You probably admire someone who is hyper-successful. On the surface, they seem to consistently get more done with less stress. The thing is, they don't have any secret sauce or advantage over you. Just better habits.
One example of a habit that consistently sets people apart is their commitment to learning. For self-made billionaire, Charlie Munger, the simple habit of reading is the key to wisdom and success. “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero,” Munger says in author David Clark’s The Tao of Charlie Munger.
Where you are today, both personally and professionally, is the sum of your daily habits. Habits work. They are what allow every successful person to consistently achieve their goals over long periods of time. Changing habits that don’t help you reach your goals are just as important. The habits you make or break today compound over weeks and months until you barely recognise yourself in a year. Compounding is magic—your daily habits create a snowball effect of positive change in your life.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” —James Clear, Atomic Habits
I love this statement because it’s absolutely true. It’s one of those key pieces of wisdom that you can leverage to drastically improve your life once you understand it. Think about your week so far—how's it going? Have you been eating as well as you’d like to? Been stressed or tired? Have you accomplished your new year resolution? These are all the direct results of your daily habits.
A huge chunk of our day is already made up of mindless habits. A 2014 study confirmed that more than 40 per cent of our daily routine is made up of unconscious habits. These habits make sure we don't have to make millions of small decisions about when to brush your teeth, what media to consume, and whether or not we exercise.
But what about the other 60%? If you know that flossing is good for you, then why is it so hard to build it into an everyday habit? And why is it so hard to shake a bad habit? Research reveals that your willpower wears out throughout the day the more you use it, just like a muscle. Motivation is inconsistent and comes and goes—a phenomenon that BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, calls the “motivation wave”. In a recent New York Times article, Fogg explains that “big behavior changes require a high level of motivation that often can’t be sustained.”
This explains why you have such a hard time breaking habits or why it is much harder to build up the motivation to go for a 5km run after a long day. Your motivation muscle is worn out. Your intention may be to go for a run daily, but your habits do not support this goal, leaving you vulnerable to your dwindling, piss-weak willpower.
One way to overcome this is to learn to engage your habitual mind versus your intentional mind. Instead of relying on your motivation to go for a 5km run at 6pm, start smaller and carve out time every morning to go for a 10-minute quick jog while your motivation muscle is strongest.
Make change as easy as possible. It doesn’t matter if you miss a day, even the top performers do. Just get back on track and try not to miss two days in a row, something Matt D'Avella creatively labels “The Two Day Rule”. As you string these small wins together, your motivation and willpower will grow with your fitness and in no time it becomes a habit. Just something you do every day without thinking too much about (like brushing your teeth). You can apply this to anything in life. One per cent improvements add up surprisingly fast.
I’m still mastering the art of building good habits in my life but I’ve found this approach particularly useful, even with breaking old habits. I’ve found that habits that involve instant gratification are easiest, like studying to learn a new skill daily. While habits with mid-long term result are much harder to make establish (I’ve tried and failed to meditate daily half a dozen times now).
This brings us to the very first list on Good Books. Human behavioural science has come a long way since Stephen Covey’s phenomenal The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. These are the new must read books on how to build better habits and to break bad habits, even if you’re not a reader. Few books have had as much of an impact on my life than Cal Newport’s Deep Work or James Clear’s Atomic Habits—focus and habitual behaviour are a powerful force multiplier. The books on this list will help you to think through what you want to achieve and how to build good habits to get you there.
Atomic Habits is a useful book. It’s actionable, practical and written in clear and precise no-bullshit prose. One of the key themes throughout Atomic Habits is automating your life, the idea that "You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems."
James Clear takes you through the psychological, scientific, and anecdotal evidence of habit formation, with practical examples and tips to help you create a new habit or eliminate a bad one. He focuses on the small wins—making 1% improvements every day that form the foundations of a good habit. Over time, these small improvements become the architect of our lives.
“An Atomic Habit is a tiny habit or change that can have an enormous impact on your life. Getting up a little earlier, deleting social media from your phone, automating your savings, developing a system, these are atomic habits. Me personally, I don’t feel like I am particularly talented or even that disciplined, but I have a number of atomic habits that I started early on that have had a massive compounding benefit. My blurb of this one: “A special book that will change how you approach your day and live your life.” —Ryan Holiday, author of Stillness is the Key
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.
