reading nonfiction

This post is part two in a series. Part one is here!

If you’re not reading nonfiction, I hope I can convince you to start. Here are four more books that have made a major difference in my life!

Getting Things Done

Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly. — David Allen

It’s no secret that I’m a Getting Things Done disciple. I even wrote a post series on it. If you feel like your life is spinning out of control, you need to check out GTD.

When I first read Getting Things Done in 2011, my productivity was below average. I spent most of my time putting out one fire after another, never getting “out in front” of my commitments or doing a thorough job on anything important. My house was usually a mess. I was terrible at long-term planning and spent a lot of time wondering if I was forgetting about something I was supposed to be doing. Frequently, I was.

Today, thanks to GTD, my life is like a well-oiled machine. I can look at a single spreadsheet and see every single thing I have to do, from cleaning out the fridge to making a five-year plan. I no longer have to remember to do anything.

What I learned: If you don’t have a trusted external system for keeping track of every single obligation in your life, you’ll spend too much time trying to remember everything you have to do and not enough time actually doing it. Don’t do this. Be systematic instead.

The 4-Hour Workweek

Most people are fast to stop you before you get started but hesitate to get in the way if you’re moving. — Tim Ferriss

As you can guess by the title, this book encourages hyper-efficiency while dumping uncomfortable truths in your lap. I’m of two minds about The 4-Hour Workweek.

On one hand, it’s got a bit of a “I’m-gonna-get-mine-with-as-little-work-as-possible” vibe. I disagree with the assertion that life is about striving for leisure while doing as little work as possible; instead, I believe in finding meaningful work and doing as much of it as possible.

On the other hand, the book is packed with useful ideas to help you improve personal efficiency, sidestep gatekeepers, and leave your stamp on your corner of the world. The 4-Hour Workweek especially helped me let go of caring what other people think (and the irony is that the less we care about how we’re perceived, the more attractive we become to others. See Davis, Miles).

What I learned: Much of what we do each day is unimportant and extraneous. By taking a hard look at how we spend our time and ruthlessly trimming the fat, we can free up surprising amounts of time. Also, by continuously striving to become more comfortable with fear, unconventional solutions, and social disapproval, we open ourselves up to interesting new possibilities.

The War of Art

If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death. — Steven Pressfield

The War of Art is small but mighty. If you do creative work of any kind (or would like to), read this little book.

Steven Pressfield is a successful author with keen insight into the creative process. The War of Art is his manifesto, a manual for battling Resistance: his term for the crippling self-doubt and urge to procrastinate that grips us when we face the blank page, the empty easel, the new .txt file, or the cold piano bench. The War of Art is about quieting the voice in our head so we can do our work. Pressfield’s been to hell and back as a writer, and his hard-won wisdom drips off the page.

What I learned:

Resistance is real, but it will try to convince you otherwise. Resistance gets stronger the closer we get to putting our work into the world. You get good at writing by writing a lot. It’s normal to feel like a fraud. You’re a writer when you say you are.


The competitive advantages the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you. — Seth Godin

There are no longer any great jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do. — Seth Godin

Seth Godin is the leading marketing mind of his generation, and his ideas have applications far beyond the business world. It’s hard to know where to start on this one, because Seth’s ideas are woven so deeply into how I look at life and work. I’m constantly listening to my audiobook of Linchpin.

Seth’s premise is this: We were raised in a society that told us “If you follow instructions and fit in, the system will reward you.” This message is everywhere: it’s in our schools and our beer commercials. You want to be successful? Conform.

In the past 15 years, though, the world has changed. Now, the most highly rewarded people are those who don’t wait for instructions. As competition becomes increasingly global, any job that can be accurately described in a manual will be done by someone cheaper than you (maybe even a computer).

The solution is to become a linchpin: someone who takes initiative, seeks more responsibility instead of less, adds a touch of humanity to her work, and seeks to serve instead of focusing on what she’s owed. This is the key to success now. Obeying instructions is no longer valuable.

What I learned: Don’t ask for a map, make one. Don’t let your amygdala (or lizard brain) boss the rest of your brain around. Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. Not all art is painted, and not all paintings are art. You must ship: if you don’t put your work in front of people, it doesn’t count.

These books, along with the four I covered last time, have helped me make sweeping changes in my life. I hope this list spurs you to start reading nonfiction (start with one of these books or something else entirely). When reading’s not a priority, making it one is where we need to start.