The 9 Best Books on Productivity You'll Want Your Team to Read
If you’re a paranoid parrot like me, you’ll be skeptical about another book-list. Books aren’t expensive money-wise, but they are in time. You want to be sure your choice is right.
Three valid questions for any book-list – including this one:
“Did the author actually read all these books?”
No, I'm no superhuman who's read 100+ productivity books and selected the best ones. I’ve read 3 in this list, and quite some other books on productivity that didn’t pass the criteria. The descriptions of those I haven’t read are based on summaries and a collection of highly rated reviews.
After setting up this list, however, I do know which ones I’ll read next.
“On what criteria were these books selected?” Too many list-posts don’t answer this crucial question. I’ve included the productivity books based on the following criteria.
"Does the author receive any financial kickbacks?"
We've linked to the book's Amazon pages for the ease of the readers, and, using our affiliate links, we're able to donate all proceeds to the Atefa-girl's School.
The angle. I’ve seen lists from up to 50 books, many of them with a similar theme. How does that help anybody? Instead, I’ve selected the best books in their field. Because there’s a big difference between personal and team productivity, I’ve divided the post into two parts accordingly.
The number and average of book reviews. Believing in the wisdom of the crowd, I've included with each title the average rating and the number of Goodreads reviews it was based on. This filtered out some books on productivity that I thought were pretty good, but for which I found higher ranking alternatives.
Finally, the year of publication can be relevant as well. Advances in, say, psychological research, can rapidly antiquate the more theoretical books.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the list of productivity books you wish you and your team had read.
Personal Productivity Books
Number of reviews: 64,742
Average rating: 3.92
Description: This is an all-time classic, and one that has helped me greatly in my work life. Its popularity earned the book and method their own abbreviation (GTD).
The book offers a very practical, straightforward, and detailed method for getting stuff done. David Allen’s premise is that your brain is for developing ideas, not storing them. His system allows you to ‘reach a mind like water’ by getting stuff out of your head, into the physical world – where it sends you reminders at the right times.
The strength of this book is in the detailed guide towards implementation. On the other hand, this detail and technicality can make the book feel a bit daunting – keeping you from implementing the tips right away.
Also, through its technical approach to productivity it ignores the pitfalls of human nature. This is why many people who read the book still fall back to their old habits. But it makes a killer-combination with the following book.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Kelly McGonigal, 2011)
Number of reviews: 11,293
Average rating: 4.08
Description: This authoritative book is backed by decades of scientific research and insights from fields like neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics, and medicine. Kelly McGonigal noticed that misconceptions about willpower were sabotaging many of her students at Stanford University. This prompted her to set up “The Science of Willpower” course, which she then developed into a book.
Kelly McGonigal shows the relation between willpower and personal success. What’s more, she shows how this willpower can be trained like a muscle.
In contrast to GTD, this book focuses a lot on the ‘human side’ from a theoretical and scientific perspective. It’s a great book that offers deep insights into the workings of the mind – with tips on how to use it to increase your own productivity.
Number of reviews: 231,633
Average rating: 3.98
Description: Another all-time classic, which is about professional as well as personal productivity. After all, you cannot succeed in one without the other.
Like the title suggests, it’s written in an easy and take-away kind of style. It’s a practical book with a long-term focus on balancing your life. So unlike GTD, it also takes human nature into account. Furthermore, it's worth reading for its strong focus on managing relationships, instead of managing ‘things’, as with GTD. Obviously, the one can make others do things is more effective than the one who does everything on his own.
The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, 2003)
Number of reviews: 7,296
Average rating: 4.00
Description: As the title suggests, this book is about how energy influences our productivity. With the main premise that it’s “Energy, not time, that is the fundamental currency of high performance”, the authors base much of their research on the high levels of performance of professional athletes.
Tony Schwartz talking at the Google headquarters in Mountain View as part of the Leading@google speaker series:
This book overlaps with the above 7 Habits in its focus on balance, but is unique and powerful in its explanations of the workings of energy and productivity, uncovering common pitfalls, and in sharing very practical and original tips on how to raise/maintain your energy and thus raise productivity.
