effortless book summary

Book Summary: Effortless by Greg McKeown

The Book in Three Sentences

In this book summary of Effortless, you’ll learn how to make the essential activities as simple as possible so that you don’t feel exhausted. The book teaches you to simplify work, relationships, choices, and tasks. Instead of overworking, the book offers an easier path regardless of the challenges you face.

Effortless Summary

Introduction: Not Everything Has to Be So Hard

We’re taught from a young age that hard work is the solution to everything. What we often get in return though isn’t what we expect. The solution to life’s problems isn’t to work hard or to quit, but to look for the easiest path to success. This is what the author calls The Effortless Way.

There’s a cadence to life, times when we have to work harder, and times when we have to rest. Our default mode nowadays though is one where we constantly grind. Everything around us seems excessively complicated and exhausting. But what if instead of working hard, we followed the easier path? Essentialism is a book about focusing on the essential parts of our life so that we can achieve more while doing less. What the book failed to address though was the fact that even when you eliminate non-essentials, the activities you keep are overwhelming. Instead of giving up, Effortless invites us to do the right things in the right way. What if the essential things to do became easier?

Part I: Effortless State

To function optimally, your brain has to be as clutter-free as possible. To get rid of the clutter, you can use a series of strategies that will get you to do what the author calls the Effortless State. This is when you’re energetic and when you can see clearly. Being in this state enables you to be present and do the things that matter with ease.

Chapter 1: Invert: What If This Could Be Easy?

When faced with a task that seems too complex, we must ask ourselves: “Is there an easier way?” Nowadays, we assume that the things that lead to the best results are hard, challenging, or demanding. This false assumption prevents us from looking for easier alternatives.

Naturally, humans prefer to take the path of least resistance. Our survival as a species depended on this assump[tion, so instead of fighting something that’s in our nature, we should embrace it. Trying too hard negatively impacts what we do and leads to undesirable results. Overachieving doesn’t always require us to overdo it. When confronting a challenge, we should use a strategy McKeown calls Effortless Inversion which involves asking “What if this could be easy?” This leads to a perspective of focus, clarity, and calm. In other words, we do what we’re supposed to and it requires less effort.

To achieve success, we don’t have to do hard and complicated things. We should look for valuable, simple, and easy opportunities. So instead of pushing a boulder uphill (massive efforts that lead to tiny results), you’re pushing it downhill instead (tiny efforts that lead to massive results). Remove the complexity so that the smallest amount of effort propels you forward.

Chapter 2: Enjoy: What If This Could Be Fun?

Sometimes, we do certain things not because we have to but because we want to. Likewise, we avoid certain activities because we hate them. If we can make the essential activities enjoyable, they become effortless.

Several essential activities aren’t joyful when you do them, but they lead to joy further down the line. Examples include exercising, eating healthy food, or meditating. The reward isn’t immediate but takes place afterward. But we can reduce the lag time between the action and the reward by pairing an essential activity with an enjoyable one. For example, you can answer work calls from the bathtub or clean the house while listening to your favorite podcast. The importance of rituals can’t be overstated. While rituals seem similar to habits, they’re actually different. While habits focus on the “what”, rituals focus on the “how”. In other words, rituals give meaning to your habits. The author refers to rituals as “habits with a soul”.

Chapter 3: Release: The Power of Letting Go

Some ideas make it inside your head somehow and remain there for years, taking up precious mental space. These ideas take the form of regrets, grudges, expectations, suggestions, and goals, but what they all have in common is that while they made sense at some point, they are not in the way. We must let go of those ideas to reclaim space in our heads and get back our mental clarity. Otherwise, they become obsessions that weaken us and affect us emotionally.

One of the easiest things to do is complain and if we’re not careful, we might do it incessantly. The more we complain, the more things we find to complain about. These toxic thoughts accumulate over time and make it harder for us to go back to the Effortless State. To fix this, practice gratitude. Gratitude suffocates negative emotions and replaces them with positive ones. While complaining creates a vicious circle of negativity, practicing gratitude creates a virtuous circle of positivity.

Chapter 4: Rest: The Art of Doing Nothing

Rest is the key component of the Effortless State, but most people don’t know how to relax. To perform at your best, you have to practice doing nothing regularly. As a general rule, don’t do more than you can recover from.

The author suggests the following:

  1. Do essential work in the morning
  2. Work should take the form of three sessions of ninety minutes each
  3. Take ten- to fifteen-minute breaks between sessions

Rest takes many forms and often, the longer you rest, the more benefits you’ll get from it. That said, resting for a minute can give you physical and emotional rewards. When we’re struggling to do something, pause for an entire minute and go back to the Effortless State.

