10 Must-Read Time Management Books to Get the Most Out of Your Day


There are lots and lots of productivity books out there. To read them all would be…well…a waste of time. 

The good news is that most of the books out there agree on the same principles. They are all preaching some form of the same message.

The best productivity book is the one that resonates with you and that you follow. But if you are like me, you sometimes need a shot in the arm once in a while. Or, sometimes it’s nice to use a different tool for the same job now and again. 

Older books used to only focus on productivity in the context of work, but most modern books also include your non-working hours as well.

Productivity and time management books fall along the four productivity pillars pretty well. They specialize in one of these areas: 

  • Task management: Your brain is for having ideas; use technology for managing and executing them.
  • Prioritization: Don’t waste your time doing stuff that doesn’t matter.
  • Focus: Every day is a fight against internal and external distractions.
  • Time/energy management: Your day and body has natural rhythms that you can use to your advantage.

Here are 10 of the best books on productivity. 

1. Getting Things Done by David Allen

Productivity pillars: Task management and prioritization

David Allen is to productivity what Seth Godin is to marketing. It is possible to be productive/be a good marketer without reading their work, but do you really want to take that risk? 

Most of David Allen’s work comes down to clarity. Most people have a foggy sense of what they need to be doing, and an even hazier sense of how to do it, and are in total darkness to know if they finished it. 

Here are some of the basic principles of GTD:

  • Turn all the abstract goals into concrete tasks. 
  • Break big tasks down into small tasks. 
  • Define ‘done’ and ‘doing’. 
  • Reduce the number of open loops and promises that leave you feeling anxious and stressed. 
  • Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them. 

If you’ve ever been serious about productivity and time management in your life, you need to read this book. Only the most serious productivity geeks will implement the entire system, but there’s a lot of value in just being aware of the basics. 


2. Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy

Productivity pillar: Prioritization

This is another classic. 2 hours reading quickly through this book is time well spent. 

The book is based on a proverb that is likely misattributed to Mark Twain:

“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”

Brian Tracy uses the metaphor of the frog being your biggest, most important task. Get it done first and then the rest of your day will be good. If you have to eat two frogs, go for the bigger/uglier one first. 

At its heart, this book is about prioritization and starting at the top of the list. Tracy says, “Your ability to choose between the important and the unimportant is the key determinant of your success in life and work.”


3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Productivity pillar: Focus

This book is geared toward those whose work is more creative (e.g. writing, art, design) but we all have a little bit of creative in us, don’t we?

Pressfield names a common enemy called the Resistance. The Resistance is the thing that accompanies any creative pursuit. It says you aren’t good enough, you can finish later, you don’t need to do anything today, you’ve done enough, etc. The Resistance includes all the internal and external distractions you face in life. 

“You think the resistance isn’t real? The resistance will bury you.” 

First, you must recognize that the Resistance is a sign that you are doing something good. To combat the Resistance, Pressfield says you must turn from being an amateur to a professional, and listen to the Muse. If it doesn’t make sense, read the book. It’s short. 


4. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Productivity pillar: Focus, time management

This book makes a sharp distinction between deep work and shallow work. Deep work is cognitively demanding and requires a tremendous amount of focus. Shallow work can be done while you’ve got Netflix playing in the background. 

Newport says that:

  1. Very few people are good at deep work.
  2. Being good at deep work is where the real value is. 
  3. The more you do shallow work, the worse you get at deep work. 

He says that you need to structure your day so that you spend the most amount of time possible in a deep work state. When you jump back and forth between tasks, bits of residue follow you from one to the next. It takes time to settle into that other work without the distractions. 

Newport has other books on Digital Minimalism and other similar topics. But the thing I like the most about Cal Newport is that he takes his own advice about not coming out of deep work so seriously that he gave a friendly denial to our invitation to come on the podcast until he finished his book, Digital Minimalism


5. 168 Hours by Laura Vandercam

Productivity pillar: Time management

Laura Vandercam actually has several books about productivity: Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, and Juliet’s School of Possibilities. They all focus on how you can get the most out of the time you have.  

Everyone thinks they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do, but Vandercam says we’ve got plenty of time. If you try to do everything, you’ll always feel behind. But if you can focus on your core work, you’ll have plenty of time to get it done. 

