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Top 3 time management books

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on February 16, 2021

Self-help gets a bad rap, but research shows reading time management books can help you stop procrastinating and spend more time on high-priority tasks. That said, not all books on time management are created equal. To help you choose from the mass of productivity books on the market, I’ve briefly reviewed the best time management books below, based on (admittedly subjective) criteria. They’re all best-sellers with high ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads, and they’re all available on Audible, because who has time to sit and read?

1. Atomic Habits

Amazon rating: 5 stars

Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars

Atomic Habits is the trifecta of great time management books: readable, actionable, and concise. Clear masterfully uses dramatic storytelling throughout, beginning with the story of his traumatic brain injury. He uses stories about British cycling, cats in puzzle boxes, and a hospital cafeteria to impart lessons from psychology, philosophy, and social science on how to get more done in less time.

“While science supports everything I’ve written, this book is not meant to be an academic research paper,” Clear writes. “It’s an operating manual.” Clear builds upon Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to offer the four-step model of habits: Cue, craving, response, and reward. Habits that make you more productive and fulfilled are formed the same way as habits that hold you back. First there’s a stimulus. It’s followed by a behavior. Last comes a reward.

Clear starts the book with a compelling case that developing and maintaining “small” habits is key to prioritizing and completing your most important tasks. The trick to effective time management is harnessing this process to create habits that move you toward your goals.

Clear has separated his book into six parts. The Fundamentals is at the start. Advanced Tactics at the end. And the “four laws of behavior change” make up the middle. The four laws of behavior change are the four steps to breaking bad habits and setting good ones. These four parts are: Make It Obvious, Make It Attractive, Make It Easy, and Make It Satisfying.

The book is a great mix of lofty ideas and actionable tips. For example, Clear explains that true behavior change is identity change. Change happens when you see yourself as an X person (let’s say a tidy person or a punctual person) and take pride in that identity. So the goal should be to become a reader, runner, or musician rather than to read a book, run a marathon, or learn to play the violin. Your habits shape your identity. They give you evidence about who you are. And your identity drives your habits.

The actionable advice includes a habits scorecard, where you list your daily habits and rate them plus, minus, or neutral. I also liked his advice to “point and call” in order to notice your habits without judgment. His advice on setting “implementation intentions” (which is similar to time blocking) is great. To do this, you simply pre-decide (and you should calendar) “I will (habit) at (time) in (location).” His “habit stacking” tip is also great. This is when you decide “After I (current habit), I will (new habit).”

2. Deep Work

deep work cover

Amazon rating: 4.5 stars

Goodreads rating: 4.2 stars

In Deep Work, author and academic Cal Newport argues with compelling evidence that the modern working world is set up against productivity. Using stories from real life, Newport argues in Chapter 1 that “deep work” will become more valuable in the future and will remain automation-proof.

Deep work is creative, focused, and deeply human. It’s not scheduling meetings, answering emails and Slack messages, coordinating materials, or any of the busywork that tends to occupy and fragment the modern knowledge worker’s day. Rather, it’s that stuff we get done when we have the chance to put distractions aside and focus in on a particular problem that moves the world forward. This was the most interesting and valuable chapter in the book. I certainly came to the book already believing that deep work is increasingly rare (Chapter 2).

I did appreciate the research that went into Chapter 3, which covers the ways in which deep work is meaningful, using evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. At the same time, anyone who’s finished a day having made significant progress on a discrete project knows it feels more meaningful than a day spent task-switching to make incremental progress across projects.

The main criticism I have of Deep Work is that most knowledge work isn’t like blacksmithing, which Newport uses as an analogy in Chapter 3. Nor is it even like writing a book. At the end of the day, most of us don’t have a plow or a book to focus in on and work toward. Most knowledge work is a lot of little tasks, like scheduling meetings, answering Slack messages, calling that vendor back, that lead up to a new product launch or event. It’s true we’ll generally make progress faster, and enjoy ourselves more, if we can be interrupted less during the day.

3. When

when book cover

Amazon rating: 4.5 stars

Goodreads rating: 3.8

Clockwise enables users to automatically protect their lunch, so they get a break in the middle of their day to eat. Apparently, Daniel Pink approves. “It’s time we paid more attention to lunch, because social scientists are discovering that it’s far more important to our performance than we realize,” Pink writes. I learned, while reading When, that going outside for lunch is empirically associated with better performance than the "sad desk lunch."

The book is full of social science research on time and time management, from circadian rhythms to the empirical benefits of singing in a choir. That said, Pink isn’t much of a storyteller and his writing style isn’t for everyone. For a book about time, the book is broken up a little counterintuitively, into the following three sections:

1. The Day

2. Beginnings, Endings, and In-Between

3. Synching and Thinking

Read this book if you’re a social science nerd who loves saying “studies show” before rattling off a factoid. It’s evidence-based and easy-to-understand. If you’re looking for solid, actionable advice on how to improve your time management, this probably isn’t your best bet.

For instance, I was interested to learn that couples who married at 25 were 11% less likely to divorce than those who married at 24. However, as a 35-year-old divorcee, I’m not sure how I’d use that information at all, much less use it to be more productive at work. Similarly, it’s interesting, if not immediately actionable, that “time” is the most common noun in the English language.

I learned a lot from When. For example, I didn’t know about the research showing that the benefits of naps, including improved cognitive performance and physical and mental health, increase as we age. Some other time management suggestions I liked were:

  • Schedule three breaks on your calendar each day along with what you plan to do with them (Note: We’re big fans of time blocking here at Clockwise)

  • Use midpoints (when you’re halfway through a project or task) for “uh oh, let’s get to work” rather than “oh no, we’re doomed.”

  • When team morale is high, emphasize how far you have to go.

  • When team morale is low, emphasize how much you’ve accomplished.

  • Close the day with a thank you email to someone. The research on gratitude practices is robust. It stands to reason bringing other people into your practice would be even better. It might be a lot to do this daily, but weekly makes sense to me -- perhaps every Friday to close the work week.

Each chapter ends with a “Time Hacker’s Handbook,” containing tips for applying what you’ve learned with solid, if not exactly groundbreaking advice.

Going forward

In this distracting world, it’s great to know there are time management books that can help us get more done in less time. And maybe enjoy ourselves a little more in the process. Atomic Habits, Deep Work, and When are three of the best time management books on the market right now. I recommend you check them all out and let me know what you think. Any others you think I should read? Let me know: cathy at getclockwise.com

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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