I've recently been reading Greg McKeown's new book Effortless. Greg's first book (also quite good) Essentialism, was about doing the right things, but his new book Effortless is about doing these things in the right way.
In the book, Greg writes that you've likely been conditioned to believe that the path to success is paved with relentless work and that if you want to overachieve, you have to overexert, overthink, and overdo. If you aren’t perpetually exhausted from the hustle, you're not doing enough.
But lately, working hard is more exhausting than ever. And the more depleted we get, the harder it is to make progress. Stuck in an endless loop of “Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat,” we’re often working twice as hard to achieve half as much. Greg explains that getting ahead doesn’t have to be as hard as we tend to make it. No matter what challenges or obstacles we face, there can be a better way: instead of pushing ourselves harder, we can find an easier path. In other words, although not every hard thing in life can be made easy, we can make it easier to do more of what matters most…
…and Greg refers to the ability to be able to do that as an “effortless state”: an experience many of us have had when we are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized, while completely aware, alert, present, attentive, and focused on what’s important at this moment, able to focus with ease on what matters most. He describes how in Eastern philosophy this effortless sweet spot is referred to as wu wei (pronounced “Oo-Way”). Wu means “not have” or “without.” Wei means “do,” “act,” or “effort.” So wu wei means “without action,” “without effort,” “trying without trying,” “action without action,” or “effortless doing.” The goal in being effortless is to accomplish what matters by trying less, not more, and to achieve your purpose in life with bridled intention, not overexertion.
If you're curious whether you happen to be one of those people who might be pushing harder instead of working easier and making things effortless, then you can go take the helpful “Effortless” Quiz, on Greg's website, in which he presents helpful thought exercises such as…
When I feel overwhelmed by all the work I have to do, I tend to:
- Think about it more than actually get it done
- Grit my teeth, and try to work as efficiently as possible
- Dive into it immediately, and keep pushing myself until every last thing is done
My job often makes me feel:
- Stressed and anxious
- Burnt out and exhausted
- Motivated but sometimes bored
I go the extra mile in everything I do:
- Only when there’s a payoff
I tend to focus most on:
- The past
- The present
- The future
My motto is “An assignment is not done until _____”:
- It’s perfect
- I’m up against the deadline
- It meets the required criteria
When I hit a wall on a task or project, I tend to:
- Take a short break, and wish it were longer
- Power through anyway
- Spin my wheels and eventually give up
When someone I care about makes me feel angry or hurt, I usually:
- Replay the incident over and over, and silently hold a grudge
- Complain about it to anyone who will listen
- Try not to think about it. I have too many other things to focus on
For me, the hardest part of a big project is:
- Getting started
- Knowing when to quit
- The tedium of the work
When I have to get something done, my typical pace is:
- Slow and steady
- Sprint until I drop
- Lots of starts and stops
I think relaxation is:
- A waste of time
- Hard to do without thoughts of work getting in the way
- Something I enjoy when I’m not too busy
Again, you can take the quiz here to see where you fall on the effortless scale. Greg's book actually reminded me a bit of what I've also heard repeatedly from my friend Tim Ferriss. Tim not only allows himself to engage in work and productivity “flow” by allowing things that are easy to be easy, but also often asks himself “what if this were easy? or “what would it look like if this were easy?” Confronted with extreme anxiety and overwhelm in the process of writing a book, Tim developed this easy questioning philosophy and says that it led him to some very specific insight and the answer to many of the problems in life he was confronting, along with deep personal and professional growth, new connections with several mentors, and the ultimate culmination of the publishing of his wildly successful book Tribe of Mentors.
So what does it mean exactly to ask yourself “what if this were easy?”And why was it so powerful for Tim? How can your work and life be more flowing and effortless? In this article, I'm going to explain to you why a focus on effortlessness, flow, and ease may indeed allow you to approach life and life's difficulties through an entirely new lens, especially when paired with the time and trust principles I talk about here.
What Would This Look Like If It Were Easy?
The question “What would this look like if it were easy?” is based on the same idea that Greg presents in Effortless: it’s easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard and that if you’re not redlining, working your fingers to the bone, burning the candles at both ends, have smoke coming out your ears during any particular mental task for the day, can't do a workout without two pre-workout drinks and a breathe-up session because you know how masochistic it has to be, pull your hair out planning family vacations or time with friends, and need a great deal of complexity to even do something as simple as meditating (as I write about here), you’re simply not trying hard enough. This mentality leads any human to eventually seek the path of most resistance, creating unnecessary hardship in the process.
