Losing Your Competitive Edge? Here Are the Best Books to Read on Increasing Your Focus, Organization & Productivity

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Losing Your Competitive Edge? Here Are the Best Books to Read on Increasing Your Focus, Organization & Productivity
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Losing Your Competitive Edge? Here Are the Best Books to Read on Increasing Your Focus, Organization & Productivity

It’s easy to be cynical when you pick up a book on productivity. As you flip through it, you may come across puzzling concepts like “finding the weakest link,” “going agile” and “incorporating the principles of lean.” Or else it’s full of the same old self-help mumbo jumbo about “discovering your why,” and “being present and mindful.”

It may leave someone wondering: Does any of this stuff actually work? And more importantly, Does the author get my problem and my situation?

Maybe you feel like an ostrich, and you’re constantly running at full speed. Yet, remarkably, it never all gets done. Or you feel like a sloth, and simply cannot power through another boring day of work. You’re at the brink, about to throw in the towel.

You probably catch glimpses of the life that you want to be living: the books you want to read, the restaurants you want to eat out at, the friends you want to reconnect with. But it never happens, as you’re trapped in your so-called life of busyness and overwhelm.

When we think of “productivity,” it often conjures up images of factories with plant managers, conveyor belts, assembly lines, work-in-process and inventory.


While in a broader sense, productivity looks at how we go about our everyday lives. It’s about how we approach our work, family and even leisure time. Scrum, a productivity method popular among software developers, teaches principles that easily apply to how we manage our home and family lives. As does the theory of constraints, spelled out in Eli Goldratt’s book, The Goal.

And so do you want to discover simple techniques that help you power through even the most arduous project? Do you want to create habits that allow you to stay focused amidst a world of distraction? Do you want to discover the productivity secrets behind the best organizations in the world?

Then settle in, because we’re about to take a look at some of the best books to read on increasing focus and productivity. Some of these books are hot off the press, while others are decades old, and present groundbreaking theories on how to approach manufacturing and project management. Some are full of how-tos, with lessons you can apply this very day, while others pan out and take a more theoretical approach.

But they all promise to improve output and decrease input. That’s technical language for improving our work performance and the quality of our lives, while maintaining our peace of mind. That’s not a bad promise, is it?

The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System that Has Transformed How We Work by Francesco Cirillo

The Pomodoro Technique - The Book on ProductivityPublisher: Currency
Year Published: 2018
Number of Pages: 160

“Remember, time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round.”
Francesco Cirillo quotes Charles Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” in the introduction to his book, The Pomodoro Technique.

“Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato” and Cirillo, a consultant from Italy, displays on his book’s cover one of those tomato timers you often see sitting on stovetops, reminding you to take the cookies out of the oven.

And why? This tomato timer is the only tool required in his remarkably simple yet effective time management method that takes on this “greedy player.” The Pomodoro Technique promises to tackle overwhelm and to keep you pressing on through a boring or complicated project, working diligently the whole time.

The method, in its simplest form, entails setting the timer for 25 minutes and focusing on the task at hand. When the timer goes off, take a five minute break, then resume working for another 25 minutes. After four sessions, take a longer break of 20 minutes or so.

Why does it work? Cirillo says the “becoming” aspect of time generates anxiety. Time keeps coming at us, regardless. It’s easy to get bogged down when something takes too long, or we’re running late. It robs us of our élan vital, our momentum.

His technique of working in 25 minute windows keeps our focus on the present. We’re not looking into the “axis of time,” into upcoming hours and days. Rather, we’re looking at the here and now.

The book lists eight goals of the Pomodoro Technique, including “Improve One’s Work or Study Process,” “Alleviate Anxiety Linked to Becoming” and “Strengthen One’s Determination to Keep Applying One’s-self in Complex Situations.”

The book is easy to read, and very short. The method is applicable to anyone who wants to manage time better, either within a team or individually.
The author owns Cirillo Consulting, out of Berlin. He developed his technique in college, to assist with studying. Initially, The Pomodoro Technique was a pdf on his website, and it was downloaded over 2 million times.

Readers like The Pomodoro Technique for its simplicity, and find that Cirillo thoroughly discusses how to overcome the mental battles associated with completing a project.

The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future by Ryder Carroll

The Bullet Journal Method - Productivity BookPublisher: Portfolio
Year Published: 2018
Number of Pages: 320

“Rather than being proactive about setting priorities, a lot of us simply let the flood of external demands set them for us,” Ryder Carroll writes in his New York Times best-selling book, The Bullet Journal Method.

