Table of Contents

June 4, 2021
Productivity
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Effortless

Table of Contents

Author: Greg McKeown
Full Title: Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most
Rating: 7/10

Introduction: Not Everything Has to Be So Hard

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.

Burnout is not a badge of honor.

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 burned out and exhausted, and still haven’t produced the results we really want.

The Dilemma

Big rocks theory:  It’s the well-known story of a teacher who picks up a large empty jar. She pours in some small pebbles at the bottom. Then she tries to place some larger rocks on top. The problem is that they don’t fit.

The teacher then gets a new empty container of the same size. This time she puts the large rocks in first. Then the small pebbles in second. This time they fit.

This is, of course, a metaphor. The big rocks represent the most essential responsibilities like health, family, and relationships. The small pebbles are less important things like work and career. The sand are things like social media and doom swiping.

The lesson is similar to the one I’d always ascribed to: if you prioritize the most important things first, then there will be room in your life not only for what matters most but also for other things too. But do the reverse, and you’ll get the trivial things done but run out of space for the things that really matter.

Essentialism was about doing the right things; Effortless is about doing them in the right way.

Nothing but Net

There are two types of results: linear and residual.

Whenever your efforts yield a one-time benefit, you are getting a linear result. Every day you start from zero; if you don’t put in the effort today then you don’t get the result today. It’s a one-to-one ratio; the amount of effort you put in equals the results received. But what if those results could flow to us repeatedly, without further effort on our part?

With residual results you put in the effort once and reap the benefits again and again. Results flow to you while you are sleeping. Results flow to you when you are taking the day off. Residual results can be virtually infinite.

Effortless Action alone produces linear results. But when we apply Effortless Action to high-leverage activities, the return on our effort compounds, like interest on a savings account. This is how we produce residual results.

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

Effortless Inversion

When we feel overwhelmed, it may not be because the situation is inherently overwhelming. It may be because we are overcomplicating something in our own heads. Asking the question “What if this could be easy?” is a way to reset our thinking.

Can You Push Something Downhill?

Marketing author Seth Godin once shared the following: “If you can think about how hard it is to push a business uphill, particularly when you’re just getting started, one answer is to say: ‘Why don’t you just start a different business you can push downhill?’ ”

Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, has said, “I have come to learn that part of the business strategy is to solve the simplest, easiest, and most valuable problem. And actually, in fact, part of doing strategy is to solve the easiest problem.”

Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors in history, who has described the investment strategy at Berkshire Hathaway as “lethargy bordering on sloth.” They are not looking to invest in companies that will require enormous effort to achieve profitability. They are looking for investments that are easy to say yes to: no-brainer businesses that are simple to run and have long-term competitive advantages. In Buffett’s words, “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.”

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

Believing essential activities are, almost by definition, tedious, we are more likely to put them off or avoid them completely. At the same time, our nagging guilt about all the essential work we could be doing instead sucks all the joy out of otherwise enjoyable experiences. Fun becomes “the dark playground.” Separating important work from play makes life harder than it needs to be.

Chapter 3: Release: The Power of Letting Go

Do you have any items like this, living rent-free in your mind? Outdated goals, suggestions, or ideas that snuck into your brain long ago and took up permanent residence? Mindsets that have outlived their usefulness but have been part of you for so long, you barely even notice them?

These intruders are like unnecessary applications running in the background of your computer, slowing down all its other functionality. At first they might not seem to affect your speed and agility. But as they keep accumulating, one after another, eventually your operating system starts to run slower.

Focus on What You Have

Have you ever found that the more you complain—and the more you read and hear other people complain—the easier it is to find things to complain about? On the other hand, have you ever found that the more grateful you are, the more you have to be grateful for?

Complaining is the quintessential example of something that is “easy but trivial.” In fact, it’s one of the easiest things for us to do. But toxic thoughts like these, however trivial, quickly accumulate.

When you focus on something you are thankful for, the effect is instant. It immediately shifts you from a lack state (regrets, worries about the future, the feeling of being behind) and puts you into a have state (what is going right, what progress you are making, what potential exists in this moment).

Gratitude is a powerful, catalytic thing. It starves negative emotions of the oxygen they need to survive. It also generates a positive, self-sustaining system wherever and whenever it is applied.

When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.

