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Your Favorite Productivity Books

Your Favorite Productivity Books
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Productivity Books Recommendations

    Last week, I asked you to recommend your favorite productivity book to a friend or colleague you saw struggling to keep on top of thing. You responded with several great suggestions which I’ll recap below.

    Of course, the idea was somewhat contrived — hopefully you don’t go around handing out book recommendations to everyone you see struggling (unless you’re that guy). Sometimes we offer a little tip, a piece of advice culled from some book or from our own experience, or at the other extreme we might suggest an organization coach. And, of course, reading about productivity and organization isn’t for everyone; you may know people who would be better served by a video, a lecture, or a workshop.

    Still, I think it’s an interesting question to launch our “We Ask, You Answer” series with, since many of us read a variety of books seeking advice on productivity, organization, and overall life success. I half expected a string of responses saying the same thing — David Allen’s Getting Things Done — but I was pleasantly surprised at the range of books people recommended.

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    I (foolishly?) promised to offer my own favorite in my follow-up post, and I’ve spent the last week thinking of what I could offer here. My post on Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog, Improvise Like a Jazz Musician, was one outcome of that process, as I pushed myself to think creatively about the limits of the genre of personal productivity literature. But I’d hardly recommend Beneath the Underdog to anyone struggling to get a grip on a runaway schedule! It’s a brilliant piece of work, but not exactly down-to-earth advice.

    Instead, I have to pick exactly what I was afraid everyone else would pick: Getting Things Done. Personal honesty precludes any other choice, since I actually have given copies of GTD to three people. It’s not the system, though — I don’t practice anything all that close to “orthodox” GTD. What I like about Allen’s book is the matter-of-fact, common sense way he approaches the problem of personal productivity. The core message of Getting Things Done is, in my estimation:

    We all have a bunch of stuff to do, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientists to wrangle it all into some sort of order. So stop worrying so much about keeping track of everything; write it down, and do it.

    The rest is, as they say, commentary. The tickler file, the inboxes, the 2-minute rule, the contexts, the someday/maybe list, the 10,000/20,000/30,000/etc. foot views, all of it. The main problem I see others dealing with, and the problem Allen directly deals with, is the anxiety people face when they begin to feel overwhelmed and start doubting whether they’re keeping on top of all their obligations.

    Several of you (Justin Prud’homme, Ravindran, Jens Poder, and Chat) agreed, at least about the book if not about the reasons. Justin also recommended Allen’s follow-up, Ready for Anything, a collection of 52 meditations/advices that expand ideas brought up in Getting Things Done. Chat bought a copy of GTD for her mother for Christmas (hopefully mom doesn’t read lifehack! At least, not until Christmas…), agreeing that it’s not the whole system that’s important but the approach to remembering and prioritizing tasks that makes the biggest impact in many people’s lives.

    Jens Poder made an interesting and, I think, useful distinction between “personal leadership” and “personal efficiency”, recommending GTD to people who need to get a grip on their personal organizational habits and Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Effective People for people whose issues lay less in getting things done and more in creating and implementing a vision. Vamsi agreed with Jens’ recommendation, calling 7 Habits “the bible” of personal productivity.

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    As Jens says, GTD and 7 Habits are “the usual suspects”, but for good reason: many people have found their lives improved by reading these books and following the principles Allen and Covey outline. But they are far from being the only books out there, and you came up with lots of other books offering different strategies and different philosophies for taking charge of your out-of-control life. Some of these I’ve read, but many I had not only not read but had never even heard of, so it was doubly interesting for me to read your responses.

    Teknitis and Kevin X both recommended lifehack contributor Leo Babauta’s new e-book Zen to Done, which offers a “boiled down” take on the GTD system, with a few twists. I’m just starting to read this, and will offer a full review here at lifehack later on. If you’ve read Leo’s work, though, either here or at his blog Zen Habits, you know that Leo has a likeable and approachable writing voice and a real kind of wisdom in his writings; Zen to Done looks to be more of the same, focused tightly around the question of personal productivity habits.

    Another book with multiple recommendations was Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, which drew attention from both KRS and Jan. Fiore’s approach deals with some of the underlying issues that cause us to overload ourselves with work and then procrastinate getting it done; as KRS says, you have to deal with this stuff before any system is going to have much of a result.

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    Both Kevin and RDH recommended Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Work Week, which runs a close runner-up for the top place on my own list. Ferris is a remarkable character, and has managed to free up his life so that he can follow his own muse, wherever it leads him, while still making a decent living. Central to his book is the idea of mini-retirements — why work your whole life for a retirement you’re too old to enjoy, when you can explore the world now and still earn enough to live well. 4HWW is definitely inspirational, and a must-read in my opinion for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.

    Rounding up the rest of the titles, we have:

    • 101 Ways to have a Business and a Life by Andrew Griffiths. Tully recommended this, saying it has “plenty of practical stuff for business owners and consultants”.
    • Time Power by Charles R Hobbs. Charles says Hobbs encourages a process of “firmly establishing ‘unifying principles’, developing goals which have ‘congruity’ with these principles, and applying a ‘concentration of power’ to work those things which are most important”. Apparently this one is out of print, but nowadays there’s plenty of ways to get your hands on an out-of-print book.
    • Steve recommended his own article How to Supercharge Your Productivity.
    • The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. According to Marie, who recommended this one, Loehr and Schwartz remind us that it’s not only ok to slow down and take a breath once in a while, but that it’s crucial!
    • TexasEx94 recommends Seize the Workday and Total Workday Control by Michael Linenberger; Craig Huggart seconds the recommendation for Total Workday Control, calling it “the best book on getting up to speed quickly with the Getting Things Done system”.
    • Glenn recommends The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker for anyone in management. I haven’t read this one, but am currently working my way through The Daily Drucker, a collection of quotes, tips, and observations on working more effectively. There’s a lot of good stuff there, which is about what you’d expect from a man who lived and worked for nearly a century.
    • Sangreal recommends two books by Mark Foster: Get Everything Done and Still Have Time To Play for the person who’s drowning and needs an immediate lifeline, and Do It Tomorrow for the person who’s not quite buried but needs a little push to get the most out of their days.
    • Sangreal also made the seemingly odd recommendation of books on organization for people with ADHD. I actually picked up a book for ADHD sufferers by accident at the library one time, and to be honest, there was quite a lot of good advice there. More and more, we live in an “ADHD world”, so even if you’re not an “official” ADHD patient, much of the advice that applies to them is likely to apply to you as well.
    • And last but not least, L.H. suggests we have a look at Tony Robbins’ Time of your Life.

    Thanks to everyone for their recommendations — there’s a lot here to expand the personal productivity bookshelf of any GTD’er, and with Christmas coming up and Hannukah already well underway, perhaps this list will give you some ideas for gifts for your own frazzled friends and family members!

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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