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

Books on productivity, personal development, career (updated 2020)

by Sven Woltmann – April 23, 2020

In this article, I present some great books on productivity, personal development, career development, entrepreneurship, and online marketing.

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!
  • Personality 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.
  • Entrepreneurship: Do you, at some point, no longer want to work as an employee? But rather self-employed or even as a solopreneur/entrepreneur? Then these books are interesting.
  • Online Marketing: As a software developer, it is vital to be able to market yourself. That's why I'm writing this blog.

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

Table of Contents

Books on Productivity

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.

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 - 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.

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

Books on Personality and Career Development

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Books on Successful Negotiations

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.

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 Entrepreneurship

by Eric Ries

Link to the book at Amazon

"Lean Startup" describes a management approach to bring new products to market faster and more successfully. The term "startup" does not refer to the size or age of a business, but to an organization that creates something new under extremely uncertain conditions.

In traditional development, new products are designed and developed for months or sometimes years to eventually determine that potential customers have no interest in the product.

Lean Startup, on the other hand, is about bringing a rudimentary prototype, a so-called MVP ("Minimal Viable Product"), to market as early as possible. The goal is to receive customer feedback as quickly as possible and – based on this – to improve the product ("Build-Measure-Learn" product cycle).

The book is particularly worth reading because the author does not only explain the lean startup approach. Instead, he vividly reports how he developed it based on his own painful experience.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, absolutely, and the author reads it himself.

by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom

Link to the book at Amazon

The number of successful businesses, measured by the number of start-ups, is small. Most entrepreneurs fail. But if the probability of success is so low – why do successful entrepreneurs exist who repeatedly manage to be successful and innovative?

The authors have spent years investigating what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful entrepreneurs. They have analyzed recurring patterns, and, with the "Nail It Then Scale It" method, they present a timeless step-by-step process that successful entrepreneurs follow to minimize risks and increase the probability of success.

The method is based on the realization that entrepreneurs do not fail because they cannot build a product. Instead, they fail because they build a product that nobody wants.

Instead of following their instincts, entrepreneurs should proceed scientifically and unemotionally. It is necessary to identify a monetizable pain, i.e., a problem that customers are willing to spend money on. Then they should verify this need, and finally – together with the customers and through early prototypes and feedback – develop a solution. Just like in agile software development.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, David S. Duncan

Link to the book at Amazon

Similar to "Nail It Then Scale It," this book deals with how successful innovation can be systematically planned so that customers are willing to pay premium prices for the products and services offered.

However, the focus in this book is not on the product development process itself, but on why customers spend money on specific products and services.

The answer is to be found in the so-called "jobs to be done" theory: customers do not buy products and services; instead, they hire them to do a particular job.

One product can be used for a variety of jobs: a daily newspaper, for example, provides information, covers waiting times, helps people find a job, offers relaxation after work – all tasks for which completely different products can be used today. Likewise, different products can be used for the same job: For relaxation after work, I can hire Netflix, my smartphone, family, and friends.

To succeed with innovation, an entrepreneur must understand what job his product does for the customer. Otherwise, he risks being taken over by a competitor with a product that does the job better.

The book explains the theory and its application in practice with numerous vivid and convincing examples, which makes the book very entertaining and worth reading.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

by Michael E. Gerber

Link to the book at Amazon

Most companies are made up of "technicians" (bakers, craftsmen, mechanics, lawyers, web designers, programmers, etc.), who are dissatisfied as employees and hope to find happiness in self-employment.

Over 90% of these companies fail. A good cook is not automatically capable of running a restaurant. An excellent lawyer is not necessarily a good partner in a law firm. A good computer tinkerer cannot automatically build a company like Apple or DELL.

On the one hand, a successful business needs not only the technician but also an entrepreneur (that's what the "E" in the title stands for) and a manager.

On the other hand, the company needs a system of processes so that the founder can hand over areas of responsibility and not remain solely responsible forever and ever (which will ultimately be more stressful than the employment relationship from which he wanted to get out).

Thus, one of the book's core statements reads: The founder must not only work in his business – he must work on his business.

The book is easy to understand and entertaining due to numerous practical examples and a (fictitious?) conversation with a self-employed pie baker that runs through the whole book.

A must-read for everyone who wants to start a business and for every entrepreneur who realizes that he is reaching his limits.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes.

Books on Online Marketing

by Russell Brunson

Link to the book at Amazon

Russell Brunson polarizes, he's loud, it's exhausting to listen to him, you don't have to like him. But: you have to admit that with ClickFunnels, he has built an online marketing empire worth several hundred million dollars.

In this book, he summarizes his experience of more than a decade and the "secrets" of his success in clear, simply written, understandable instructions that even online marketing beginners can use to multiply their conversion rates.

