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When was the last time you heard someone complaining about not being busy enough?
We’re all busy. But busyness comes in many forms. And most of us know that busyness is not necessarily synonymous with producing the results we really want.
Greg McKeown is an expert in defining and refining goals, then simplifying the path to achievement. His latest book is titled Effortless: Make It Easy to Do What Matters.
In the first part of this conversation, Greg explained how to deal with outdated goals that live rent-free in our minds and mastering “the art of doing nothing.” This time he explains how to avoid making project more complicated than necessary and how to manage information overload.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Some people tend to overthink projects, making both the problem and the solution more complicated than necessary. You refer to this as the heavy cost of light tinkering. What’s the cure?
Greg McKeown: 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.
One of my favorite stories that illustrates this is the story of the Vasa.
The Vasa was a military warship built under the reign of Gustav II, the king of Sweden 400 years ago. The king wanted to build a mighty ship that would protect his people from the surrounding naval powers.
Unfortunately, the king did not have a clear vision of what the final product would look like. Or rather, he kept changing his vision of what the final product would look like. He changed the ship’s length three times from 108 feet to 135 feet even though the lumber had already been cut. He changed the number of cannons from 32 cannons in one row to “36 cannons in 2 rows, plus another 12 small cannons, 48 mortars, and 10 other smaller caliber weapons” and then finally back to 64 large cannons.
In an utterly nonessential addition for a gunship, he asked that 700 ornate sculptures—which would take a team of expert sculptors more than two years to complete—to be attached to the sides, the bulwark, and the transom of the ship.
Finally, on August 10, 1628, the Vasa left for its maiden voyage still unfinished and before it had been properly tested. Suddenly, a gust of wind caught the sails of the ship, causing the massive vessel to tilt severely over to one side. As the cannons tipped into the sea, water entered through the gunports.
Tragically, it took just 50 minutes for the Vasa to completely sink, taking 53 crew members with it. The most expensive naval project in Sweden’s history sailed less than a mile before being buried in the sea—all because the king had made the project almost impossible to safely complete by constantly redefining what “done” looked like.
Duncan: Today we have easy access to more knowledge than at any other time in history. Of course, a lot of that knowledge has no real value, and even some of the good stuff has a shelf life. What have you seen to be a good approach to managing the knowledge glut?
McKeown: Information is valuable only if you can turn it into knowledge. Knowledge is valuable only if you can turn it into wisdom. Wisdom is valuable only if you know what to do with it. That’s what Charlie Munger calls, “Worldly wisdom.” Munger, as you know, is vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.
Munger believes that by combining learnings from a range of disciplines we produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. He sees isolated facts as
useless unless they “hang together on a latticework of theory.”
One student of Munger’s, 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.
Our challenge today is not access to information but how we can connect the dots between information.
Duncan: In managing the voluminous details of daily living, what role can automation play?
McKeown: Our lives change the moment we distinguish between linear results and residual results.
With linear results, every day you start from zero. If you don’t put in the effort today, you don’t get the results today. It’s a one-to-one ratio. What many people don’t realize, however, is that there exists a far better alternative.
Residual results are completely different. With residual results you exert effort once and reap the benefits again and again. Results continue to flow to you, whether you put in additional effort or not. Results flow to you while you are sleeping. Results flow to you when you are taking the day off.
In 2012, leaders at Expedia discovered that for every 100 people who booked a reservation on their site, 58 people needed additional assistance and called their customer service line. The number one reason customers called was that they needed their itinerary re-sent to them. That added up to 20 million calls a year.
Instead of continuing to respond to each of these requests, Expedia gave customers access to their itinerary right on the website and through an automated message
system. It required a modest investment of time and effort up front, but the result of that one action was a 43% reduction in calls each day from then on.
The effort we invest in automating our most mundane but essential tasks yields significant and repeated benefits later on.
Duncan: At a time when so many people insist on playing the victim game, you offer a provocative declaration about personal agency. You say—“Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now.” What are the first steps to taking more responsibility for making the very most of one’s circumstances?
McKeown: Here is what I have learned: When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have. When you focus on what you have, you get what you lack.
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.
The broaden-and-build theory in psychology offers an explanation for why this is the case. Positive emotions open us to new perspectives and possibilities. Our openness encourages creative ideas and fosters social bonds. These things change us. They unlock new physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources. They create “an upward spiral” that improves our odds of coping with the next challenge we face.
The moment we focus on something we are grateful for it changes our state. And our state changes the actions we take and the results we get.
Duncan: Making it easy to do what matters is a very attractive notion. How would you capture your approach in a 280-character tweet?
McKeown: Ask, “How am I making life harder than it needs to be?” When you know the answer to that question you have something powerful: you know what to do next. It is as simple, and as easy, as that.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.