Below are 5 books that if you haven’t already read them, will change the way you think about productivity. They’ll also give you a rich variety of ideas, thoughts and tools to make you your most productive ever! Let me know what you think about the recommendations and feel free to share any of your own recommendations.
1.) Getting Things Done – David Allen – This one is vastly different to any other book you’ve ever read about productivity. Try it and adopt the mindset/philosophy and it will completely change how you organise yourself and work. A total game changer. It’s not for everyone but it will definitely give you some ideas and tools you’ve never even thought about before.
2.) The One Thing – Gary Keller – A book about prioritising and finding your most important tasks. It’s also a really well designed book with important words and passages already in bold and underlined for useful skim reading and there’s plenty of graphics and illustrations to demonstrate making it a really accessible text. There is a boat load of great ideas and thoughts in this and it will also make you think about your wider priorities.
3.) Eat That Frog – Brian Tracy – This book is about completing your most difficult or painful task first – “eating your frog”. Like a lot of Brian Tracy’s books this is a really easy text to read and pick out useful tips and summaries. There’s some interesting ideas and some general self improvement wisdom.
4.) The 80/20 Principle – Richard Koch – Although this is more of a “business book” per se – the Pareto or 80/20 principle in the book will make you think differently about work and life. In effect – the vast majority of results come from a minority of actions – focusing on those can maximise your outcomes with less effort or less multi-tasking.
5.) 10 Days to Faster Reading – Abby Marks-Beale – A great text on how to become more efficient at reading. Something that many people don’t consider as we stop focusing on reading speed and comprehension when we get to a certain age. Even if you don’t want to “speed read” – the practical examples included will give you a good yard stick to measure your current reading practices and look at ways to improve.
The below books all bring something different to the table but I can’t recommend them enough. Non-Fiction is extremely rich in the choices available to us and thankfully we live in a time when books and texts are so widely available and accessible. I don’t think you’ll regret reading any of the below. They are all guaranteed to make you think differently about a variety of topics – from history, psychology, productivity to philosophy. Many of them are also inspirational or will at least give you plenty of thoughts and ideas.
Feel free to share any recommendations of your own or let me know what you think about any of the below books.
The below books all bring something different to the table but I can’t recommend them enough. Fiction books are a little different to non-fiction in that I think how you respond to the story can change quite dramatically over the years. With age and life experience, you can relate to the characters, the themes and metaphors in different ways. I don’t think you’ll regret reading any of the below. Feel free to share any recommendations of your own or let me know what you think about any of the below books.
1.) The Great Gatsby – F.Scott Fitzgerald
2.) Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
3.) The Odyssey – Homer
4.) Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
5.) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
It’s fairly easy to consume information in the 21st century. At one point news spread by people telling stories or having to deliver messages in person. Then we had the printing press and so forth and so forth. I’m old enough to remember magazines and TVs in dentist and doctor’s waiting rooms. These days those things are fairly pointless because most of us when we have a spare minute or are waiting or bored pull our phones out. Heck even if we don’t have anything specific to do, we’ll have a quick swipe and flick through some news feeds or check our WhatsApp or some news. While we’re more connected than ever, and that’s a good thing in many ways – we’re also more connected to negative stuff and often – total garbage. From news that is effectively polite clickbait – designed to anger you and bring out strong emotional responses, to all the ups and downs of social media. Even our messaging groups with friends and family can often lead to us consuming even more negativity. I’m not saying to ignore your friends and family when they might need your empathy or support or to avoid the news and be ignorant of world events. My point is that it can be quite hard to escape all of the noise – the good and the bad noise. So much so that we start to depend on that little dopamine rush we get every time we get a notification or start to check the news or social media for longer and longer periods. A teacher I had many years ago recommended that we all watch the news every night to stay informed of current affairs, politics, world events, law etc. This was well intended but since I received that advice – news consumption and consumption of social media has sky rocketed. We don’t watch 30 minutes of news before or after our dinner or for a little bit while we’re getting ready for work. We don’t just check our social media or personal e-mail before and after work. No we check it when we wake up. We check it when we go to the bathroom. We check it on lunch breaks. We check it before we go to bed. We check it when we’re with partners, friends and family in the same room. This isn’t a rant against any of these things but it’s clear that being bombarded by so much information, media, posts, opinions and often the associated anger and outrage can leave us almost absorbing that mentally and emotionally. We start and end our day with negativity. We spend our breaks from work with negativity. Of course there are the positive aspects of good news news and positive posts. But we need to be careful what we let into our mental space – not just in content but the sheer volume of information we’re looking at every day – most of it outside of our control. We need to control what we look at more and when we look at it. Or else it’s a bit like sitting on the beach on the edge of the water getting pulled and pushed back and forth. No real control – just being swayed one way or the other.
