People always ask for book recommendations, so here’s my list of books that changed my life in one way or another. None of them is related to tech or programming, but all affect how I think and work.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
I have to start with this one. I’ve known for a long time that sleep is important and that I should do better. But getting it explained down to neurological details was both scary and inspiring.
Sleep is more important than you think. The amount of sleep has a direct causality with your mental capacity that you can’t fix with any type of drugs or #lifehacks.
Nowadays I optimize my whole life towards getting good sleep. No caffeine after 12pm, no alcohol except for special occasions, no screens in the bedroom, as little blue light as possible as bedtime approaches, earplugs at night, and going to bed early and reading fiction to distract my overly active mind from the daily turmoil and work.
Update: Dr. Walker was on Episode 131 of The Knowledge Project podcast talking about the book and some of the criticism it received. If you’ve either read the book or are interested in reading it, I recommend giving it a listen.
Spark Joy by Marie Kondō
This is the second book in the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up series that has been released in English. I’ve read it right after religiously binging through her Netflix show and was left wanting more1.
One issue many people have with KonMari is that it is deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of Shintoism and Feng Shui. If you know me, it’s needless to say that I believe in neither. I don’t think my t-shirts are happy when I fold them the right way, I don’t believe my flat has an energy beyond what’s coming out of my power sockets, and I’m not convinced that unused kitchen utensils appreciate my “thank you” before hitting the bin.
But as my favorite podcaster (and YouTuber) put it on my favorite podcast:
Marie Kondō is [the perfect example] of an idea that some people really hate: it’s the concept of a thing that isn’t true but is still useful.— CGP Grey , Cortex #84
Thanking objects before getting rid of them gives me closure and removes friction from a necessary action. Pondering whether or not my cables are happy the way they are stored puts my brain in the right place. While I don’t believe in any of it literally, it’s all useful concepts in practice.
Although the Netflix show is necessarily shallower than the books, I think it’s perfectly fine to start with the show2 and then buy this book that expands on it.
Quiet by Susan Cain
Nothing changes one’s life more than the realization that one is not broken after a lifetime of thinking (and being told) the contrary. For me, that was the fact that I’m an introvert in a world that is run by extroverts and that’s full of advice how to appear like an extrovert too3.
If you feel quickly overstimulated by being part of a crowd4, get uncomfortable just by watching WWDC videos of overexcited staff high-fiving everyone, or get straight-up anxious watching a Tony Robbins audience, this book is for you.
It gives us the permission to be us: to prefer solitude to excitement, select friends over crowds, meaningful conversations over shallow small talk, a book on the couch over a microphone in a karaoke bar, thinking over talking. The world needs us just as much.
Deep Work by Cal Newport
In the same vein, being able to do deep, focused work is one of the most rewarding activities one can do. However, it’s very difficult because the whole world seems to be conspiring on preventing you from getting there.
Cal Newport shows some science (and a lot of anecdata) why deep work is so important and offers a few approaches to get it done. He takes the approaches further in his subsequent book Digital Minimalism that’s also worth checking out.
Getting Things Done by David Allen
This is a difficult one. Some people find this book unreadable and I can’t fault them. Reading about David’s white upper-class problems is tiring and painfully unrelatable. But although I’m not planning soirées for my local country club, it introduced some important ideas into my life whose application makes people think of me being well organized, despite my mild form of ADHD and a short-term memory of a squirrel on amphetamines.
The very core is: don’t use your brain primarily to store information but to process it. A task that is on your mind or loose ends that you need to tie will keep you awake at night, and make you anxious and overwhelmed in the long run. Hence, you need a trustworthy system that contains all your tasks and review said tasks at least once per week. That system will free up your mind for executing those tasks and you won’t forget anything anymore. For me, that system is a combination of OmniFocus and calendars.
There’re countless better summaries of GTD – as it’s affectionally called by its followers – but instead of picking one, I’m just going to point you to my friend Simon Eskildsen’s review of the book and let you decide whether you want to dive deeper or not for yourself.
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
In my 2019 talk I joke that checklists are the only reason why planes aren’t crashing every day and why surgeons wash their hands before cutting you open. Except that it’s not a joke, as this book will show you.
Sure, I want to get things done as much as the next person but more importantly, I want to get them right. And that’s where the acceptance of my fallibility and embracing of the great tool of checklists saves me. Thus, as with GTD, I rather rely on systems than on my memory.
Nowadays whenever I need to do something important, I create a checklist first. For recurring tasks that I can’t automate, I have OmniFocus templates. That lightens my mental load and I get things done both better and faster.
Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo
I wrote about the Pomodoro Technique back in 2011 and I’m still a fan.