Vandercam says most people have no idea how they spend their time. Similar to a food journal, she recommends keeping a time journal so that people can actually see where they have waste in their day and unnecessary activities. 

I really like that this book focuses on weeks. Trying to be productive every day can be really hard, but if you look at an entire week, it’s short enough that you can start over fresh again, but long enough to give you some momentum, while also hiding a few bad days here and there. 


6. The One Thing by Gary Keller

Productivity pillar: Prioritization

This book is a nice expansion on the adage, “Success is about doing the right thing, not doing everything right.”

Keller says that we need to focus on fewer things. Just do the one thing that really makes all the difference, and everything else will turn out ok. 

While we can all agree, finding that one thing can be very challenging. We see many tasks as equal, we believe we have enough willpower to bulldoze through anything, and we can keep multiple things going at once. 

Keller says all that is wrong and we need to choose the one thing that matters most and give it all the time it demands. 


7. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

Productivity pillar: Time management and prioritization

This is a classic book that everyone entering the workplace should read. Drucker advises executives to be as accountable for their time as they are for their budgets. He says to consolidate your time into the largest possible units, and advocating for working from home one day a week. Drucker says meetings should be the exception rather than the rule and we should focus mostly on results. 

Prioritization is also a key topic. He urges executives to answer this question to their managers, “What are the contributions for which this organization should hold you accountable?” Like others after him, Drucker says to focus on strengths and where you deliver top results. 


8. 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman

Productivity pillar: Focus, time management

Peter Bregman has given us a lot of ways to be better leaders (like being emotionally courageous), but there’s no doubt that time management and focus is a big one. 

Like others, Bregman advocates for doing fewer things and focusing on your strengths. He calls into question motivation, saying that you don’t really need that much, just enough to get you started. As long as you don’t spend a lot of time switching between tasks, you will be fine. 

The formula for the title of his book is:

  • 5 minutes at the start of the day to plan
  • 1 minute every hour to pause and reset (8 minutes total)
  • 5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect and make changes

I really like the idea of pauses and it’s easy to get distracted in the middle of something. Scheduling in a pause lets to keep in check if you are doing the right thing. 


9. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

Productivity pillar: Time management

This is the oldest book on the list, dating back to 1908. Bennett’s message is just as clear and apt now as it was then. We all get the same 24 hours and we can’t save it. You’ll never have more time than you do right now, so focus on the important stuff. 

While the basic principles of the book sound very familiar, there are a few interesting warnings that he offers:

  • Don’t insist that other people follow your productivity program. Everyone has unique needs.
  • Don’t become a slave to your own program. Make sure it is strong enough to keep you accountable, but flexible enough to give you space to live. 
  • Living from task to task isn’t really living. Don’t try to do everything. Be realistic in your limits.
  • Start any new system slow. Don’t overdo it at the start.

10. Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Productivity pillar: Focus and time management

This is one of the best books out there on learning about how to handle distractions. 

Eyal says that the key to living a focused life is to learn to deal with discomfort. We get distracted because we get uncomfortable and go out seeking a fix.

Instead of indulging in distractions, or feeling guilty about them, Eyal says that we should observe them and allow them to dissolve. We should examine what lead up to the distraction and explore it curiously. Rather than saying, “No, you can’t check Facebook now,” allow yourself the permission to check it, but only after 10 minutes. Usually over that time, the need will dissipate.

He also focuses on the importance of identity and promises you make to yourself. Rather than saying, “I’m not going to look at my phone for the next hour,” Eyal suggests saying, “I’m not the kind of person who needs to check his phone every hour.” That’s a much more positive, aspirational statement and much more likely to help us. 

Eyal says, “Time management is pain management.” If you can learn to be uncomfortable, you will be able to get a lot more done. 


Missed one?

I usually read 1-2 productivity books a year to refresh my mind on what’s important. Most of the ideas in these books aren’t something you couldn’t figure out on your own, but the authors present the material in a way that encourages you to take a fresh start. 

Everyone has their own favorite productivity book. What’s yours? Tag @WorkMinus on LinkedIn and we’ll add it to the list!

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