Something happens at work. You get asked to solve a problem. You have a home DIY/improvement project to complete on weekends. The first thing many of us do is dive straight into the “doing” or action. “‘Let’s get a move on” we say. If we don’t procrastinate at least. While action is a real positive, often we jump into a task without taking a step back and asking ourselves what the task at hand really is. What steps need to be taken is the obvious place to start. But the one that many people miss is having an honest assessment of problems you can already solve and those you might need to adapt to or do something different. At work for example, we don’t like to ask for help in case other people think we’re “stupid” or needy. Or we can defer or delegate to someone else to get it completed quicker. Maybe we don’t actually have the knowledge, skills or expertise required. If that’s the case the issue is how to address this gap – 2 options:
1.) Can we acquire the knowledge and skills required or adapt to the problem?
2.) Do we need to involve others – at work this could be a colleague or expert. At home this could be a tradesman or professional.
Once we commit to a course of action we usually stick to our initial plan as no one likes to hold their hands up and say “oh I’m way over my head here.”But we can avoid this feeling all together if we just take a momentary step back and look at the problem and break down what needs to happen to reach the desired outcome. It’s difficult because we all like to feel competent at work and at home. But sometimes the best thing we can do is just be honest – “I’m going to need help here” or “I’m not sure how to do this but I need to put some time aside to learn what I need to learn.” You can only do this by determining the task, what it is, what will be required and being honest about it. If it’s right up your alley and something you can do with your eyes closed, then great. But if it isn’t – figure out what needs to be done to still reach that outcome.
First of all, it’s important that I make you aware that for many years I was not an “outdoor” person. I got bored on walks and needed music when running outdoors. I never hiked and I just wasn’t all that interested in nature. I liked a nice view as much as the next person but I wasn’t willing to go walk a few miles to see it. With that context in mind – over the last few years, maybe it’s just my maturing years, I love getting outdoors. I’m lucky enough to have lived close to the coast my entire life and the North of England has many beautiful beaches, forests, national parks and lakes. There is no shortage of great walks. But through laziness and ignorance I missed out on so much. I’m the owner of a dog these days so I don’t have a choice in the matter. One of my favourite things is to go for a nice scenic walk with my partner and the dog. It’s a great way to spend a day. I love my food so I always indulge in something tasty (sometimes healthy) afterwards – or maybe a celebratory pint of beer because I earned it.
It’s funny though because often when we’re busy or struggling with something the first thought is to spend more time indoors – more time at the office, more time on the computer or more time in front of the TV to unwind after a long day. Lockdowns certainly have exacerbated this problem with a large increase in home working, less travel and less places to do other activities. I think this has oddly reminded people that there’s perhaps more to where you live than the amenities per se or a bustling city centre location. People have been reminded that when you’re stuck in the house – a garden or a local park is a real plus.
Nature and the outdoors has a lot of positive benefits. Recent research has suggested that even a plant in a room can have a big impact on stress and anxiety levels. Seeing plants can reduce your stress and anxiety. There are also further benefits identified in recent research from helping children diagnosed with ADHD being able to pay better attention later. In one study 95% of those interviewed said that their mood had improved after spending time outside. It’s good for your health, your mood and your attention. A lot of famous people from history have realised the benefits of a daily walk, even for the creative benefits – Stephen King walks every day. Wordsworth walked miles every day. Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aristotle, Soren Kierkegaard and Beethoven are well known fans of a daily walk. There’s also a lot more going on when you’re outdoors for your senses – the sound of waves, of birds, the wind, the colours on display. It’s good for thinking and the lack of a phone signal in many hiking locations means it’s also great to connect to others without distractions. Humans are meant to be outdoors – we evolved for being outdoors. I like to workout indoors but sometimes it might be worth forgetting about the stationary bike, rowing machine or treadmill and doing the same outdoors instead. The molecular biologist Dr. John Medina believes that humans used to walk around 10 miles per day in hunter gatherer societies and our brains evolved in this environment – so our brain today still operates at it’s best with this regular exercise. In effect exercise improves cognition. We don’t have to walk 10 miles a day but you can see by the large increase in demand for standing desks and even treadmill desks that many in business recognise that sitting hunched over in a chair all day may not be the most optimal way to work. You don’t need to get a standing desk but regular standing and walking breaks from your desk and work mixed with regular exercise may boost your performance. Exercise mixed with the benefits of nature may improve your cognition, decrease your stress and anxiety, improve your attention and mood. As humans we’ve removed ourselves from a lot of the dangers of the natural world when we started building towns and cities and industrialisation created more urban environments rather than our more rural agricultural pasts. But we also removed ourselves from the benefits too and in doing so our relationship to and within nature and our planet. It’s hard to feel so important when you look around in nature and see different species or the rocks and cliffs that have been weathered and shaped over thousands of even millions of years.
