Best books about productivity, personal development, career - feature image

Books on Productivity, Personal Development, Career (updated 2020)

by Sven WoltmannOctober 20, 2020

In this article, I present some great books on productivity, personal development, career development, and financial education.

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

  • Productivity: Increased productivity impresses your colleagues and superiors and ultimately allows you to earn a better salary. It also feels good!
  • 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?
  • 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. Books about career development will help you along the way.
  • Financial education: Most people work hard for their money – but few know how to make their money work for them.

Are you more interested in real programming topics? Then have a look at my book recommendations for programmers.

Do you want to take the next step and go freelance or even entrepreneurial? Then, look at my book recommendations on leadership, entrepreneurship, management, and online marketing.

You will also find a list of biographies that you should have read as a programmer.

Books on Productivity

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.

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.

Books on Personal and Career Development

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.

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.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start with why - Book cover

by Simon Sinek

Link to the book at Amazon

“Why is Apple so successful when it’s just a computer company like many others? Why did Martin Luther King lead the civil rights movement when he wasn’t the only good speaker to suffer racial discrimination? And why did the Wright brothers manage to do controlled motorized flights when others were better qualified and better-financed?”

In this insightful book, the author presents answers to these questions in a very inspiring way: All these personalities placed the question “Why” before their actions. Among other things, this book led me to search for my personal “Why” and finally to start this blog.

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

I also highly recommend Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, “How great leaders inspire action,” which presents the contents of the book in a condensed form. This talk is so inspiring that I’ve probably watched it more than ten times.

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.

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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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