They focus, for example, on the benefits of ritualistic behavior – such as the ‘pull left sock, pull right sock, bounce ball two times, then throw and serve’ , which you see some tennis players do. The book is also filled with case studies and process/worksheets, helping you to put the ideas into practice.
Number of reviews: 24,020
Average rating: 4.08
Description: This is an interesting book that covers the road to that state-of-mind in which you are fully engaged, fully focused on your work – when you’re in the flow. Based on years of psychological research, Mihaly argues how this ‘flow’ is the key to happiness (and – as it just so happens – to productivity as well), and offers insight into how to “turn everyday experience into a moment by moment opportunity for joy and self-fulfillment”
He laid out the core of his ideas in this Ted talk:
Work Smarter: 500+ Online Resources Today's Top Entrepreneurs Use To Increase Productivity and Achieve Their Goals (Nick Loper, 2014)
Number of reviews: 100
Average rating: 3.59
Description: The ultimate practical book. No chit-chat about motivation, spirituality, or psychology. Just a long list of (mostly free) productivity tools for the web worker. As one reviewer on Goodreads.com notes: “it’s a good collection, handy to have on one’s Kindle and definitely bigger than what one would want to wade through on a website.”
Team Productivity Books
The ratings of team productivity books are on average lower and based on fewer reviews than the personal ones. Perhaps that's because they’re written for a smaller and more critical target group.
But these books aren’t interesting for managers only. They’re interesting for anyone working in a team. They help you understand the group dynamics of productivity, and will help you to take on a leading role in improving it.
Number of reviews: 100
Average rating: 3.59
Description: This actually isn’t only a book on team productivity, it’s more about smart ways to run a business. I included it because it contains many great tips on team productivity, while the other tips are worthwhile to read for anyone.
Many of the destroyers of productivity are very recognizable on the work place, e.g. “ASAP is poison” and “Meetings are toxic”.
This book covers the main insights the team of 37 Signals accumulated while building their businesses. It feels like a series of blog posts, which is also what it's based on. 37Signals runs the massively popular blog Signal V. Noise, on which they already shared many of their insights. The best they collected and put into this book.
These aren’t complex lessons, but they're good to go over again in text. They give me the feeling I get when talking to a seasoned professional in a certain field. It’s not groundbreaking stuff that you’re picking up, but you are learning core truths.
Freedom, Inc.: Free Your Employees and Let Them Lead Your Business to Higher Productivity, Profits, and Growth (Brian M. Carney & Isaac Getz, 2009)
Number of reviews: 74
Average rating: 4.30
Description: This book makes a case for 'freeing' employees in the workplace, propagating a company culture of freedom. The authors argue that when employees are free to act in the best interests of their company, everyone benefits.
Filled with business cases, this book actually makes a strong argument. And it might be a necessary book in a time when many companies are deploying antiquated methods for 'controlling' their employees – methods that don't fit the reality of our present day working environment.
The main criticism on this book is that it's not valid for all organizations. If you're running a nuclear power plant, for example, you’d better care more about adherence to regulations than about your employees' creative desires. Still, this is a powerful book for a time when 90% of top management is looking to make their companies more innovative as well as productive.
Number of reviews: 2,148
Average rating: 4.20
Description: This book is an introduction to Scrum, which is an agile framework for completing complex projects. Originating from software development, Scrum works well for any complex project.
More than a guide, this book offers stories and case studies on scrum, thereby discussing its value and how it should be adapted in the 21st century. At the end, you'll find an appendix of scrum practices from which you can continue.
Number of reviews: 57,801
Average rating: 3.82
Description: This book has been appearing in the top of management book lists for decades – it's a classic.
Blanchard and Johnson wrote a business novel about good management – about how to manage and interact with people. It brings forward the idea of the “One minute manager”, who boosts team productivity by setting goals for her subordinates, praising as well as reprimanding them.
The main criticism on this book is that it’s propagating common sense. Maybe. On the other hand, it might be this book and its fundamental truths that are at the source of what we now consider 'common sense'. Definitely worth the read.
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