If you’re stuck with a problem or feeling stressed – maybe the best thing you can do is take a step back, put everything down and go for a walk.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” If we go into things with a sense of certainty or that we know all there is to know, we’re limiting what we can learn. Limiting our growth and our ability to see new things, new perspectives and new points of view. A quote attributed to Socrates is “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” The story behind this being that Socrates was trying to prove he wasn’t the wisest man alive, as declared by the oracle at Delphi. But when he tried to disprove this what we found was that so many people were so certain that they were right about things. Certain that their point of view was the correct one. Socrates did not approach things that way. He took to subjects with a curiosity instead of a certainty. In fact his method of sorts was to ask questions rather than give answers. His philosophy wasn’t necessarily a “do this/don’t do this” approach. By asking questions he often overcame the rhetoric and logic of others trying to disprove or disagree with him because they came in with a closed mindset – “I am right, he is wrong.” These two quotes, although coming from completely different schools of thought hit on the same point. Knowledge isn’t about gathering facts or who knows the most – often it’s about who comes into something with an open mind or a beginner’s mind. What does a teacher like to see the most in a student? It’s not necessarily the smartest child – but the student that comes in with the best attitude – curious, open to new things, willing to listen, wanting to understand more. Attitude is something that is always in our control. Sports coaches talk a lot about “coachability” and that really comes down to someone that pays attention, listens, can follow instructions, wants to improve and asks questions. It’s effectively the attitude they bring to a coaching environment because all of the above they can control. This seems obvious but it’s not actually that common. Many people, particularly those with a certain amount of experience under their belt can start to feel comfortable with “I know what I’m doing” or “who’s this person to come here and try to tell me to do things a different way or patronise me?” It’s easy to fall into that mindset because we can often see new knowledge or skills as a silent attack on what we already know or have been doing and by in turn our performance or us as a person. “There’s a better way to do things” can translate in our internal monologue to “you’re not good enough.”It bruises our ego and because we tie so much of our self-esteem into our professional circumstances, as well as our intelligence – anything that threatens that can feel like a kick in the teeth.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was rumoured to have an inscription of “know thyself.” The thing we have to remember is that real knowledge often starts with self-knowledge. Being able to assess yourself warts and all, as well as your strengths. You need to have the courage to look at yourself objectively and realise that you’re not perfect, nor will you ever be. But you can always be someone that is humble, that has an appetite for knowledge and skills, for growth. I read something recently about how in leadership we often look at skills and attributes of leaders before we look at the most important part of the equation – the task to be done. In a similar way – growth shouldn’t be about what you already have, the experience, the skills or knowledge – it should be about seeing the bigger picture that you’re in it to continue to grow. There is no end point or “I know enough” moment. If you do that you shut yourself off to new opportunities. It’s hard to cultivate our professional and personal reputations sometimes. But we can ensure we’re not the ego filled “know it all” and we can always be “the person that is constantly learning” or “boundlessly curious.” I don’t know about you but the person I want on my side isn’t the know it all – it’s the person who everyday gets a little bit better. As the Happy Warrior poem by Wordsworth says – “from well to better, daily self-surpast” – ….
“This is the happy Warrior; this is he That every man in arms should wish to be”
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of The Ring
The above is one of my favourite quotes – period. It perfectly encapsulates everything that I’m fairly sure almost every generation or person has felt at some time or another. I’m sure it’s also something many of us are thinking or have thought at some point during this global pandemic.
“Why did this have to happen?”
“If only this never happened!”
It’s not for us to decide a large part of what happens during our lifetime. Like many things in our lives, a great deal of what happens is outside of our control. That locus beyond our control includes everything from the weather, politics, your sports team losing, world events, financial markets and other people. History has a habit of repeating itself unfortunately and our shared history has a pattern of terrible things happening every now and again, usually completely outside of the control of the vast majority of the population. While I’m not saying we should ignore the big stuff – the politics or conflicts or the suffering of others – we also have to be realistic about what we can control. Usually the only thing we have control over is ourselves – right now, right here – in this moment. We can’t control what we did yesterday or take back our mistakes or stupid things we said. But we can do something different right now and look to do something different or better tomorrow. We have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us. Not focusing our time and energy on the things we can’t control or complaining that life was better in 2019. Even if there is truth in that. Because that doesn’t do anything. But making positive, pro-active decisions about what we can do with the time we have right now – no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential – those are the things that we have total control over. The psychologist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl believed that many of us ask the question – “what is the meaning of life?” – but in fact, life asks the question of us. The meaning is specific to us and only we can answer the question by what we derive meaning from and how we live our lives.
