In 2018, I read exactly zero books. This was highly unusual for me, but it was a decision I made in order to focus more fully on developing my (at the time) new online business.
In 2019, I read 29 books. Here are my thoughts on these books, in the order in which I read them:
1. Atomic Habits - James Clear
One of the best books I’ve read this year, possibly tied for first place with Deep Work. This is required reading for anyone looking to build—or maintain—good habits. Clear takes readers through the 4 steps of creating good habits, and weaves in lots of evidence-based research.
I recorded a podcast episode modelled after some of the main concepts in the book, which you can check out here.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
“Habits form based on frequency, not time. The amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times you have performed it.”
2. Digital Minimalist - Cal Newport
Newport defines digital minimalism as, “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
I loved this book, and many of its concepts were reinforced after I read Newport's Deep Work (like regularly blocking myself out of social media). Newport is a 30-something professor who’s never had a Facebook account, and he’s known for getting a lot done in a short amount of time. As someone who runs an online business, I want to be extremely intentional about which technologies I use, and why. This book helped me to figure that out.
“The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
3. This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn To See - Seth Godin
I’ve heard many fellow entrepreneurs rave about this book, but I just couldn’t get into it. I found Godin’s writing style to be oddly choppy and unengaging. The book is focused on the mindset and values of marketing, rather than tangible tips, which would be fine—if the book had any semblance of a theme tying things together.
4. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Cal Newport
Tied for first place with Atomic Habits for best book I read in 2019. Newport’s work reinforced concepts I’d become familiar with over the years from many other sources, but also presented some new-to-me ideas.
Deep work is the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task without getting distracted. Simple enough, right? In theory, yes. But in practice, most definitely not.
The first part of the book makes the case for the high value of deep work in any field. Newport writes, “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
The second part presents actionable steps readers can take to foster their ability to do deep work (it’s a skill that requires practice, like anything else). If you know me, you know I love actionable, hands-on steps! I’ve implemented a few new practices to improve my ability to perform deep work, including scheduling distraction-free time into my workweeks, installing a Chrome plug-in that hides my Facebook news feed, regularly blocking myself out of all social media for hours at a time, and getting better about completely halting all work activities in the evenings. (As Newport says, “…trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”)
“Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
5. Tools of Titans - Tim Ferriss
A book I often see recommended by business owner types, I wasn’t all that impressed. There are certainly some intriguing ideas within the 112 interviews in this 707-page book, but nothing I found groundbreaking. I’m not a fan of Ferriss’s approach to “hacking” every aspect of life, but it was interesting enough to read the distilled summaries of his many podcast interviews that I finished the whole book.
I did appreciate Ferriss’s unique “rapid-fire” questions he asks podcast guests. I might have to bust those out on podcast guests of my own.
6. Slow Boat from China; A Man, a Woman, and a Dog Cruising from Hong Kong to Vancouver - Adrian Sparham
Charlotte (a.k.a. Lot) and Adrian are friends of ours here in Powell River. I actually worked with Lot at SFU more than a decade ago! In Slow Boat from China, Adrian details their sailing adventures spanning 11 years, weaving in intriguing pieces of history. We learn about the cultures of Southeast Asia, Northwest Africa, and the Mediterranean. We follow along as Lot, Adrian, and their dog Fluke encounter mechanical breakdowns, corrupt customs officials, and violent storms. And, for those of us with a touch of wanderlust, we envy the incredible sights Adrian describes in fascinating detail. An excellent read!
7. Hope and Help for Your Nerves - Claire Weekes
Dr. Weekes is often considered to be the pioneer of modern anxiety treatment via cognitive therapy. Originally written in 1962, the writing style seemed very out-of-date, but the concepts described are still relevant.
Dr. Weekes explains that the problem is not the anxiety symptoms themselves. It’s the meaning we create for them. Recovering from debilitating anxiety involves learning to accept the symptoms at face value.
Here’s Dr. Weekes’s method for reducing anxiety:
1. Acknowledge the symptoms you’re feeling. Don’t avoid them.
2. Accept them for what they are: shallow breathing, racing heart, chest tightness, trembling, etc. Don’t fight them.
3. “Float” through the symptoms. Let them run their course without blowing them out of proportion or pushing them away.
4. Let time pass. People with anxiety have experienced episodes many, many times. “This too shall pass.”
8. On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety - Andrea Petersen
Given to me by my friend Vanessa, this book reassured me that I’m not going crazy, after all! Petersen details her own anxiety disorder diagnosis and recovery, and ties in the biology of anxiety and fascinating clinical research on the topic.
“People who have a brush with death often talk of how it has given them a sense of what really matters. An omnipresent fear of disaster, a constant bracing for catastrophe can do that, too. Time takes on more urgency. Anxiety means I’m simply not mellow enough to take things for granted. And that has made my life all the richer.”
9. DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks - Barry McDonagh
Well, it’s not exactly a new way to end anxiety, but it is a useful one. McDonagh recommends the following 4 steps for dealing with anxiety:
1. Defuse. “The biggest mistake most people make when anxiety strikes is to get caught up in ‘what if’ thoughts”, McDonagh says. Defusing means approaching anxiety with a “so what?” attitude.
