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10 Best Productivity Books of 2009

10 Best Productivity Books of 2009

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.

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    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:

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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