How to make your life effortless

Cover of Greg McKeown's book Effortless
Greg McKeown
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
27 April 2021

Do you ever feel like you’re teetering on the edge of burnout? You’re definitely not alone. With everything that has happened in the last year, many people are struggling with balancing work and home life, while also looking after their wellbeing.

Virgin Books has published bestselling author Greg McKeown’s new book, Effortless. It explores the idea that not everything has to be so hard. McKeown offers advice for making the most essential activities the easiest ones – meaning you can achieve the results you want without burning out. In this extract, McKeown introduces the effortless way of living...

Five copies of Effortless by Greg McKeown on a book shelf next to a model of a hand showing a peace sign
Greg McKeown

The Effortless Way

There is an ebb and flow to life. Rhythms are in everything we do. There are times to push hard and times to rest and recuperate. But these days many of us are pushing harder and harder all the time. There is no cadence, only grinding effort.

We live in a time of great opportunity. But there is something about modern life that’s like trying to hike at high altitude. The air is thin and it can feel surprisingly exhausting to make even an inch of progress. Perhaps it’s the endless fear and uncertainty about the future. Perhaps it’s the loneliness and isolation. Perhaps it’s financial worries or hardships. Perhaps it’s all the responsibilities, all the pressures that can suffocate us on a daily basis.

Life is hard, really hard, in all sorts of ways, ranging from the complicated to the weighty, the sad to the exhausting. Disappointments are hard. Paying the bills is hard. Strained relationships are hard. Raising children is hard. Losing a loved one is hard. There are periods in our lives when every day can be hard.

To try to pretend that a book can eliminate these hardships would be fanciful. I didn’t write this book to downplay these burdens; I wrote it to help you lighten them. This book may not make every hard thing easy to approach and carry, but I believe it can make many hard things easier.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the big, weighty challenges. And it’s equally normal to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the everyday frustrations and annoyances. It happens to us all. And these days it seems like it’s happening to more of us, more often than it used to.

Strangely, some of us respond to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by vowing to work even harder and longer. It doesn’t help that our culture glorifies burnout as a measure of success and self-worth. The implicit message is that if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we must not be doing enough. That great things are reserved for those who bleed, for those who almost break. Crushing volume is somehow now the goal.

It is true that hard work can equal better results. But this is true only to a point. After all, there’s an upper limit to how much time and effort we can invest. And the more depleted we get, the more our return on that effort dwindles. This cycle can continue until we are burnt out and exhausted, and still haven’t produced the results we really want. You probably know this. You may be experiencing it right now

But what if, instead, we took the opposite approach? If instead of pushing ourselves to, and in some cases well past, our limit, we sought out an easier path?

A quote from Greg McKeown's book Effortless "Not everything requires the extra mile" next to an image of a man running up stairs
Virgin Books

For some, the idea of working less hard feels uncomfortable. We feel lazy. We fear we’ll fall behind. We feel guilty for not “going the extra mile” each time. This mindset, conscious or not, may have its roots in the Puritan idea that the act of doing hard things always has an inherent value. Puritanism went beyond embracing the hard; it extended to also distrusting the easy. But as I’ve learned many times in my own life, this bias can be costly.

How to Try Too Hard

At a key moment in my career, a client at a high-­profile technology company asked me to give three presentations on leadership. They told me that if all went well they were prepared to hire me for the next year or more. It was exactly the career break I needed. I understood their needs well. I had ready-­made content they had already approved.

The afternoon before the first presentation, I decided to add some finishing touches. It already looked good. But I worried it didn’t look good enough. I decided to scrap it all and start over. I got consumed with a new idea that I was convinced would wow them. I ended up staying up all night rewriting my whole presentation: new slides, new handouts, all of which were, of course, untested.

As I drove to the company’s offices the next morning I was exhausted. My mind was foggy. When I arrived, I was running on the fumes of my nervous energy.

As the presentation began, my stomach sank. My opening story was unpolished. The slides were unfamiliar; I kept having to turn around to see what was on the screen. One of the first slides failed to convey the point I was trying to make.

In short, I bombed. As I left, I was hyperventilating. I had been given this incredible opportunity, and I had blown it. The client canceled the other two presentations. They did not hire me for the extended engagement. It was my most humiliating professional failure – ­ever.

I was burned out from the experience, and I didn’t even walk away with the results I wanted.

Quote from Greg McKeown's book Effortless: "We are conditioned over the course of our lifetimes to believe that in order to overachieve we must overdo."
Virgin Books

As I reflected on how this had all gone so wrong, the answer was obvious. Nailing this presentation was so important to me, I had overthought it. I’d overengineered it. I’d tried too hard. And as a result, I’d snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Here is what I learned: trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want.

Here is what I realized: behind almost every failure of my whole life I had made the same error. When I’d failed, it was rarely because I hadn’t tried hard enough, it was because I’d been trying too hard.

We are conditioned over the course of our lifetimes to believe that in order to overachieve we must also overdo. As a result, we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.

There has to be a better way. There is a better way. Instead of trying to get better results by pushing ever harder, we can:

Make the most essential activities the easiest ones. What could happen in your life if the easy but pointless things became harder and essential things became easier? If the essential projects you’ve been putting off became enjoyable, while the pointless distractions lost their appeal completely? Such a shift would stack the deck in our favor. It would change everything. It does change everything.

That’s the value proposition of Effortless. It’s about a whole new way to work and live. A way to achieve more with ease – ­to achieve more because you are at ease. A way to get the right results without burning out.

Effortless by Greg McKeown is published by Virgin Books and is out now. Visit Virgin Books to find out more.