Best Books on Productivity and Time Management
Life can feel overwhelming and impossible. And I’m not just talking about life as an employee or life as a business owner. I’m also talking about life as a parent, a student or even retiree. There’s never enough time to get the things done that need to be done, and we’re all left feeling as though our productivity needs a major boost.
Maybe that’s why you’re looking for the best books on productivity and time management. I’ve read through the best options on the market to bring you only the best of the best.
These are more than self-help books that promise major results only to fall short. I think of it like this:
Have you ever heard an old song for the first time and fallen in love with it. For me that song was “Fall at Your Feet” by Crowded House. I heard it for the first time about 20 years after it first released. And it left me thinking: How have I lived without knowing this song existed?
The same thing goes for the first book on this list (read on to learn more about it). After reading it, I found myself thinking: I’ve been wandering through life wasting time and leaking productivity — and now I know how to fix the problem.
That’s the power of the books on this list. Different books may work better for your unique situation, so we’re provided handy and comprehensive rundowns to let you know what each one covers.
Check out the best books on productivity and time management listed below, and choose the one that works best for you!
|“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown (Our Top Pick!)||272|
|“Getting Things Done” by David Allen||352|
|”The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg||371|
|“Decide” by Steve McClatchy||208|
|“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman||499|
1. “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown — Our Top Pick!
This is our top pick for one simple reason: It provides impactful advice for anyone, no matter where they are in life and career. It’s called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” which doesn’t necessarily sound like a book on time management and productivity. But, in this title, Greg McKeown has issued a framework for developing a productivity mindset anyone can put into practice.
Think of it this way: There’s external noise and an internal voice in all of us. While we should really be listening to the inner voice (which shares our deepest desires, passions and wants), we too often find ourselves listening to external noise (which shares societal messages that won’t always make us happy).
For example, here in the United States, culture tells that we should want more. We should want more money, more status, more possessions, etc. This obsession with more has turned us into voracious consumers, and so we fill all our time with something to do — because we think that’s what’s expected of us.
Even our free time is filled with something. Waiting in line we scroll through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Sitting on a beach or on a dock or in a hammock, we spend time on our personal devices rather than enjoying our setting and the opportunity to relax. Even open spaces in our homes and closets must be filled with stuff — and so we busy ourselves shopping to find the perfect things to fill our open spaces.
But none of this makes us happy. It’s a myth creating by external noise. And it’s completely at odds with our internal voice most of the time.
Here’s a look at Greg McKeown talking about his book:
How to Focus on the Essentials
While many books on time management and productivity will try to teach you about automation and systems for making the most of your time, “Essentialism” takes a different approach. Greg McKeown writes that we must completely change the way we think.
Typically, we calendar invites for work meetings or invitations for social occasions, our impulse is to say “yes” without thinking. He urges all of us to take a break before responding to any invitation. He urges us into deep contemplation before making decisions.
That’s not to say we won’t ultimately come to “yes,” but pondering these decisions allows us to focus on saying “yes” only to what we deem essential.
The Planning Falacy
Greg also focuses on the concept of the “planning fallacy.” The planning fallacy simply means that we underestimate the time and expense related to almost any activity. We’re asked to take on a side project at work, and what we assume will take an afternoon takes 2 weeks. We’re invited to attend a happy hour, and what we assume will just be 30 minutes and 1 drink turns into 3 hours.
By understanding ahead of time — and recognizing during contemplation — that things are likely to take far longer and cost far more than we initially think, we’re able to be discerning about what we choose to do and what we choose to pass on.
This contemplation and discernment helps us winnow out what’s not important and boil our lives down to only what’s essential.
Fight Against Moment Erosion
We’re also told to “live in the moment” and to live as though we only had a few months or weeks left to live. But we never do that — at least I don’t. I’m always consumed by obligations and tasks and things I feel like I have to do, all at the expense of living in the moment.
And, as mentioned, we all have a tendency to fill the free moments we have with social media and mindless activity that fails to increase our joy and satisfaction with life.
McKeown calls this “moment erosion.” He fears that without free moments to sit back and enjoy life, we’re losing out ability to ponder and to pursue that which is essential to us.
Is “Essentialism” for you?
Why you should read “Essentialism”:
- It provides practical advice about finding the “space” needed to ponder and to focus on what’s really essential in life — rather than listening to the external noise that too often drives our activities.
Why you shouldn’t read “Essentialism”:
- You’ve decided you prefer the “more” mindset and you don’t desire to focus only on what’s essential in life.
This a relative classic compared to the other options on this page. “Getting Things Done” by David Allen first appeared in 2001, and it focuses on the common mistake we make regarding productivity. That mistake is thinking that we need more time to do everything, rather than thinking that we need more space to do what’s most important.
