Best books on personal development and health - feature image

Best Personal Development Books (updated 2021)

by Sven WoltmannMarch 24, 2021

In this article, I present some of the best personal development books, health books, books on negotiating, and financial education books.

Why should you, as a programmer, deal with such topics?

  • Personal development: Do you want to feel better in your skin? Be better at dealing with other people? Understand why you are the way you are?
  • Health: Physical and mental health are the basis for a happy and successful life.
  • Career development: Every one of us wants to have a career, earn more money, have greater flexibility in terms of job and working hours. Or take up a leading position.
  • Negotiating successfully: In both our professional and personal lives, we are constantly faced with the challenge of having to negotiate.
  • Financial education: Most people work hard for their money – but few know how to make their money work for them.

Books About Health

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Why we sleep - Book cover

by Matthew Walker, PhD

Link to the book at Amazon

Dr. Matthew Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and one of the world's leading sleep researchers. In his book, he explains the enormous importance of sleep and its effects on physical and mental health in an easily understandable way. He draws on his own research findings and numerous studies.

He explains the different phases of sleep and what they are responsible for. He describes how the biorhythm is influenced by natural and artificial light and caffeine or alcohol – and what happens in the body when you act against its natural rhythm.

You learn how the biorhythm changes in the course of life. After reading this book, parents will understand why small children do not sleep longer in the morning when you put them to bed later ... and why teenagers are not fit for school at 8:00 am – no matter how early they went to bed.

But why is good sleep so important anyway? Sleep is essential for the transfer of knowledge from short to long-term memory. Sleep promotes creativity, makes you more attractive, strengthens the immune system, prevents diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer, dementia, depression, and diabetes, and reduces heart attacks.

Of course, the author also gives practical tips on improving the quality of your own sleep (e.g., by going to bed regularly or by adjusting the light conditions a few hours before going to bed).

In summary, good sleep – and therefore reading this entertaining and stimulating book – is one of the best investments you can make in your health.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, absolutely.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

by John J. Ratey

Link to the book at Amazon

Exercise is not only good for the body but also for the mind. Regular aerobic exercise sharpens the intellect, promotes learning, and makes the brain fit for top mental performance. It reduces stress, lifts mood, boosts motivation, and protects against diseases such as depression, dementia, and attention deficit disorder - all from childhood to old age.

Why is that?

Aerobic exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system, thus ensuring the transport of sufficient nutrients to the brain and promoting the production of neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for the growth of brain cells ("neurogenesis") and their connections with each other.

Even though the author tries to describe the biological connections in an understandable way for laypeople, he sometimes delves deeply into the scientific background. You have to concentrate hard if you want to follow the explanations of which neurotransmitters are responsible for which functions. As a reading before going to bed, it is therefore only suitable to a limited extent.

I recommend the book to those who want to understand the scientific background in detail. To all others, I recommend regular exercise :-)

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

Books on Personal and Career Development

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahnemann

Link to the book at Amazon

In this masterpiece, world-renowned behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman summarizes the results of five decades of research on human decision making, for which he was awarded the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Using numerous surprising experiments, the author describes how irrational our mind often works and how cognitive biases lead us to illogical decisions.

At its heart are two systems of thought: System 1, which reacts quickly, intuitively, and emotionally – and System 2, which works slowly, deliberately, logically, and rationally.

System 1 makes our lives easier by making numerous instantaneous decisions throughout the day without us even being aware of it. However, System 1 is also susceptible to making poor decisions and can be easily exploited (often to our disadvantage). System 2, which can detect these flaws, is lazier and requires us to use it consciously, which exerts and exhausts us.

The book is engaging, entertaining throughout, and has great self-help value. For it teaches us to become aware of our decision-making and recognize when others (in advertising, for example) exploit it to influence us to their advantage.

That's why I immediately read it a second time and can recommend it to everyone without hesitation.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes!