Brunson describes the concepts of the "value ladder", the "sales funnel", cold, warm and hot traffic, and how to build the appropriate sales funnel for your products on the various stages of the value ladder and for the different traffic temperatures – phase by phase – from building blocks and scripts.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to successfully market their online business or "just" their blog.

You can order the book for free directly from the author; you only have to cover the shipping costs.

Why does the author publish this book for free?

The book is part of his marketing mix: The author expect so many readers to buy more of his products in the future that he will end up making a profit.

Alternatively, you can order the book from Amazon, which comes to approximately the same price as international shipping from the author. If you live in the US, it is cheaper to order the book from the author’s website.

Available as an audiobook? Yes, but I have read the printed book and therefore cannot judge the audiobook.

by Russell Brunson

Link to the book at Amazon

With your knowledge, skills, talents, products, and services, you have a chance to positively influence other peoples' lives. 

This book shows you how to position yourself as an expert, how to market your knowledge, how to convince your customers through storytelling techniques, how to lead them through your "value ladder", and how to ultimately build a base of "fans" who are happy to pay you for your services and advice. 

To this end, the book offers detailed step-by-step instructions, e.g., on how to conduct the "perfect webinar".

The book is written in a simple and understandable way, contains numerous examples, and is a clear recommendation for anyone who wants to market themself (or others) as a personal brand – as an expert.

You can order the book for free directly from the author; you only have to cover the shipping costs.

Why does the author publish this book for free?

The book is part of his marketing mix: The author expect so many readers to buy more of his products in the future that he will end up making a profit.

Alternatively, you can order the book from Amazon, which comes to approximately the same price as international shipping from the author. If you live in the US, it is cheaper to order the book from the author’s website.

Only partially suitable as an audiobook. The printed book contains numerous illustrations, without which it is difficult to follow the audiobook.

by Russell Brunson

Link to the book at Amazon

The first book in the series, "DotCom Secrets", explained basic techniques of online marketing such as the Value Ladder and the Sales Funnel. The second book, "Expert Secrets", explained how you could position yourself as an expert and convince people of your ideas through storytelling. Finally, the third book, "Traffic Secrets", shows you how to get people to find you in the first place.

And not just any people, but "your" people: those interested in your services and could be future customers and eventually your fans.

Most entrepreneurs develop a product and hope that the customers will come by themselves. But that's not how it works. Instead, you have to find out where your potential customers are (where they are currently generating traffic) and get their attention there, pull them into your Sales Funnels (see part 1) and tell them a story that will inspire them (see part 2).

This third part completes the series. It is easy to read like the other parts and contains numerous step-by-step instructions. I recommend it to every reader of the first two books.

You can order the book for free directly from the author; you only have to cover the shipping costs.

Why does the author publish this book for free?

The book is part of his marketing mix: The author expect so many readers to buy more of his products in the future that he will end up making a profit.

Alternatively, you can order the book from Amazon, which comes to approximately the same price as international shipping from the author. If you live in the US, it is cheaper to order the book from the author’s website.

Suitable as an audiobook? Like its predecessor, only to a limited extent, as numerous illustrations are enclosed as a PDF file.

by Donald Miller

Link to the book at Amazon

Are you self-employed or a founder? Do you often find yourself in the situation of having to describe your product or service in one sentence? Then this book is just right for you!

The StoryBrand framework presented in this book helps you to attract the attention of your customers and to communicate the advantages of your products in a clear, convincing, and comprehensible way.

Nothing makes people listen better than a great story. That's why you position yourself as the guide who accompanies the hero (the customer) on his journey to success. Exactly like in a good story or a Hollywood blockbuster.

The book is well structured, very practical, and presents the analogy to the hero's journey in an appealing using various examples. You can start right away to apply the framework to your product.

Therefore: a definite recommendation for every freelancer and entrepreneur – and those who want to become one!

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, and the author reads it himself.

by Jim Edwards

Link to the book at Amazon

You can have the best online product in the world – you won't sell it without marketing. An essential part of marketing is copywriting. With the right copywriting, you can increase your sales many times over.

The ability to write good copy is not born, you can learn it. This book shows how to do this using recurring and memorable patterns, formulas, and text modules.

Good writing is not only essential for copy – you can also apply what you learn to other texts such as blog posts and tutorials. With the right headings, you get readers to click on your articles; with well-written texts, you make your articles enjoyable and invite your readers to stay on your website.

After reading this book, I reread some of my articles and thought: What have I written? Who should click on that? Or: Nobody can understand that! Or: That's just boring!

You can order the book for free directly from the author; you only have to cover the shipping costs.

Why does the author publish this book for free?

The book is part of his marketing mix: The author expect so many readers to buy more of his products in the future that he will end up making a profit.

Alternatively, you can order the book from Amazon, which comes to approximately the same price as international shipping from the author. If you live in the US, it is cheaper to order the book from the author’s website.

Not available as an audiobook.


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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