This New Book Says We Should All Be Trying Less Hard

Burnout is real, and it's brutal. But maybe it can be stopped. Greg McKeown speaks to VICE about how his new book, 'Effortless,' can help.
April 28, 2021, 4:00pm
guy relaxing on a couch
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It is a common belief that taking a nap in the middle of the day is counterproductive. To many, making time for an afternoon snooze may seem lazy, despite the fact that 76 percent of U.S. employees are currently experiencing worker burnout, according to a recent study by Spring Health. But Greg McKeown does not buy into this belief. Although he’s a best-selling author and public speaker who clearly stays busy, McKeown spurns our acceptance of widespread burnout, and proudly dubs himself a “champion napper.”

In fact, McKeown completely rejects what he describes as “today’s hustle culture”—the idea that in order to achieve success we must work ourselves to the brink of insanity. Long hours, no breaks, little sleep, high stress, zero fun—these are things that leave the body and mind bedraggled but are often celebrated by American society, especially in the corporate, medical, sports, and academic worlds. Idioms like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “no pain, no gain” come to mind.

McKeown's 2014 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less taught readers how to elevate what is absolutely essential (like family, relationships, and health), and eliminate what is not. His new brainchild, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, out this week, gives us the much-needed permission to take the path of least resistance—a path that we often seek but from which we tend to veer away. In a society that expects hard work, but then rewards hard work with more hard work, it’s easy to see why. 

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Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, $23.49 at Amazon

Effortless is profound in its simplicity. It is the phrase “work smarter, not harder” expanded into a book. McKeown presents strategies and concepts for ultimately creating a life that requires less effort, many of which you may already know, that are not only easy to digest, but easy to implement, and therein lies the brilliance. Sometimes all we need is an eloquently written reminder to eliminate our self-imposed obstacles—and it couldn’t have come at a better time. He writes, “Life doesn’t have to be as hard and complicated as we make it.” Even when faced with the adversity of his daughter’s ailing health, McKeown found an easier path for him and his family to navigate through the pain and grief. “Whatever has happened to you in life,” he writes, “whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now.” 

On an illuminating phone call, I spoke with McKeown about loss, depression, the art of effortlessness, the sinister effects of burnout, and Harry Potter.

VICE: Hi, Greg. Why did you decide to write “Effortless”? 

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Greg McKeown: Life is hard—that’s why I wrote the book. It’s hard in 100 ways, and what I've found from personal experience and researching and working with people, is that we make it even harder than it needs to be. And the cost of that is that we will burn out and still not achieve the results that matter to us. My position is that we can make a different choice, that we can find an easier path to achieve what matters, and if we do, then we can break through to the next level of contribution and not burn out. What I’m advocating is a more humane path—an ‘effortless state.’ So that's the why behind doing it. Essentialism in one word is ‘prioritization,’ and Effortless in one word is ‘simplification.’ 

The idea that greater effort will always result in a bigger payoff has become a systemic belief in capitalism and especially the US, and refuting that belief is definitely appealing to people of all ages. But how do you think Effortless might have the potential to impact Millennials and Gen Z?

McKeown: I am, in anything I write, concerned about the false version of what I’m saying. I didn’t try to write something that just said, ‘Hey, expect incredible results for doing nothing.’ I’m not advocating ‘get rich quick,’ and I think some people could take it that way. I tried to write it carefully and responsibly, but sometimes, as Rudyard Kipling put it, ‘If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,’ I think that can happen with anything you write—so there could be that error. 

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The pandemic has left many people feeling overworked, like those who are working from home while parenting and homeschooling. What Effortless techniques can be applied for these cases?

McKeown: What can be done about it practically is to restore some boundaries. One way to restore that work-life boundary is the ‘done-for-the-day list.’ At the beginning of the day, you make a list, not just a ‘what-would-I-do-if-I-could-do-everything-today’ list, which is the traditional to-do list, but saying, ‘If I have completed these tasks, I will feel satisfied I have done something that mattered today and can feel at peace with being done.’ A second boundary that we can establish is having a ‘done-for-the-day’ time. [Former Ironman triathlete] Ben Bergeron inspired me with that and his story is in the book—5:25 PM was his ‘done-for-the-day’ time. This was pre-pandemic, but he did it for three years and he told me that he kept an Excel spreadsheet of how often he actually managed to stand up from his work, close the computer, and leave so he could be in his car by 5:30 so he could be home by 6 PM, and he did it 75 percent of the time. 

