Greg McKeown: “What If, Instead of Pushing Ourselves Past the Point of Burnout, We Took the Opposite Approach?”

Greg McKeown: “What If, Instead of Pushing Ourselves Past the Point of Burnout, We Took the Opposite Approach?”

Interview: Greg McKeown.

Greg McKeown is a CEO, author,  and social innovator. He has dedicated his career to discovering why some people and teams break through to the next level—and others don’t.

He's written for many publications, and is the author of the bestselling book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Amazon, Bookshop). He also hosts the podcast What's Essential with Greg McKeown.

Now he has a new book that just hit the shelves: Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Greg about happiness, habits, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Greg: For more than 10 years, I have kept a journal. It’s a small practice that has paid huge dividends for me. Journaling gives me the opportunity to reflect on my day and allows me to see much of the otherwise invisible progress that I have made. It helps me recognize what I am most grateful for. And it gives me something that I can look back on every so often so I can recall many of the important moments, insights, or lessons I have learned along the way.

Perhaps more importantly, it will be something that my children and grandchildren can have one day when I am gone. Hopefully, they will be able to see, through my writing, what my experiences were like and what was most important to me.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Here’s a truth that took me far too long to realize: When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have. When you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. The importance of gratitude cannot be overstated. 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.

It’s easy to complain. Misfortune happens to us all. But over time, the toxicity of these negative emotions builds up robbing us of peace and contentment. On the other hand, 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). It reminds you of all the resources, all the assets, all the skills you have at your disposal—so you can use them to more easily do what matters most.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

One of my family’s favorite rituals is having dinner together every evening. It allows us to connect and reflect upon our day. It strengthens our relationships and brings us closer.

One of my children’s least favorite tasks was helping to clean up after dinner was over. It was amazing to see how quickly they could vacate the room, leaving my wife and me alone to clean up. Obviously, we determined that this habit could not continue. We wanted our children to learn responsibility and Anna and I didn’t want to be left a giant mess to clean up every night.

So, we turned after-dinner clean-up into a ritual. When it came time to clean up we turned on our favorite Disney soundtrack and we turned doing the dishes into a nightly dance and karaoke party. We combined something no one liked to do (but had to be done) with something everyone enjoyed. Now the kitchen gets cleaned up faster and everyone has a good time doing it.

We turn habits into rituals by pairing them with something we love to do. When we do this, we have the power to transform a tedious task into an experience that creates joy.

Our rituals are habits we have put our thumbprint on. Our rituals are habits with a soul.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

A short time ago, my wife, Anna, and I had an incredibly frightening health scare with my daughter, Eve. Eve is a slim, brown-eyed, blond-haired girl with a mischievous grin. She simply cannot stay cross. Even when she tries to be grumpy, she can do it for only a few seconds before bursting into laughter.

But when Eve turned 14, things began to change. Our good-natured, fun-loving girl was replaced with one who was more sullen, had little energy, and didn’t seem to enjoy the things she used to. At first, I dismissed it as age-appropriate behavior. But, on a routine doctor’s visit, the doctor noticed Eve did not respond properly to basic reflex tests. He suggested we see a neurologist. We didn’t have to be told twice.

Her symptoms worsened on a daily basis. Within just a few weeks she could answer only in one-word sentences, speaking in a slurred and monotone voice. We noticed that the right-hand side of her body responded at a slower speed than the left-hand side. It took her two full minutes to write her name and hours to eat a meal. The light, once so vibrant and bright in Eve, dimmed. Then it seemed to go out entirely when she was hospitalized after a major seizure.

What made the situation worse was that the doctors couldn’t explain any of it. They could not offer us even the beginning of a diagnosis.

All we wanted in the world was for Eve to get better. That wasn’t just the most important thing. It was the only thing. What came into view for me was two paths for getting there. One made this challenging situation heavier. The other made this challenging situation lighter. And we had to choose which path to take. Maybe this choice seems obvious. But it wasn’t. As parents, our instinct was to attack the problem, with full force, from all directions: worrying about her 24/7, reaching out to every neurologist in the country, meeting with doctors one after the other, asking them a million questions, pulling all-nighters poring over medical journals and googling for a cure or even just a diagnosis, researching alternative medicine as a possible option. What the gravity of the situation called for, we assumed, was near-superhuman effort. But such an approach would have been unsustainable, while also producing disappointing results.

Mercifully, we took the second path. We realized that the best way to help our daughter, and our whole family, through this time was not by exerting more effort. In fact, it was quite the opposite. We needed to find ways to make every day a little easier. Why? Because we needed to be able to sustain this effort for an unknown length of time. It was not negotiable: we simply could not now or ever burn out. 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.

It’s been two years now. Eve continues to get better. She still has some ways to go, but as I write this we have reason to believe she will be completely healed. She smiles, laughs, and jokes. She walks, runs, and wrestles. She reads, she writes. She is thriving again.

What did I learn from this experience? Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now. You can make the choice to continue to work harder and harder, wearing yourself out in the process. Or, you can choose a more effortless path. One where you try and make each day a little easier.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

One of the greatest misconceptions we live with today is that the only path to achieving great results is by working harder.

It doesn’t help that our culture glorifies burnout as a measure of success and self-worth. The implicit message is that if we aren’t perpetually exhausted, we must not be doing enough. That great things are reserved for those who bleed, for those who almost break.

Strangely, some of us respond to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by vowing to work even harder and longer. 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.

But what if, instead of pushing ourselves past the point of burnout, we took the opposite approach? What if we sought out an easier path? I truly believe this to be the antidote to the epidemic of exhaustion so many of us are facing.

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