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The Dilemma


After my first book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, was published, I hit the speaking circuit. I had the opportunity to travel the country giving keynotes, signing books, and sharing a message that was close to my heart. My wife, Anna, loved that I often took one of the children with me on these adventures, and so did I. On one such trip, I arrived at my book signing at the scheduled time to find that three hundred people had lined up around the corner and the store had run out of books—which had never happened before at an event. That year was a blur of airport lounges, Ubers, and hotel rooms, to which I would return in the evenings, exhilarated and exhausted, and call down for room service. The success of Essentialism had changed everything.

People who had read or listened to the book three, five, or seventeen times wrote to tell me about how the book had changed their life, or in some cases even saved it. Each of them wanted to share their stories with me—and I wanted to hear them.

I wanted to speak in front of rooms full of people who were eager to become Essentialists. I wanted to respond to every email I received from readers. I wanted to write personalized messages to everyone who asked me to sign copies of the book. I wanted to be present and gracious with every person who had a story to tell about their experience with Essentialism.

Even better than being the “Father of Essentialism,” was being a father, now to four children. My family epitomizes everything that’s essential to me, so I wanted to invest in it fully. I wanted to be a true partner to Anna and to make space for her to pursue her own goals and dreams. To really listen to the children whenever they wanted to talk, however inconvenient those times often seemed. I wanted to be there to celebrate their successes. I wanted to coach them and encourage them to achieve whatever goals felt most essential to them, whether that was to direct a movie or become an Eagle Scout. I wanted to play board games together, to wrestle, to swim together, to play tennis, to go to the beach, to do movie night with popcorn and treats.

To make time for such things, I had already stripped away many nonessentials: I’d resisted writing a new book even though I’d been told I was “supposed to” do so every eighteen months. I’d taken a break from teaching my class at Stanford. I’d set aside my plans to build a workshop business.

I’d never been more selective in my life. The problem was, it still felt like too much. And not only that: I felt a call to increase my contribution even while I had run out of space.

I was striving to model Essentialism. To live what I teach. But it wasn’t enough. I could feel the cracks in an assumption I had always held to: that to achieve everything we want without becoming impossibly busy or overextended, we simply need to discipline our- selves to only say “yes” to essential activities and “no” to everything else. But now I found myself wondering: what does one do when they’ve stripped life down to the essentials and it’s still too much?

Around that time, I was teaching a group of extremely thoughtful entrepreneurs when someone had referenced the “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.

But as I sat in my hotel room that night, I wondered: What do you do if there are too many big rocks? What if the absolutely essential work simply does not fit within the limits of the container?

As I pondered this, I got a video call. It was my son Jack calling from my wife’s phone. That was unusual and immediately got my attention. I noticed that his face was drained of its color. His tone was urgent. He looked scared. I could hear my wife’s voice in the background instructing Jack to “turn the phone around” so I could see what was going on.

He tried to explain: “Eve . . . something really wrong She was just eating and then her head started moving. . . . Mom . . . told me to call you.”

Eve was having a massive tonic-clonic seizure.

The adrenaline got me through what I did next: hastily packing and taking the red-eye flight back to my family. But what would follow in the days and weeks ahead left me emotionally drained. There were the hospital visits. The consultations with medical experts. The endless phone calls from friends and family who wanted to know how we were holding up and how they could help. Mean- while, I discovered that all my other responsibilities didn’t miraculously disappear just because I was in the middle of a crisis. There were still keynotes to reschedule. Flights to cancel. Essential emails to answer.

The walls closed in around me. I was burdened beyond belief. It was suffocating at times. I wanted to collapse under it all. It was torture.

This went on for many weeks. Eventually, I recognized the situation for what it was: I was burned out. I had literally written the book on how to be an Essentialist, and here I was, overwhelmed and spread far too thin. I felt self-imposed pressure to be the perfect Essentialist, but there were no nonessentials left to eliminate. It all mattered. Finally I said to Anna: “I’m not well.”

Here is what I learned: I was doing all the right things for the right reasons. But I was doing them in the wrong way.

I was like a weightlifter trying to lift using the muscles in my lower back. A swimmer who hadn’t learned to breathe properly. A baker who was painstakingly kneading each loaf of bread by hand.

I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m guessing you know what it’s like to feel highly engaged by your work but on the edge of exhaustion. To be doing the best you can but still feel it isn’t enough. To have more essentials than you can fit into your day. To want to do more but simply don’t have the space. To be making progress on things that matter but too weary to derive any joy from your successes.

For you who gives so much, I say this: there is another way. Not everything has to be so hard. Getting to the next level doesn’t have to mean chronic exhaustion. Making a contribution doesn’t have to come at the expense of your mental and physical health.

When the essentials become too hard to handle, you can either give up on them or you can find an easier way. Essentialism was about doing the right things; Effortless is about doing them in the right way.

Since writing Essentialism, I have had a rare opportunity to talk with thousands of people, some in person, some via social media, and some of them on my podcast, about the challenges they face in trying to live a life that really matters. It has been a multiyear listen- ing tour. Never in my life have I had an opportunity to listen to so many people sharing, so vulnerably, how they struggle to do what matters most.

What I learned is this: we all want to do what matters. We want to get in shape, save for a home or for retirement, be fulfilled in our careers, and build closer relationships with people we work and live with. The problem isn’t a lack of motivation; if it were, we would all already be at our ideal weight, live within our means, have our dream job, and enjoy deep and meaningful relationships with all the people who matter most to us.

Motivation is not enough because it is a limited resource. To truly make progress on the things that matter, we need a whole new way to work and live. Instead of trying to get better results by pushing ever harder, we can make the most essential activities the easiest ones.

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 achieving our goals efficiently isn’t unambitious. It’s smart. It’s a liberating alternative to both hard work and laziness: one that allows us to preserve our sanity while still accomplishing everything we want.

What could happen in your life if the easy but pointless things became harder and the 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 lighten life’s inevi- table burdens, and get the right results without burning out.

From Effortless: Make It Easer to Do What Matters Most by Greg McKeown. Reprinted with permission.


A globally recognized author and leadership consultant Greg McKeown writes, teaches, and speaks around the world on the importance of living and leading as an Essentialist—the theme of his first book, Essentialism. He has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Symantec, and Twitter. He co-created the course, Designing Life, Essentially at Stanford University, was a collaborator of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Multipliers and serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum. He holds an MBA from Stanford University. His new book is Effortless: Make It Easer to Do What Matters Most.

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