The method requires something few of us do anymore, in this digital age: holding a pen to paper. And the promises of this simple action are huge. Through bullet journaling, we’ll:

  • Find time for all things we’re meaning to do.
  • Increase our productivity.
  • Reclaim the driver’s seat over our daily lives and schedules.
  • Achieve breakthrough: find dream jobs, move, end toxic relationships.

How does journaling achieve these ends? A central benefit of the method is finding clarity by putting onto paper everything that’s jumbled in our brains.

“Information overload is worse for our focus than exhaustion or smoking marijuana,” Carroll writes.

Bullet journaling is a trending topic these days, and not one Carroll has exclusively conceived. Images of pretty “to-do” matrices are frequently posted on blogs, Instagram and Pinterest, tracking anything from household chores to exercise routines.

But his original presentation of the idea takes the cake. The Bullet Journal Method merits our undivided attention. It’s super well organized, with clear headings and ideas that logically flow from one to another.

He presents the method using anecdotes and humor. When he introduces mindfulness, for example, he writes, “Uh-oh, the M word. Don’t worry, no sitars required.” And the book’s design creatively hearken back to his method: the table of contents and the inscription are typed in Carroll’s own script.

The Bullet Journal Method consists of four parts: The Preparation, The System, The Practice, and The Art. His book is helpful for those of us whose daily schedule feels like a meaningless deluge of to-dos. It helps to reclaim the “why” alongside the “what.”

Carroll lives in Brooklyn and has worked for Adidas, IBM and Macy’s. Readers find that bullet journaling helps in all areas of life, including losing weight, socializing and studying. The book includes a lot of philosophizing behind the journaling concept, which some found excessive.

Essential Kanban Condensed by David Anderson and Andy Carmichael

Essential Kanban Condensed - A Book on ProductivityPublisher: Lean-Kanban University
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 102

Have you ever sat around at work, waiting for someone to finish their portion of a project so that you could start on yours?

Essential Kanban Condensed presents a system that mitigates this sort of waste and inefficiency.

Kanban is a methodology developed by David Anderson around 2004, while working as an employee at Microsoft. It promises to eliminate bottlenecks in work systems, and increase the value of the output. The simple principles of kanban apply across the board: whether managing a household or creating software. Its principles are helpful for a team who doesn’t feel like its powers are aligned and is looking for a better way.

The cover of Essential Kanban clearly displays the method’s key principles and practices. It pictures an image of an upside down packaging box, with the flaps open. One flap reads “Principles” and lists “Start With What You Do NOW,” and “Encourage Leadership at Every Level” above it. The second flap reads “Practices” and lists “Limit WIP,” “Feedback Loops,” and “Improve and Evolve” above it.

Kanban borrows heavily from lean and the theory of constraints. Limiting work in process (WIP) is central to kanban: it’s a pull system, meaning that work items must be completed before going onto the next one.

At only 100 pages, this book distills kanban to the basics. Anderson noticed that many organizations understood kanban superficially, and so adapted it superficially to their systems.

“Our goal is to capture Kanban’s essence as briefly as possible. As a result, this book is short on detail, advice, choices and specific examples.”

Anderson has worked at IBM, Sprint, Motorola and Microsoft. He founded Kanban University in 2011. Carmichael coaches software engineers and is active in agile and kanban communities.

Not Today: The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity by Erica and Mike Shultz

Not Today The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity Book by Erica and Mike ShultzPublisher: Matt Holt Books
Year Published: 2021
Number of Pages: 224

Do you ever bribe yourself to do something? “If you do the laundry, then you get ice cream.” Sometimes, conjuring up motivation feels like searching for gold.

Not Today includes hacks and systems for all our productivity woes, including zapped momentum. Erica and Mike Shultz’s book teaches how to meet the sometimes exacting demands of daily life, and to do so for the right reasons.

The book’s prologue includes this note from the editor: “In some books, you can skip the prologue and you won’t miss much. This is not one of those books.”

Over the next thirty or so pages, the authors recount a heart-wrenching story of their son undergoing heart surgery in utero. He eventually dies from heart failure at the age of five.

This book recounts the system they developed while caring for him. “Without any room for error, they made none. They created a system, organized the medication, developed the schedule, and administered the medicines,” Tom Rinaldi writes in the forward.

They present the system in three “Productivity Codes”:

  • #1 Manufacture Motivation
  • #2 Control Your TIME
  • #3 Execute in the Zone

Readers love how the story weaves productivity lessons into a touching story. Their website includes templates and sheets for incorporating the system.