Jim Collins uses the metaphor of a flywheel to illustrate how a self-sustaining system is created: “You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster.” He adds, “Two turns…then four…then eight…the flywheel builds momentum…sixteen…thirty-two…moving faster…a thousand…ten thousand…a hundred thousand. Then at some point—breakthrough! The flywheel flies forward with almost unstoppable momentum.”

A Recipe for Gratitude

BJ Fogg, founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, says that to create a new habit we simply need to look for something we already do and then attach a new behavior to it. He calls this a habit recipe, the simplest version of which is: “After [X] I will [Y].”

We can apply this idea to make gratitude a habit, by using the following recipe: After I complain I will say something I am thankful for.

Relieve a Grudge of Its Duties

A good first step we can take is to ask this unusual question: What job have I hired this grudge to do?

According to the late Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who had been named the world’s top management thinker, people don’t really buy products or services. Rather, they “hire” them to do a job.

In a similar way, we often hire a grudge to fulfill an emotional need that is not currently being met. But as we conduct a performance review, we discover grudges perform poorly. Grudges cost us resources but don’t deliver a satisfying return on our investment. So we must relieve a grudge of its duties.

Sometimes we hire a grudge to make us feel in control. We try to prove to ourselves and others that we are right and they are wrong. At first this can make us feel superior, even powerful. It gives us a sense of control, but one that is fleeting and false, because in reality a grudge controls you.

There are times we hire a grudge to give us attention. When people hear our story of victimhood, we get their support and sympathy. .

We can hire a grudge to get us off the hook. As long as we have someone to blame, we don’t have to take responsibility for our anger. We are granted implicit permission to wallow in the negativity we feel, without having to justify ourselves to anyone.

We hire a grudge to protect ourselves. We think that by being wary of the person or people who hurt us once, we can protect ourselves from being hurt again. We think the grudge creates emotional armor. But this too turns out to be a scam. The grudge makes us more vulnerable, more fearful. It becomes harder to trust, to let anybody in.

With grudges, we should hire slow (or not at all) and fire fast.

Accept What You Can’t Control

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” said Maya Angelou.

When we let go of our need to punish those who’ve hurt us, it’s not the culprit who is freed. We are freed.

Chapter 4: Rest: The Art of Doing Nothing

Learning to Relax

Recent research in physiology supports Maddon’s counterintuitive response. Studies show that peak physical and mental performance requires a rhythm of exerting and renewing energy—and not just for athletes. In fact, one study found that the best-performing athletes, musicians, chess players, and writers all honed their skills in the same way: by practicing in the morning, in three sessions of sixty to ninety minutes, with breaks in between. Meanwhile, those who took fewer or shorter breaks performed less well.

Relaxing is a responsibility.

“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” the study’s lead author, K. Anders Ericsson, concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Do not do more today than you can completely recover from today. Do not do more this week than you can completely recover from this week.

The easier way is to replenish our physical and mental energy continuously by taking short breaks. We can plan those breaks into our day. We can be like the peak performers who take advantage of their bodies’ natural rhythm.

Chapter 5: Notice: How to See Clearly

There is no such thing as an effortless relationship. But there are ways we can make it easier to keep a relationship strong. We don’t need to agree with the other person on everything. But we do need to be present with them, to really notice them, to give them our full attention—maybe not always, but as frequently as we can. Being present is, as Eckhart Tolle has said, “ease itself.”

The Curious Power of Presence

When we’re fully present with people, it has an impact. Not just in that moment either. The experience of feeling like the most important person in the world even for the briefest of moments can stay with us for a disproportionate time after the moment has passed.

When we are fully present with another person, we see them more clearly. And we help them see themselves more clearly as well.

The Clearness Committee

We all have people in our lives who come to us because they are struggling to see a problem or decision clearly. But often we unwittingly make it harder for them by jumping to judgment. We are too eager to say, “Oh, you should X,” or “I don’t know why you didn’t do Y in the first place,” or “If I were you I would Z.” Such quick judgments, however well intentioned, make it harder for people to gain clarity, for two reasons.

Chapter 6: Define: What “Done” Looks Like

What “Done” Looks Like

If you want to make something hard, indeed truly impossible, to complete, all you have to do is make the end goal as vague as possible. That’s because you cannot, by definition, complete a project without a clearly defined end point. You can spin your wheels working on it. You can tinker with it. You can (and likely will) abandon it. But to get an important project done it’s absolutely necessary to define what “done” looks like.