If you're anything like me, then for you, this idea of working less hard may feel uncomfortable, lazy, and nearly guilt-inducing, perhaps because you're stricken by the Puritanical idea that the act of doing hard things carries with it some kind of inherent value. This Puritanical viewpoint not only embraces the hard but tends to distrust the easy. When paired with Bible verses such as Genesis 3:19, which says “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground,” we can almost feel as though we are “letting God down” as some kind of Proverbial sluggard if we aren't mopping sweat off our face during a day of toil.
Don't get me wrong: many of the meaningful or successful accomplishments I've had in life have indeed been accompanied by blood, sweat, and tears, but in looking back, I have spent many wasted hours micro-managing projects, avoiding outsourcing because I wanted to know how to do everything myself, trying to convince myself that working harder would eventually solve a problem, and procrastinating everything from work to spiritual disciplines to exercise simply because I hadn't considered what it would look like if that task or the steps leading up to that task were easier. I'm pretty confident that the Almighty Creator didn't intend for us to simply work hard, but to also use our God-given creative powers to work smart, and I would even argue that working hard and working smart while being fully self-actualized and immersed in a vocation that implements your God-given talents can actually feel quite effortless much of the time, or at least fun, in the same way that I've found a Spartan race, marathon, or Ironman triathlon can be brutal, hot, and energetically draining, yet simultaneously thrilling and smile-inducing.
Tim Ferriss hypothesized, in his development of the “easy” question mentioned above, that better results might come if he used a tactic of “inversion” to frame his own work in terms of elegance instead of strain, and he eventually solved his authorship conundrums by reframing them to seek the easiest solution instead of the most stressful, time-consuming, hard-working, unending-labor-in-the-salt-mines solution (despite the societal veneration that seems to be placed on the latter approach).
This philosophy reflects the same philosophy of author Dr. Wayne Dyer, who has written that…
…“When you change the way you see things, the things you see change.”
As he was figuring out how he was going to write his next big book, Tim decided one morning to spend a week test-driving the path of least resistance. That morning, by journaling the question “What would this look like if it were easy?”, an idea presented itself…
…and Tim's idea, as he describes in more detail here on his blog and also in this brief YouTube snippet from an interview with James Altucher, was this: “What if I assembled a tribe of mentors to help me?”
More specifically, related to his book Tribe of Mentors, Tim eventually developed this question into: “What if I asked 100+ brilliant people the very questions I want to answer myself? Or somehow got them to guide me in the right direction?”
And voila! The result of Tim's outside-the-box, approach-the-problem-from-an-easy-angle question culminated in the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure book, a compilation of tools, tactics, and habits from 130+ of the world's top performers, from iconic entrepreneurs to elite athletes, from artists to billionaire investors, who all, basically, wrote the book for Tim (and as an additional upside, promoted the book for him and often appeared on his podcast afterward).
So let's say that you, like Tim, want to approach a problem, a habit, a routine, or any desired outcome with similar effortlessness and ease. Here are a few additional questions that will help you determine what the path of least resistance might be:
- Why am I doing this activity in the first place? What am I trying to accomplish? What’s the ultimate goal?
- What does the project or task look like once it's done? In Effortless, Greg describes how getting the outcome clear can provide massive focus to your efforts as all of your resources shift into gear to bring that outcome to fruition. Examples include…
- Vague Goal: “Lose weight.” What “Done” Looks Like: I look down at the weighing scale and see the number 177 staring back at me.
- 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: “Read more books.” What “Done” Looks Like: On my digital book reader it will say, “Finished,” next to War and Peace.
- Vague Goal: “Turn in the big report.” What “Done” Looks Like: Type up twelve pages full of concrete examples and actionable advice and be able to picture the customer saying, “It’s terrific!”
- Vague Goal: “Launch my product.” What “Done” Looks Like: Have ten beta users try the app for a week and give feedback.
- Vague Goal: “Complete podcast episode.” What “Done” Looks Like: The podcast is recorded and the file is uploaded.
- Where are the obstacles, barriers, and bottlenecks? What’s slowing me down or keeping me from getting started in the first place? At what stage do I experience a sense of dread, resistance, or temptation to procrastinate?
