time management

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!

Can You Love Time Management Apps Too Much?


You know you’re serious about time management when you start researching apps and tools.  

For some people, the idea of setting up multiple timers throughout your day seems oppressive and way too robotic. But to many of us, there’s a lot of freedom in time management.

At its heart, time management is being willing to say that we need help managing our day. I got serious about time management for many reasons. 

  • I wasn’t giving enough time to the truly important tasks
  • I was giving too much time to small tasks and communication triage
  • I wanted to be able to limit my working hours
  • I wanted to feel better at the end of the day
  • I wanted to avoid distractions
  • I want to increase my capacity at work to be able to handle more high level things

I knew what tasks were the highest priority, but I still found myself struggling with managing my energy and time. 

time management apps

Do you really need time management apps?

We turn to time management apps because we don’t do a good job of managing time by ourselves. We experience time as infinite and finite at the same time. It seems like a day is never-ending, and that we will live forever. Yet we know that there is only a limited about of time in a day, and that one day we will die. 

Time management apps help us apply the principles of time management into our daily lives, recognizing that it is hard for us to do it on our own. 

What are time management apps?

Time management apps try to help you take control of your day by merging together how you spend your daily hours and keeping track of your most important tasks. What type of time management app you need is dependent on the other systems that you have already built around you. 

Timers only

These types of time management apps are simply just a clock. It might count up, or count down; you might have a lot of flexibility over it, or very little. Apps like these are for people who already have an effective task management system, and just need a way to measure and track time. 

Timer + task management

These apps are more involved as they add the functionality of time tracking along with task management and prioritization. As you blend these two things, you are less likely to find the perfect app since you have one set of preferences for timing and another for tasks. But there are some systems out there that work well for people. 

Timer + task + calendar

Finally, some time management apps try to go all the way and add a calendar function as well. All three are essential to good time management, but if you try to combine three sets of preferences, it even less likely that you’ll find the ideal app for you. 

If you are serious about time management, you will have a good system for all three of these things. If you happen to find an app that does them all the way you want it, that’s fantastic. If not, you’ll need to maintain three separate apps, which isn’t impossible, but not always ideal. 


After hours?

Most time management apps are built for productivity around work, but some of them also try to extend to your personal life as well. As you are looking for the right app for you, decide if you are only trying to do time management at work, or for every hour of your day. 

Billing or productivity?

You may think about time management apps as a way to be more productive, but some people need a time management app primarily for billing purposes. If you are a freelancer who bills hourly, or you need to track time for your entire team based on projects, you’ll need something dedicated for that. Many time management tools can help with both billing and general productivity, but they will usually do one better than the other. 

Reflective or empowering?

Lots of time management apps out there are built to show you how you spent your day. They give a lot of insights to reflect accurately where your time goes. Other apps are purely built for putting you in control of how you are going to spend the next hours that you have. The reflective side is good when you are just starting out, or are using it for billing. But if you already know your style and have a plan, you want something that streamlines your work better. 

Teams or individual?

Many time management tools are marketed to track your entire team’s productivity, especially when you are billing for an entire project. However, some of these can feel very much like you are spying on teammates and are built on the premise that you can’t trust them to spend their time well. My only motivation is improving my personal productivity, so I stay away from apps that offer team tracking capabilities. 


Questions to ask before using a time management tool

How much control do you have over your day?

Time management apps work best for people who are in control over their own day, for example, someone who stays at home to work on a novel. On the other side, if you are a kindergarten teacher, handle support tickets, or spend every day in an open office where you are constantly being pulled into impromptu meetings, you won’t get as much value from it. 

Where will you use the app?

Is it on your desktop? On your phone? Tablet? Browser? This is important because each app store is going to have a lot of different options. What works well for running in the background on your operating system may not have an option elsewhere. Your needs may be very different if you are on the go a lot instead of behind a desk. 

Who’s in charge?

Some time management tools try to dictate what you should spend your time on by sending you reminders and notifications for what you should be doing at any moment. Others merely let you track the time and enforce your own priorities. If you already have a solid plan for how you want to spend your time, you want something that will serve you. If you feel lost and need help managing your time, you want something that will be more authoritative. 


