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8 Must-Read Books on Slow Productivity and Spending Time on Things That Matter

These experts will help you escape the productivity hustle, overwhelm and burnout.

Hi friend!

This weekend, I’m escaping the city and into the woods.

Specifically Yosemite National Park!

I’ve been researching, making notes and mapping out my trip itinerary in my travel planner in Notion. The constant use of digital screens and technology, vital for our modern day work and life, can feel draining. So I’m excited to unplug, rest and recharge while I spend a ton of time in nature.

I’ve been told there is virtually no internet in Yosemite Valley!

Planning Yosemite

My time spent travel planning has inspired me to share with you the 8 must-read books that’s been life-changing for my practice and mindset towards productivity (including the benefits of taking a break and not being productive).

💡 Today at a glance

  • My top 8 productivity book picks, in the realm of Slow Productivity and living a value-driven life.

  • An deep dive breakdown into why each book might be valuable for you to read.

I’ve read over 210+ books in the last decade (I know, I’m a bit of a book worm).

Contrary to popular belief, productivity shouldn’t be about doing more in less time, especially if you are a knowledge worker. Slow Productivity, coined by Cal Newport, is about how we can do fewer but important things, at a high quality and at a natural human pace without experiencing burnout.

In my 13+ year leadership management career in healthcare, I’ve experienced serious bouts of burnout at least twice (first when starting up a hospital pharmacy from scratch, second during the pandemic).

It was hard to pick just eight books.

But here are the 8 books that were game-changing for my life, career and business.

They helped shift my relationship with productivity and my thinking about rest, accomplishment and living a value-driven life.

My Top 8 Productivity Book Picks

  1. Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

  2. Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

  3. Tranquility by Tuesday by Laura Vanderkam

  4. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

  5. Essentialism by Greg McKeown

  6. Deep Work by Cal Newport

  7. Effortless by Greg McKeown

  8. How to Calm Your Mind by Chris Bailey

If you’re interested in learning about slow productivity and a more human-first approach to productivity, I hope these books will help you skip the overwhelm, put you on the path to burnout recovery and improve your relationship with toxic productivity.

Here’s an in-depth breakdown of each one and why I think you should read it.

1. Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

How can I not start my list with Newport’s latest book.

It’s the topic he’s preached for the last 3+ years on his podcast and is what inspired me to start writing online and help others design simple but effective slow productivity-focused Notion systems and workflows for their life, work and business.

💡 Slow Productivity Philosophy:

1. Do fewer things

2. Work at a natural pace

3. Obsess over quality (My own spin: I would add without perfection)

In this book Newport expands on his philosophy and provides concrete ideas on how you can implement this approach in your work, business and life.

A few standout ideas from his book that I’ve successful embedded in my life:

  • A workload management system that is pull-based, instead of push-based, for managing tasks and projects on your plate.

  • Multi-scale planning to make sure you’re working on just the right things that are moving your towards your bigger goals and vision for your life.

  • Picking one big rock to work on for whatever deep work hours your have each day (instead of working on multiple big projects during those hours).

2. Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

It was my 2022 book of the year.

It’s a book disguised as a productivity and time management book. But really it's a philosophical guide that shifts our perspective and understanding of time and how we spend it.

At best we each have around four thousand weeks on planet Earth.

A recent death of an ex-colleague of mine back in Australia (who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while on vacation, became the victim of an overseas shooting), really brought this message home.

These are my favourite concepts Burkeman shares in his book:

  • The "finitude of time" and how we have to face the limited time on Earth. When you decide to spend your time on a particular project or a task, you are choosing to focus on that as that is the most important thing right now. You must thus embrace the joy of missing out on everything else. It will feel like a weight has lifted off your shoulders.

  • Time is not something to be used and controlled, it's something we experience and flow with. If we work within the limits of time, our lives will be more productive, meaningful and joyful.

  • Debunking the efficiency trap. The more efficient you are (you "get more done"), the more new things you accumulate on your to-do list. It makes you feel more stressed and overwhelmed as you can't possibly do it all. Burkeman points out that we’ll all die with an incomplete to-do list.

3. Tranquility by Tuesday by Laura Vanderkam

Vanderkam has been around the productivity circles for the last few decades, has written 9 books under her belt and hosts 3 podcasts! Along with running a busy family household.

For this book Vanderkam enlisted participants to try her 9 “rules” to achieve a more peaceful, productive and intentional life. Truth be told, these rules are not ground breaking. But she shares the research and real personal stories, making these rules practical and interesting.

Here are the top 3 rules that I apply to my life that’s made a big difference:

  • I aim to move my body in some way by 3pm, this can be going to a gym class or going for a walk.

