As productivity consultants we’re often asked to recommend our favourite books on time management and personal productivity.
These timeless classics will help you to master your time and take control of your life. Here’s a summary to get you started…
Getting Things Done
Now 15 years old, Getting Things Done by David Allen is the ‘Nevermind’ of the Personal Productivity industry.
It wasn’t the first book to deal with workflow management, but it was the first to make it mainstream. And like Nirvana did for grunge, it has since spawned an industry of imitators and innovators that range all the way from Pearl Jam through to Live when it comes to quality and memorability.
This book is the motherlode when it comes to the genre, and would alone be worth reading for a detailed introduction to now popular concepts such as the ‘two minute rule’ and ‘weekly review’ .
Whilst many personal productivity books come across as idealistic and generalised, Getting Things Done is both pragmatic and detailed (the book gives you advice on both the kind of filing cabinet you should use and questions you should ask to help clarity the ultimate purpose of your life). It is also incredibly concrete and pragmatic in approach: if you can’t manage your every day inputs and environment, you’ll be too busy and frustrated to craft a beautifully worded and heartfelt personal mission statement.
The heart of the book is the five stage workflow management system (it just rolls off the tongue): collect – process – organise – review – do. It’s been riffed on (and ripped off) by countless performance coaches since, but you’d be hard pressed to find many authors who can explain it with the same clarity and nuanced approach as David Allen. And the drive for clarity is what I appreciated most about this book. Its system pushes the adherent to make decisions and take action within short but reasonable timeframes.
For a chronic procrastinator like myself, who can even put off the decision about which box set to next watch, the books constant drive to punctual and action-oriented decisiveness has been sometimes hard but always helpful.
Sure, there are a few minor quibbles to be had: the book is relatively long and dense; the system requires a lot of initial energy and time to implement perfectly, and defining projects as anything involving more than one action step is going to mean you’re doing a lot of project plans. But despite all of this and being a decade and a half old, its scope and thoroughness make it well worth a look.
How This Book Shifted The Way I Work:
- At the end of every meeting, I clarify “What is the next action?”
- I capture/collect ideas as they arrive and clarify them in my to-do list.
- I keep a someday/maybe list to entertain creative ideas (without feeling like I need to do them straight away).
- I breakdown complex, intangible ideas into doable next actions.
- Every time I have an idea I capture it onto my todo list so I don’t lose it.
- When I organise my tasks, I ask the question: “Will completing this task require more than 2-3 actions to complete?”
- I block one hour in my calendar every week to review my projects and tasks and plan my coming week.
- I always seek to complete my small tasks that will take less than 2 minutes to avoid procrastinating and to keep moving.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re familiar with the ‘visualise your own funeral’ (or some variation) exercise: you think hard about how you’d like the most meaningful people in your life to remember you when you’re dead, and then you use that as a springboard for how you’re going to live now.
It’s a powerful – if not confronting – exercise that was the centrepiece of a recently published amazon best seller I read on life-planning.
The fact that Stephen Covey introduced it in this book way back in 1989, and that it’s still being rolled out in best sellers almost 30 years later has got to be testimony to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People being a classic.
The names of many of the habits have entered common parlance (win/win, begin with the end in mind, seek first to understand and then be understood) and everyone from the bearded hipsters starting organic free range barbershops to the multinational company next door has had at least one crack at writing a mission statement, but if you scratch beneath the surface, there is still so much that sets this book apart and reveals it as being more pertinent than ever.
This book is steeped in anything but pragmatism. Whilst the tools and techniques contained in the habits could no doubt be used for quick wins, life hacks and better time management (Stephen Covey had 9 kids – he must have known something about effective time management), the soul of the book is about taking responsibility for the long term evolution.
Being ‘successful’ in its current popular form (dollars, big on-line platform, maybe your own clothing or perfume line) is of secondary importance, and has to be preceded by doing the personal hard work first – private victories come before public victories in Covey’s words, which in our world of continual feedback, ‘likes’ and websites that publicly rate everything from schools to amusement parks, seems spectacularly unsexy.
Almost all self-help and productivity books advise you to identify your values. Many (if not most) don’t stress that there are timeless principles that you’ll want to base these values on. Many of the books in this genre will advise you to avoid toxic and/or negative people and influences, yet this one will push you to change how you respond to your environment, as opposed to wishing that other people would stop having bad days.
This book is very detailed and some of the tools are old enough to now sound dated (I don’t tell anyone that I aspire to be a ‘Quadrant II Self-Manager’), but in a genre that can veer into superficiality and self-obsession, it’s great to pick up book that is unashamedly deep and pushing you to take responsibility for becoming a better person.
How this book shifted the way I work:
- I wrote a personal mission statement to guide my longer-term choices.
- I use roles to balance my life — intentionally planning projects to stay physically active, relationally healthy and spiritually whole.
- I’m less likely to criticise people behind their backs as this erodes trust over the long-term.
- I identify 5 ‘big rocks’ (priority tasks) on my todo list every week to provide me with greater focus on the stuff that matters most.
- I constantly strive to listen reflectively and empathically to people before seeking to be understood.
- I am more likely to invest in myself (diet, exercise, sleep) to help reach my goals sustainably.
If you were asked to recommend your favourite productivity book, what would it be?