Whatever you do, don’t sleep less. This can lead to cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, arthritis, depression, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation has a cumulative impact on our performance and this happens so gradually, in fact, that we don’t notice it. To improve our sleep quality, go to bed at the same time every night, stop using devices an hour before bed, and take a hot shower before bedtime. If you can’t get quality sleep, you can always take a nap.

Chapter 5: Notice: How to See Clearly

Distractions cloud our vision and prevent us from being present. Being with someone physically isn’t the same as being with someone mentally. When you can’t connect with people, you may send signals that you’re ignoring them. This is damaging and toxic to any relationship, especially romantic ones. All relationships take effort and the best thing you can do to encourage a healthy relationship is to give them your full attention. Giving someone your full attention can make a lasting impression. This is the greatest gift you can offer someone.

Part II: Effortless Action

Overachievers believe that more effort leads to better results, but past a certain point, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. This means that working harder slows down your output. The result of pushing ourselves harder and harder comes in the form of negative returns. Working harder means that we’ll get to the point where our output actually decreases. This is also a path that will lead to burnout. The best work you’re capable of often feels effortless. This is because you achieve a state of flow.

Chapter 6: Define: What “Done” Looks Like

Hard and impossible projects have one thing in common, their end goal is vague. Without clearly defining an endpoint, you won’t be able to complete a project. Before you start a project, you always have to determine what “done” looks like. This is important not only because it tells you what the finish line looks like, but also how to get started.

Chapter 7: Start: The First Obvious Action

Even the most ambitious projects ever created have started with a simple and obvious step. Focusing on the first step is the best way to avoid getting overwhelmed by all the following steps. Taking a tiny step usually builds the momentum to take the final step.

Chapter 8: Simplify: Start with Zero

When in doubt, simplify. As simple as a first step might seem, it’s easier to take no step at all. So subtract rather than add. You can do this by answering the following questions: “What are the minimum steps required for completion?” This involves eliminating unnecessary steps so that you can channel your focus toward finishing your project. Never start with a complicated project that you simplify. Instead, start at zero and find the minimum steps that will get you to your goal. All steps should add value, if they don’t, remove them and use that time and energy, and resources you get to invest in what’s essential.

Chapter 9: Progress: The Courage to Be Rubbish

Trying to do something that succeeds the first time is a fool’s errand. We must embrace a bad prototype so that we can test it and redesign it fast. Often, we look at the finished product as something beautiful, but it probably didn’t start that way. Having a standard of perfection isn’t realistic or productive. To accelerate the learning process, we must be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. This is the only way to achieve mastery.

As scary as it is, we must give ourselves permission to fail. Whenever possible, you want failure to be as cheap as possible. For example, it isn’t the same thing to start your own company when you’re single, childless, and in your 20s as when you’re married, with a family, and in your 40s. If you learn the easy (or as the author calls it, cheaper) way, you’ll carry those lessons with you until the day you die.

Chapter 10: Pace: Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast

Forcing ourselves to make too much progress leads to exhaustion and burnout. Set a pace you’re comfortable with and stick to it, even when you feel great. Restraining yourself when you’re full of energy is the key to productivity because you’ll able to sustain your momentum.

Wanting to achieve the ultimate goal fast is natural, so we prefer moments when we make progress. That said, not all progress is created equal. Taking things slow, makes them go smoother, and when they go smooth, they move faster. As long as progress is steady and consistent, you’ll move forward. Forcing ourselves to go too fast creates poor quality work, guilt, and less confidence. To avoid this, use this rule: never less than X, never more than Y. So if you want to finish reading the book The Obstacle Is the Way, you create a rule where you never read less than three pages a day, but never more than ten pages a day.

Part III: Effortless Results

Effortless Results don’t require intense effort. Whenever possible, avoid linear results. This is when your inputs create a one-time output which means you have to repeat the process regularly. If you work for an hour to get paid for an hour, for instance, you have a linear income. There’s a limit to what you can achieve with linear results because you can never achieve more without putting in more effort. Luckily, there’s a better alternative: residual results.

Residual results are something you do once, but you get the results over and over. Examples include authors who write books once and are paid for years or people who set up websites and make extra money while they sleep. Another example of Effortless power is leverage. A lever multiplies your efforts so that something complicated becomes easier. Common examples of levers include seesaws, bottle openers, or crowbars. There are numerous examples of leverage, including developing skills you can use over and over again, building a good reputation that leads to opportunities, establishing habits you implement daily, reducing friction in the activities you do the most, solving problems before they happen, and more.