This is a lot like the work-smarter-not-harder trope that’s cast about so often in today’s corporate culture — only this puts real-life strategies and tactics behind the idea. I know that many of your probably roll your eyes at the work-smarter-not-harder people. And I’m equally as sure that you’re looking for something more out of the best books on time management and productivity. And trust me: This book delivers.
Here’s David Allen giving a TED Talk, which gives you an idea of they types of things he shares with people who struggle with time management and productivity:
The 2-Minute Rule
One of Allen’s main concepts is the 2-minute rule. It’s not complicated. Basically, anything that you must do that takes 2 minutes or less you should do immediately. Why? Because 2-minute tasks gain more attention and thought than they deserve if they’re left to linger.
Allen wants you to create more “headspace” to focus on the things that matter most, and the 2-minute rule helps you create more headspace than you might have otherwise.
Another mainstay of Allen’s teaching is the weekly review. Your success or failure requires an incredible amount of focus on just one thing — execution. When you fail to execute, the beautiful vision you have for a project or business dies. Execution is the No. 1 thing that venture capitalists look for when evaluating new opportunities, and it’s the No. 1 thing you should be focused on when growing a business.
That’s why a weekly review is so important. Without one, you can float from week to week busying yourself with tasks that have no impact on the ultimate execution of your vision.
Mastering the To-Do List?
If you care at all about time management productivity, you most like have a to-do list somewhere on your desk (or computer). But the problem with do-to lists is that we write them all wrong.
The key is to be as granular as possible. If you’re creating a pitch deck for investors, the task can feel overwhelming. It feels even more overwhelming when it’s written on your to-do list as “create pitch deck.” Instead, break it down into more manageable parts. Create a series of to-dos that can be knocked out more quickly:
- Create outline
- Gather images
- Compile tables and graphics
- Write copy
- So on and so forth
That sense of feeling overwhelmed disappears and things tend to get done when you choose granular tasks for your to-do list.
Is “Getting Things Done” for you?
Why you should read “Getting Things Done”:
- You want timeless tips for creating systems and approaches that help you make the most of your time and maximize your productivity
Why you shouldn’t read “Getting Things Done”:
- You’re looking for the most modern book that addresses the most pressing modern challenges
That’s the foundation of “The Power of Habit.” It recognizes that the more we do a certain task, the more practice we get doing it, the faster we can do it, the more hardened that habit becomes. This is great when it’s a habit that’s beneficial — going for a 3-mile run every morning, for example. But it’s not so great when the habit is not beneficial — taking a 15-minute smoke break each morning and afternoon during the workday.
In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg outlines how we can tear down our habits and rebuild them for maximum effectiveness. It’s not easy, he writes, because habits are powerful — as the title of the book suggests. But it’s not impossible with a little bit of hard.
I’m sure we all think of bad habits that have held power over us for too long. So, even with work set aside, this is a book that holds value for any reader.
Here’s a look at Duhigg talking about “The Power of Habit”:
The Habit Loop
“The Power of Habit” takes a look at all sorts of different people and movements to find out how habits play significant roles. Duhigg takes a look at Tony Dungy, Rosa Parks, Rick Warren and other individuals, as well as successful companies like Target.
At the heart of each story is what Duhigg calls the “habit loop.” Here’s how it works: some sort of cue triggers some sort of behavior that leads to some sort of reward. For example, you step on the scale and hate the number you see (cue), so you begin to workout (behavior), and then you begin to lose weight (reward).
When we understand how habits work, we can remake them on a personal level — or even across a group, organization or society.
Get Ready for Science
This book is chock full of science, which is fantastic. In today’s technological environment where anyone can start a website or publish a book, there’s a lot of information shared without much authority behind it. That’s not a problem here.
Duhigg is a seasoned newspaper reporter, and it put a lot of energy and effort into the research — which shines through. He doesn’t make any conclusions or recommendations without first putting science and research behind it.
Tough to Translate
The one drawback to this really interesting book is that it’s hard to generalize a lot of the conclusions. That is, don’t expect to be able to take what you learn and immediately apply it to your life.
There’s also the struggle of habit to take into account. Habits are so powerful and hard to break that many spend 10s of thousands or dollars on rehabilitation and 10-step programs to break them. “The Power of Habit” is great at diagnosing the problems that habits can present, but it’s less helpful at offering actionable solutions.
Is “The Power of Habit” for you?
Why you should read “The Power of Habit”:
- You’re a manager in the workplace who wants a better understanding of how to creating habits that improve performance while also influencing your direct reports
Why you shouldn’t read “The Power of Habit”:
- You want actionable processes that you can immediately put into place for immediate results
The two forms or motivation are pain prevention and gain. Pain prevention would be something like following the speed limit or taking out the trash. Gain would be something like training for a marathon or starting a new business.
