For a moment, think about what happens when you take a magnifying glass and focus a ray of sunshine on some dry leaves. If you hold still for long enough, that sunbeam will start a fire. If a focus like that can start a fire, just imagine what your mind — focused on the most important tasks — can accomplish.
As the world continues to return to pre-pandemic ways, it can feel like you’re losing time. And with all of the distractions of daily life, it can be incredibly hard to find that type of laserlike focus. Good focus is one of the hardest, but also most beneficial, areas of self-control you can master.
Knowing where to start when it comes to making changes in life can be difficult. Social media is cluttered with self-help gurus who tell you what to do; many of them have no professional experience or training. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of the best focus books (organized in alphabetical order), written by knowledgeable and trustworthy authors, along with a handful of other helpful resources on focus. These books all hold places on the top of bestseller lists and have been read by thousands. All in all, they are some of the best books on focus out there and we sincerely hope they will help you learn more about how to focus your attention and reach your goals.
Curious about creating more time in your workday? Clockwise optimizes your schedule to create a smarter calendar. You can learn more here. If you’d like to learn how to implement a time management toolkit for your team, we also offer solutions for teams.
1. Deep Work by Cal Newport
At the heart of Deep Work, Cal Newport expands on the belief that undivided focus is becoming a rare skill in our distraction-filled age (from emails to social media, we’ve all got countless distractions vying for our attention). The people and companies that are able to cultivate the self-control needed for deep focus will stand out from the crowd and attain greater success.
In short, deep work is the ability to have high performance focus on a challenging task while cutting out distractions. Once you’ve cultivated this skill, you’re better equipped to accomplish a larger number of important tasks in less time.
Newport begins the book by showing that deep work is beneficial regardless of what profession you’re in. He then gives four rules that help beginners cultivate this skill.
Those four rules are as follows:
- Work deeply
Minimize the distractions that are around you (set your phone aside, turn off your social media notifications, close your email browser…), to give yourself the best possible chance of undivided focus on the work that is in front of you. Create a space that’s conducive to deep work, and set boundaries ahead of time on how long you plan to work.
- Embrace boredom
After a period of time of deep work, your brain is going to need a break! Take time to give your brain a break from the deep work you are doing and rest. This is an important chance for your brain to recover and prepare to focus again.
- Quit social media
Be conscious about how you use your leisure time. Newport recommends a 30-day social media fast. Quit all of your social media platforms, and after the 30-day period, ask yourself if the quality of your life has been substantially impacted. You may choose to re-incorporate one or two of the best platforms, but overall, you may find that social media is neither the most effective way to keep in touch with loved ones nor the most restful way to spend leisure time.
- Drain the shallows
Your time is usually divided between “deep” and “shallow” work. The shallow work (things like surfing the web instead of working on a pressing project) is satisfying at the moment, but in the long run won’t help you reach your goals. Now, be aware that you won’t be able to do deep work all day. Rather, use a planner or notebook for time management to block out chunks of time that will be used for the deep work that you want to accomplish.
Overall, the tools outlined in this book will help you use your time more effectively throughout your daily life. When you stop procrastinating while working, you will find that you can accomplish more in less time and will be encouraged to see how much you can accomplish when you focus on high performance windows of time.
2. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman argues that focus is one of the most important and underrated skills that people need in order to reach their goals. He compares focus to a muscle that needs to be strengthened, rather than a switch that can turn “off” or “on.”
Goleman writes from his twenty-year background as a psychologist and journalist. This book is a combination of science-backed research and real life examples that’ll help you understand the secrets to attention and a more focused life.
The first step to improving your life and work through focus is to strengthen your mind’s ability to practice selective attention. Our brains are roughly divided into two parts: the lower, older part of the brain is responsible for keeping you safe by monitoring your senses and alerting you to changes in your surroundings; and the upper part, allows us to plan, learn new skills, and reflect on ideas.
The key to effective focus is to find the balance between these two parts of the brain. In our modern age, things like our phones and social media can be incredibly distracting. Overcoming these distractions is a matter of understanding how our brains work, so that we can make decisions on how to organize and take control of daily life.
Goleman also talks about the importance of allowing your mind to wander every now and then. When we give our minds the freedom to wander, we unleash our creativity, which can lead to some of our greatest breakthroughs.
3. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
David Allen is a productivity consultant. His coaching firm, established in the 1980’s, has helped countless individuals and companies build good habits for both life and work. Allen shares these habits, and how to build them, in this self-help book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It will help you become more focused and productive in life and at work.
Interruptions and distractions are inevitable. The question is not how to get rid of them, but rather how to handle them in an effective way. In Getting Things Done, author David Allen provides his readers with a set of tangible ways to handle these distractions so that they don’t derail your focus and make you unable to reach the goals that you have.
Allen recommends utilizing multiple to-do lists within a system that separates dreams, goals, life, and work. This way, when you’re working and something comes to mind (like “buy milk” on your way home from work), you can write it down immediately. This will keep you from getting distracted by that thought and allow you to continue on whatever task is in front of you.
For each of these to-do list tasks, what does it mean when it is “finished”? Sure, “buy milk” is a pretty straightforward to-do list item; but what about “start a photography business” or “plan our wedding”? These are larger goals that will take a longer period of time to achieve. You will need to break them down into smaller steps that can be incorporated into your daily life. In Getting Things Done, Allen will teach you how to break down goals into actionable steps.
This way, you will end up doing less because you won’t waste time on unimportant details. Since you are doing less, it will also take you less time to achieve your goals. This in turn will spurn you on to stop procrastinating on other goals that you have in life. It is a snowball effect — the more you get done, the more excited and confident you feel that you can accomplish more. Also, when you break down goals into steps, you can review where you are at and the end of a set period of time, whether that’s the end of every day or at the end of the week.
