Building A Personal Productivity And Development Library: What’s Essential, What Isn’t

Over the last twenty five Sundays, I’ve written lengthy reviews of 25 personal productivity and personal development books, enough to clearly be able to start separating the wheat from the chaff. Some of these books have been tremendous and really made me think about the world in a new way. Others have been not so good, and a few have been true disappointments.

So, which ones should you read and which ones should you not really bother with? I’ve separated these books into five groups to help you decide which ones are worth the time to read, which ones are merely worth browsing, and which ones you can leave on the bookshelf.


These books are ones that anyone who is involved in the information economy in any way should read – and that likely includes 99% of the people reading this article. Each of these books had a profound impact on the way I live my day to day life.

Never Eat AloneNever Eat Alone
I’m an introvert. So many successful people have told me before that connecting with a lot of people is one of the real keys to success in life. I never believed them, blew them off, and viewed people who did such connecting as social leeches. This book transformed all of that. Not only did it show me a lot of techniques to make it easier for me to relate to people initially, but it showed how one can actually make meaningful connections to people quickly and help out others first, not just yourself. It’s a truly powerful book that has changed how I relate to others, particularly people I don’t know well. Read my complete detailed review of Never Eat Alone.

CarnegieHow to Win Friends and Influence People
Another challenge I’ve had in life is how to present to others and communicate in a professional environment, both in terms of “small talk” and also in terms of actually standing up in front of others and presenting my ideas. Carnegie’s book made all the difference for me; it provided plenty of tips on how to talk to people and also how to present my ideas to others without coming off as cold or aloof (my biggest problem). Read my complete detailed review of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

StickMade to Stick
This book is an investigation into why some ideas catch on while others completely fail. What aspects of an idea make it “sticky,” and how can you use those aspects with your own ideas to make them spread? If you are involved in the presentation of ideas in any way, from blogging to presenting in the workplace, this book will be invaluable to you. I turn to it more often than any other book when working on The Simple Dollar – the ideas inside are incredibly useful to me when I write and present my ideas. Read my complete detailed review of Made to Stick.

GTDGetting Things Done
I know that for a lot of people this is a well-worn selection, but more than any book I read during this series, Getting Things Done transformed the way I thought about how to accomplish the huge variety of tasks in my life, from managing this blog to starting a computer consulting business to all of the vagaries of being a husband and a parent to two children in diapers. While I don’t use the entire system on a day to day basis, I use the crux of it – an inbox that I process to empty every evening, for example. Read my complete detailed review of Getting Things Done.

Read AloudThe Read-Aloud Handbook
I include this book as an essential with one caveat: this is the most essential book on the list if you are a parent or if you are involved in the caretaking of children in any way; otherwise, it’s far less essential. I read this book when my first child was quite young and adopted many of the techniques from the book – and reading aloud to him became the foundation of our close relationship. Now he loves to read and, even as an energetic toddler, he loves to sit on my lap as we read through books together. There’s a lot of technique to this simple practice that can transform it from a chore into something really amazing that can build a real connection with a child. This book teaches that technique, and because of that it’s the most valuable book I’ve ever read. But it won’t be for everyone. Read my complete detailed review of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Worthy Reads

While not as essential as the first five books, these books caused me to think profoundly about my life and adopt some of the principles within each one.

HabitThe Now Habit
This book offers a wide array of psychological solutions for procrastinators. If you find yourself delaying tasks, then later bumping up firmly against deadlines, this is an essential one to read. Read my complete detailed review of The Now Habit.

Organizing from the Inside Out
If you constantly find yourself struggling against the chaos on your desk or in your home, this book can really change your life, offering some very applicable tactics. The same ideas also work directly for time management. Read my complete detailed review of Organizing from the Inside Out.

First Things First
Most of the information presented in Stephen Covey’s books is rather philosophical in nature. This one does the best job of making the ideas tangible to real life while also preserving Covey’s concepts. If you read one of his books, make it this one. Read my complete detailed review of First Things First.