Similarly, while leverage can lead to good residual effects, you can also produce bad ones. Bad habits impact your health for years, a bad reputation costs you opportunities, hiring the wrong person negatively affects your business, and so on.

Chapter 11: Learn: Leverage the Best of What Others Know

Easy step-by-step instructions aren’t as powerful as universal principles that can be applied in numerous areas of your life. It’s tempting to look for those easy instructions to apply to a specific problem, but principles that can be used broadly and repeatedly are life-changing. While specific methods produce linear results, principles lead to residual results. Principles are foundational blocks of knowledge that we can apply repeatedly. Also, there are millions of methods, but only a few principles.

With this in mind, we should look for knowledge that has lasting value rather than one-time usefulness. For example, skimming an online article on your phone is useless if you can’t retain the information you read, but reading a book on the same topic and summarizing its core concepts can have a more lasting impact. Whenever possible, we must identify universal principles so that we can use them again and again. On top of that, a solid foundation of knowledge allows you to anchor new information. Numerous ideas, when they’re in isolation, don’t mean much. But when you combine concepts of different areas, they become larger than the sum of their parts.

Reading books is one of the best high-leverage activities. Also, the older the book, the more chances it has to survive, so favor older classics rather than new books. Summarize their key concepts to make sure you’ve absorbed their principles.

Chapter 12: Lift: Harness the Strength of Ten

When we want to make an impact, we might have to teach others. The simplest way to do this is through family stories. A more advanced and far-reaching way is to teach others. The best way though is to learn to teach. When you do this, you have to simplify a message to the bare essentials, but the people you teach it to might teach it to others and the core message will reach a lot of people.

Chapter 13: Automate: Do It Once and Never Again

When you rely on your memory, you might make mistakes. Whenever possible, automate essential activities to minimize mistakes. One of the best strategies to carry out automation is a checklist because it lets you remember essential steps without having to rely on cognitive resources. The best part about a checklist is that you don’t have to think, the thinking has been done already.

Of course, a checklist is one of the analog tools that can help you automate things in your life. Other examples include a calendar, an agenda, daily planning software, a bullet journal, a second brain, or a traditional list.

Making decisions is one of the most mentally taxing cognitive processes. When you can, make a rule so that this single decision rules out all the other potential decisions. Automation is something that fulfills a function without the assistance of a person. Examples include the washing machine, dishwasher, or refrigeration, apps that pay our bills, and virtual assistants. An area where automation can work against you though is subscriptions that renew automatically.

Chapter 14: Trust: The Engine of High-Leverage Teams

Trust is powerful because it turns moderate effort into residual results. Also, we all work with people, and having trust in human interactions is important. While working with people can be overwhelming, trust in a relationship makes everything easier. When there’s trust, people are honest, open, understanding, and enjoy the company. The best way to do this is by having trustworthy people around. This involves hiring people who don’t have to be supervised to perform well. For this purpose, you can use “The Three I’s Rule”, so hire people with integrity, intelligence, and initiative. It also helps when an organization has clearly defined goals, roles, rules, and standards.

Chapter 15: Prevent: Solve the Problem Before It Happens

We have a tendency to put up with problems even though most of them are easy to solve. The cumulative cost of putting up with a problem is worth the time it takes for us to solve it. When we take the time to solve an issue that saves us time and frustration, we’re solving what the author calls the longtail of time management.

To spot them, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What problem bothers you regularly?
  2. What’s the cost of ignoring it?
  3. What step can you take right now that can help you solve it?

These questions can help you find the most irritating problem you can solve quickly.

Managing a problem isn’t enough. Sometimes, we have to get to the root of the problem so that we can take care of it before it even surfaces.

Making certain mistakes have first-order consequences (the direct outcomes of our actions), but some mistakes have second-order and third-order consequences. You have to do everything you can to avoid this cascading effect or the results can be disastrous.

Conclusion: Now: What Happens Next Matters Most

The answer to most of our problems isn’t to do more but to make things easier. Life is riddled with problems, but always remember that the actions you take now can alter the trajectory of your life. That choice is usually between taking a heavier or lighter path. Life doesn’t have to be difficult, so look for the easier path. The choice is yours.

Further reading:

If you enjoyed this summary of Effortless, you might also like the following summaries:

Scroll to Top