down that work into three sessions of no more than ninety minutes each.
- Take a short break (ten to fifteen minutes) in between sessions to rest and recover.
What “Done” Looks Like
All too often, we procrastinate or struggle to take the first steps on a project because we don’t have a clear finish line in mind. As soon as you define what “done” looks like, you give your conscious and unconscious mind a clear instruction. Things click into gear and you can begin charting a course toward that end state.
Getting clear on what “done” looks like doesn’t just help you finish. It also helps you get started.
It’s surprising how much clarity on this you can achieve in a one-minute burst of concentration. For example, when you have an important project to deliver, take sixty seconds to close your eyes and actually visualize what it would look like to cross it off as done: “I’ve addressed each of the questions the client posed and proofread it once.” It takes only one minute of concentration to clarify what “done” looks like.
Vague Goal: “Walk more.”
What “Done” Looks Like: Reach ten thousand steps a day on my Fitbit for fourteen days in a row.
Vague Goal: “Launch my product.”
What “Done” Looks Like: Have ten beta users try the app for a week and give feedback.
The First Obvious Action
Two and a half seconds is enough time to shift our focus: to put the phone down, close the browser, take a deep breath. It’s enough time to open a book, take out a blank sheet of paper, lace up our running shoes, or open up the junk drawer and fish out our tape measure.
2.5 seconds is all it takes to kickstart essentialism.
Of course, 2.5 seconds is enough time to get caught up in nonessential activities too. The big tech companies understand this in their relentless competition for our attention. They are constantly testing new ways to offer us smaller units of information: 280 characters on Twitter, “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, newsfeeds we can scroll through and absorb at a glance. These bite-sized activities may not feel like wasting time—after all, we think, what’s a few seconds? The trouble, of course, is that over time these activities rarely add up to making progress on the goals we hope to achieve. They are easy but pointless.
When we’re struggling to name the first obvious action, we need to either make it a little easier to get started on what’s important now or make it a little harder to do something trivial instead. Looking at that first step or action through the lens of 2.5 seconds is the change that makes every other change possible. It is the habit of habits.
Start with Zero
Going the extra mile in ways that are essential is one thing: a surgeon taking the extra step to prevent infection at the site of an incision, for example. But adding unnecessary, superficial embellishments is quite another.
Going the extra mile doesn’t mean adding unnecessary embellishments.
A tiny but pivotal moment in IBM’s legendary turnaround reveals a better approach. Lou Gerstner was new to his post as CEO and had invited Nick Donofrio, one of his executive leaders, to speak at a state-of-the-company meeting. Gerstner recalls, “At that time, the standard format of any important IBM meeting was a presentation using overhead projectors and graphics on transparencies that IBMers called—and no one remembers why—‘foils.’ Nick was on his second foil when I stepped to the table and, as politely as I could in front of his team, switched off the projector. After a long moment of awkward silence, I simply said, ‘Let’s just talk about your business.’”
That’s what the goal for most presentations is supposed to be: to “just talk about your business.” So the next time you have to write a report, give a presentation, or make a sales pitch, resist the temptation to add unnecessary extras. They aren’t just a distraction for you; they’re also a distraction for your audience.
The Courage to Be Rubbish
Many of us are kept back from producing something wonderful because we misunderstand the creative process. We see something exceptional or beautiful in its finished state and we imagine it started out as a beautiful, Baby Yoda version of what we are looking at. But exactly the opposite is true.
All creative endeavors start with minimum viable action.
Ed Catmull, the former CEO of Pixar, once said, “We all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way.” Their earliest sketches are, according to Catmull, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” This is why Catmull has always worked hard to foster a culture that creates space for such “rubbish”: because he understands there would be no Buzz Lightyear without hundreds of awful ideas along the way. As he puts it, “Pixar is set up to protect our director’s ugly baby.” (Recommended Reading: Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull)
At the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, they use a program called Dare to Try that emphasizes seven specific behaviors to foster innovation. For example, “freshness” encourages employees to find ideas in new places, “playfulness” taps into childlike curiosity and fun, and “greenhousing” protects their early ideas, no matter how rubbish, from harsh criticism so that they are allowed to grow.
Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast
Holding back when you still have steam in you might seem like a counterintuitive approach to getting important things done, but in fact, this kind of restraint is key to breakthrough productivity. As Lisa Jewell, author of some eighteen bestselling novels, put it, “Pace yourself. If you write too much, too quickly, you’ll go off at tangents and lose your way and if you write infrequently you’ll lose your momentum. A thousand words a day is a good ticking over amount.”
Never less than X. Never more than Y.
Ben Bergeron is a former Ironman triathlete who trains the fittest athletes in the United Kingdom. Clearly, he is not lacking in the physical stamina to work extra hours when a client requires it, but he has a rule that keeps him performing well professionally and personally: he leaves the office at 5:25 p.m. every single day. On a slow day, he leaves the office at 5:25 p.m. On a busy day? He leaves the office at 5:25 p.m. It’s nonnegotiable. Even if he is in a meeting, as soon as the clock strikes 5:25 p.m., he just stands up and walks to the door. He doesn’t have to think about it. By now, everyone he works with knows that no rudeness is intended. It’s simply that his upper bound is 5:25 p.m.
Whether it’s “miles per day” or “words per day” or “hours per day,” there are few better ways to achieve effortless pace than to set an upper bound.
Leverage the Best of What Others Know
Being good at what nobody is doing is better than being great at what everyone is doing. But being an expert in something nobody is doing is exponentially more valuable.