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Digital Minimalism - Book Cover

by Cal Newport

Link to the book at Amazon

Modern technologies such as smartphones and apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram constantly distract us and keep us from the essential things in life. Instead of devoting ourselves to activities defined by our values, principles, and hopes, we mindlessly scroll through social media and news sites. Our well-being suffers from this more and more.

Instead of letting technology control us, we should use technology to our advantage. But how do we regain control? The author offers answers to this question.

First, we have to perform a "Digital Declutter": To do this, we examine every technology and every software to see to what extent it benefits us. Then we plan how we use the technology – for example, a maximum of two hours per week or only at certain times of the day. We don't have to sign off from Instagram or Facebook – but we could uninstall the apps from our phones and use the services for the things that matter to us on a desktop computer. We could limit the answering of e-mails and WhatsApp messages to two or three blocks per day.

Besides, it is a good idea to place our phones out of sight from time to time, so that we don't have to reach for it at the slightest sign of boredom. Instead, we should use solitude and boredom to concentrate on our thoughts, meditate, or go for a walk.

Finally, we should review the quality of our leisure activities. Instead of mainly consuming or passively interacting with screens, we should educate ourselves, exercise, create something, play a musical instrument, or engage in other mental or physical activities. Don't you also feel much better after an active leisure activity than after a passive one?

The book is enjoyable to read and contains numerous practical tips. A clear recommendation for all those who feel they are wasting too much time with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or other apps. It is also for those who constantly check their e-mails and feel that they can't do their actual work anymore.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, absolutely, and it is read by the author himself.

* This is not entirely our fault – we are made downright addicted, as this report shows: The Social Dilemma

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

Book Cover "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big"

by Scott Adams

Link to the book at Amazon

In this guide, Scott Adams recounts how he went from dissatisfied office worker, through many failures, to finally become the creator of Dilbert, one of the world's most famous comics. He attributes this success to his following attitude to life:

1. Proper nutrition and exercise come first; both lead to more energy, productivity, and creativity.

2. Success is, first and foremost, luck. You cannot directly influence luck; however, through your actions, you can actively improve the chances of luck finding you.

3. Goals are for losers, and systems make you a winner. Goals (e.g., "I want to lose 20 pounds") can be so far away that you give up before you reach them. Systems ("I eat healthy food and exercise regularly") have no deadlines, can be pursued regularly, and make you happy whenever you apply them.

The author does not leave it at these abstract paraphrases but explains how he develops his systems and how you, as a reader, can set up your own. His trick is to imagine himself as a biological robot that a) has to be filled with proper input (healthy food leads to energy, positive thinking to good mood), and b) can be reprogrammed (e.g., to prefer healthy food over unhealthy food).

I recommend this book to anyone who doesn't want to read the same self-help guides over and over again, but one that partly contradicts traditional knowledge and that "ordinary" people who work 40 hours a week, who have families, can apply.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, but I’ve read the printed version and therefore cannot judge the audiobook edition.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Book cover "Quiet - The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"

by Susan Cain

Link to the book at Amazon

A book that helps introverts (I count myself among them) to understand themselves and a world dominated by extroverts, to accept their qualities and to use them to their advantage. Also, a book that helps extroverts understand why introverts are the way they are, what positive and helpful qualities they have, and when to listen to them.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, but I’ve read the printed version and therefore cannot judge the audiobook edition.

To go with the book, I recommend Susan Cain’s TED Talk “The power of introverts.”

How to Win Friends And Influence People

Book cover "How to Win Friends & Influence People"

by Dale Carnegie

Link to the book at Amazon

Even though we software developers like to sit back at our desks, we have to get along with other people all our lives. This book shows you how this works best: how to make people like to be in your company and how to make friends; how to avoid arguments; how to make people see your view of things and do what you want without feeling pressured.

The book is 83 years old, believe it or not! Nevertheless, every single piece of advice is up to date. The fact that the examples given are almost a century old initially takes a little getting used to, but quickly makes the book very entertaining.

Suitable as an audiobook? Absolutely yes. I found it very pleasant to listen, almost as if it had been read out by the author himself.

