October 4, 2021
When you finish a productivity book, you should feel inspired, motivated, and wiser. Such titles should—at the very least—give you lots of ideas you can apply immediately to improve your work. And the best productivity books? They're life-changing.
Many works don't live up to this standard. They make the same point page after page after page. Or worse, no point at all.
Below an overview—regularly updated—of the best productivity books that have the potential to change your life. Plus, a list of duds to skip so you have more reading time for the great ones.
Here's an overview of the best productivity books that hold the potential to improve your work and life. Each title includes a link to an in-depth review and summary on our blog.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport explains why the need for distraction-free concentration is on the increase, while simultaneously, this skill is ever rarer to find and cultivate.
The author makes painfully clear why deep concentration is an ability you need to train, not an internal switch you can flick on or off.
Fortunately, this book is not merely an acknowledgment of the problem. Newport provides rules, theories, and suggestions you can follow and immediately apply to your own life and work.
Greg McKeown makes a compelling argument to make "no" your default answer instead of "yes." Learn to focus on those few things which truly matter and where you can make an exceptional contribution with your talents and experience. Forget about everything else.
Essentialism offers clear guidelines and practical tips organized in phases—explore, eliminate, execute—to lead you towards the "Essentialist lifestyle."
If you find yourself living in the fast lane, struggling with too many tasks, projects, and other commitments, this book can save your life.
Homo distractus, that's how William Powers, the author of Hamlet's Blackberry, sums up the current state of affairs for us humans. Our round-the-clock connectedness makes our lives shallow. He argues we fail to do our best work because of this situation and build fewer meaningful relationships with those around us.
Powers looks for solutions in a surprising place: the past. The author shows us new technologies have always disrupted our way of living. He uses examples from the lives and works of ancient philosophers, statesmen, and entrepreneurs such as Socrates, Seneca, Gutenberg, and Franklin.
The author doesn't decry new technology outright. Instead, he calls for—and outlines—a new philosophy on managing our relationship with our devices.
Widely popular in everything from business to sports, the concept of flow stems directly from this book and the research on which it is based.
That research shows surprisingly few moments of happiness occur when we're idle. The moments when most of us experience true joy are while we're engaged in work—creating something, in pursuit of a goal, or when we're stretching our abilities. And those are precisely the moments we're most likely to experience a state of flow.
Instead of merely going into the how of flow, a large part of the book also discusses why flow benefits everyone, not just athletes and other super-performers.
When you understand flow's principles, you can turn many activities into rewarding experiences that contribute to your happiness. Who would say no to that?
Letters From a Stoic is an invaluable and timeless guide on living a virtuous and fulfilling life, but it's not an easy read. Some of the passages are dry, a few irrelevant, and others repetitive. And, given the book's BC origins, the stories are not always polished and structured in modern, familiar ways. Nevertheless, the continued relevance of the book's content is shocking. People's issues from Seneca's time sound eerily familiar.
The rich have way more than they need. People pursue happiness by chasing superfluous goals. Leisure and travel are mistaken for the path to fulfillment. Grave sins by successful people are forgiven for a few extraordinary deeds. Opinion and titles are assigned too much worth; the list goes on.
As with any guidelines on how to live your life, this book is not for everyone. There is no such thing as The Only Right Way. But if a life of abundance, hedonism, busyness, and ambition has not brought you fulfillment, this might be the title for you.
BrainChains is packed with an intensity typically found in missionaries and football hooligans. The author's fuse ignited when he discovered what always-on smartphones, billions of emails, and noisy open offices do to our brains. It was exponentially worse than he expected—he has been on fire ever since.
Author Theo Compernolle's message matters—which is why I've included it on this list—and backed up with extensive research. The way we are using modern technology is absurd: it's bad for our health, productivity, and relationships, sometimes even deadly (think phones in cars).
The problem? The author's communication style would not be out of place on a street corner near you, preaching the word of God or announcing the imminent arrival of aliens. Not only does he seem furious at times, he also jumps from here to there and back over here again, repeating the same topic over and over again.
BrainChains is more a collection of research than an integrated, readable book. It could have been so much better if someone had taken away his megaphone and used a broom on the narrative. That might have turned this book into an eye-opener for the masses instead of a must-read for a professional niche.
The below productivity books failed to deliver on high expectations, their premise, or both. Some of the titles include a link to an in-depth review and summary on our blog. There you'll find the valuable bits from the book—if there were any.
I'm a big fan of quotes, but their number in Thrive borders on the ridiculous—at least two per page.
Ironically, those very quotes are the only thing that kept me going. Now and then, a gem would show up that made the grind through the potpourri of other words and ideas worth it.
I fully support the book's underlying thesis that we're out of touch with our minds, our health, and what makes us human. But the author delivers this message so poorly and incoherently that there are much better books on these topics. I would leave this title alone unless you're a fan of quotes or Arianna Huffington.
I was eagerly awaiting Smarter Faster Better. If Charles Duhigg could do for productivity what he did for habits with his best-seller The Power of Habit, this book could only be awesome.
Sadly, the ideas presented in this title are elementary for anyone who's ever done some reading on productivity or time-management (SMART goals, really?). In addition, a lot of the main themes Duhigg touches on—teams, creativity, decision making, leadership, data—relate more to management than to what I would consider productivity.
This mismatch of thesis and topics is where the real trouble for this book lies. There are better titles on productivity, and there are better ones on management and decision-making. Smarter Faster Better is not bad, nor is it unpleasant to read. But if you're looking to become more productive, much better titles and sources await you elsewhere.
The release of new productivity books is unlikely to slow down any time soon, and we still have stacks of old notes from other titles to go through. We'll continue to update this list as we read, summarize, and review titles.
To learn about new summaries and reviews, follow @getsaent on Twitter. We'd also love to hear your recommendations on great titles—or duds to avoid.