10 Best Productivity Books of 2009

Granted, the year’s not done yet, but publishers start to slow down new releases right about now, so it’s not likely we’ll see another contender for “best of 2009” until January. Plus, Christmas is coming up, and I wanted to give you plenty of time to read some of these books before you give copies to your friends and relatives.

But really? It’s never the wrong time to recommend a list of great books.

These are 10 books I read this year that made a powerful impression. I read a ton of non-fiction – not only do I read for my own pleasure but I’m a non-fiction reviewer for Publishers Weekly and I’m also regularly approached with titles to review for Lifehack. Of course, not everything I read has anything to do with personal productivity – I also quite enjoyed Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn and Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs this year – but given my role here you can expect that my reading tends to lean rather in a Lifehack-y direction.

Out of the stack of books I’ve finished this year, then, these are the 10 I think have “legs” – they have a lot to say and their ideas will be around for a long time to come. As always, I’m using “productivity” loosely here, measured in units of happiness achieved not units of work finished. The books in this list talk about the psychology of motivation, decision-making, and happiness, the importance of good old-fashioned handiwork, launching a business, the meaning of risk, and, of course, piracy, among other topics. While they may not offer easy-to-digest lessons in list-making and project planning, all of them are jam-packed full of information that can help you build a better business, career, and life. And that’s what this is all about.

Since I’m writing this in November, and since end-of-the-year publications often get overlooked in annual best-of lists (which are generally also written in November, even if they’re published later), I’ve decided to include books published back to November 1, 2008. So, here they are, in no particular order:

1. Making It All Work by David Allen

It would be hard to justify not including David Allen’s latest contribution to the Getting Things Done canon. Making It All Work expands and deepens the central GTD concepts, addressing concerns many have had about setting priorities, work-life balance issues, and the runway-50,000 foot views. I wrote an extensive 3-part review of this book; start with Part 1 here. A paperback version is due out on Dec 29.

2.   Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

This is the best non-fiction book I’ve read all year. Maybe the best I’ve read in this decade! Crawford is a philosophy professor and motorcycle repairman, and here he sings the praises of working with your hands, or what he calls “manual competence”. The reason so many of us are unsatisfied, he argues, is that we do deeply unsatisfying work – work that alienates us not just from the product of our labor (whatever that is – what does a derivatives broker, marketing director, or currency trader make, anyway?) but from each other (with our relationships mediated by layers of BS and managerial protocol) and ultimately ourselves. Working with our hands connects us physically to the material world we’ve taken largely for granted in these years of abundance and consumption. This book will inspire and enlighten you, regardless of your politics or faith.

3. Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields

Jonathan Fields had a dream career – and it was killing him. So he dropped everything and started over, eventually building one of the most successful yoga studios in New York City. Along the way, he learned a thing or two about chasing a dream, and shares those lessons here. Being a career renegade isn’t just about changing your job, it’s about changing your career – both in the sense of shifting from one career to another but also in the sense of transforming what you’re already doing. By turns practical and inspiring. Read my full review for more.

4. The Big Idea by Donny Deutsch

Donny Deutsch is best known as the host of the TV show, also called The Big Idea, in which he helps fledgling entrepreneurs bring their big ideas to market. This book collects the things he’s learned from interacting with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the year, as well as from his own experience building up his father’s advertising agency to a hundreds-of-millions-dollar business. This is hardnosed, practical advice, with plenty of resources both online and off- to point you in the right direction.

5. The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economy of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson

Arrrr! This is an oddball book, applying classical economic theory to pirate life and business. Yes, business – turns out pirates were quite the business people! This book offers a fun and interesting introduction to economics (and “fun” and “interesting” are two words you rarely hear in connection with the field…) and some surprisingly good ideas about how to make a contemporary business run.

6. One Year to an Organized Work Life by Regina Leeds

I interviewed Leeds back in 2008 for Lifehack Live about her then-current book, One Year to an Organized Life. This year, she returned with a follow-up, applying the same principles of self-discovery and limited, focused organizing projects to the office. Divided into 12 sections, one per month, this book walks readers though a series of easy-on-their-own steps that, taken together, create a system for workplace organization and a mindset to match it. Plus, there are rubber ducks on the cover, which are awesome. Thursday Bram wrote a review of Organized Work Life when it came out in January.

7. Dance with Chance by Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hogarth, and Anil Gaba

A book about luck – and how it’s more powerful than we think. This book will likely blow your mind with its analyses of the role luck plays in health care, investment banking, and business administration – and how rarely doctors, investment bankers, business leaders, and everyone else ever beat the odds. The practical sections are a little weak – like the authors felt they needed to write a how-to book instead of a thought-provoking one – but the book overall is well worth your time.

8. What the Dog Saw and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I put these two together, since I didn’t want one author to hog up space on the list. What can you say about a genius who put out two books full of his trademark craziness in less than a year? Outliers explores all the factors beside raw talent that go into creating success, putting individual accomplishment in the larger social context that makes it possible. What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell’s essays, focusing on all sorts of random but always interesting aspects of our culture. I haven’t finished it yet – it just came out, people! – but it’s Gladwell.

9. Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer

Israel leads the world in start-ups, particularly in the tech sector, and Senor and Singer explain why in this compelling book. Among the reasons: The social networks and educational opportunities afforded by near-universal military service; lax immigration laws that create a diversity of thought and experience; and an authority-questioning worldview that keeps complacency at bay and hierarchies relatively flat. As a strictly non-Zionist Jew (that means I feel no cultural connection with Israel or with the notion of a homeland), even I was considering emigration when I finished this book!

10. Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Pink is the author of The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a guide to career change in the form of an anime novel (which I reviewed here). In Drive, he delves into the psychology of motivation, showing that virtually everything businesses do to motivate employees (and that we do to motivate ourselves) is wrong. In the end, motivation is about doing work that fulfills us as people, and that it boils down to three things: Autonomy (the ability to work at our own pace on projects of our own choosing), Mastery (the ability to develop our skills and perform at our highest level), and Purpose (working in the service of something larger than ourselves). A perfect message as we enter the season of goodwill towards all.

Of course, I can’t read everything – I’m only superhuman, after all – so I’m sure there are good books that came out in the last year that I’ve missed. Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, for example, sounds, well… irresistible. Let us know your picks in the comments – and what you thought of any of the books above you might have read.

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