Best Time Management and Productivity Books

Best Time Management and Productivity Books (Updated 2021)

by Sven WoltmannMarch 24, 2021

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Book cover

by Cal Newport

Link to the book at Amazon

Deep work is defined as focused, concentrated work (or learning) – without distractions such as email, social media, YouTube, or deciding what to do next.

In the first part of the book, author Cal Newport explains why Deep Work is of crucial importance in today's world (but rarely takes place). For example, scientific evidence shows that multitasking leads not only to so-called "attention residue" (i.e., parts of the brain continue to devote their attention to the previous task) but also to long-term deterioration in the ability to concentrate.

The second part shows ways in which everyone can master this extremely productive work practice in little time (for me, it took less than 24 hours). The basic principle here is the long-term planning of uninterrupted time blocks for work, the Internet, and leisure. Depending on your personality and the type of work, these blocks can last from a few hours to several days.

This planning reduces not only context changes but also the number of decisions you have to make every day (willpower is also a limited resource). It also increases the quality of leisure time that it completely separates from work.

The book is fun to read, and I recommend it to everyone who wants to improve their work performance, get more done in less time, and ultimately have more and better quality leisure time.

The book has fundamentally improved my productivity.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes, absolutely.

The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done

The Effective Executive - Book cover

by Peter F. Drucker

Link to the book at Amazon

In this classic, Peter Drucker, "pioneer of modern management theory", explains how to become an effective manager, develop the strengths of your employees and thus lead your company to success.

Then why did I put the book under "Productivity"?

The focus is on how to achieve more productivity and effectiveness through self-management. In my opinion an essential skill that is not only relevant for managers.

The core element of effectiveness is: Be clear about your priorities and focus your time, energy and resources on what isessential; say "no" to everything else.

Effectiveness is not innate. Anyone can learn it. And this is exactly what the book offers step-by-step instructions for:

  1. Measure – in detail – when you spend how much time on what. You will be shocked when you realize how much time you waste daily on irrelevant activities.
  2. Focus on the relevant activities and eliminate those you do not want to do.
  3. Consolidate your time: Reserve at least one uninterrupted time block of two hours each day and work concentrated on one topic during this time.

Despite its age of more than 50 years, the book is still topical, as the author recognized the transition to the information age already back in 1967.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes, absolutely.

The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing - Book cover

by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Link to the book at Amazon

The core message of this book is: Concentrate on one thing – it is this one thing that produces extraordinary results.

Most people divide their attention between many ideas and tasks to achieve as many goals as possible. However, in this way, you can achieve these results only moderately well. In order to have massive success, it is better to focus on one thing; only once you've completed it successfully, start with the next one.

A vivid example is dominos, which each knock over a 50% larger tile. If you build five rows of twelve such dominos, you can knock over five dominos that are about five meters high. However, if you make a row of 60 dominos, the 57th will be higher than the moon is away from the earth!

Away from this abstract example, it has been scientifically proven that the human brain is not well suited for multitasking. When switching to another task, a so-called "attention residual" remains, so that after each task switch, it takes a while to focus on the new task.

To achieve high goals, consistently eliminate all unimportant things from your life and prioritize the remaining ones by asking, "What is the ONE thing I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?" Schedule daily time blocks where you work continuously on this one thing.

This process is not only applicable to professional life but all areas of our life. A recommendation for everyone who has the feeling of being stuck in multitasking and not being able to concentrate on the really important things.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

by Greg McKeown

Link to the book at Amazon

We all have goals in life. But many do not achieve them. Most of the time, we work to help others achieve their goals. Why? Because we often fail to distinguish between what is essential to achieving our dreams and what is not. We don't decide how to use our most important resource – our time. Instead, we let others decide and fill our to-do lists for us.

We get more and more done, and we have little capacity left for our own goals.

But we can decide to change that! We have to learn to prioritize: We need to separate essentials from non-essentials. We don't have to do more things but less. Instead of dividing our energy among many different activities and making little progress in many different directions, we need to focus our energy on one activity – the one activity that will take us furthest toward our goal.

However, we can only do this if we cut back in other areas – if we say "no" to non-essential tasks.

So before we accept tasks (or set them for ourselves), we need to check whether they are essential. That is, whether they make the highest possible contribution to achieving our goals. And we need to check our to-do list(s) regularly to see if the tasks are still essential. We must rigorously eliminate those that are not.

Of course, this is easier said than done. That's why the author offers numerous practical tips and assistance. Even for situations where you can't just say "no." For example, an excellent answer to the boss's question of whether you can also take on task X is: "Gladly. What do you want me to deprioritize for that?"

You probably won't get any groundbreaking new insights from this book. You'll often think, "The author is right; that's exactly what I should do." That shows you are aware that you are not in complete control of your life. And that is precisely why you need to remind yourself regularly what is essential for you and what is not.