- What steps could I eliminate? If I cut out step x, y, or z, what would happen? Would it really destroy the process, or simply result in a new and potentially easier way to do things?
- What steps could I accomplish differently? If I can’t eliminate a step, can I execute it in a different way or reframe how I think about it?
- Does this all need to be done at once, or can I creatively split it up? For example, Greg also describes the concept of utilizing “microbursts,” which are ten-minute surges of focused activity that can have an immediate effect on your essential project, providing a burst of motivation and energy from taking that first obvious action, such as…
- Essential Project: Remove the clutter from the garage. First Obvious Action: Find the broom. Microburst: Sweep out the shed and move the bikes into the shed.
- Essential Project: Launch a product. First Obvious Action: Open a cloud-based document to put ideas in. Microburst: Brainstorm product features.
- Essential Project: Complete a large report. First Obvious Action: Pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Microburst: Draft an outline for the report.
For example, let's say that I have an incredibly busy day chock full of meetings and phone calls, but I know I want to jumpstart that day with a workout so that I feel good and am energized for the entire day. Setting the alarm clock back an hour will inevitably result in less productivity due to a sleep-deprived, brain-foggy haze, so that's not an option. But rescheduling some of my work so that I can take those first few phone calls while walking briskly outdoors in the sunshine, perhaps increasing intensity by wearing blood flow restriction bands or a weighted backpack could actually be an option. Or, I can come to the realization that mini “micro-workouts” spread through the day can be just as effective as a dedicated gym session, and I can navigate the entire busy day by stopping every 50 minutes for 5 minutes of air squats, push-ups, and burpees, allowing me another 5 minutes to recover and move on to my next task. Or perhaps I can eliminate any commute to the gym by equipping my garage with a few inexpensive kettlebells and a fancy exercise bike from Craigslist (where rich folks often list workout equipment for amazing prices because they bought something super cool then realized they never use it).
Perhaps I'm struggling to find time for Bible reading in the morning and also be able to meditate, journal, get ready for work and spend time with the family. So I could instead use an app such as YouBible to listen to the Bible while I'm up and around washing my face, preparing coffee, and stretching, then gather my family to meditate and journal along with me. It can be the same with prayer. How can I find time to pray when I also want to squeeze in a bit of morning movement, sunlight exposure, sauna, and cold? Couldn't I wake up, go on a sunrise walk while I talk to God, come back, hit the sauna while I listen to a sermon, then finish with another prayer while I take a cold shower or soak in the cold pool?
Maybe I have a host of recipes I've always wanted to try to cook, but simply don't seem to have the time for all the prepping, chopping, soaking, marinating, and preparation. What would it look like if this were easy? Well, I'd have all those ingredients prepped and ready for me so I can focus on nailing the recipe. On my way home from work, could I swing by the dollar store, get my kids a cool, nifty gift, then “employ” them in trade for the gift to do all the prepping and chopping while I create the meal?
Perhaps I want to spend more time with my family in the evening, but feel guilt-tripped over it not being a giant, crazy adventure, a trip to a trampoline park, or a night out at a fancy restaurant. Couldn't I instead surf over to Amazon, spend 100 dollars on enough fun card games and board games to last nearly an entire year, then host a family game night for five nights of the week (as you learn here, your kids love that type of experience just as much as an overpriced vacation to an exotic locale)?
Let's say my wife and I want to have more sex but feel like we always run out of time at the end of the day or have no energy by the time we finally collapse into bed. Why not get some fancy mint or cinnamon-infused breath spray (my wife and I actually do this, and we use this), keep an incense stick and lighter next to our bed, set a smartphone alarm for a beautiful playlist that allows us to greet the morning with fully activated senses, and instead make love in the morning?
What if I want to make a bunch of headway on a new book but simply don't have the time or desire to be hunkered over my keyboard all morning long? Could I buy a simple digital recording device or use the voice dictation app on my phone to speak my book ideas and chapter outlines to myself while I'm out walking, then come back and upload that to a virtual transcriptionist or an online transcription service like this, thus resulting in all my chapters mapped out for me to easily fill in the blanks once I do have the time to write?
As one final example, suppose I keep getting asked to speak at conferences, but the organizers either A) can't afford my keynote fees or B) I can't free up the time to travel to the event. Could I instead offer to appear virtually via Zoom or Skype, cut my fees in half, and give the presentation from my home office wearing a nice shirt and otherwise clothed in nothing but my boxer shorts? That's certainly a viable, simple option, and one that I actually adopted a great deal during the travel-restricted COVID pandemic.