Mike Shultz is the author of Rainmaking Conversations, a book about the art of sales conversations. The couple runs The Rain Group, a Boston-based company that provides virtual and in-person sales training.

Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction by Chris Bailey

Hyperfocus - The Productivity Book by Chris BaileyPublisher: Viking
Year Published: 2018
Number of Pages: 256

Isn’t it frustrating when you can’t recall something like the pin to your debit card while standing at the check-out counter, but it comes to you later, when you’re relaxing at home over a glass of wine?

This begs the questions: Is it possible to deliberately get into a relaxed head-space where information is readily accessible?

In his book Hyperfocus, author Chris Bailey says we’re not at the mercy of the whims of our attention span. In fact, we can train our brains to focus. It is a habit, a disposition.

His book is a compilation of hours and hours of research on attention and focus. He finds that habits of multi-tasking and scattered focus generate angst, while habits of focused attention generate calm and serenity.

Not surprisingly, Bailey isn’t a fan of texting and messaging all day long. “Constant connectivity is one of the worst disruptions to our focus and productivity.”

However, the ability to unfocus; to take a walk, to get our head out of the game; unleashes creativity.

“When we invest our limited attention intelligently and deliberately, we focus more deeply and think more clearly.”

He explains how to apply this research to daily life. The book induces ten chapters, covering topics such as: “Your Brain’s Hidden Creative Mode” and “Making Hyperfocus a Habit.”

Hyperfocus takes a new spin on productivity. It’s about analyzing what the individual brings to a project rather than looking at how a system works. It’s helpful for anyone who feels like they’re constantly confronted with distractions.

The writing is visual and he includes creative non-fiction with his musings on productivity. Readers find that Bailey’s tactics really work. Some liked the second half even better than the first.

Bailey has been writing about productivity for years, and is published in The New York Time and the Wall Str eet Journal. He also wrote the book, The Productivity Project. He lives in Kingston, Canada.

The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones & Daniel Roos

The Machine That Changed the WorldPublisher: Free Press
Year Published: 2007 (Second Edition)
Number of Pages: 352

In the 1980s, James Womack and Daniel Jones, automobile researchers at MIT, visited the Toyota manufacturing plant in Japan. The Time Machine That Changed the World is a summary of what they discovered.

The book became a bestseller, and proved to be groundbreaking. The lean production method they introduced upset conventional approaches to manufacturing, and its principles are now incorporated across all industries.

The book compares the lean production method employed by Toyota and the mass production method employed by Ford and General Motors.

“In simplest terms, this book tells the story of mass versus lean and shows why lean is superior,” they write in the introduction.

The lean method, they find, creates less waste, produces a superior final product, and engages employees better than mass production.

Although the book looks at automobile manufacturing, the principles apply to any organization, whether service or manufacturing, and even to daily life.

The Machine That Changed the World is a historical book. It’s excellent for anyone interested in the theory behind efficiency and productivity. Some readers say it’s required reading for anyone in operations or manufacturing.

The authors distill lean into five principles:

Identify Value

A lean system looks at its processes and asks: Is this action adding to the value we’re seeking to create?

Map Value Stream

This entails looking at what is really going on within the organization right now, and distinguishing actions that add value from those that are unnecessary and don’t add value. The next step is eliminating anything in the latter category.

Create Flow

This means finding places in the workflow with bottlenecks, and fixing them, as well as identifying places where defects or inconsistencies occur and reducing them.

Establish Pull

Have you ever seen coffee cups stack up next to an espresso machine during a morning rush? This is an example of a bottleneck along a push system. A lean approach corrects for this inefficiency. A pull system, rather, entails making things only as they’re needed.

Continuous Improvement

Lean strives for continuous improvement. Nothing is ever deemed “best,” but rather “better.”

These principles were developed by Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno at the Toyota production plant, and Womack and Jones relate everything they learned from visiting the plant.

The authors are now leaders in the lean movement. Womack is president of Lean Enterprise Institute in Massachusetts, and Jones is the Chairman of Lean Enterprise Academy in the United Kingdom.

Although some readers find the book focuses too myopically on the automobile industry, others believe it’s a good foundational book on lean productivity.

