For any measure of productivity to be sustainable, at an individual or industry level, it has to be built around balanced principles. Otherwise, the inevitable conclusion is burnout and collapse. These books will help unravel the falsehoods of our production and consumer centric society, while also aiding you in building a life, and a world, of lasting and truly livable productivity and balance.
General Books on Productivity
Productivity as it is framed and pushed in our current society is destructive and a recipe for burnout. It’s important to find the balanced version of this concept because it can empower us to live more well rounded and fulfilled lives with healthier coping skills and less maladaptive and self-destructive behaviors when used mindfully. These books can help you learn those appropriate coping strategies to become a healthy form of productive.
1. Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee
Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and bestselling author. In this 2020 publication she addresses the question: If we work feverishly to make ourselves happy, why are we so miserable? And, what would it look like if we stopped measuring our value in efficiency, and instead measured in meaning and intentionality?
Do Nothing seeks to offer a shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of simply doing, by bringing forward research that shows we’ve been searching for band-aid solutions to deeply rooted problems. Using research from history, neuroscience, social sciences, and even paleontology, Headlee examines long-held assumptions about how we understand and treat concepts like time, idleness, hard work, and even our goals. Her research reveals that these habits are actually causing us substantial harm; they developed fairly recently in human history (largely thanks to industrialization); and if we want to build healthy and balanced lives these habits have to be broken and replaced with sustainable alternatives.
2. Productivity Is For Robots: How To (re)Connect, Get Creative, And Stay Human In The New World by Corey McComb
McComb wrote this book in 2020 about his experience with “a slow-paced marathon that turned into a full blown sprint toward mental and emotional burnout.” By the metrics of our society he had done everything right—implemented productivity protocols, applied work/life balance hacks, and accepted that he needed to “hustle now” so he could “relax later.” However, he found himself buried under mountains of toxic stress, mental restlessness, and an uncomfortable sense of being disconnected from what it feels like to truly be human.
By becoming wound up in our culture’s productivity dogma, McComb found himself obsessed with “doing more” while being perpetually haunted by an insidious feeling he was never “doing enough.” Productivity Is For Robots is the book McComb needed when he was trying to navigate his way out of this paradox. Using anecdotes and experiences from creatives, entrepreneurs, and visionaries, this book is not a rally against productivity, but rather a call to be mindful and meaningful about how we approach our lives and our work.
3. The Pathless Path: Imagining a New Story For Work & Life by Paul Millerd
“It takes a few wrong turns to find the right way” is the tagline for The Pathless Path, a book about finding yourself in the wrong life, and then doing the real work of figuring out how to live.
Millerd thought he was on his way to a “successful” life when he went from a small town kid in Connecticut to a corporate job in a prestigious consulting firm. What he found when he got there was a lack of fulfillment, a disconnect from his humanity, and a mountain of uncertainty about what this meant for his future. Through experiments, travel, and interacting with people all over the world, Millerd found a foundation of ideas and principles that helped him build a balanced and engaged life. This is a great choice for those struggling with feelings of uncertainty, going through a midlife crisis (or a quarter-life crisis) or the fears of what it looks like to live an unconventional life by societal standards.
Books About Forming Productive Habits
Finding out how to build long lasting and sustainable habits that support your ability to live the most balanced life possible is a marathon not a sprint, but it is possible. These books can help outline how to start the process, and encourage you on your journey.
4. Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey
Hersey wrote this book around a revolutionary framework: “What would it be like to live in a well-rested world? Far too many of us have claimed productivity as the cornerstone of success… we subject our bodies and minds to work at an unrealistic, damaging, and machine‑level pace –– feeding into the same engine that enslaved millions into brutal labor for its own relentless benefit.”
Rest is Resistance turns the societal narrative that our worth resides in our production output on its head by reminding us that we are doing it all for a system that exploits, devalues, and dehumanizes us. Rest reminds us who we are. It brings us home to the core of our humanity. This book reminds us that we are perpetually enough, and that while the powers and systems at hand want to own and co-opt us for their own benefit, they cannot have us. We are more. We are human.
5. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zomorodi
What if embracing boredom could actually help you become more productive, more creative, and more liberated in your work? This is the underpinning of Zomorodi’s work. Using cutting edge research, alongside endearing lived experiences and profound anecdotes, Bored and Brilliant demonstrates that boredom is actually a powerful tool for making our lives happier, more productive, and more creative.
Zomorodi dug deep into the neuroscience and cognitive psychology behind “mind wandering” – the mechanics behind what our brains do when we’re doing nothing at all. Manoush includes actionable steps and exercises you can apply to free yourself from the net of perpetual busyness, remind you to embrace dreaming and imagination, and help you gain balanced clarity on work and life.
6. How to Think More Effectively: A guide to greater productivity, insight and creativity by The School of Life
How to Think More Effectively includes chapters on all different types of thinking, with an emphasis on those driven by our emotional state and current circumstances. When we talk about our brains being capable of incredible things the blockage tends to come with acknowledging the unpredictability of the human mind when working within the playing field of daily emotions and situations.
The School of Life wrote this guide as a way to further understand and optimize the human mind by teaching skills such as how to hold onto our ideas instead of losing them to the dread of fear and anxiety, what time of day is typically most ideal for producing your most optimum work, and how to avoid the pitfall of applying temporary solutions to deeply rooted and lasting problems. A book with keen insight into understanding our strongest ally and our biggest obstacle: our brain.
Books for Banishing Procrastination
Procrastination is not an abnormal behavior, after all humans didn’t initially evolve to work a 9-5 office job, or have to-do lists chalked so full that they seemingly have no end. But if chronic procrastination is hindering your ability to function, and causing you to feel guilty for being human, these books can help you find your balance.
7. How to Be Human by: Ruby Wax
In a world that believes that new is always better, and has corralled us into lives that lead us to function more like robots and less like human beings, How To Be Human is a mindfully crafted guide on how to get back to the depths of our humanity by refusing to be defined by the societal status quo that has been ingrained into us from the time we were children growing up in a consumerist, production-centric world.
Wax wrote this book with the help of a monk and a neuroscientist, leading to a varied and well-rounded understanding of what makes us “us” within the human brain, and how we can more mindfully move through the world while safeguarding our wellbeing. This insightful guide answers questions about topics like the mechanics of thoughts, emotions, the body, interpersonal conflicts, compassion, and family—with a lovely dash of humor and lightheartedness.
8. Choose Your Perspective: 7 Tips for High Performance through Intentional Thinking by John Martin
The author of Empower Yourself and Increase Your Personal Productivity, Martin strives to motivate and empower people to take action and build resilience regardless of their current circumstances. Choose Your Perspective is no exception as it provides tools and steps to understand your mindset and deconstruct your limiting ideologies and beliefs.
Martin’s work often focuses on authenticity, integrity, and intentionality. Teaching you how to align your goals with your strengths, where to be mindful of getting in your own way, and most importantly how to take action now rather than waiting for “the right time.” Choose Your Perspective offers an insightful and thought provoking deep dive into the nature of how our perspective influences our success, and how we can utilize that rather than being hindered by it.
9. I Didn’t Do the Thing Today by Madeleine Dore
Dore spent over 5 years looking for the secret to productivity, and what did she find? That secret doesn’t actually exist, and we are being set up to fail by a system that benefits from making us chase an elusive concept that is both unsustainable and unattainable.
I Didn’t Do the Thing Today is a call to take productivity off its pedestal and do away with comparison culture, instagram-curated highlight reels, and the unrealistic notions of what could or should be done in a day. Dore wrote this book as a permission slip for anyone who feels the never ending pressure to do more, be more, and achieve more. The antithesis to our achievement obsessed, usefulness centric, output focused society – an invitation to unapologetically embrace the joyful messiness and unpredictability of life.