What happens in the time we have is outside of our control to a large extent – but what we do and who we become in that time – are in our control. Answer life’s question the best way you see fit.
Everyone needs a hobby. A real and proper hobby. Watching TV or working don’t count.
We often go between two modes – work and rest, where possible. Our days filled with work, our family responsibilities and then how we unwind outside of those responsibilities. It could be watching TV, having a nice bath or exercising. But we’re quite dual minded – 1.) responsibilities 2.) relax
We all need to find a hobby. And there are endless amounts of them. Something that takes your mind off work, that still takes effort on your part but making works different parts. Take drawing or painting – working your creative skills and they take a lot of focus and attention to detail. It works different parts of you than say creating a report analysing data. A good hobby can be the middle ground between work and relax. Something that still takes time, effort, creativity, practice, focus – but is different to your normal day to day. A form of meditation by putting your attention on something on a regular period of time. Many people in history have taken up some kind of hobby, which can often be highly varied from their “day to day” – gardening, art, hiking, chess, playing an instrument, collecting, listening to music, nature, history, sailing, swimming, design, DIY, writing – the list is vast. William Wordsworth used to walk for miles in the Lake District every day – even inspiring probably his best known poem – I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Winston Churchill used to paint and even took up bricklaying at one point. Vastly different to his day job and apparently his bricklaying wasn’t that great. But the point being – he tried his hand at other things outside of the day job. We tend to have hobbies when we’re young – kids like to collect things and get excited about trying new things even if they quit them down the line. We have to get out of our own way where we live this life of work or rest – nothing in between the two. The great thing is that you can find excitement in discovering something new or find something that helps with your creativity or knowledge or helps you relax and unwind more. If something isn’t for you then there’s plenty more to look at. Every one needs a hobby.
When we’re kids we seem to be able to go off on tangents, new directions, very quickly. Often we also get bored very quickly. But we like to ask questions such as “why” a lot or we find out a fact and think it’s fantastic. We want new and different things – we always want to try something – usually when we see another kid with something new. “I want one” or “I want a turn” usually come to mind. Although this isn’t always positive or the exact traits we want to take into adulthood – that level of curiosity and exploration is. I realised a few months ago when I looked at my book shelves that I had a good amount of books on topics of interest or books that are directly applicable i.e. professional skills etc. But I realised I didn’t have a lot on things I don’t know much about, don’t use or apply regularly or topics that I’m a total beginner on. Ironically you would think we would need more resources on what we don’t know than what we do.
I bought on book on climate change recently by Bill Gates, a very good read. I bought it because I realised that although I may have a basic understanding of climate change in principle i.e. things are getting hotter and it’s on the news, media and mentioned in documentaries very regularly – I actually didn’t know much about it at all. My point here isn’t to sell everyone on a particular point of view or actions on climate change. Everyone is free for their own opinions. But I realised that I had a semi-formed opinion on something I didn’t really know too much about or understand the arguments or any potential solutions. It’s not just in science either but take politics, sports, arts and culture – we usually all have some sort of opinion – even if it’s “not sure” but that doesn’t mean we know much or have explored a topic before coming to an opinion or belief. I’ve come to the realisation that focusing too narrowly can often come at a detriment of wider thinking or more varied understanding. Professionally we stick to our area – people that work in sales read sales information, books on sales or marketing. People that work in finance, politics, management, engineering etc – we keep an eye on our “field.”A few years ago I read a design book. I know nothing about art or design outside of “that looks nice” or “ugh” to be honest. But I had a read of it because it was something different and I had saw it on a recommended list by an author I had read in a business book. Although it wasn’t all “up my alley” so to speak – I got one of the best lessons from this book. It was talking about the design of physical products and how if something is designed correctly, you shouldn’t need to explain how it works. In effect you design it with the user in mind and for the user to know how to use it. Take a door – if it’s designed correctly you shouldn’t need a push or pull sign. Well that made me think about processes in general, particularly in business or coaching settings. The design of a framework or process should be easy to use and created with the user in mind. Very simple and “common sense” in many ways but think about how often complexity or bureaucracy in organisations can make things more difficult, take more time or ends up snowballing over the years until people can’t even remember why they do it. I’m sure everyone has at least one task at work or even at home like that.
We need that curiosity and exploration – that childish thought of “I want to see how that works/I want to have a go/I want to know more about that or why something is the way it is.” It’s very easy to only look at things for necessity and ignore the innate urge to be curious. To try to understand new and different things and opinions. There’s always more to learn – more resources than at any other time in human history – the only thing stopping us is our fear of leaving our comfort zone – our fear of feeling stupid by tackling something new. Explore – be curious.