Few books have been as transformative for me as Cal Newport’s Deep Work. In an attention-deficit economy, we have lost our ability to focus and solve complex problems. As more companies embrace open offices, Slack, work-from-home policies and move towards building a remote team, our attention spans are only getting shorter.
When was the last time you were able to focus on one task, uninterrupted, for just 60 minutes? Or when was the last time you managed to “get some real work done”? In the first half of the book, Cal’s explains why deep work is so valuable and increasingly rare in today’s attention-deficit economy. Shallow work, on the other hand, is made up of non-cognitively demanding tasks that can be performed while semi-distracted. These jobs (and workers) are easily replicated and it’s a race-to-the-bottom for your career.
The ability to work deeply is perhaps the most valuable skill you can learn. It’s a skill that can be sharpened, practised, and leveraged in every aspect of your life. To master deep work, you can focus not just on “getting things done” but on “getting valuable things done” in less time.
Jason Fried’s company, 37signals (now Basecamp), was an early proponent of the value of deep work, cutting their employees’ workday to 4-days in 2012 and increasing productivity in parallel by promoting a distraction-free environment. More recently, Microsoft tested a 4-day workweek in Japan that led to a 40% increase in productivity by reducing distracting meetings, emails and “shallow” work.
In the 1980s, Bill Gates famously adopted his own "think weeks" where he spends two weeks alone in the forest twice a year. It is reported that he never missed these periods of deep work, no matter what was going on at Microsoft. Gates understands the value of Deep Work.
A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Deep Work will teach you practical steps to fight for more deep work in your life and to focus on what’s important. Read this book and then listen to the audiobook—make it still and it will instil positive changes in your career, habits and life.
“Cal Newport is a clear voice in a sea of noise, bringing science and passion in equal measure. We don’t need more clicks, more cats, and more emojis. We need brave work, work that happens when we refuse to avert our eyes.” —Seth Godin, author of Linchpin
If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
You’ll find The Power of Habit on almost every productivity list and for good reason. Written in 2014 by award-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg, it explains how our habits are formed and broken in an intelligent model that is understandable, sharp, and useful. Duhigg provides practical strategies and techniques backed by psychology, research, and real-life examples.
If you’re interested in learning how your brain is wired and why some habits fail and succeed, this book is a fascinating eye-opener. It will kick-start a different thinking process around habits and how you see your everyday actions.
“You’ll never look at yourself, your organization, or your world quite the same way.” —Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive and A Whole New Mind
Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.
Often we get caught up in the busyness of life and lose focus on the things we want to do. Greg McKeown’s Essentialism is a book that I think everyone should read. It focuses on an idea It is an idea whose time has come: do less. Essentialism clears your judgement and gives you permission to focus on what really matters instead of trying to do everything.
“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” — Greg McKeown, Essentialism
In applying McKeown’s advice and defining strict criteria for what is essential in your life, you’ll reclaim invaluable time, energy and focus. McKeown calls this “the disciplined pursuit of less.”
“Entrepreneurs succeed when they say “yes” to the right project, at the right time, in the right way. To accomplish this, they have to be good at saying “no” to all their other ideas. Essentialism offers concise and eloquent advice on how to determine what you care about most, and how to apply your energies in ways that ultimately bring you the greatest rewards.” —Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and co-author of The Start-up of You
Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.
When you ever take on a huge project that seems insurmountable, the first thing to do is to break it down into small steps and to just get started. Over time, these small steps can either build momentum into something great, or they can wear you down until you lose sight of the end goal and lose your motivation. This is a trap even the best operators fall into.
“We’ve been conditioned by society to believe in the effectiveness of a great display of massive effort.” — Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect
This book is a great primer on habit formation and will teach you to embrace the power of small steps. The tiny choices you make every day and the discipline you learn will lead to massive accomplishments over time. This is the beauty of compounding and you can apply it to any aspect of your life, career, finances or fitness.
Small, smart choices + consistency + time = radical difference.
You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.
I approached Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism as the sequel to his hugely impactful Deep Work. It’s the synthesis of Cal’s learnings over the three years since Deep Work was published and is a timely cultural critique on our reliance on technology and a practical guide to regaining control of our attention.
Deep Work is perhaps the most valuable skill you can learn and leverage in our attention-deficit society. In Digital Minimalism, Newport makes an unsettlingly strong case for how and why we should be reducing our use of technology (in particular, social media), and why we need to be more specific and careful about our use.
