We live in an era of unprecedented distraction. It takes superhuman concentration to get things done in this day and age. And many of us are turning to outside help to get our priorities back on track. But a quick Google search for “time management books” yields over 700 results! Ironically, it would be quite the time suck to try and whittle down that list to find the perfect book to help you get your schedule back on track.
We’re here to help! Scan the big ideas in these 19 essential time management books, and incorporate your favorite concepts into your workflow:
Over two millennia ago, Aristotle advised that “excellence is not an act, but a habit”. It’s a simple concept in theory, but putting the idea into play is hard. Enter New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg exposes how the brightest minds of our time design, install and troubleshoot their habits. The book mixes case studies with compelling new science in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell’s work – creating a powerful narrative in a style that is accessible to even the least science-inclined readers.
The book tackles real-life situations where toxic habits kept businesses/individuals from achieving unprecedented success. You get a peek into some of the largest, most successful companies and organizations in the world, and learn how small changes in the businesses’ habits helped them to bring in billions of dollars and remain leaders in their industry.
Here’s the rub: breaking down old, bad habits is tough. Replacing them with better, more efficient habits is even tougher. But if you’re looking for a real kick in the pants – a call to action supplemented by science and common sense – look no further than this time management book.
“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.” This is one of many powerful quotes to be found in The ONE Thing.
We all crave simplicity—and for good reason. As the Chinese proverb warns us, “he who chases two rabbits catches neither.” If too many thoughts occupy your awareness at one time, it’s impossible to focus. Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing distills a recipe for creating simplicity in all areas of your professional and personal life. It teaches you the (surprisingly complex!) discipline of chipping off the excess to focus on only the most important pieces.
If you’re looking to overcome any roadblocks that are inhibiting your success, figure out how to redirect your time to things that matter, and “leverage the laws of purpose, priority and productivity” – look no further than this incredible time management book. It is one of my “productivity bibles” – I re-read it whenever I’m feeling burnt out and unable to focus.
A nice companion piece to The ONE Thing, Greg Mckeown’s Essentialism tackles the “we’re-too-busy-to-focus” problem in different ways, using different tools. You’ll learn strategies such as how to live by the delayed ‘yes’; how to embrace the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO); and how to beat the stealthy Endowment Effect. This last strategy teaches us to push back against our natural tendency to overvalue our current pursuits in comparison to new opportunities.
The “disciplined pursuit of less” is McKeown’s philosophy for reevaluating everything you’ve committed yourself to in life, and figuring out what matters most to you. Not only does this approach clear out unnecessary tasks and projects from your plate, it allows you to reclaim authority over your own time.
The reason Essentialism has made our list of top time management books is simple: honing in on what matters most to you will kickstart your productivity.
The average American’s attention span is the size of a gnat, and Twitter and it’s fellow social media time-sucks aren’t exactly helping matters. At least, so goes the cliché.
Columnist Matt Taibbi expressed the disgust many people feel about this state of affairs in a recent column, calling us all “a generation of… anger addicts who can’t read past the first page of a book.” Whether or not this stereotype paints with a too-broad brush, many of us at least feel like our culture is giving us second-hand ADHD.
What’s the antidote?
Quite possibly, Cal Newport’s timely Deep Work. The basic idea is that we need to cordon off time each week to do deep, private, unstructured creative thinking in order to perform at our best.
Newport argues that this work—as opposed to the busy “shallow work” of answering emails and putting out fires—consists of disciplines that can be learned. Among his suggestions for richer deep work sessions: use meditation to enhance focus, use rituals to guide you into the flow state, and cut out (or at least down) social media. Your reward? Valuable, rare and meaningful insights into your world. Not a bad trade!
There are 168 hours in a week; 86,400 seconds in a given day; and, as the musical Rent reminded us in song, 525,600 minutes in a year. Seeing time blocked this way gives us a sense of how much (or how little) time we have to spend. Wait But Why’s Tim Urban also does a terrifying job of graphically putting time into perspective here.
The point is that time is a rare, irreplaceable and precious commodity. Too many of us believe we never have enough of it. We wish we could hoard time to pursue hobbies, go to the gym, cook meals for our family, etc. But since we physically can’t do that, we often just give up and give into wasting time on what Getting Things Done author David Allen would call “the latest and loudest” things pulling on our attention.
Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, believes there’s a better mousetrap. Years of research led her to some startling data: it IS possible to do it all. You CAN exercise daily, sleep enough, have hobbies, enjoy relationships and a great job. And it’s possible to do all of that without over committing, over working or over-extending yourself. These “found” principles light the way.
Make more from your time, all while working less. A pipe dream? A paradox? Not so, according to Sam Carpenter, author of the Work the System. Carpenter is not the first business leader to sing the gospel of the systems approach to management. (The legendary W. Edward Demings, for instance, once said that “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”)
Carpenter’s ideas follow this age-old script. But his passion (zealousness?) is maybe the book’s greatest gift. The premise is simple – create linear, malleable systems to manage your life.