  • Having back-up slots or buffer times. In a regular week, I only schedule 80% of my week and leave 20% buffer space. Practically this means my Fridays is my buffer day.

  • Choose effortful leisure activities instead of passive ones. Since more intentionally carving out time for my passion of photography, it’s brought me so much joy and energy compared to passive activities like watching TV or scrolling social media.

4. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

This is one of the most underrated books.

I even wrote a whole breakdown on rest being the secret to productivity.

Simply put, we don’t prioritise rest enough. I know I didn’t. Pang dives into why deliberate rest is something we must do if you want to be productive and effective.

It’s not just nice to do after checking off some boxes on our never-ending to-do list.

Deliberate rest will actually help you be more productive in your deep work sessions. You’ll be able to get more out of a 4 hour deep work session than 8 hours of working distractedly.

5. Essentialism by Greg McKeown

A classic productivity book I read in my early 20s as a first time manager.

McKeown makes you question what is absolutely essential in your life and eliminate things that are not essential, so that you can really make executing the essential activities more effortless.

Ultimately, he’s sharing a decision making framework that helps you make deliberate choices about how you spend the limited time you have on Earth, on what truly matters to you (work, family, hobbies etc).

6. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Another classic best seller from Newport that I read in my 20s.

According to Newport, “deep work” is a cognitively demanding task that actually matters to you. This book dives into techniques on how to do deep work without distraction.

This approach has been life changing in how I think about spending my working hours.

It also made me realise how hard it is in the modern knowledge work era to do focused work without good systems and workflows in place to help you with this. Without it, I easily go down the rabbit hole of just doing easy dopamine-inducing shallow work like checking emails, ticking off a to-do list.

A key idea I love from Deep Work is designing a ritual for working deeply, so that when it comes to your deep work time, you’re not wasting your limited willpower to transition into a state of focus.

7. Effortless by Greg McKeown

10 years after Essentialism, McKeown follows up with another impactful book, Effortless.

McKeown shares in his latest book that he doesn’t believe achievement needs to be hard. He offers readers a roadmap on how to make achieving our goals more effortless through a series of excellent questions to ask ourselves to make things effortless.

Here are my favourite questions from the book:

  • How can I make this easy?

  • What does “Done” look like?

  • What’s an obvious first action?

8. How to Calm Your Mind by Chris Bailey

I read this back in April 2024 and came to me at the right time, as I’m following my curiosity and exploring the relationship between productivity and anxiety.

In my 20s, I used to think productivity was all hard tactics, plans and strategies.

Now I realised mental wellbeing and our emotional states such a big impact on our ability to “be productive”. You can have the perfect plan or know all the tactics (e.g. Get-Things-Done, the PARA method, Eisenhower’s matrix for prioritisation), but if you’re not emotionally well, productivity feels like a giant anxiety-inducing mountain to climb.

If you are at all interested in Slow Productivity and a human-first approach to productivity, I can't recommend these books enough.

Pick any one of these books and it’ll shift your mindset about productivity. You’ll start improving your relationship with productivity and regaining your time for life outside of work.

🛠️ Interested in a custom designed solution in Notion?

No two people are the same.

A one-size-fits all Notion templates likely doesn’t work for you (it didn’t for me).

The biggest advantage of Notion is the ultra-flexible ability to design a productivity and organisation system that fits your work, life or business like a glove.

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

Trying to figure out how to turn Notion into a simple and productive tool you actually enjoy using? —Hit reply and I’ll help you sort it out.

See you next week,

Janice CK

📌 Note Worthy

Coaching Session: Tips from a Newsletter Pro — with Josh Spector of For The Interested

A simple but powerful tactic Spector shared for growing anything (newsletter, business, audience) is finding the single more important metric to measure success. Then when making decisions, look at it through that lens of “will doing X improve that metric?”

It simplifies what you track and make it very clear where your focus needs to be

Whenever you're ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:

  1. Ultimate Guide: How to create your digital writing system in Notion under 1 hour (Free!): Ready to learn how to use Notion to create your own writing system so you can write consistently?

    Join 110+ people who have downloaded this guide to build their own Writer’s Hub OS in Notion with built-in slow productivity principles.

  2. Mini-Course: Writer’s Hub OS in Notion: Learn the best practices for building in Notion, Workflow Design design and implementing a writing system that helps you get organised so you can focus on turning ideas into published content. It includes a ready-to-go Writer’s Hub OS template in Notion.

    Perfect for new digital writers and solopreneurs looking for a system in Notion.

  3. Travel Hub Notion Template (Free!): All-in-one Travel Planner that helps you ideate, plan, research and organise your trip stress free using Notion.

    Join 780+ people who have already downloaded this system and upped their travel planning game.

Interested in supporting me (for free)? 💚 

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