These may seem like silly or random examples, but they're all elements I've struggled with in my own personal routine—such as finding time for spiritual disciplines, being with family more, cooking more, making love, writing book chapters, or being able to speak at conferences without oodles of travel—and I have successfully used the “what if this were easy?” approach to actually solve these problems.
Flow, Trust & Releasing Control
The entire concept of effortlessness and ease is also highly related to the concept of “flow” and can even be further amplified by getting into flow, which, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. This flow state often includes releasing control and attachments, trusting, surrendering, and being relaxed and accepting a situation, rather than trying to micromanage, alter, or control every situation, especially big tasks, projects, or goals.
While there are entire books—most notably Steven Kotler's books The Art Of Impossible and The Rise Of Superman—written about how to attain and perfect a state of flow, getting into flow as you approach a difficult task isn't really quite as hard and complex as it may seem (heh, sound familiar?). In a sense, to attain this state of ease, you simply 1) invert a situation by asking yourself the questions listed above; 2) let those things that are easy be easy; 3) then relax, trust, and surrender, releasing attachments and control.
Number three can be the most difficult step for most people.
I personally struggle quite often with destressing, relaxing, and accepting a situation, rather than trying to micromanage, alter, or control that situation.
“I really do not need you to be happy. I’m only deluding myself in the belief that without you I will not be happy. But I really don’t need you for my happiness; I can be happy without you. You are not my happiness, you are not my joy.”
I struggle with frequent temptations to change or alter or modify a situation that seems near-perfect already, often asking myself whether there's a better workout or a better diet, or a better Bible reading plan, or a better game I could play with the family on family dinner game night, or a better restaurant to take my wife on a date to, or a better title for an article or paragraph I could add to an article, or a better supplement to help me with energy or sleep, or a better walk than my daily afternoon farm road trek. But often, if what you're doing is already working, these kinds of temptations simply arise from a “grass is always greener” syndrome—a constant questioning of whether there might be something better out there or a constant comparison of us or our work to others and their work. But, while this type of thought pattern can indeed result in greater drive, personal discoveries, and breakthroughs, or attaining new heights of excellence, it can often threaten to constantly derail us from something that's good enough and working just fine. In other words, you sometimes just need to stay the course because what is working is working.
I struggle with control. I reveal my OCD-like tendencies (and what I've managed to do about them) here, yet when working on any project I still have that nagging tug at the back of my mind to want to ensure I have 100% complete clarity, knowledge of every possible future outcome, the ability to supervise each small step that occurs along the way, and the reluctance to “hand over the reins” to others who may be able to help me and achieve an even better, more efficient outcome than I could achieve myself—all desires that are technically impossible to attain if the end goal truly is effortlessness and ease.
I struggle with surrender, which, as David Hawkins writes in his excellent book Letting Go: The Pathway To Surrender and as Michael Singer recognizes in his book The Surrender Experiment, is synonymous with simply letting go. David says, “Letting go involves being aware of a feeling, letting it come up, staying with it, and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different or do anything about it. It means simply to let the feeling be there and to focus on letting out the energy behind it.” Yet though I know this, I still become pulled to obsessing over feelings, judging those feelings, and attempting to steer the ship of my life in exactly the direction I want, which often results in a sensation of paddling upstream, rather than floating downstream, reacting to every situation with a sense of acceptance and gratefulness, and then proceeding to do the very best job I can with whatever God has placed upon my plate for the day, accepting and trusting that complete acceptance of what is paired with a faith and trust that all will be well, even without my fingers white-knuckling the steering wheel.
As you are hopefully beginning to realize, each of these tendencies—stress, attachment, envy, control, and failure to surrender—all of which threaten to impede flow and ease, are intimately linked to the emotion of fear, which, as I describe here, is one of the lowest, most draining emotions one can experience.
And fear arises from a lack of trust.
We try to control things because of what we think will happen if we don’t. Control is rooted in fear.
Control is a result of being attached to a specific outcome, even if it may seem that we need to micromanage the entire universe to make that outcome happen.