I’m not a strict follower of the technique, but it’s a very useful tool whenever I catch myself procrastinating on an important task or when I need to segment my day for multiple open-ended tasks. However, I don’t force breaks on myself on days when I get into the flow easily.
No matter how I structure my day, I have learned that unitasking is the key to getting a lot done, right.
The Manual by Epictetus
Stoicism and optimistic nihilism give me the peace of mind that other people get from religion. Learning to accept things that you can’t change and actively practicing gratefulness are a great mental tool to shove worries aside and focus on the now. And while it wasn’t this book specifically that changed my life, it’s a very readable and concise summary of the pillars of the philosophy.
A philosophy that is surprisingly applicable to modern life and it remains a mystery how the stoics in ancient Rome could predict the struggles of open-source software maintenance:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Don’t use stoicism as an excuse for inaction though – it is not indifference or cynicism! Just accept that some things you can’t change and your only options are to be upset about them or not. But one easily forgotten aspect of amor fati is that you make the best out of every hand that you get dealt – for example fighting injustice.
The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson
I’m a fan of the Primal lifestyle. But while Primal is part of the ancestral health movement, I don’t believe in paleo role-playing as occasionally exercised by the overly eager. I consider looking back at our ancestors an act of looking for clues and then verifying or disproving their viability using modern science. Not an act to look for rules.
Primal is a holistic approach that doesn’t demonize modern life but strives to find a scientifically good mix (the number of papers cited is staggering). In the end it means good sleep (keeps coming up, doesn’t it!?), as little processed food as possible, as little sugar as possible, and plenty of movement of all kinds and intensities.
The discovery of the Primal lifestyle is the only reason why I’m somewhat capable of managing my weight since 20095 and culminated in me picking up CrossFit in 2013 which is the first sport I managed to stick to for this long in my whole life. Nowadays – despite swiftly approaching the 40 – I still look for new fun physical things to try out. I find that a great approach to life which also helps me to meet interesting new people outside of tech. Picking up surfing alone changed my life forever.
You can get most of the content also for free from his great website Mark’s Daily Apple.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
This is an addendum from February 2021. I didn’t plan on keeping this post updated, but this book is so good and so life-changing that I had to make an exception.
Unsurprisingly, Atomic Habits talks about how to successfully build good habits that stick (and get rid of bad ones). However, it goes much further by demonstrating how consistent habits – not lofty goals – are key to achieving anything. This is a life-changing reframing compared to the usual advice that’s peddled by SEO-thirsty life coaches all over the Internet.
Interestingly, the concept goes way back to Ancient Greece:
We are what we repeatedly do, therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.— Aristotle
James also has a newsletter called 3-2-1. It comes once per week and contains three ideas from him, two quotes from others, and one question for you to ponder. The quality is always high and I usually leave it until I can fully focus on it. It’s not the usual tepid hustle porn – I promise.
I hope this list is enjoyable for you. Please note that I’m not using affiliate links: all book links go to Goodreads therefore I’m not profiting in any way. If you’re interested in what I’m reading, here’s my profile; but please understand that I only accept friend requests from people I know.
I was on the fence about adding Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the list because it opened my eyes to appreciating quality and dedication to good work in everything: no matter whether in building spaceships or cleaning toilets. But overall, I found the book too tedious and I suspect I would’ve picked up that appreciation in other ways too.
Consider it a bonus suggestion, but not a straight-out recommendation.
Mostly, I wanted to know how to fold everything. Therefore – very uncharacteristically for me – I bought it on paper so I could add bookmarks to all folding instructions. ↩︎
For what it’s worth, I find the first episode the worst. So maybe don’t give up right away. The second season called Sparking Joy is significantly worse. I only liked the first episode because the family and their business is really interesting. ↩︎
Please note that the common interpretation of what constitutes an introvert is wrong. What people usually mean by using the term is shyness or even social anxieties. Both are common under introverts (it certainly applies to me), but can happen to extroverts just as well.
In the most simple words, an introvert is someone who recharges energy in solitude, an extrovert on the other hand recharges by spending time with other people.
So even if you thoroughly enjoy a night out with friends, but feel emotionally drained for no apparent reason afterwards, you have some amount of introversion inside of you! ↩︎
I usually have to retire to my hotel room at least once per day when attending conferences. When I attend longer ones like PyCon US, I’m a mess afterwards and need at least a week to stabilize. ↩︎
I used to weigh 120kg / 265lbs so please stop telling me that it’s easy for me to not be overweight. Thanks to my genes it takes a lot of work to just maintain what I have – which isn’t much. ↩︎