The book is easy to read and entertaining. It contains numerous anecdotes and encourages you to (re-)take control of your life.

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

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change - Book cover

by Stephen R. Covey

Link to the book at Amazon

This book is not about seven quickly implementable "insider tips" for working more effectively. Instead, it is about holistic, profound, and timeless principles for the development of one's personality. Many areas of life are covered: from work to social context to family life.

This book is an absolute classic in the field of self-development – one of the books that everyone should have read at least once. The seven principles are even explained on Wikipedia.

Of course, it is better to read (or listen to) the whole book! I recommend it to everyone – no matter if programmer, entrepreneur, or family member. The seven habits are not limited to specific groups of people but are suitable for all people who want to work on themselves and become a better person.

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

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Atomic Habits - Book cover

by James Clear

Link to the book at Amazon

In this book, author James Clear, after a brief introductory theory, gives a practical step-by-step guide that you can put into practice immediately.

A habit builds over four steps: A cue (e.g. "I'm bored") triggers a craving ("I want stimulation"); this craving motivates a response ("I'm checking my social networks"); this response leads to a reward ("I'm experiencing new things or getting likes"); the reward, in turn, connects our brain with the cue. This feedback leads us to repeat the behavior until it becomes a habit.

You can use this so-called habit loop to create desired habits and get rid of unwanted ones:

1. "Make it obvious" (or invisible) – e.g., put a bowl of fruit on the table and hide the sweets; always have a book handy and put the remote control behind the TV; hide your mobile phone in a drawer when working.

2. "Make it attractive" (or unattractive) – Join a group where the desired behavior is the norm. If each of your friends eats healthy food and exercises regularly, this behavior will become attractive to you; if all your friends are non-smokers, smoking will become extremely unattractive to you.

3. "Make it easy" (or difficult) – Building habits is a process that starts with repetition – make a start easy: meditate for two minutes a day; read two pages a day; put on your running shoes every day. Create an environment that makes it easy to do the right thing (or hard to do the wrong thing): Have your running gear ready in the morning; prepare healthy food a week in advance; don't have sweets in the house but buy them when you feel like it.

4. "Make it satisfying" (or unsatisfying) – Good habits have a delayed gratification: A single day at the gym doesn't get you a six pack. Therefore, combine them with an immediate reward, such as watching your favorite TV show on the treadmill or listening to an audiobook while jogging. Find a partner to whom you will be regularly accountable: If you want to write a book, announce that you will send him ten pages a day and agree on a penalty if you don't.

With these relatively simple improvements, you can significantly improve your quality of life over time.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, absolutely recommended.

Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

by Wendy Wood

Link to the book at Amazon

Based on three decades of research, the author explains how we develop habits and how we can harness that knowledge to implement desired changes in ourselves.

We spend nearly half of our day doing habitual activities. We do things automatically without consciously deciding that – and how – we are doing them.

However, when we want to change something about ourselves, we believe we can achieve our goals through willpower alone. That is precisely why we fail.

Instead, we should use the extraordinary power of our subconscious mind – habits – to achieve our goals.

The author – a psychology professor and a leading scientist in the field – uses numerous research studies to explain what conditions must be met for an activity to become a habit.

Despite the scientific background, the book is entertainingly written and easy to understand.

If you have read "Atomic Habits" by James Clear and want to go deeper into the psychology and neurology of habit formation, this book is a good sequel.

If you've read "Good Habits, Bad Habits", and you're wondering how best to put what you've learned into practice, then you should follow up by reading "Atomic Habits".

Suitable as an audio book? Yes, absolutely, and it is read by the author herself.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Link to the book at Amazon

In today's work environment, success is commonly defined by the number of hours worked. Overtime and overwork are the rule rather than the exception. Breaks are seen as contradictory to productive work.

But being super busy (or pretending to be, e.g., sending emails at night) is anything but productive.

Most people are only capable of concentrated, creative work for a limited time each day.

Top performance only becomes possible when breaks are integrated into the day as an essential part of work.

The brain needs rest – especially in creative professions – to process absorbed information, establish new connections, and let new ideas develop. Often, the subconscious (more precisely: the default mode network – DMN) solves problems for which we were unable to find a solution outside the rest period.

The DMN works best during active breaks. Activities such as playing an instrument, painting, sailing, climbing keep the brain busy, and they train skills that are also relevant in professional life.

Moderate physical activity, such as walking, also increases and maintains creativity.

The book is based on scientific research and is enriched with numerous exciting anecdotes about successful historical figures.

It contains numerous tips, much of which (like long walks during work hours) are geared more toward the self-employed and entrepreneurs. Employees in today's work environment will find these impractical until also employers consider breaks a relevant part of work.

The book is entertaining, insightful, and written understandably – all in all, well worth reading.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes, absolutely.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

You can find the review for "Superforecasting" on the Personal Development Books page.

(This link is here because I referenced this review from my latest newsletter.)

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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