Carpenter wants you to change how you operate – and that starts with creating a systems mentality. In fact, the language is explicitly designed to almost hypnotize you so that you finally have that “a-ha!” moment about systems.
Time management theory makes for fun sound bites. But what actually works in the crucible of real world experience? What’s empirically proven is more valuable than fluffy speculation. All you need to do is mimic what’s worked for successful people!
Enter personal productivity legend, Tim Ferriss, who shot to fame with his bestselling (and still quite handy) book, The 4 Hour Workweek. In his new opus, Tools of Titans, Ferriss draws from years of interviewing billionaires, tycoons, icons, and A Players in every discipline to distill the rules and habits of world-class performers. What do Olympic athletes and top floor dwellers have in common? After reading Tools of Titans, you’ll know–and be able to apply their routines and habits to your own, more productive life.
A follow-up to the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better explores eight basic productivity concepts, including fundamentals like Goal-setting, Decision-making, Motivation, and Focus. We’ve heard these terms in so many different time management books that they can seem abstracted into meaninglessness. Duhigg gives them teeth. He argues that how we approach these productivity concepts explains why some soar and others struggle.
In the spirit of his last book, Duhigg draws from the latest research in neuroscience, behavioral economics, and psychology. Using anecdotes from FBI agents, airline pilots, and CEOS, we learn that true productivity is a method of being, not just a series of actions.
What if you could achieve everything you want… in less time than you thought imaginable? If that sounds like a unbelievable promise made by a sketchy guru—you’re not wrong to be skeptical.
However, in the particular case of Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Elrod outlines a stunningly simple, yet brilliant approach to productivity.
The basic thesis is that how you wake up in the morning affects the quality of your whole day. Your morning experience indirectly impacts your work, your relationships, your health – everything, really.
If you accept this premise—and there’s empirical research to support at least pieces of it—then you will naturally be drawn to ask: how do I have a great morning? Per Elrod, the key is attitude. The Miracle Morning teaches how to craft the perfect morning ritual to approach each day refreshed and positive. We’ve seen this message reiterated in many of the time management books on this list – build habits that lead to amazing performance. And it all starts in the pivotal two to three hours at the top of every day.
After decades of researching in the field of human behavior and psychology, Stanford professor Carol Dweck came to a simple conclusion: our mindset determines our success in life. In her book, she outlines how virtually every area of our lives–school, work, art, sports–is directly influenced by how we perceive our abilities and talent. Dweck’s basic idea is that there are two essential modes that we apply when learning things. The fixed mindset assumes that our abilities in a particular domain are immobile (I’m a terrible dancer; or I’m just bad at math, etc.). A growth mindset, by contrast, assumes that talents can be honed (I can get better at chess if I really try!).
Truth be told, we’re not monolithic. We all likely maintain fixed mindsets for certain activities and growth mindsets for others. But there are advantages to adopting the more fluid attitude.
Dweck talks about how to cultivate a growth mindset and illustrates how teachers, coaches, and mentors can foster it in others. She also takes the 20,000 foot view and speculates on how attitudinal shifts on a societal level could revitalize communities.
Determination, not innate talent, is what drives success. We’ve seen this movie before. Geoffrey Colvin (Talent Is Overrated) and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) have argued that deliberate practice creates winners. Jumping on this bandwagon is psychologist Angela Duckworth, who argues that success can (in general) be had with the right combination of passion and stick-to-it-tive-ness.
Duckworth brings a human element to her teachings as the daughter of a scientist who lamented her lack of “genius”. Using a combination of personal insight and neuroscience, she hypothesizes that what drives success is not genius but perseverance. She labels this skill “grit.”
Duckworth looks beyond herself and previously hashed research/ideas. She takes us on a wide-ranging tour of cadets at West Point, teachers working in the nation’s toughest schools, and historically gritty figures.
To create, you must act. Passively exploring the topic of productivity—by reading every book on this list, for instance—is worth something. But nothing can replace the act of doing. You must personally engage with the concepts.
Chris Bailey documents his experience doing just that in The Productivity Project. It’s a tale of his year immersing himself in the pursuit of productivity. After earning a business degree, Bailey started a blog that detailed a year’s worth of productivity experiments. Some were “self-experiments.” Others explored cutting edge research done in labs across the world. Bailey covers what happens when:
- Go several weeks with scant sleep
- Cut out sugar and caffeine
- Live in total isolation
- Gain more muscle mass
- Reduce smartphone use to an hour a day
- Get up at 5:30 in the morning
- Work 90 hours a week
- And more
Self-experiments obvious do not rise to the same level of scientific usefulness as, say, double-blind, randomized, placebo controlled trials. But they’re a start. At the very least, Bailey’s cheery attitude and mind-bending experiments make for a compelling read.