In the book, Allen says, “If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more attention than it deserves.” This is a core principle that he uses throughout this book. If you are not aware of yourself and the distractions that you regularly encounter, you won’t be able to set them aside and improve your self-control.
Finally, the book stresses the need to be disciplined with clutter. After all, if your space is cluttered, how do you expect your mind to be clear and productive? Take some time to clean your desk, email account, house, and any other spaces. As basic as that might sound, it’s an important habit to build into your daily life.
4. The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
This #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan centers around one question, “What’s the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?”
Keller recommends focusing this question on both a macro and micro level. On a macro level, what is the one thing that will enable you to reach your goal? And on a micro level, what is the one thing you can do today to get a step closer to it?
Climbing a mountain requires going step-by-step. In the same way, achieving your biggest goals is the result of steady, consistent work. It takes hard work to summit the mountain, but once you know what the top of the mountain looks like, and you have a trustworthy map that will get you there, you can have confidence that you will be able to reach it.
Putting the principle of “the one thing” into action will mean learning to say “no” to a lot of things. But in reality, saying “no” to the distractions in life will allow you to free up your time for the important tasks. Everyone has an area of life that they are exceptionally good at. When you say “no” to the things that are not your strong point, you will free yourself up to be the best you can possibly be. It will change the way you handle time management and free you up to accomplish what you really care about in life. By leaning into this focusing question, you will set yourself up to reach your greatest potential in all areas of work and life.
In The One Thing, Gary Keller also reminds the reader that not all areas of life are of equal importance. There are only so many soccer matches that you’ll be able to watch your daughter play, your health will last longer if you care for yourself, and your relationship with your partner is a priority. On the other hand, if you miss a deadline at work, the world will keep on spinning. Learning time management won’t do much for you in the long run if you don’t know what to prioritize. Life and work are not equals; do not sacrifice precious moments in life in order to make your boss happy.
This self-help book reminds us that results don’t happen overnight. They happen when you consistently apply yourself to personal growth.
5. The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch
The 80/20 principle, also known as the Pareto Principle, is a widely accepted principle in business that says that 80% of outcomes are the result of 20% of the work.
In his book The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less, Richard Koch takes this principle and teaches the reader how to examine their daily life and learn to focus on the areas of high performance. This principle is especially relevant for any entrepreneurs to employ as they examine their startup and learn how to spend less time working while experiencing greater results.
The first step is to identify the top 20% of your work that is responsible for 80% of your outcome. Then, shift your focus towards that 20%. Track the results over a period of time and see what happens. Also, learn how to start doing less of the 80% of the work that is only resulting in 20% of your desired outcome.
Apply this same principle in life. Focus on the 20% of relationships that bring you the greatest joy. Spend more time with those people, and learn to say no to the people who make up the 80% of that equation. Read the books you enjoy rather than the ones you think you “should” read. Spend less time on the social media accounts that stress you out or leave you feeling sad. Your daily life will be transformed when you apply this general principle by critically examining where you want to focus your time and energy and then doing more of that and less of everything else.
Other resources that we love
This list of focus books is bound to help you in your daily life. So go, get a copy off Amazon or download it in audiobook form so you can listen during your morning commute.
If you’re not an avid reader, don’t worry, we’ve still got you covered! Here are a few other non-book resources that we love that will empower you to take back control of your daily life by helping you find the best ways to stop procrastinating, learn to prioritize the important tasks, and improve your time management.
Leo Babauta’s blog, Zen Habits
Zen Habits was awarded a spot in the Top 25 Blogs by Time Magazine not once, but twice, since its inception in 2007. He also wrote a bestselling productivity ebook called Zen to Done that you can find on Amazon.
In the blog, Zen Habits, Leo Babauta shares tips for how to incorporate small, zen habits into your daily life. These are changes that have helped him in his transformation from being overweight, a smoker, in debt, and a procrastinator to who he is now — a non-smoker, ultra-marathon runner, debt free, author of multiple books, husband, and father of four. He transformed his life and uses his blog to talk about how he accomplished all of it.
Cal Newport’s podcast, Deep Questions
Although Cal Newport has already been mentioned for his book, Deep Work, it would be hard to talk about productivity and focus without mentioning his amazing podcast, Deep Questions.
In this podcast, Newport answers questions that listeners submit on any of the topics that he is known for. He then answers them in detail to help his listeners continue to develop their ability to focus and reach their highest performance.
In some of the podcast episodes, Newport features expert guest hosts that help him answer questions and dig deeper into the topics such as time management (even when it feels like we have less time), high performance, how to stop procrastinating, and other related topics.
Brian Tracy’s course, Empower Yourself with Time Management
“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.” - Brian Tracy
Brian Tracy is a motivational speaker, author of over eighty books, and creator of the course “Empower Yourself with Time Management.”
Through this course, he helps people define time management and how to improve in this area of life. This course is filmed to make you feel like you’re sitting across the table from Brian. It is personal and has helped countless people learn how to manage their time and become more productive.
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit
Even though this book is not specifically about focus, understanding your habits and how to change them is a powerful tool towards improving your daily life and your productivity. This book will help you identify the core motivation behind your habits, which is the first step to changing them.
Charles Duhigg writes in such a way that is approachable while still being incredibly knowledgeable. There is a reason this book is on New York Times’, Amazon’s, and USA Today’s bestseller lists. It is a powerful book on the psychology of how habits are formed and how to re-form bad habits.
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