I read Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism back in 2020. It had been sitting on a shelf in our house for a long time, but I picked it up on a sunny pandemic Sunday and read the whole thing in one go. It’s a good book for that type of reading, lots of anecdotes and the central point is “say no to more things” which isn’t a terribly complicated message.

I was browsing Libby the other day and saw his new book, Effortless was available. Sure, I said, why not.

TL;DR: If you were only going to read one of the two, read Essentialism. Really, read neither.

The central theme here starts with the “rocks in a jar problem”. If you have big rocks, little rocks, and sand, and needed to fill a jar, you’d start with the big rocks, then the little ones, then fill in the gaps with sand. Use that as a metaphor for prioritization: big rocks first, sand last. But what if, the book wonders, you have too many big rocks to fit in the jar? McKeown gives a productivity book great hits list as the solution to this problem: time-block your life, make checklists, ask how to make something “easier” by rejecting notions of how it is currently hard. Automate common actions, prefer solutions that have non-linear application, set reasonable goals that can be repeatedly daily rather than burning bright and burning out fast.

My problems with the book:

  • McKeown frames all of the business platitudes with a story about how he needed to find a way to make his own life more effortless because one of his children suddenly became seriously ill. This is an interesting story he only touches on at the start and the end. You go back to the rock metaphor: if you’re a parent, you can easily end up with too many kid shaped rocks. Not to mention a lot of his great ideas for being more effortless (get more sleep! set a schedule!) become way harder when you have kids. I wanted more of this!
  • Every book aimed at anyone in business has to name drop Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. I find it especially weird (the last two, anyway), in a story book ended about being effortless for your family. Two of those guys suck at it1!
  • All books of this nature have to quietly ignore survivorship bias. They also have to ignore counter examples. At one point McKeown suggests, as an example of consistency, writing more than 500 words a day, but stopping at 1000. This ignores that someone like Stephen King wrote his best books after snorting a table-full of cocaine.

McKeown suggests not just reading books, but understanding books. Write a one-page summary afterwards. Well, here it is. To follow the lessons of his first book, here’s the 10% version: don’t read it.


  1. I know nothing about Warren Buffet’s personal life. Nor do I care.

Tagged: book notes