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Emotional Intelligence - Book cover

by Daniel Goleman

Link to the book at Amazon

Emotions are an integral part of our lives. Not only our intellect – our IQ – determines how fulfilled and successful our life is, but at least to the same extent, if not more, our emotional intelligence.

Only through a well developed emotional intelligence can we fully utilize our abilities. The path to this goal leads through four stages:

Stage 1: Self-awareness – The foundation of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and name our own emotions.

Stage 2: Self-management – The ability to control our emotions – instead of letting them control us – means that we can decide if and how we react to certain situations.

Self-control is an essential skill for achieving our goals. People with high self-control are demonstrably more successful in life (as the famous Marshmallow Experiment has shown).

Level 3: Social Awareness – Understanding how people are affected by social situations, recognizing their emotions, and being able to respond appropriately makes us more outgoing, open, and popular.

Level 4: Relationship management – The ability to build and develop positive relationships and respond to others' emotions is essential for negotiation, conflict resolution, and team building.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand and improve their own emotional intelligence – and all parents, because emotional intelligence cannot be trained early enough. When a child is angry, it can feel it, but it cannot express it until its parents have explained that it is "anger" that it feels.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Link to the book at Amazon

"Superforecasters" are people who perform significantly better than so-called "experts" when predicting future events.

What makes superforecasters so unique? What characteristics and skills make their predictions more accurate than those of other people?

Philip Tetlock, professor of psychology and political science, has been investigating this question. In a large-scale research study, the Good Judgement Project, he and his team had laypeople and experts make predictions and used scientific methods to test their accuracy. In this book, he presents the results.

Superforecasters take in a lot of information before coming to a judgment. They are self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, and therefore always look at an issue from different perspectives.

They make concrete – and above all verifiable – statements such as "The event will occur in the next 24 months with a probability of 65%". Moreover, they are not afraid to constantly check their forecasts and correct them if necessary.

Nevertheless, they are not "superhumans". Forecasting is a skill that can be learned and constantly optimized.

Experts, on the other hand, use vague terms such as "certain", "probable", "seriously", and rarely specify a time horizon. In this way, they leave a lot of room for their predictions to be interpreted as correct in retrospect. However, this is usually not necessary since hardly anyone checks the expert statements afterward.

Thanks to many anecdotes, the book is very entertaining and reads smoothly. Even if it is not a classic self-help guide (presumably not every reader wants to become a superforecaster), it helps us critically examine the countless "expert forecasts" with which the media confront us daily.

After all, it is precisely the media-savvy experts, brimming with self-confidence, who are usually dead wrong.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, absolutely.

Awaken The Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Life

Awaken The Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Life - book cover

by Tony Robbins

Link to the book at Amazon

At first, I was a little hesitant to read a book by Tony Robbins. From what I had seen of him so far, he seemed a little too much like a religious leader to me. But after this book was recommended to me from different sides, I had to give it a try. And I must say, I wasn't disappointed.

The book starts with the observation that most people are guided in their daily decisions by their environment rather than by their values – until, at some point, they feel they have lost control. To prevent this, you must resist the "flow" and take your fate into your own hands – in all areas of life.

To do this, you need a vision, and you need to throw all doubts about your abilities overboard and instead strengthen your faith in them.

Doubts are caused by painful experiences in the past, whereas faith is built and strengthened by positive experiences. The trick is to take advantage of pain and pleasure instead of being controlled by these feelings.

The technique for this is called "Neuro associative conditioning". Here we associate habits that we want to get rid of (e.g., smoking, television, procrastination) with pain – and patterns that we want to adopt (e.g., healthy eating, regular exercise, continuing education) with joy.

The book explains this technique step by step, using many practical examples. I recommend it to anyone who wants to take their life (again) into their own hands.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, and it is read by the author himself.

Books on Successful Negotiations

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Getting to Yes - Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In - Book cover

by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Link to the book at Amazon

This book is a well-structured, easy-to-understand guide to better success in negotiations. It does not teach how to get more out of a negotiation than the negotiating partner. Instead, it focusses on how to work together to achieve a result that satisfies all parties.