CareeristBrazen Careerist
I really enjoyed Penelope Trunk’s book on tactics in the modern workplace, particularly in the areas where she takes on some conventional wisdom. This is well worth reading if you’re in an office environment, particularly if you’re under 30. Read my complete detailed review of Brazen Careerist.

Words That Work
I read this book mostly on a whim because I thought it would provide insight into politics. Instead, I got some deep insights into human language and the value of word choice, along with some excellent advice on how to use word choice to make my ideas seem stronger. This is a great complement to Made to Stick, a book I mentioned in the essential section above. Read my complete detailed review of Words That Work.

Great Tip Collections

These books serve as great “support” books. They provide lots of specific tips to solve specific problems, making your life flow easier.

HabitThe 4 Hour Workweek
This book presents an overall vision of a “four hour workweek,” but is actually really useful as just a collection of interesting specific tips you can apply to your personal and professional life. Read my complete detailed review of The 4 Hour Workweek.

Ready for Anything
Here, David Allen takes the meat of Getting Things Done and breaks it down into small, specifically applicable nuggets. Useful, but not as profound as the original work. Read my complete detailed review of Ready for Anything.

A huge collection of creative thinking exercises, this is the book I turn to and crack open to a random page when I start to run dry on ideas. Almost all of them work in a pinch. Read my complete detailed review of Thinkertoys.

The Simplicity Survival Handbook
This is a very solid collection of tips to improve your productivity strictly in an office environment, from minimizing the political games to improving your productivity at your desk. Unfortunately, the application outside the office is very limited. Read my complete detailed review of The Simplicity Survival Handbook.

If most of your professional efforts are spent at a computer desk, this book will be a goldmine of tips for you. I use tips from this book all the time when working on The Simple Dollar. Read my complete detailed review of Lifehacker.

Interesting, But Not Essential

While the ideas contained within these books were quite interesting and pieces could be applied to my life, I found them far from essential and, in many cases, there was some repetition of material from better books.

The 80/20 Principle
Conceptually, this book is fascinating and makes you carefully evaluate how you use your time, but the actionable points are relatively few. Read my complete detailed review of The 80/20 Principle.

The Well Educated Mind
This book is quite fascinating, but really not for everyone. It focuses on how to educate yourself on the classics, something of deep interest to a segment of the population, but not of incredibly wide interest. Read my complete detailed review of The Well Educated Mind.

On Writing Well
This is the essential book to read if your life involves a significant amount of persuasive and informative written communication. Like blogging, for instance – the blogosphere would be a much better place if every blogger read this book. Read my complete detailed review of On Writing Well.

Go Put Your Strengths To Work
Buckingham’s book is very solid on its own, but many of the concepts can be found in more complete books elsewhere. Read the earlier books on this list and this one will feel like something of a slickly-packaged repeat. Read my complete detailed review of Go Put Your Strengths To Work.

The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back
A very strong book that addresses in wonderful detail some very specific workplace issues. A strong book for anyone to read who feels like there’s some sort of “ceiling” in place for them at work. Read my complete detailed review of The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back.

Not So Good

These books were simply not worth the time investment of reading for various reasons.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
This book is incredibly well known, but it didn’t strongly connect with me. If you’re going to read a Covey book, read First Things First instead. Read my complete detailed review of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
A solid book, but it doesn’t really deliver what the title describes. It provides some solid advice on stress management, but I found many other tips elsewhere that helped me at least as much. Read my complete detailed review of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Time Management from the Inside Out
A half-hearted retread of the better Organizing from the Inside Out, I liked this book when I first read it but was much more impressed by the other one, which contains all of this advice but in a broader and more useful sense. Read my complete detailed review of Time Management from the Inside Out.

The 8th Habit
A bad extension of The 7 Habits. Only read this if you’re in love with Covey. Read my complete detailed review of The 8th Habit.

The 48 Laws of Power
Read this if you want to learn how the office shark works. Apply this stuff only if you want to be ostracized from everyone around you. Read my complete detailed review of The 48 Laws of Power.

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