One Minute to Clarity

It takes only one minute of concentration to clarify what “done” looks like.

Make a “Done for the Day” List

A Done for the Day list is not a list of everything we theoretically could do today, or a list of everything we would love to get done. These things will inevitably extend far beyond the limited time available. Instead, this is a list of what will constitute meaningful and essential progress.

Ask yourself, “If I complete everything on this list, will it leave me feeling satisfied by the end of the day? Is there some other important task that will haunt me all night if I don’t get to it?” If your answer to the second question is yes, that is a task that should go on the Done for the Day list.

Chapter 7: Start: The First Obvious Action

Take the Minimum Viable Action

We often get overwhelmed because we misjudge what the first step is: what we think is the first step is actually several steps. But once we break that step down into concrete, physical actions, that first obvious action begins to feel effortless.

The Magic of Microbursts

A microburst is a meteorological surge that causes powerful winds and storms for a brief but intense period, often just ten to fifteen minutes. A column of wind drops from a rain cloud at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour, hitting the ground with such force that it can fell fully grown trees.

A microburst in April Perry’s vernacular is a ten-minute surge of focused activity that can have an immediate effect on our essential project. It’s the little burst of motivation and energy we get from taking that first obvious action. And from there your energy—and your confidence—only builds with every subsequent action.

The Power of 2.5 Seconds

In recent years neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the “now” we experience lasts only 2.5 seconds. This is our psychological present. One of the implications of this is that progress can happen in tiny increments.

Chapter 8: Simplify: Start with Zero

Not Everything Needs the Extra Mile

There is rarely a need to go that second mile beyond what’s essential. It’s better to go just the first mile than to not go anywhere at all.

Maximize the Steps Not Taken

“Simplicity—the art of maximizing the steps not taken—is essential.” In other words, regardless of what our ultimate goal is, we should focus on only those steps that add value.

Andy Benoit observes, most geniuses “prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Chapter 9: Progress: The Courage to Be Rubbish

Don’t try to get everything exactly right the first time. Instead, embrace the rubbish “no matter how ugly it is” so you can crash, repair, modify, and redesign fast. It’s a far easier path for learning, growing, and making progress on what’s essential.

Start with Rubbish

Many of us are kept back from producing something wonderful because we misunderstand the creative process. We see something exceptional or beautiful in its finished state and we imagine it started out as a beautiful, Baby Yoda version of what we are looking at. But exactly the opposite is true.

Ed Catmull, the former CEO of Pixar, once said, “We all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way.” Their earliest sketches are, according to Catmull, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” This is why Catmull has always worked hard to foster a culture that creates space for such “rubbish”: because he understands there would be no Buzz Lightyear without hundreds of awful ideas along the way. As he puts it, “Pixar is set up to protect our director’s ugly baby.”

Overachievers tend to struggle with the notion of starting with rubbish; they hold themselves to a high standard of perfection at every stage in the process. But the standard to which they hold themselves is neither realistic nor productive.

As an exceptional student himself (with a JD from Stanford Law School followed by a doctorate from Princeton as well), he has learned that when it comes to languages, embracing mistakes leads to accelerated learning. He teaches his language students to imagine they have a bag full of one thousand beads. Every time they make a mistake talking to someone else in the language they take out one bead. When the bag is empty they will have achieved level 1 mastery. The faster they make those mistakes, the faster they will progress.

There is no mastery without mistakes. And there is no learning later without the courage to be rubbish.

Make Failure as Cheap as Possible

“If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release,” he says, “you released it too late.” Or put another way, “When it comes to product launches, imperfect is perfect.”
Protect Your Rubbish from the

Harsh Critic in Your Head

Another way we can make failure as cheap as possible for ourselves is simply to protect our rubbish from the harsh critic in our heads. Instead of shaming yourself for hitting your serve into the net, celebrate the fact that you’re on the court to begin with. Instead of belittling yourself for even the tiniest of errors, be proud of the fact that you are unlikely to make that same mistake ever again.

As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Adopt a “Zero-Draft” Approach

I have met many people who feel a calling to write a book. But they often give up before writing even the first draft of the first chapter. Their belief that each sentence has to be perfect—or close to perfect—to be worthy of the page keeps them from even starting the process. I recommend they adopt a “zero-draft” approach. That is, write a version of that first chapter that’s so rough it wouldn’t even qualify as a first draft.