The 7-Minute Productivity Solution: How to Manage Your Schedule, Overcome Distraction, and Achieve the Results You Want by John Brandon

The 7-Minute Productivity Solution BookPublisher: Revell
Year Published: 2022
Number of Pages: 256

It’s so common during the workday to take a much needed break, and to spend it surfing the web, where disturbing new stories and social media posts leave us more stressed out than before.

John Brandon’s book, The 7-Minute Productivity Solution, says that creating routines around everything we do (including breaks) is the solution to reaping the desired benefit from everyday actions.

In a personal voice and with interesting anecdotes that engage the reader, Brandon describes his routines around starting the day, planning the day, taking breaks and staying on track.

Routines keep us focused on what we’re intending to accomplish in the present moment.

“I’m easily distracted and have multiple “squirrel moments” throughout the day, so I need routines to guide me.”

He promises the methods in his book save time, improve results, and increase our overall well-being. The book is for anyone. “Improve all of us we can,” he writes, echoing the wisdom of Yoda.

Brandon has written professionally for over two decades. The inception of this book came from a viral article he wrote for Inc. Magazine about a 7-minute morning routine.

His book provides what he sees as a more rounded view on time management. “The real reason for becoming more efficient is because that honors who we are as humans. We are good workers at heart. I choose to become intentional with my time because my time on this planet is limited.”

The book is written in two parts. The first is around developing good habits, where he introduces the 7-minute morning routine, and also covers taking breaks, planning and debriefing.

The second part discusses bad habits, such as email, web surfing and social media. It includes the chapters “What Happens to Your Brain When You Surf” and “Avoiding the Doom Scroll on Social Media.” Each chapter ends with practical tips.

Brandon has written over 15,000 online articles, for Inc., Forbes, Wired, Christianity Today, and many other online publications. He earned a BA in journalism and began writing full time in 2001.

Readers like how the book includes Brandon’s personal insights and anecdotes. They also benefit from the practical tips and the guidance around break routines.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox

The Goal - A Process of Ongoing Improvement Book by Eliyahu M Goldratt and Jeff CoxPublisher: North River Press
Year Published: 2014 (30th Anniversary Edition)
Number of Pages: 362

“Productivity is meaningless unless you know what your goal is,” Jonah, a physics professor, tells Alex, a plant manager, in Eli Goldratt’s classic book, The Goal.

In the book, Goldratt presents his theory of constraints amidst a fictionalized story of his experience working as plant manager. When you meet Alex, the plant is in chaos. Piles of work-in-process clog production lines, skilled workers are quitting and others workers are laid off.

He’s given six months to turn the situation around, and fortuitously runs into an old friend. Jonah, using the Socratic method, prods Alex to look closer at his systems and improve them.

Although initially Alex evaluates the plant’s productivity using the principles of cost accounting, eventually he concludes that “the capacity of the plant is equal to the capacity of its bottlenecks.”

“Since the strength of the chain is determined by the weakest link, then the first step to improve an organization must be to identify the weakest link.”

This is the essence of the theory of constraints. It says that a plant’s productivity is limited by its slowest processes, and there’s always at least one. This theory was revolutionary at the time, but since then it’s been incorporated into many organizations. Kanban is heavily influenced by the theory of constraints.

Goldratt’s purpose in writing The Goal is to explain how manufacturing works. He uses the novel format because it allows readers to see production through an everyday lens. He also hopes that “readers would see the validity and value of these principles in their organizations such as banks, hospitals, insurance companies and our families. Maybe the same potential for growth and improvement exists in all organizations.”

Goldratt tells his story in 20 chapters. Between covering the drama Alex has at the plant and his drama at home with his wife, it’s a gripping read all the way to the end.

The Goal has sold over seven million copies and has been translated into 32 languages. Goldratt became a leader in manufacturing, and founded Goldratt Consulting and TOC for Education, to teach his method in schools. He passed away in 2011.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and J. J. Sutherland

Scrum - The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time BookPublisher: Currency
Year Published: 2014
Number of Pages: 256

Have you ever used a software system that you couldn’t stand, as it never did anything the way you thought it should?

Jeff Sutherland saw this happen over and over while working as a software engineer in the 80s and 90s. Using the rigid “waterfall” method, the team planned everything at the beginning, then went into a black box to create a product for the customer.

“(Waterfall) was slow, unpredictable, and often never resulted in a product that people wanted or would pay to buy. Delays of months or even years were endemic to the process…to overcome these faults, in 1993 I invented a new way of doing things: Scrum.”

Scrum is an iterative approach to software development that allows for change. The scrum method emphasizes frequent communication with the client, and so ultimately leads to creating useful products that people really want to use.