The method presented is “principled negotiation” or “negotiation on the merits.” Its core elements are: Treat people and interests separately, concentrate on interests and not on positions, find decision options, and insist on objective evaluation criteria.

After describing the negotiation method itself, the authors advise on how to deal with difficult negotiating partners who do not (or do not want to) behave according to this method. Since we programmers also end up at the negotiating table, again and again, I can recommend this book to everyone.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, but I’ve read the printed version and therefore cannot judge the audiobook edition.

Never Split the Difference – Negotiating as If Your Life Depends on It

Never split the difference – negotiating as if your life depends on it

by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz

Link to the book at Amazon

The methods presented in "Getting to Yes" work well as long as the negotiating partner eventually embraces them, and the goal is a satisfactory outcome for all parties. But how do you negotiate with tough opponents?

The author is the former FBI chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator – a role in which he could hardly compromise. He uses real-life situations to explain the negotiation methods he developed during his time with the FBI – some of which have turned previous best practices upside down.

After his career at the FBI, the author has successfully transferred his concepts into everyday and business life. He presents effective principles with which we can better negotiate and resolve conflicts in everyday life – from buying a car and negotiating salaries to private and family life.

The book is entertaining, and I highly recommend it due to a wide range of practical and immediately practicable advice.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

Books on Financial Education

Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!

Rich Dad Poor Dad - Buchdeckel

by Robert T. Kiyosaki

Link to the book at Amazon

Robert Kiyosaki tells the story of two fathers – his own, a successful upper-middle-class teacher with several university degrees and a good income (but equally high expenses) – and the father of his best friend, who dropped out of school in the 8th grade and became one of the richest men in Hawaii.

Both men shaped the author in his childhood and youth with entirely different views on money. Based on these views, Robert explains clearly why "poor" people remain "poor", and the rich get richer and richer.

Most people think and act like Robert's "poor" father: A good education leads to a good job – and this results in a reasonable, regularly rising salary. But this leads them to what Robert calls the "rat race": the constant cycle of more salary and equally increased expenses.

Robert's rich father, on the other hand, invests his money (initially also earned through employment) in assets such as real estate and securities, giving him financial independence: He makes his living from the money that these assets regularly generate, such as rents and dividends. He only affords luxury goods when his assets have earned the capital required to buy them.

The book does not contain insider tips on how to invest in real estate or stocks; it will not make you rich overnight. But the author gives food for thought and shows ways in the appropriate directions. In particular, he recommends investing in your financial education in the form of business books and courses.

The book is easy to read and understand, and thanks to the many anecdotes from the author's life, it is very entertaining.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)

by William Poundstone

Link to the book at Amazon

What prices are people willing to pay? Even as a computer science student, I had to learn about supply and demand curves in my basic economics course. These are based on the assumption that humans, as "homo economicus", always decide rationally.

Countless studies in recent decades have disproved this approach. Humans act highly emotionally. Numerous psychological factors influence the prices people are willing to pay.

For example, take the "anchoring" bias: people are exposed to a (usually very high) price before a purchasing decision. The higher this "anchor", the higher prices a buyer considers appropriate. Every supermarket exploits this effect: The most expensive wines are not presented because they are often bought – but because they pull up the price that customers find acceptable for mid-range wines.

This book is a collection of reviews of academic studies on price psychology, with exciting and often surprising findings, complemented by entertaining anecdotes from the lives of the psychologists and economists who conducted them.

The results are not only interesting for people who have to set prices, but also for us consumers. In our day-to-day confrontation with prices and purchasing decisions, it gives us a chance to reflect on the psychological tricks that have led us to believe that the price we are willing to pay is reasonable.

Suitable as an audiobook? The title is currently not available as an audiobook – should that change, it would be suitable as such.

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Sven Woltmann
About the author
I'm a freelance software developer with more than two decades of experience in scalable Java enterprise applications. My focus is on optimizing complex algorithms and on advanced topics such as concurrency, the Java memory model, and garbage collection. Here on, I want to help you become a better Java programmer. Read more about me here.

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