The idea with the zero draft is to write anything. The more rubbish the better. It doesn’t have to be seen by anyone. It never has to be judged. Don’t even think of it as a draft; it’s just words on a page.

Maya Angelou put it, “When I am writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced I’m serious and says ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’ ”

Margaret Atwood, the prolific author of eighteen books of poetry, eighteen novels, eleven books of nonfiction, nine collections of short fiction, and eight children’s books, once wrote, “A word after a word after a word is power.”

Even rubbish words are more powerful than a blank page. In fact, they are much more powerful, because there can be no magnum opus later without those rubbish words now.

Inspiration flows from the courage to start with rubbish.

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

The False Economy of Powering Through

When we try to make too much progress on a goal or project right out of the gate, we can get trapped in a vicious cycle: we get tired, so then we take a break, but then we think we have to make up for the time lost, so we sprint again.

When we’re trying to achieve something that matters to us, it’s tempting to want to sprint out of the gate. The problem is that going too fast at the beginning will almost always slow us down the rest of the way.

The costs of this boom-and-bust approach to getting important projects done is too high: we feel exhausted on the days we sprint hard, drained and demoralized on the days we don’t, and more often than not we wind up feeling battered and broken and still no closer to achieving our goal.

The Upside of Upper Bounds

Holding back when you still have steam in you might seem like a counterintuitive approach to getting important things done, but in fact, this kind of restraint is key to breakthrough productivity. As Lisa Jewell, author of some eighteen bestselling novels, put it, “Pace yourself. If you write too much, too quickly, you’ll go off at tangents and lose your way and if you write infrequently you’ll lose your momentum. A thousand words a day is a good ticking over amount.”

The Right Range

All of us want to achieve our desired outcomes (complete the manuscript, run the 5K, launch the product) as quickly as possible. So it makes sense that we all prefer days when we make more progress than less. After all, few things in life are as satisfying as the feeling of accomplishment. But in our overenthusiasm for getting things done, we may make the mistake of thinking that all progress is created equal.

All progress is not created equal.

When you go slow, things are smoother. You have time to observe, to plan, to coordinate efforts. But go too slow and you may get stuck or lose your momentum. This is just as true in life and work as it is on the battlefield. To make progress despite the complexity and uncertainty we encounter on a daily basis, we need to choose the right range and keep within it.

There’s an easier alternative. We can establish upper and lower bounds. Simply use the following rule: Never less than X, never more than Y.

Essential Project: Finish reading Les Misérables in six months
Lower Bound: Never less than five pages a day
Upper Bound: Never more than twenty-five pages a day
Essential Project: Call my family every week for a month
Lower Bound: Never talk for less than five minutes
Upper Bound: Never talk for more than an hour
Essential Project: Complete the first draft of a book
Lower Bound: Never less than five hundred words a day
Upper Bound: Never more than one thousand words a day

Finding the right range keeps us moving at a steady pace so we can make consistent progress. The lower bound should be high enough to keep us feeling motivated, and low enough that we can still achieve it even on days when we’re dealing with unexpected chaos. The upper bound should be high enough to constitute good progress, but not so high as to leave us feeling exhausted. Once we get into the rhythm, the progress begins to flow.

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

Leverage the Best of What Others Know

As our lives become increasingly busy, overwhelming, and fast-paced, it’s tempting to seek out easy instructions or methods that we can apply to a problem right away, without expending much mental energy. This is a mistake. Why? A method may be useful once, to solve one specific type of problem.

Principles, however, can be applied broadly and repeatedly. At their best, they are universal and timeless.

Specific methods, in other words, produce only linear results. If it’s residual results we’re after, we must look to principles. In fact, the word principia means “first principles, fundamental beginnings or elements.” First principles are like the building blocks of knowledge: once you understand them correctly you can apply them hundreds of times.

Harrington Emerson, the American efficiency engineer known for his pioneering contributions to the field of management, once said, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Seek Principles

Not all knowledge has lasting value.

Some knowledge is useful just once. For example, you memorize a fact for a test and immediately forget the material the moment the test is over. You skim an interesting news article on your phone, but an hour later your brain has failed to retain a single detail. Your teenager explains how to do something on your computer, but when you try to do it again on your own, the instructions no longer make sense.