4 key dynamics of a time management app

Regardless of what type of app you want and how you answered the questions above, the best  time management apps will have these characteristics.

1. Flexible

How flexible you want the tool depends on how much control you want to give it. In my style of work, I want full control to be able to set a timer at any moment for any length of time. If you subscribe to the Pomodoro technique, then you have less flexibility over starting and stopping the timers. 

2. Unobtrusive

A time management tool should be running in the background. It shouldn’t dominate your day or your desktop. You only want to think about the app when a timer buzzes and it’s time to move on to the next thing. 

3. Quick and easy

Aside from getting it set up initially, you shouldn’t spend much time with you time management app. It should be as simple as clicking a button and starting to work. If you find yourself always inside the app and messing with things and entering details, then it’s really distracting from what it should be doing. Since I only want a timer, I want to spend no more than five seconds setting it up each time. If you need to document and track, that should also be quick and intuitive. 

4. Tracking

I’m not big on tracking my data about how I use my time. Since my main motivation is feeling more productive, I don’t need the app to tell me whether it is a good day or a bad one. But, if your goal is to actually spend more time on a particular task or advance towards a goal, then seeing that data at the end of the week or month is great. Of course, if you are using the app for billing, then you need some more advanced tracking and reporting features. 


Time management apps I’ve tried

Task Timer 

Shockingly, this has been my go-to timer app for more than a few years. It’s a Chrome extension, so it doesn’t run on mobile or really on any other browser. Even when I switched to using Safari as a browser for some time, I continued to use Chrome only to run this app. 

The unique thing about this app is that it counts up, not down. I set goals for each day about how much time I want to spend on a few particular projects, and then set the timer when I’m on that project. The main reason it has been so enduring for me is its flexibility. Even as I try different time management techniques, I find that it is always helpful. 

Red Hot Timer

This is an app only for MacOS X. This one counts down instead of up. I use it along with the other timer to give me an idea of 45 minute sprints throughout the day. It’s super fast to set and very flexible.  

Pomodoro Timers 

There are many in this category with names like Be Focused, Focus Booster, Flow, Focus, Focus To-Do, and Tomato One. All of them follow the same Pomodoro principles. I stopped using them after a short time because I wanted more control. Most of them don’t let you stop a sprint early or quickly set a custom amount of time. You are locked into whatever time you configured at the start. That said, if you can implement the Pomodoro technique completely, they are a great option. 

Rescue time

This app works in the background to monitor how you spend your time. I found it to be helpful when first analyzing what takes your focus most of the day. However, I didn’t find it as useful for implementing my specific time management strategy. It’s a great time management tool for anyone who is serious about starting out with these concepts and wants an accurate view of what their day is like. Plus, their blog is killer

Toggl

This is one of the very few cross-platform time management apps out there. It has mobile apps, desktop apps, and a Chrome extension. So, if you are on the go, this is one of the best options you can choose. It is definitely built primarily for tracking billing hours, and it’s more for team management, so if that’s not a focus for you, it can be distracting. 

Harvest

Harvest is very similar to Toggl, in that it is cross-platform, and built for billing and teams. It’s got a lot of insights built in, which can be good if you are trying to analyze what is going wrong. It wasn’t a good fit for me as it was built for teams and for reporting on how you spend your time rather than giving you the tools to take control. 

Time Doctor

This is one of the more intense time trackers out there that also incorporates task management. For me, it is a bit too intrusive and nanny-like. It markets itself as a tool to “ensure your team is working productively” by grabbing screenshots, which is a bit too invasive for my taste.


Find your time management app

There are lots of other tools out there and more being added every day. What works for you probably won’t work for your friend, and it all depends on your situation. I need something sleek and unobtrusive that allows me to just track time and stay on task. Others need something more robust that can track an entire team’s work for billing purposes. Whatever your goal, you can probably find the right tool for you. 

10 Time Management Tips You Haven’t Tried Yet

Here are some of the tried and tested time management techniques that will help make your day more productive.