It’s a well-known fact in the startup world: about 95% of new ventures fail, often within the first few years. But why? And what can be done about it?
Enter Michael Gerber, whose book The E-Myth set the tone for an entire genre of “here’s how to help entrepreneurs” literature. According to Gerber, the high failure rate stems from commonplace misperceptions held by almost all beginning entrepreneurs.
In this sequel to E-Myth, Gerber teaches the entire lifecycle of a business, from startup infancy, to growing pains, to reaching maturity. He provides insights and guidance for each stage – something that a lot of time management books on the market sky away from. One key idea: you must distinguish between working in your business and working on it. How do you less of the former and more of the latter? Gerber will teach you, and your company will never be the same.
Here’s a question for the working parents out there: when was the last time you had leisure time? When was your last date night? Can you remember a night when you weren’t sitting in the kids’ bedroom trying to get them to sleep? Or catching up on emails because it’s literally the only time it’s quiet in the house? If you can’t remember, you’re not alone. Per author Bridgid Schultte, who works for the Washington Post, our schedules are larded over with “contaminated time.”
In Overwhelmed, she surfaces our stresses and examines how to piece our lives together in a meaningful way. She talks to sociologists, neuroscientists, and other experts to answer how we can make our workplaces less stressful and our lives fuller.
Quick: think of something disgusting. Like, say, eating a live, wriggling, squirmy, mucousy, bumpy, ribbiting frog.
What does that have to do with productivity?
The idea is based on an old saying–if you eat a frog in the morning, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s likely the worst thing you’ll do all day. “Eating the frog” becomes a metaphor for procrastination–by doing the work you dread most all day, you can experience a more positive life. Eating the frog will also teach you how to complete critical tasks and organize your day. At its core, the time management book is a testament to three of productivity’s most important principles: discipline, determination, and decision-making skills. Eating the frog allows you to spend more time doing the things you like. Which should be a powerful motivator for any procrastinator!
Some time management books assert that it’s your determination, not your talent, which helps you succeed. This book takes a slightly different approach from themes we’ve explored elsewhere on this list. Cal Newport starts by debunking the myth that “follow your passions” is good advice. In fact, he says this attitude only leads to stress, anxiety, and chronic job-hopping. Instead, he offers a much more pragmatic approach: just start doing what you’re good at, and you may find you end up loving what you do.
To establish his point, he talks to screenwriters, organic farmers, computer programmers, and others to tease out their twisted, unexpected paths to success. As a result of reading this, you may come to the realization that passion comes from the hard work you put into an activity. It’s not a pre-existing condition.
What if you could master your focus, eliminate distractions, and become more focused…all in 18 minutes? According to Harvard Business Review columnist Peter Bregman, it’s possible. This is welcome news for those of us who feel constantly crunched for time. Bregman begins from the premise that the best way to counter distractions is to create “productive distractions” of our own.
The book is divided into sound-byte-type chapters that are easy to digest and contain immediately actionable insight. His approach teaches us how to cut through emails, texts, meetings, and chatter to focus on what’s truly important. This mixture of case study and personal insight teaches us to learn to help ourselves–all in 18 minutes of less.
Step aside, time management books that say you can change your life in 168 hours or even 18 minutes. Author Mel Robbins argues that the key increment of time to ponder is just 5 seconds. The idea is beguilingly simple. When we encounter moments of fear, doubt or hesitation, we need to trigger a conscious, mindful response. We want to make choices—not let our behavior be dictated by animal urges that drive us in the wrong direction.
When the alarm rings in the morning, for instance, we want to hop out of bed—not hit the snooze button. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we want to react calmly—not slam the horn in a rage. The key is that moment of crisis. Robbins calls those “push moments”. And her recipe helps you to encounter them powerfully and confidently.
Last but certainly not least on our list is David Allen’s classic productivity opus. Published in 2001 but still cutting edge, Getting Things Done (or “GTD” as it’s known to practitioners) is about what Allen calls “black belt” practices for self-management. It is designed to give you access to a state of flow he calls “mind like water.”
The big idea is that our minds are excellent at having ideas but pretty terrible places for storing ideas. By externalizing all your thoughts in a series of reviewable systems, you will unclutter your “psychic RAM” and be able to focus. There’s a reason cleaning a drawer makes us feel so good. By taking inventory of life’s open loops—and applying Allen’s GTD process to the inevitable interruptions—we can live better, fuller, and more engaged.
So Many Time Management Books, So Little Time
Rather than order all of these time management books and consume them in rapid sequence, take your time to work your way through them. The goal is to entertain yourself AND change the way you approach thinking about self-management.
Just get started. Pick one or two of the time management books that really sing to you—David Allen’s Getting Things Done is an excellent choice, because the GTD process helps you make room for fresh new ideas—and commit to a process of never-ending improvement. You can take back control over your own clock.