Learning the right thing once is a bargain. A one-time investment of energy up front yields Effortless Results again and again over time.

Find Commonalities

How we treat other people is how they will treat us back.

The commonality was a principle that he dubbed “mirrored reciprocation,” or, in simpler terms, “You get what you give.” Offer information to someone in a conversation, and they will tend to share information with you in return.

Grow a Knowledge Tree

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” - Elon Musk

In other words, when we have the solid fundamentals of knowledge, we have somewhere to hang the additional information we learn. We can anchor it in the mental models we already understand.

Learning something new is often a series of attempts, failures, and adjustments.

Neural connections that result in success are reinforced and grow stronger. Like a tree that can support the growth of new branches as it grows thicker and stronger, our brains can now grow connections, incorporating that new information into our existing foundation of knowledge. Meanwhile, unproductive connections eventually become weaker and, like dead branches, break off.

Neural connections that result in success are reinforced and grow stronger. Like a tree that can support the growth of new branches as it grows thicker and stronger, our brains can now grow connections, incorporating that new information into our existing foundation of knowledge. Meanwhile, unproductive connections eventually become weaker and, like dead branches, break off.

Learn the Best of What Others Have Already Figured Out

Munger’s approach to investing and life is the pursuit of what he calls “worldly wisdom.” He believes that by combining learnings from a range of disciplines—psychology, history, mathematics, physics, philosophy, biology, and more—we produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Munger sees isolated facts as useless unless they “hang together on a latticework of theory.”

Different ideas in isolation represent linear knowledge. But those same ideas form residual knowledge when interconnected. Munger acolyte Tren Griffin gives the following example: A business raises the price of its product, yet sells more of that product. This does not make sense if you consider only the discipline of economics and its rule of supply and demand. But if you also consider the discipline of psychology, you understand that buyers think that a higher price means higher quality and therefore buy more.

Often, the most useful knowledge comes from fields other than our own. As researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found in analyzing almost eighteen million scientific papers, the best new ideas usually come from combining existing knowledge in one field with an “intrusion of unusual combinations” from other disciplines. This is why Munger is wise to “believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out.” As he puts it, “I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.”

The exchange of ideas across disciplines breeds novelty. And turning the conventional into something novel is often the key to effortless creativity—not only in science but in areas ranging from investing, to music, to making movies.

How to Get the Most Out of Reading

Reading a book is among the most high-leverage activities on earth. For an investment more or less equivalent to the length of a single workday (and a few dollars), you can gain access to what the smartest people have already figured out. Reading, that is, reading to really understand, delivers residual results by any estimate.

To get the most out of your reading I recommend the following principles:
Use the Lindy Effect. This law states that the life expectancy of a book is proportional to its current age—meaning, the older a book is, the higher the likelihood that it will survive into the future. So prioritize reading books that have lasted a long time. In other words, read the classics and the ancients.

Read to Absorb (Rather Than to Check a Box). There are books I have technically read but I can’t tell you anything about them. On the other hand, there are books I may not have read cover to cover, but I have returned to certain chapters or passages so often that they have become a part of me. Reading a book to earn the right of displaying it on your shelf misses the real point of the exercise. But absorbing yourself fully in a book changes who you are, just as if you had lived the experience yourself.

Distill to Understand. When I finish reading a book, I like to take ten minutes to summarize what I learned from it on a single page in my own words. If you summarize the key learnings from a book you just read, you absorb it more deeply. The process of summarizing, of distilling ideas to their essential essence, helps us turn information into understanding, and understanding into unique knowledge.

Know What No One Else Knows

Being good at what nobody is doing is better than being great at what everyone is doing. But being an expert in something nobody is doing is exponentially more valuable.

To reap the residual results of knowledge, the first step is to leverage what others know. But the ultimate goal is to identify knowledge that is unique to you, and build on it. Is there something that seems hard for other people but easy for you? Something that draws on what you already know, making it easier to continuously learn and grow your competence? That is an opportunity for you to create unique knowledge.

Knowledge may open the door to an opportunity, but unique knowledge produces perpetual opportunities.

You gain credibility. People come to you. Opportunities come to you. You gain incredible leverage when you are among the only people with that precise expertise.
In other words, once you develop a reputation for knowing what no one else knows, opportunities flow to you for years.