Best Books on Time Management
Finding ways to manage and grasp time is a very modern and westernized concept, as time in itself is a societal construct, but we do have the ability to incorporate it into our days more mindfully by being intentional about where we put our focus. These books can help you do just that.
10. Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing by Olga Mecking
Dutch people are statistically rated as some of the happiest people in the world by several different metrics and standards, but what is their secret? Mecking believes it is their mastery of Niksen, or the Dutch art of “doing nothing.” It is important to make the distinction that Niksen is not a form of meditation, nor is it mindlessly scrolling through social media, or hounding yourself about what you’re going to cook for dinner. Rather, “to niks” is to make a conscious choice to sit back, let go, and simply do nothing at all.
Niksen is anchored in research and advice from global experts on happiness and productivity, as it examines the underlying science behind Niksen, and how, while it seems counterintuitive, doing less often leads to yielding so much more. A helping hand for anyone who feels burnt out and overwhelmed, Niksen does not tell you to work harder. Instead, it gives you sincere and heartfelt permission to do nothing, consciously and without shame.
11. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Endearingly called the “Marie Kondo of technology” by Vox, Newport brings a tangible plan to help you identify the digital pursuits that do, and don’t, bring meaningful value to your life. We are all familiar with the concept of minimalism, but what does that “less is more” mentality look like when it comes to our personal technology and digital hygiene?
Newport argues the case that digital minimalists exist all around us, and they don’t experience our societal trademark of FOMO (fear of missing out) because they have already discerned which activities and outlets provide them lasting fulfillment. Digital Minimalism strives to help us take back control of our technological lives by recommending a mindful alternative to the “cold turkey” approaches like taking elongated breaks from technology, or unplugging completely, which isn’t realistic with demands of family, friends, and work. Newport reminds us that technology is not objectively good or bad, but the ways in which we apply and use it can have lasting impacts on ourselves and our families.
12. Take Back Your Time: Identify Your Priorities, Decrease Stress, and Increase Productivity by: Morgan Tyree
Tyree wrote this book for people who struggle to find balance and structure in their constantly overloaded lives. Providing guidance on time management using her three-color time zone system:
- The Green zone is focus time: Time sensitive tasks that you want to set as a top priority.
- The Yellow zone is flex time: Tasks that are flexible and time sensitive, and you can focus on more than one at a time.
- The Red zone is “me time”: Tasks dedicated to personal restoration, a reminder to stop other tasks and reboot yourself.
If you are looking for a clear and concise approach to foster balance in your day to day life, Take Back Your Time can help you discover the freedom of less hustle and more harmony.
13. The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better by Thatcher Wine
Today’s world is full of to-do lists, continuous exposure to technology, and constant pressure to do more, be more, and make more. What if we could train our brains to focus on one task at a time? Furthermore, what if the true secret to sustainable productivity actually is doing less, and not doing more?
The Twelve Monotasks calls on research from psychology and neuroscience to provide a clear plan for life in today’s world. Learn to resist distractions, and channel your energy by doing things you already enjoy, like reading, sleeping, eating, and listening, with renewed attention. Wine invites you to intentionally immerse yourself fully in each experience, be completely present, and let time melt away for a moment. This is the magic of monotasking.
When to Talk to a Therapist
While these books can offer encouragement, insight, and actionable tips, they are not a replacement for professional help. If you, or someone you know, are struggling with burnout, or need help finding sustainable coping skills for stress in our high pace world, check out an online therapist directory, where you can filter by expertise and insurance coverage.
Also, if you struggle to keep up with daily tasks, know that it is absolutely valid to not be able to keep up with the demands of life all the time, and some mental health problems can also amplify this, leaving you feeling stuck. Counselors and mental health practitioners can help you understand your brain, hone your strengths, and build a to kit to live a more balanced life. You are worthy of help and support—don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask if you need it.