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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.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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