Gaining unique knowledge takes time, dedication, and effort. But invest in it once, and you’ll attract opportunities for the rest of your life.

Chapter 12: Lift: Harness the Strength of Ten

When You Learn to Teach, You Teach Yourself to Learn

Teaching others is also an accelerated way to learn. Even thinking we might be called upon to teach can increase our engagement. We focus more intently. We listen to understand. We think about the underlying logic so we can put the ideas into our own words.

Follow the Sesame Street Rule

If you try to teach people everything about everything, you run the risk of teaching them nothing. You will achieve residual results faster if you clearly identify—then simplify—the most important messages you want to teach others to teach.
These messages should be not just easy to understand but also hard to misunderstand. A. G. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, called this the “Sesame Street Simple” rule. Don’t go for the overly sophisticated message. Don’t go for the one that makes you sound smart. Go for the straightforward message that can be easily understood and repeated.

Make the most essential things the easiest ones to teach and the easiest ones to learn.

Chapter 13: Automate: Do It Once and Never Again

Do It Once and Never Again

Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician turned American philosopher, once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them”—another way of saying, “As many essential steps and activities as possible should be automated.”

Is There a Cheat Sheet for This?

Humans have a tremendous capacity for the storage of memories. Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, estimates that if the brain were a digital video recorder (DVR) it would have enough memory to hold three million hours of TV shows. But the RAM for information we can call up on demand, essentially our working memory, is far more limited.

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

The Engine of High-Leverage Teams

The key to getting Effortless Results in and across teams is to have systems in place to ensure that the engine is constantly well oiled.

Chapter 15: Prevent: Solve the Problem Before It Happens

The Long Tail of Time Management

John opened a desk drawer to take out a pen. When the drawer stubbornly refused to shut, he went through his usual dance: opening it as far as it would go, shaking it, closing and opening it again, and moving things around. This went on for a while. Intrigued, his colleague, Dean Acheson (a mentor of productivity guru David Allen), asked what was going on. It turned out that a pencil tray was in the way. How long had it been a problem, Dean wanted to know. “Two years,” John replied. “For two years I have been bothered by that every single day.” How long would it take to solve it? Two minutes. John solved it right then.

Why do so many of us put up with problems—big and small—for so much longer than we have to?

Because on any given day it usually takes less time to manage a problem than to solve it. In John’s case, while thirty seconds of jostling was annoying, it still took less time than dislodging the tray and resolving the problem.

When we invest our time in actions with a long tail, we continue to reap the benefits over a long period.

Sometimes we get so used to the little irritations—like a pencil tray lodged in a desk drawer—it doesn’t even occur to us to do anything about them. Even if we are bothered by them and we complain about them, we still don’t really see them as a problem worth fixing. But what we often fail to recognize is that some tasks that seem “not worth it” in the moment may save us one hundred times the time and aggravation over the long run.

To break this habit, ask yourself:
What is a problem that irritates me repeatedly?
What is the total cost of managing that over several years?
What is the next step I can take immediately, in a few minutes, to move toward solving it?

The goal is to find the most annoying thing that can be solved in the least amount of time.

The Surprising Power of Striking at the Root

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” When we’re merely managing a problem, we’re hacking at the branches. To prevent the problem before it even arises, we should strike at the root.

If you’ve spent a lot of time hacking at the branches, you may have become good at it. But if that is all you are doing, the problem will keep coming back to haunt you. It is merely being managed, never solved.

The lesson is one that many of us learned doing arts and crafts as children: measure twice and cut once.

Conclusion: Now: What Happens Next Matters Most

If your job is to keep the fires burning for an indefinite period of time, you can’t throw all the fuel on the flames at the beginning.

The word now comes from a Latin phrase, novus homo, which means “a new man” or “man newly ennobled.” The spirit of this is clear: each new moment is a chance to start over. A chance to make a new choice.

If you take away just one message from this book, I hope it is this: life doesn’t have to be as hard and complicated as we make it. Each of us has, as Robert Frost wrote, “promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” No matter what challenges, obstacles, or hardships we encounter along the way, we can always look for the easier, simpler path.

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Each week I publish a newsletter with book summaries, software
workflows
, and learning resources to sharpen your mind.

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