The problem is that we’re most often motivated by pain prevention rather than gain, which leads us away from doing what’s most important — the things that we desire and the things that will bring us the greatest happiness and satisfaction.
It’s funny: Steve McClatchy’s hints at the irrationality that Daniel Kahneman writes about in our next title (See No. 5). But the two writers take completely different approaches and truly have something different in store for readers.
Here’s a look at author Steve McClatchy describing some of the concepts present in “Decide” while visiting NBC’s “The Today Show”:
The reason why we so often fall back on pain prevention is this: We manage our lives by urgency rather than by the results we want to achieve. When we manage by urgency, we’re constantly putting our fires that will help us avoid pain rather than pursuing projects and ideas and tasks that will deliver the gain and results we want to see.
Why are we constantly in a state of urgency? Because we have a hard time deciding what our priorities are — and focusing on them at the expense of all else.
How to Create Your To-Do List
Your to-do list should fall into 3 categories. Your gain tasks and your highest priorities should be given an “A.” Importance maintenance tasks that help you prevent pain should be given a “B.” Pure maintenance tasks that exist on your list solely to avoid pain should be given a “C.”
How are You Spending Your Time?
Once your have your to-do list graded using the A-B-C method, put all of your A tasks on your calendar. Without dedicated time, these priorities will fall by the wayside. You’ll start to focus on the urgent and completing last-minute pain prevention tasks rather than focusing on what matters most to you.
Is “Decide” for you?
Why you should read “Decide”:
- You want digestible ideas for better managing your time on a day-to-day basis
Why you shouldn’t read “Decide”:
- You want grand, sweeping scientific research that points to in-depth issues (and their solutions)
Daniel Kahneman (and his research partner, Amos Tversky, who passed away in 1996) has a long history of exploring human behavior. His career has included groundbreaking work on human irrationality, cognitive biases and what makes us happy.
He ties together all of this research in “Thinking Fast and Slow.” We’re talking about decades’ worth of insights and knoweldge from a psychologist that has won the Nobel Prize. If that’s not enough to get you to pick up and read the book, I don’t know what will …
In this book, Kahneman pulls back the curtain on how we think and how we make decisions, and he points to mistakes and biases that are present throughout.
This book is incredibly comprehensive, and it shares a lot of data and anecdotes about the data in action. Here’s a look at some of the key takeways from a video review:
System 1 and System 2
What exactly does thinking fast and thinking slow mean? We have a System 1 that is designed to make snap decisions. This is when we’re basically operating on autopilot, relying on our subconscious to get us through a routine or an everyday activity — like driving a morning commute.
System 2 is designed to make more deliberate and thoughtful decisions. We might practice System 2 thinking when working on an intensive project, driving a new and unfamiliar route, or playing a new sport.
What “Thinking Fast and Think Slow” tells us, though, is that System 2 too often relies on what System 1 tells us. We’ve developing misconceptions, myths and lies that System 1 dishes out and that System lazily ratifies without scrutiny. This is the source of our irrationality.
Yes, We are Completely Irrational
Newsflash for all of us: Humans are completely irrational. And I know what you’re thinking: Most humans really are irrational, but I’m not one of them. Well, I’ve got another newsflash for you: Yes, you are.
There’s a concept called “third-person effect,” which means that most humans tend to recognize the validity of research — but to see themselves outside of and uninfluenced by it. For example, if research shows that television ads are effective at moving viewers to action, the average human will agree with the research while suggesting that they themselves are not moved to action.
It’s OK. We’re all prone to third-person effect. And we’re all irrational — as you’ll discover in this book.
More Questions That Answers
One challenge of “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow” is that it will inevitably lead to many more research projects — but it doesn’t deliver practical answers that you can use right now. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s to be expected of a book that’s so full of research. But don’t pick it up expecting the life-changing secret to better productivity and time management to come spilling out of its pages.
Is “Thinking Fast and Slow” for you?
Why you should read “Thinking Fast and Slow”:
- You want to deepen your understanding of human behavior and start approaching time management and productivity more rationally
Why you shouldn’t read “Thinking Fast and Slow”:
- You want simple-to-implement ideas for daily time management and productivity
Final Thoughts on the Best Books on Time Management and Productivity
I’ll be completely honest: Each of these books is well worth a read. Can’t afford to buy all 5? Head over to your local library and check them out or put them on hold. The great thing about reading is that a book can give you gift you can carry with you the rest of your life — knowledge.
I found each of these titles incredibly helpful not just in boosting productivity and better managing time, but also in gaining a deeper understanding of how humans think and what motivates us. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, these books can help you map a path our of that rut and toward a new, different and more fulfilling lifestyle — both at work and at home.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have one to add that’s not on the list? Let us know in the comments section, or reach out to us directly using our contact page.
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