Control is that feeling you have when your awareness fades, your vision becomes very narrow and focused, your breath becomes shallow, your adrenaline is pumping, and your heart rate increases—all the complete opposite biological sensations you would experience when in a state of flow.
Control, ironically, can create a state in which you become less able to positively contribute to your work because you feel less in control, begin to micromanage and obsess over details, and get in your own way of being able to see or accept an easier path.
But trust enables you to surrender.
In surrender mode, you become calm and peaceful. Breathing deeply, you become present in the moment. You see more clearly and your vision extends out around you, allowing you to see the bigger picture.
When you have surrendered, you have stopped fighting with yourself, fighting with the universe, and fighting with God; you have placed your trust in God; you have accepted the natural flow of things that the Almighty Creator has designed. You have stopped resisting and pushing against reality. You have accepted that, as Matthew 6 says, that “the birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them, and that you, of much more value than they to your heavenly Father, will all the more be fed, clothed and cared for.” Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Ultimately, you have accepted what is, not in a spirit of helplessness, inaction, or laziness, but in a state of taking wise, flowing, effortless, and easy action, fueled by surrender energy and your knowledge and awareness to be able to ask yourself not only…
…what would it look like if this were easy…
…do I trust God that if I release control and surrender to His plan, everything is going to be OK?
When you elegantly combine this level of trust paired with asking the easy question and seeking the effortless route, then jumping in with joy and gratitude and getting the job done (as I write about here), life does indeed become a process of flowing.
Look, I'm not saying that life should be easy. Frankly, I don't believe that's the case.
After all, just look at the Apostle Paul, arguably one of the most influential historical figures of all time, and a man responsible for the early massive growth of Christendom and the entire Western culture built upon that foundation. Was his life easy? Let's consider that…
In 2 Corinthians 6:4-10, Paul described his ministry this way:
“…as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”
And in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29:
“…in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?”
Elsewhere, even Jesus himself, in Matthew 7:14 says “…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Yet Matthew 11:30 says, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
So yes, while in the case of eternal salvation (a topic I tackle here)—the most important aspect of all our existence—forsaking the world's temptations and passing the so-called marshmallow test can be a test of perseverance and a road fraught with difficulties and challenges, this doesn't mean that as 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “there is no temptation that has overtaken us that God has not provided a way of “effortless escape” from.” Furthermore, despite very few finding and passing through that narrow gate to salvation, the deep peace, love, and joy derived from a daily walk in union with God does actually seem to make living according to His commandments more and more effortless and more and more like a “flow state” each day as one flourishes and grows into becoming a new creation.
And from an entirely practical standpoint, though life may be fraught with difficulties, certain habits, rituals, routines, tasks, and goals in that life can be tackled with more effortlessness and ease than most people realize, especially when one is in a state of flow, has released attachments and controls, and inverts the scenario to ask themselves the “easy” question. For example, I suspect the Apostle Paul would have leaped at the chance to preach the gospel via a Zoom call to Ethiopia, rather than trekking south for days on a hot and dusty trail to travel to Ethiopia itself, or, as an easier thought exercise, since he actually did this, would have dictated to a scribe many of the letters he wrote that later formed significant parts of the New Testament, rather than writing those letters himself. Working smarter, not working harder, is certainly not to be synonymized with lazy shortcuts or taking the easy way out.
Let's finish by summarizing Greg's ideas from Effortless.
- Begin by inverting. When faced with a seemingly difficult task, instead of asking, “Why is this so hard?,” invert the question by asking, “What if this could be effortless or easy?”
- Next, challenge the assumption that the “right” way is, inevitably, the harder one. Make the impossible possible by finding a more indirect approach. When faced with work that feels overwhelming, ask, “How am I making this harder than it needs to be?”
- Have fun. Try to pair your most essential activities with the most enjoyable ones. Accept that work and play can co-exist. Turn tedious tasks into meaningful rituals. Allow laughter and fun to lighten more of your moments.
- Release, surrender, and let go of emotional burdens or added stress that you don’t need to keep carrying. Focus on what you can control, and accept with joy and gratitude that which you cannot control, relaxing and accepting a situation, rather than trying to alter or control it.
How about you? What’s an activity you do regularly, or an activity, task, or project you find daunting, and what would it look like if it were effortless and easy? Are you willing to surrender complete control, place your trust in God, and enter into the flow, without fussing and stressing about your entire day? What have you learned about effortlessness and ease that you'd like to share with others? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.