Productivity forms the backbone of any self-improvement effort. If you can’t organize your time, accomplish your tasks and complete your projects, what chance do you have to reach any other goal you’ve set for yourself?
At the same time, few topics are so frequently misunderstood. Overwork is often equated with productivity. Burnout, stress and exhaustion, it is argued, are all symptoms of our cultural obsession with productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Productivity is about getting more from less. How might you increase the efficiency of your hours, so you don’t need to work late to get all your work done? How can you manage your to-do list stress-free, confident that everything will be done on time? How do you hit your targets without endless grinding?
Below are my picks for the ten best books to help you begin:
1. Getting Things Done by David Allen
When I started writing online, productivity was virtually synonymous with Getting Things Done. To have a productivity blog meant you were one of Allen’s acolytes, newly converted to the cult of productivity.
The devotion is well-deserved. When recommending books on productivity, I always start with GTD.
The central idea of GTD is that you shouldn’t rely on your memory to keep track of your tasks. By creating a system for capturing, processing and reminding yourself of the work that needs doing, you can save precious mental bandwidth for doing the work, not just thinking about it.
2. Deep Work by Cal Newport
Long, unbroken periods of focus are essential to productivity. The reason is simple: the brain was not designed for multitasking. Every time you interrupt a task, you lose focus and must restore the active state of the problem you are working on to your conscious attention. This takes time.
While an inattentive mental state may be okay for emails or Slack chats, it is devastating for complex problems—the most valuable ones to solve.
Unfortunately, our environments have made focus harder than ever. Social media and smartphones offer ever-present temptations for distraction. Open office plans, non-stop Zoom meetings and collaboration over email make scarce the conditions needed for deep work. This is why deliberate efforts to cultivate focus are so important.
3. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
“Effective executives,” Drucker writes, “do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.”
Drucker, who famously coined the term “knowledge worker,” is responsible for introducing many of the bedrock ideas of productivity. Track where your time goes. Ask what you can contribute. Focus on your strengths. Drucker’s advice remains timeless a half-century after it was written.
4. Work the System by Sam Carpenter
Sam Carpenter was struggling. He had an unprofitable business and worked eighty-hour work weeks to barely keep up. Like many entrepreneurs, he solved his problems by working more, by grinding, and the problems kept piling up.
Carpenter’s transformation came from shifting his view from doing the work to working on the systems underlying the work. By creating sets of procedures and policies for handling routine work, he greatly diminished the amount of time he spent putting out fires. Eventually, this enabled him to expand his business significantly while putting in a fraction of the work.
5. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Covey’s bestseller integrates the ideas of personal character and effectiveness. In Covey’s mind, being effective in one’s work is not merely a product of being rational or efficient. Instead it is taking responsibility for your actions, doing what you say you’ll do, and seeking to understand other people.
Covey sees our development as a continuum from dependence to independence to interdependence. We start out dependent on others and gradually gain self-sufficiency. Being independent isn’t enough, however, as we need to grow to become interdependent with others to become fully mature.
6. Atomic Habits by James Clear
Habits are the underpinning of nearly any successful productivity system. Repeated efforts become easier, and consistent actions drive results.
The psychology of habit building can be deceptive. A behavior that requires a lot of willpower today may seem automatic after you’ve done it ten, twenty or a hundred times. Simple routines can often snowball into bigger accomplishments if you consistently put in the work.
Clear’s four rules for habit building (make it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying) work well for setting up any new working rhythms.
7. Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Everything you add to your life pushes out something else. Every thirty minute habit of exercising, meditating or keeping a journal owes its existence, by the simple fact of the 24-hour clock, to thirty minutes previously used for something else.
Every addition requires a subtraction, but this often isn’t obvious. When adding new things, we often don’t explicitly account for what must necessarily be removed. Usually, this means we balance our time on an ad-hoc basis, not by deeper evaluations of what we value.
In Essentialism, McKeown encourages us to think of productivity the other way around. Focus first on eliminating the unnecessary. Keep and protect what is worthwhile, rather than trying to endlessly add more and more.
8. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
When it comes to medical innovations, we tend to think of high-tech implants or exotic pharmaceuticals. However, sometimes more basic interventions can have dramatic effects.
Surgeon Atul Gawande argues that simple checklists can lead to dramatically better patient care, on average, by preventing doctors from accidentally missing important checks and steps.
Gawande concludes that most of us would benefit from creating checklists to track routine tasks where we might forget something. Packing for a camping trip? Use a checklist. Going on an international vacation? Use a checklist. Completing a task at work? Check to make sure you’ve done everything first.
9. The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
We should treat our work the way athletes treat their training: cycles of focused engagement, followed by rest and recovery. Energy, not time, is our most limiting resource and needs to be optimized if we can be both productive and fulfilled.
Loehr and Schwartz argue in favor of four dimensions for our energy to work:
- Physical. The energy we get from sleeping, healthy eating and regular exercise.
- Mental. Concentration and attentiveness.
- Emotional. The capacity to manage emotions skillfully and constructively.
- Spiritual. The energy that comes from having a deep purpose in your work and life.
Full Engagement had a lot of influence on my early thinking about productivity. I saw it as an antidote to the tendency to equate productivity with working non-stop, often under conditions that weren’t sustainable.
10. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is the enjoyable state of mental absorption in a task. To be in a state of flow, your activity must be neither too difficult nor too easy. When tasks are too hard, we break out of the autonomous flow state and find the activity frustrating. When tasks are too easy, our mind wanders as the activity does not demand our full concentration.
Flow also offers a unique rationale for productivity. As flow is central to our well-being and happiness, work that can produce a flow state is not just something to get done, but is itself intrinsically valuable.
Not all work can be flow-producing. Some amount of frustration and boredom is inevitable. But, by understanding the factors that produce effortless productivity, we can better craft our working environment and diagnose and recover from the mistakes we make when doing so.