27 December 2008

Living in the Future - Best Books of 2008

I read three books in 2008 that had an enormous impact on me. Each taken separately is an excellent book, but the combination of reading the three together, almost back to back, has revolutionized my outlook on work, productivity, and life.

The first was called The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferris. Ferris introduced me to the concept of Lifestyle Design, which in my mind boils down to a simple maxim: there comes a time when you have to stop sacrificing for the future and start living in the future. Otherwise, there is no future, just an empty dream. Ferris showed, using his own adventurous life as and example, that it is possible to start living the life that you want much sooner than you think, if you focus and think outside the box.

Of course the life I want is not the one portrayed in the book, but that’s part of the point. Ferris recommends sitting down with pen in hand and really figuring out what you want, and what it would really take to get it. Then make a plan, and focus until you achieve it. It sounds obvious, but the book was truly inspirational to me. It’s a fun, frolicking read with amusing anecdotes, and the author’s “no BS” attitude is both an ingredient in the writing and a primary lesson of the book.

The second book was less beach shorts and t-shirts, rather more suit and tie, but it touched on similar topics and gave even more excellent advice. That book is The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker, possibly the most respected management consultant of the 20th century and often referred to as the “father of modern management”. Despite its provenance, The Effective Executive is not a giant business school tome, but a thin, accessible volume with the subtitle “the definitive guide to getting the right things done”. Lest you think the book applies only to fat old men whose job titles begin with “Chief” and end with “Officer”, Drucker defines an executive, to paraphrase, as anyone whose job is making decisions. In this information economy, that’s most of us.

Where Ferris was high-energy and from-the-gut, Drucker is all analysis and calm deliberation. Many of the principles of The 4-Hour Workweek are validated by Drucker and explored in greater depth. Drucker explains in detail and illustrates through anecdotes of 20th century business how effectiveness, synonymous with success, can be learned and exercised to produce far more with the limited resources we have. Whereas most of us in search of success focus our attention on doing things right, Drucker demonstrates that to be truly effective, we need to be doing the right things. Success, he tells us, depends more on what we decide not to do than on what we get done, an attitude echoed by Ferris.

If you only read one of the three books, read The Effective Executive. It is short and contains the essence of the lessons of all three.

Finally, where The Effective Executive makes some recommendations about how to organize your time and your work to be effective, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity takes that ball and runs with it, documenting a precise, all-encompassing system for tracking your tasks and time. GTD, as it is broadly known, has many adherents who write voluminously in their blogs about productivity, so I won’t give any details here.

What I will say is that the real value of this book to me was not the detailed system itself, but the understanding of the psychology of stress relating to work. Circling back to Drucker and Ferris, to be successful you must be focused on the right things, but the psychological focus buster is that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that there is something else you should be doing. Creating a reliable system to catch and sort all those things, and then relying on that system, allows you to let go of all those worries and truly focus on what is important. Allen even touches on the idea that you should regularly review your tasks and projects to make sure you are doing the right things, but by far the bigger part of his message is about the system itself. To really understand the idea of choosing the right things to do, and the right things not to do, you need to read Drucker, or at least Ferris.

Taken together, these three books have created a revolution in my life and completely changed my attitude toward work and the life it enables. I have been less stressed and more productive this year, and I have defined and taken large steps toward the life I really want to be living. A big 2008 THANK YOU to these authors.

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