"Life is hard." Three short words that most of us can relate to, although they're bound to have a different meaning for each of us.
For best-selling author Greg McKeown, this truism led to an essential, life-changing question: how are we making life harder than it needs to be, whether it's a task we're doing right now, our work lives in general, or a key relationship?
In his new book, "Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters," McKeown offers reflections, insights and practical advice on how to lighten our loads, at a time when life feels especially heavy for many of us.
Greg McKeown shot to fame with his 2014 best-selling book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less," a forerunner and complement to his new book. "Essentialism" showed us how to sift out tasks that don't matter – "Effortless" helps us to better approach the ones that do.
Both books offer relief from COVID-related stress.
"[The pandemic] has given people, on the positive side, an opportunity for a reset, to really think, 'Are all those things I was doing before, that I took for granted that I have to do them, were they absolutely essential? Did they really matter?' And in lots of instances, I find people say they weren't [essential]," he observes.
"The other side of the pandemic is that people have often got through this experience through grinding effort, where people are teetering right on the edge of burnout or completely past it. So 'Effortless' is saying, maybe we are sometimes doing the right things, but we're doing them in the wrong way. We're doing them in a heavier, overcomplicated, overthinking way that tends towards burnout."
McKeown's tips range from practical time-management strategies to total mind resets. One of my favorites is to double up an unappealing task with an appealing one. Greg gives the example of returning voicemails – and even holding meetings – while sitting in his hot tub. One activity makes the other less arduous.
I don't have a hot tub – more's the pity – but I found other ways to benefit from this idea. For instance, I try to take at least one brisk walk each day, but I don't always feel like it, especially in the infamous British drizzle. So I don't let myself catch up with my regular podcasts unless I'm on the move. That puts a spring in my step.
Another useful tip is to be clear about what "done for the day" looks like. Most of us have scarily long to-do lists that fill us with dread with just a glance. McKeown suggests we take a moment to figure out which of the tasks will leave us satisfied by the end of that day and only focus on those.
For example, today I need to file this blog post and make a start on planning my next Expert Interview podcast. I have much more on my list, but I know the other tasks can wait. By focusing on just two, I'll likely get them done, leading to a welcome sense of achievement and a worry-free evening.
But it's not just the items on our to-do lists that weigh us down. Any kind of preoccupation can drain our energy and make us feel miserable. Take bearing a grudge, for instance.
"The grudges thing is a big deal," McKeown says. "What do we hire grudges to do? We hire them, we hold onto them, we have them for a reason, and by looking at the reasons, it helps us to be able to evaluate their job performance. Are our grudges doing what we hired them to do?"
It reminds me of the time a co-worker claimed a lot of credit for a project she barely contributed to. I did most of the work, and she didn't set the record straight. My reaction was to "hire a grudge" against her, to restore my sense of self-worth. Did it do its job? Maybe for a moment, but it quickly made me feel worse.
"Basically, all of the things we hire grudges to do, they do not perform well," McKeown notes. "Holding onto those grudges, somehow believing that they will make us better, that they will make life easier – they won't, they don't. They just keep us in a state of suffering."
Instead, McKeown suggests we adopt the approach of a nimble, growing company: hire slow, fire fast. Think long and hard about hiring a grudge, and if you find yourself with one that's weighing you down, not lightening your load, get rid of it. Fast.
"Take those resources and return them, to focus on what actually does matter and is essential in our lives," Greg McKeown says. "Is that not truly a more effortless way of doing life?"
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