Knowledge may open the door to an opportunity, but unique knowledge produces perpetual opportunities.
To reap the residual results of knowledge, the first step is to leverage what others know. (Recommended Reading: The Only Skill That Matters by Jonathan Levi). But the ultimate goal is to identify knowledge that is unique to you, and build on it. Is there something that seems hard for other people but easy for you? Something that draws on what you already know, making it easier to continuously learn and grow your competence? That is an opportunity for you to create unique knowledge.
Harness the Strength of Ten
When the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages in the United States, there was a shortage of clinical face masks for healthcare workers. As the supply of commercially produced masks continued to dwindle, it became clear that a more “DIY” type of solution was urgently needed.
If you needed to make one face mask for yourself or for a loved one, the easiest route would probably be to look up instructions and make it yourself. But what if the demand was for millions of masks within a few weeks?
Enter ProjectProtect, a collaboration among various community groups in Utah. Their goal was to create five million masks in five weeks. Their method was to teach other people how to create the masks—and to make it easy for them to teach others.
The first people were taught directly. Then the method was recorded, and a five-minute video was put up on their website teaching exactly how to do it and calling for volunteers. ProjectProtect would provide the materials, and the volunteers would pick up as many packs as they could sew—or teach other people to sew—and return the finished masks.
Within the first week, ten thousand volunteers had delivered the first million masks. Within five weeks, fifty thousand volunteers reached their seemingly impossible goal of five million masks. Imagine how much time and effort it would have taken one person, or ten people, or even a hundred people to do that. It was an astonishing achievement, especially when you consider that almost none of the volunteers knew how to make these masks at the beginning of that five weeks.
Whenever we want a far-reaching impact, teaching others to teach can be a high-leverage strategy.
Do It Once and Never Again
Automation is anything that performs a function with minimal human assistance or effort. And it’s happening everywhere. Some of it is so normal we don’t really think of it as automation: the washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator.
Already, so many mental tasks can be offloaded onto technology and this trend is only accelerating. After all, the technology for self-driving cars is effectively here now.
Essential Domains: Your health
Effortless Automation: Schedule your annual physical as a recurring appointment on the same day each year, and your dentist appointments on the same day every six months. Sign up for regular delivery and automated payment of your recurring medicines from your pharmacy. Set your phone to turn on “nightlight” mode two hours before bedtime.
Essential Domains: Your career
Effortless Automation: Schedule recurring meetings with a mentor. Schedule an hour every quarter to review your personal career goals. Block off five minutes every morning to read an article on an important topic not directly related to your job.
Essential Domains: Your fun
Effortless Automation: Block off one hour each day for something that brings you joy.
Just one caveat. Automation can work for you or against you. If nonessential activities are automated, they too continue to happen without you thinking about it. Take, for example, subscriptions that renew automatically.
Consider taking the high-tech, low-effort path for the essential. And the low-tech, high-effort path for the nonessential.
The Engine of High-Leverage Teams
Every relationship has a structure, even if it’s an unspoken, unclear one. A low-trust structure is one where expectations are unclear, where goals are incompatible or at odds, where people don’t know who is doing what, where the rules are ambiguous and nobody knows what the standards for success are, and where the priorities are unclear and the incentives misaligned.
A high-trust structure is one where expectations are clear. Goals are shared, roles are clearly delineated, the rules and standards are articulated, and the right results are prioritized, incentivized, and rewarded—consistently, not just sometimes. Most people can agree that this type of relationship is preferable. The problem is low-trust relationship generally happens by default rather than by design. (Recommended Reading: The Code of Trust by Robin Dreeke)
- Results: What results do we want?
- Roles: Who is doing what?
- Rules: What minimum viable standards must be kept?
- Resources: What resources (people, money, tools) are available and needed?
- Rewards: How will progress be evaluated and rewarded?
Taking a little time to build a foundation of trust is a valuable investment in any relationship. It’s a lever that turns a modest effort into residual results.
Solve the Problem Before It Happens
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” When we’re merely managing a problem, we’re hacking at the branches. To prevent the problem before it even arises, we should strike at the root.
If you’ve spent a lot of time hacking at the branches, you may have become good at it. But if that is all you are doing, the problem will keep coming back to haunt you. It is merely being managed, never solved.
Hack at the Branches: An employee apologizes for completing a project late: repeatedly, to multiple parties.
Strike at the Root: An employee improves their process so the project is done on time.
Several years ago, Australian hospitals came up with a system to take advantage of that window of opportunity and identify potential cardiac arrests before they happen. They created specialized rapid response teams (RRTs) that included a critical-care nurse, a respiratory therapist, and a physician or a physician’s assistant. And in all units they posted a list of the triggers that might signal a cardiac arrest, along with thresholds for action. For example, the nurse must call the RRT if a patient’s heart rate falls below 40 beats per minute or rises above 130 beats per minute, even if their vital signs appear normal.
This system was soon adopted by some hospitals in the United States and has resulted in a 71 percent reduction in code blues and an 18 percent reduction in deaths. A physician explained why RRTs proved successful: “The key to this process is time. The sooner you identify a problem, the more likely you are to avert a dangerous situation.”
Just as you can find small actions to make your life easier in the future, you can look for small actions that will prevent your life from becoming more complicated.
Life doesn’t have to be as hard and complicated as we make it.
No matter what challenges, obstacles, or hardships we encounter along the way, we can always look for the easier, simpler path.