Digital Minimalism is a philosophy that will teach you where to draw the line and how to focus this energy and attention on what matters instead; your goals and quality of life. Time off our digital devices is the key to living a focused life in a noisy world.
“A manifesto of great practical import for our modern age….I estimate that [my interview with Cal] rates among the most consequential conversations I’ve had in the 6+ year history of this podcast.” —Rich Roll, host of the Rich Roll Podcast, author of Finding Ultra
The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.
A Poor Richard's Almanack for the 21st century, Tools of Titans is an invaluable resource of advice, habits and philosophies from top performers around the world. More than just a compilation of lifehacks (you should inherently distrust anybody who tells you there is a shortcut to success), this book is a practical and inspiring guide to being your best. Weighing in at 707-pages, it’s one of the most highly-recommended books on this site and is the result of years interviewing people who are considered the best in their fields.
We all have much to learn and improve in our lives, and it’s a commitment to life-long learning that will be the true differentiator over time. This book is filled with lessons worth learning. If you can apply the lessons, principles and philosophies within this book to your own life, you can stand on the shoulders of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.
In Tim’s own words:
“I created this book, my ultimate notebook of high-leverage tools, for myself. It’s changed my life, and I hope the same for you.” —Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans
“What I loved about Tools of Titans is that it distils key tactics, routines and habits of the ultra-successful in actionable ways that anyone can take advantage of.” —Tony Robbins, author of Unshakeable
The most important trick to be happy is to realize that happiness is a choice that you make and a skill that you develop. You choose to be happy, and then you work at it. It’s just like building muscles.
Grit, as defined by author Angela Duckworth, is the combination of passion and perseverance towards long-term goals. According to Duckworth, grit matters more than talent in the long-run and is a predictor of success measured in success stories.
We’d like to believe in hard work more than in talent, but we’re conditioned to believe in the opposite. Grit describes what goes into incredible personal achievements across various fields and what you can do to cultivate it in your own life. Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.
“With a mix of masterful storytelling and the latest science, she shows that perseverance and passion matter at least as much as talent and intelligence. And far from simply urging us to work harder for the sake of working harder, Grit offers a truly sane perspective: that true success comes when we devote ourselves to endeavors that give us joy and purpose.” —Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive
Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.
Most of what we know about motivation is wrong. In Drive, Daniel Pink reveals how the carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding “good” behaviour and punishing “bad” behaviour is now the old-school notion of motivation and no longer relevant in today’s world. Once our basic hierarchy of needs are met, we’re actually more motivated by our desire for Mastery, a sense of Autonomy, and a driving Purpose.
Pink draws on four decades of scientific research and understanding of what really drives us, with practical advice on how to build a framework around the rewards mechanism. In Drive, you’ll learn how to realise and harness your innate drive to sharpen your habits and productivity.
Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one's sights and pushing toward the horizon.
Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing is a great primer on goal-setting, focus and discipline. If you only take one thing from this book, the question you need to ask for everything is simple and deceptively powerful:
“What’s the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?”
Throughout The ONE Thing, Keller emphasises heavily the value of the 80/20 or Pareto principle in getting to what you want in life. This is also an underlying theme in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. Both of these books teach you to live a disciplined life focused on the most important things, and to ignore the trivial distractions. Pareto’s law of 80% of outputs are driven by 20% of inputs is a predictable law of nature, not just an interesting theory. One of my favourite quotes from this book reads like a modern-day Chinese proverb:
“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” —Gary Keller, The ONE Thing
Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls-- family, health, friends, integrity-- are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.
Tiny Habits is a recently published book from Stanford Professor BJ Fogg, who focuses on behavioural research that will improve people’s lives. Tiny Habits is based on 20 years of research and Fogg’s experience coaching over 40,000 people on how to create a happier, healthier life through habit formation.
Unlike many books on the subject, Fogg’s advice is not just a summary of previous methods; it is a mix of modern behavioural science, psychology, and Fogg’s own proprietary strategies and method. Tiny Habits is the 21-st century approach to forming better habits and making them stick.
“Deeply researched and highly practical, this book will be a valuable resource to anyone interested in changing their behavior (that is, all of us).” —Gretchen Rubin, author of Outer Order, Inner Calm
So many frustrating family dynamics and workplace dramas erupt because of the misplaced belief that manipulation motivation is the key to changing behavior. But now you know that simplicity is what reliably changes behavior.