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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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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