One of the main points in Effortless is the detrimental effects of burnout, but during the pandemic a lot of people were forced into stagnancy and isolation through job loss or illness. How can Effortless benefit those who have lost the motivation to put forth any effort? 

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McKeown: Despondency and depression will burn you out, too. I think the treatment starts to look quite similar because the pain is very much the same, even though the symptoms may be different. Some people are going crazy because they have too much going on, some people are very despondent because they have nothing going on, but underneath, it's all burnout. It's exhausting to be isolated. It’s exhausting to not have purpose. I really think the antidote is the same. It's the effortless state: what's something you can be thankful for? What's something you can let go of? To simply start saying in the morning, ‘I'm thankful I'm here. I don't know why, but I’m thankful I’ve got another day.’ And then there’s effortless action: Let's not overcomplicate this. What's the first obvious step you can take? Let's not worry about the thousandth step, just that tiny step that you can physically do that is much more powerful than worrying about not doing stuff for months and months. Just do one, single physical thing and then you're moving.

I enjoyed your use of evocative and informative anecdotes about people ranging from Steph Curry to your daughter and her health condition. Why do you think it’s important to weave in these stories?

McKeown: In both books, I didn’t ask a business question, I asked a human question. In Essentialism I’m asking, ‘What is essential to you?’ and in Effortless, it’s, ‘How can you make what really matters as effortless as possible?’ If you’re alive, these are relevant questions. One time, I was at the dentist and he started sharing a story about how his daughter and son-in-law had just got married and were on the way to their honeymoon and died in a car crash. It [was] horrendous, and I just cried in his chair. I think when you've been through [something like that], you’ve developed gifts that won’t probably feel much like gifts, [and one of those] gifts is deep empathy. You will instantly understand what you couldn't understand before, or could only understand intellectually. Suffering does this to us. And it also connects us. It’s like in Harry Potter—do you remember what is the name of those weird-looking horses? 

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Thestrals? The ones you can only see if you’ve seen death?

McKeown: Yes, thestrals. When you share that suffering, those stories, you’re in the thestral club together. 

In addition to reading the book, what is an actionable technique that readers can implement right after they read this article?

McKeown: You could simply say, ‘What’s something essential that I’m procrastinating?’ You can also say, ‘What does 'done' look like?’ And what’s the first obvious action, the first physical thing you’d need to do? What’s the 10-minute microburst that you could do to put that into practice? I was talking to somebody the other day, coaching them through this, and I said, ‘What’s something that would be a game-changer if you did it?’ And he said it was eating healthy. I said, ‘What does that look like?’ and he said, ‘I would have healthy food arrive at a set time every day for lunch.’ That’s because he normally doesn’t eat lunch and waits until he’s so hungry that he just goes and eats fast food. So I said, ‘That’s what ‘done’ looks like. Healthy food would arrive.’ Then I said, ‘How could you make that effortless?’ and he said, ‘I could sign up for one of these apps that delivers food’ and so I said, ‘What’s the first physical step, the first obvious action?’ and it would be searching for one of those apps on Google. So then I said, ‘What could you achieve in a microburst, in 10 minutes?’ He said, ‘I think in 10 minutes I could put my credit card in, select the meals, put the address, put the time and start the service.’ Then, my kicker question was, ‘How long have you been struggling with this? How long has this been a problem for you?’ and he said, ‘Ten years.’ He might have even said 20 years, but here he is in 10 minutes—he’s found a solution. That’s the power of asking the right questions. 

Another actionable thing that someone can do is to look around their life and start paying attention to things that irritate them. Things that have irritated them for a long time, maybe they keep banging into a certain table cause it’s in the way, things that you notice but don’t do anything about. Instead of living with them, just getting used to it, you say, ‘How could I solve this in just a couple of minutes?’ By solving it now, you’re getting a residual result from the moment you’ve solved it, because you never have to deal with it again. 


Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most is available on Amazon and Bookshop.