Scrum quickly became adopted by software companies. The purpose of Sutherlands’ book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice The Work in Half the Time is to disseminate his method to a wider audience.

In the book, Sutherland first explains the danger of waterfall and gantt charts. Then he explains the origins of scrum, and what it consists of. He concludes with an explanation of how to implement scrum.

Jeff Sutherland invented scrum with Ken Schwaber in 1993. He is an original signer of Agile Manifesto and is also the CEO of Scrum, Inc. J. J. Sutherland is a scrum consultant and previously reported for NPR.

Readers have found that the book is an entertaining way to learn about the basics of agile.

Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy

Eat That Frog - The Best Book on ProductivityPublisher: Barrett-Koehler Publishers
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 144

Do you know what the biggest nation in the world is? Procrastination!

Ho ho, there’s a grain of truth to every joke. Everyone benefits from the tips and tricks in Brian Tracy’s book, Eat That Frog. Some even make reading it an annual tradition.

“The ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, to do it well and to finish it completely, is the key to great success, achievement, respect, status, and happiness in life. This key insight is the heart and soul of this book.”

This book is a gem for anyone who struggles with productivity, procrastination and time management. Tracy says we’ll always have scads of things to do, and we’ll never finish them all. Time management is about identifying the most important things, and focusing on them.

It includes “no lengthy departures into theory or research.” Rather, it consists exclusively of practical and applicable time management tricks.

The first trick he tackles is eating the frog. It has two rules: eat the ugliest frog first and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Other tips include: “Plan Every Day in Advance,” “Develop a Sense of Urgency,” “Technology is a Wonderful Servant,” “Technology is a Terrible Master” and “Motive Yourself into Action.”

This book is like a productivity buffet; you can hop around in it and pick up a few pointers here and there. It has been wildly popular, and ranks in Amazon’s top ten for three book categories, including Personal Time Management.

Tracy says the book is the result of 40 years of studying time management and trying things out. He is the President and CEO of Brian Tracey International, where he provides training and consulting. He has written 45 books, including Create Your Own Future and The Psychology of Selling. He lives in California.

From To-Do to Done: How to Go from Busy to Productive by Mastering Your To-Do List by Maura Thomas

From To-Do to Done - Productivity BookPublisher: Simple Truths
Year Published: 2021
Number of Pages: 152

Many of us fall prey to the phenomenon of “patchwork productivity.” We may stay on top of everything at work, while many, many other things in our lives fall through the cracks. We never make it to the gym, routinely forget to send Christmas cards, and we order take-out every single night.

Maura Thomas’ book, From To-Do to Done, is about being our best selves in all areas of our lives. Being a great spouse, parent, friend, employee, CEO and citizen means taking hold of our productivity.

This book is helpful for people whose hamster wheels never stop spinning, but who don’t find satisfaction in completing anything. Thomas seeks to help us align the “why” of our lives with the “what” of our everyday activities.

“The pursuit of productivity empowers us to choose our answers to two questions: ‘What kind of person do you want to be?’ and ‘What kind of life do you want to live?’”

Her book emphasizes getting beyond the stage of “busyness” to a place where we’re proactive about deciding how we spend our time.

From To-Do to Done has an attractive layout with bright yellow and apricot colors throughout.

Readers love the illustrations, and find that her tips are easy to apply.

This book is the third in Thomas’ productivity series. Her earlier books are Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. She was inspired to write From To-Do to Done to help readers navigate the lifestyle changes during covid, when nearly all work went remote.

It’s a simple book with only six chapters. Topics include “Choose Your Productivity Tools” and “Organize Your Task List.” The title to the conclusion is: “You’re Back in the Driver’s Seat Now.”

Thomas is an expert in time management. She coaches individuals and organizations, and frequently gives talks on the subject.


As you can see, productivity isn’t so simple as “making the most of an hour” through some sort of Herculean effort to focus harder and work faster.

Rather, we increase productivity by incorporating key principles and developing systems and routines. Using ideas from lean, kanban, scrum and the theory of constraints, we can create systems that improve the final deliverable in a big project. And using methods like the bullet journal or the Pomodoro Technique, we can train ourselves to stay on task and to power through difficult projects.

These systems and routines apply to all areas of life, from software development, to self-care, to student life, to everything in-between.

Productivity presents special challenges in remote work environments. Teamly is a sophisticated project management software that offers real solutions. Our communication and payroll tools make managing remote teams a breeze. Sign up for your free account today!


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