This story is part of a series on how we make time—from productivity hacks to long walks to altering the function of our own circadian clocks.
A browse through the self-help section of any used bookstore reveals the infinite incarnations of the productivity manual. You’ll find time-management advice for procrastinators, for artists, for wannabe millionaires, for freelancers, for CEOs, for lazy people, for multipotentialites, all promising to turbocharge your four-hour work-week, deliver you from distraction, laser-train your focus, and transform you into a to-do-list ninja. And given all the digital noise that’s coming at us, blurring work-life boundaries while we try to crush our side hustles, it’s no wonder authors want to offer new ways to gain an edge.
But another sort of book is emerging, a counterpoint to these productivity bibles, that seems to posit that self-optimizing solutions are treating the symptoms, not the disease. Perhaps the antidote to our harried lives, these books argue, lies in collective action, in setting limits and reengaging with one another and the physical world. Tune out, turn off, and drop in.
We took a tour through some of the recent arrivals on the market, from a classic productivity manual to the case for the attention economy resistance.
Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt
Free to Focus synthesizes a medley of author-tested tips into a three-part “total productivity system.” Geared toward entrepreneurs and professionals who have the ability to control their schedules and outsource, the system involves goal-setting, self-care, dumping or delegating nonessential tasks, and focusing on what’s left. Like countless other productivity manuals, much of the advice is standard fare (take naps, exercise, don’t multitask) and requires sustained stick-to-itiveness to implement. Hyatt, a former publishing CEO, wrote the book after a stress-related health scare, which also sparked a productivity blog and a coaching business.
BEST FOR: Bosses
Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
Authored by two former Google Ventures partners and cocreators of Google’s “design sprint,” a weeklong productivity binge devoted to a single project, Make Time
reads like a productivity manual written by your somewhat-more-successful friend whose self-deprecating tone masks just how much more successful he is. The authors frame the modern time-sucking dilemma as twofold: the “busy bandwagon” of ever-crowding schedules and “infinity pools” of digital distraction. Then they offer a four-point path to taking back your time. Interspersed with personal anecdotes and hand-drawn illustrations that recall folksy whiteboard animation videos, Make Time takes a flexible, anti-perfectionist approach. While many of the techniques are well-worn, and promises of achieving “dramatic changes” via small, largely common-sense tweaks might strain credulity, the 87 take-em-or-leave-em tips are bound to include a few nuggets you can implement.
BEST FOR: Non-perfectionists
Juliet’s School of Possibilities by Laura Vanderkam
Time-management maven Laura Vanderkam takes a novel approach to the productivity manual: a fable. Juliet’s School of Possibilities follows Riley, a stressed-out,
always-on business consultant whose can-do spirit goes from asset to liability when her boyfriend breaks up with her, her best friend chews her out, and her boss puts her on probation. Amid this personal crisis, Riley attends a corporate retreat run by the eponymous Juliet, one of those mystical beings who raises two kids as a single mother, runs a pair of successful businesses, cooks like a dream, and nurses injured unicorns back to health (OK, maybe not that one), all while maintaining a monk’s composure. Her secret? This maxim: “Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. You are always choosing. Choose well.” The lessons echo Vanderkam’s self-help books and viral TED Talk about time management through prioritization.
BEST FOR: People who learn by example
Lifescale by Brian Solis
Like many books in the genre, Lifescale begins with a tale of a personal crisis wrought by digital distraction. Solis, a speaker, author, and analyst and the digital
marketing firm Altimeter, takes aim at the tech companies manipulating our attention. He describes the mechanics of persuasive design, which, he argues, amount to “psychological warfare.” He then charts the path to happiness through creativity, coining the term lifescaling: “a process for achieving an intentional state of happiness, creativity, and mastery in the face of distraction” (sounding a lot like “flow”). Many of the tips come from standard productivity playbooks—single-tasking, work sprints, restorative breaks, visualization—but the endgame is a mental overhaul meant to help identify your values and make sure they’re guiding your work.
BEST FOR: The purpose-driven
Counterproductive by Melissa Gregg
Counterproductive trains its lens on the productivity self-help genre itself, posing the question “How does this insatiable industry for productivity continue trading on essentially unchanging insights?”
Gregg, a principal engineer at Intel whose hobbies include browsing bookstores for used self-help manuals, sees the glut of such books as a symptom of deeper problems with the organization of modern work. She cites the dissolution of work-life boundaries, digital information overload, productivity outpacing pay raises, and the growth of employment precarity. She argues that self-help solutions isolate workers, shifting responsibility to the individual and preventing collective discussion about reasonable work limits. The three-part book traces the genre’s origins to the “domestic science” (e.g., homemaking) advice of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, analyzes the two main sources of productivity advice (self-help books and mobile apps), and explores corporate culture’s recent obsession with mindfulness.
BEST FOR: Self-help burnouts
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
In How to Do Nothing, Odell issues a call to resistance against the attention economy, making the case for resituating ourselves in the physical and natural world.
She identifies the disquiet shared by many a zombie scroller that life is literally slipping through our fingers. From her vantage point “in between”—a digital artist who deals with the physical world, a native and critic of Silicon Valley—she takes aim not at technology itself but at the corporate and capitalist forces shaping it, which profit off our perpetual anxiety and dissatisfaction. She argues that a self-optimized, purely mechanistic approach to life discounts the juicy stuff present in the unproductive moments: poetry, nuance, serendipity. Moving through meditations on retreat, refusal, attention, and “the ecology of strangers,” Odell explores what it means to “do nothing”—that is, nothing economically productive—in a world that demands anything but.
BEST FOR: #DeleteFacebook-ers
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