Greg McKeown became a bestselling author by teaching people how to prioritize their lives, to distinguish the “trivial many” choices before them from the “vital few.”
So it was humbling for him to realize he’d built his “Essentialism” plane without a vital part: Advice on what to do when, after ruthlessly scaling back, you still have too many essential demands on your life.
After confessing to his wife, Anna, “I’m not well,” and experiencing the weariness of what is commonly known as burnout, McKeown realized that people in his situation have choices: They can give up on some things they’d defined as essential, or they can find an easier, less time-consuming way to do them. They can seek to make the essential things effortless.
With that realization, the former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found a new way of life and a new book. “Effortless,” released April 27, details McKeown’s rejection of the common mindset expressed in platitudes such as “no pain, no gain” and “it will be difficult, but it’s worth it.” Instead, he has come to believe that, given how hard life can be, we should explore easier paths to do what matters most. And that philosophy has been tested in his own marriage and family.
While McKeown, 43, concedes in his new book that no relationship is truly effortless — relationships need the effort of love and attention — the couple has put into practice the principles of “Effortless” into their home and family life and believe that these principles are both effective and biblically sound. (The book opens with Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)
Parents of four who live in Calabasas, California, Greg and Anna McKeown spoke with the Deseret News about three of the principles of “Effortless” and how other families can apply them in their homes.
Change your mindset
The first step in making home life seem effortless is introducing a simple question to the family lexicon: How could we make this easier or more enjoyable? Another way to ask that, particularly if young children are involved, is, how can we make this more fun?
McKeown saw the value of the question one day when he was dreading returning a backlog of phone calls, and then realized he didn’t have to make the calls from his desk. Instead, he could call people from his hot tub. Not only did it make the experience more fun for him, but when he told people he was calling from the hot tub, they laughed. The revelation lightened the mood.
Similarly, the family reimagined how they could perform a mundane task: cleaning up after dinner. They hit on the idea to play classic Disney songs — loud — while they cleaned. That’s now a ritual that the family had bonded around, essentially turning a chore into a karaoke party.
It’s usually not difficult to come up with easier ways to do something once you give it some thought, the McKeowns said. As an example, Anna McKeown said that she recently posed the question to her sister, who was talking about how difficult it was to visit their parents with her six young children because of the difficulties of getting them in and out of the car.
After brainstorming for a few minutes, the sisters realized that part of the problem was the design of the car that they had. There are other choices that would make this less difficult, so the sister is going to test a few other vehicles to see if a change could make this part of her life easier.
“If you suddenly ask a new question, your brain can find a new answer,” Greg McKeown said.
Stack ‘building blocks of joy’
Professionally successful people often have a problem in common: They don’t know how to relax, McKeown said.
Thinking of the popular toys made by the Denmark company Lego (derived from the Danish term leg godt, or “play well”), Greg and Anna decided to create lists of 20 things that they each considered “building blocks of joy.” Identifying small things that gave each of them pleasure gave them a list they could consult when trying to make mundane or challenging tasks easier.
Drawing on the building blocks of joy, for example, the couple decided to add a favorite song on repeat and chocolate-covered almonds to their weekly meeting to go over finances.
Part of joy is also letting go of things that used to be important and no longer are, McKeown said. The couple has developed a shorthand phrase for this, thanks to an experience Greg had.
In childhood, he was entranced by the “Star Wars” stormtroopers and used to wish he had one of the movie costumes. When he had a chance to buy one as an adult, however, McKeown looked at himself in the mirror, dressed in full stormtrooper gear, and realized that this was no longer a desire, even though “it had been in my head all this time, taking up mental space.”
Now, the couple asks each other, “Is this a stormtrooper?” when considering any new idea. Letting go of old impulses and practices is part of essentialism, and also a path to the effortless life.
‘Habits with a soul’
When he was a Latter-day Saint missionary, McKeown had the opportunity to hear Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People” speak twice. McKeown acknowledges the importance of good habits, but says that individuals and families also need rituals, which he calls “habits with a soul.”
“Habits explain ‘what’ you do, but rituals are about ‘how’ you do it,” McKeown writes in “Effortless.”
Making a family life effortless also involves making sure both partners are well rested so they have plenty of energy. Both Anna and Greg practice meditation, and Greg takes time in the day to nap.
“I want — and need — Anna to relax. I don’t need Anna to be trying to do stuff 24-7; it’s actually not great for a marriage,” Greg said.
“In the book, I write that relaxing is a responsibility, but another way of saying that is, relaxing is a competence. You have to learn how to do it. Most overachievers are much more comfortable at work. It feels less scary, more familiar, so they’ll say, ‘I’ll just go check email again.’ They don’t want a whole day off. They want Monday morning again.”
The couple keeps an eye out for what they call “sneaky work,” which creeps into family time, such as when someone is surreptitiously checking email when they’re supposed to be done for the day.
They also use a principle from the book by creating “done lists” instead of “to-do” lists. They ask: What is the minimum action that can be done on a project or task to feel that meaningful progress has been made in a day? When everything is checked off, they’re done. “When you have kids, it can be hard to stop, and this done-for-the day list was born out of our situation of not stopping,” Anna said.
“It’s a very nice feeling when we’re done,” Greg added.
Choosing the light
McKeown begins his first book by describing how the birth of a child launched him on the “Essentialism” path. He ends his second one with the story of how an experience with one of his daughters confirmed the value of the principles of “Effortless.”
Eve McKeown was 14 and thriving when she was suddenly stricken with a neurological disorder that doctors could not diagnose. The time it took her to do basic things, like write her name and eat a meal, got progressively slower.
The McKeowns were initially drawn to putting a superhuman effort into helping Eve get better: staying up all night reading medical journals, flying around the world looking for cures. But they realized this would only exhaust them, making them physically and emotionally unavailable for their daughter. So they asked the question, now ingrained into family life: How do we make this hard thing easier?
For the family, that meant focusing on the tangibles that gave joy: singing together, praying together, telling stories, playing games, looking for opportunities to laugh and be grateful. And as Eve slowly got better, McKeown became more convinced that there is value in asking the question: Do I choose the heavier, or the lighter path? In fact, prayer is part of that decision, he said.
McKeown said that when he was young, he was given a picture of Jesus with words “I never said it would be easy. I just said it would be worth it.” That bothers him today, because he said that his study of the scriptures showed that this wasn’t true. “He never said that. Actually, he literally said (my yoke) would be easy.”