2. Allow. By “accepting the anxiety that you feel and allowing it to manifest in whatever way it wishes”, you’re well on your way to dissipating the anxiety.
3. Run toward. If the anxiety persists after the first two steps, McDonagh suggests running toward anxiety and reframing it as excitement. In clinical psychological terms, this is “arousal reappraisal”, and it works.
4. Engage. Participating in something that requires your full attention will prevent your mind from defaulting back to worry and fear.
Pretty similar to Dr. Weekes’s method, wouldn’t you say?
10. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic & Worry - Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle
An interesting look at the neurobiology of anxiety. The authors differentiate between amygdala-based anxiety (which feels very physical, and is the type I have) and cortex-based anxiety (which involves worry and racing thoughts). I hadn’t seen a comparison like this before.
11. Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong - Eric Barker
Some good bullshit-busting about what we think we know about success and achievement. (Did you know that valedictorians rarely become millionaires?) I read this book in the earlier part of 2019, and honestly don’t recall much of it now. It seemed interesting at the time, but it didn’t “stick” the way books like Atomic Habits or Deep Work did.
12. We Learn Nothing: Essays - Tim Kreider
Absolutely loved this book! Kreider is a brilliant writer. I highlighted many passages purely because I appreciated his word choices and sentence structures. Kreider has a unique way of looking at—and describing—the human condition.
“People are most vociferously opposed to those forces they have to resist most fiercely within themselves.”
“None of them gives a shit about cars. Some of them do get excited about professional football, but this I regard as a regrettable genetic defect, like the predisposition toward sickle-cell anemia among African-Americans.”
13. Great At Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More - Morten T. Hansen
Similar to Barking Up The Wrong Tree, this book seemed interesting at the time I read it, but not much of it lasted in my mind past finishing it. The book details a 5,000-participant study of employees and managers, and includes many fascinating case studies, like the high school principal who dramatically turned around his failing school.
14. The Virtual Assistant Solution: Come up for Air, Offload the Work You Hate, and Focus on What You Do Best - Michael Hyatt
This came up while looking for Kindle books to add to my list. I follow Michael Hyatt’s work (and love his Full Focus Planner), so I thought I’d check it out. It was a short read, and I didn’t really get anything out of it since it’s aimed at people who don’t yet have assistants (my assistant, a.k.a. Communications Head Honcho, is the amazing Izzy!). I just wanted to make sure I was covering my bases.
15. Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean - Kim Scott
This book was recommended by Amy Porterfield on a podcast episode about leadership. Currently I have only one additional person on my business’s team, but ya never know—maybe one day my little vegan butt-kicking operation will expand.
After reading this book, I made a deal with myself: stop finishing shitty, self-indulgent books! I should’ve stopped reading about a quarter of the way through. It’s essentially just the author’s experience at Apple and Google, with a major lack of anything resembling peer-reviewed information.
16. Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels - Loretta Graziano Breuning
Tackling the neuroscience of happiness, this book was an interesting—but not exactly engaging—read. Something felt “off” about the writing style. Perhaps it’s too simplistic? I’m not quite sure. I felt like the suggested exercises weren’t very “hands-on”, and could have used more concrete examples.
17. Superfans: The Easy Way to Stand Out, Grow Your Tribe, and Build a Successful Business - Pat Flynn
Pat Flynn is one of the main entrepreneurs I follow online. This book is excellent! It details an interesting pyramid of audience connectedness to a brand, starting with “casual”, moving to “active”, then “connected”, and, finally, “superfan”.
“Instead of spending money on ads, spend more time on people. Instead of worrying about the latest growth hacks and strategies, worry about identifying and addressing the biggest pains and problems in your target audience. Instead of figuring out how to optimize your conversion rates, figure out the rate at which you’re able to connect authentically with your audience and make them feel special.”
18. Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much - Tony Crabbe
I loved this book. I went into it thinking it would reinforce concepts from other books (like One Thing, which I read a few years ago, and Deep Work), which it did. But it stood out on its own as well. “When was the last time you met someone who explained how unbusy they are?”, he writes. I want to be that person!
“Busy is the easy option. We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices.”
Crabbe describes the “three faces” of busy:
Busy as an experience.
Busy as a success strategy.
Busy as an approach to happiness.
To combat busyness, Crabbe teaches us how to move from managing time to managing attention.
“Productivity is not the way to sustainable success. Any small improvement we make soon gets matched by others. Since everyone is working hard, it’s a fool’s game to try to outwork everyone else.”
19. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business - Charles Duhigg
Not every book has to have directly-applicable-to-my-life, step-by-step instructions for achieving something for me to like it, but the way this book is presented, I thought it would. It doesn’t.
From the description on Amazon:
“The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work. As Duhigg shows, by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.”
“New science”? I’m not sure about that. Duhigg is a reporter, not a social scientist. These studies have been around for decades! Although interesting, it felt like mostly anecdotes about individual, organizational, and societal change, with no clear guidelines for how to apply these to our own lives.
I found Atomic Habits to be much more profound—and useful/implementable.
20. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport
There are some great concepts in here, but I didn’t find it as engaging as Newport’s other books. The main point of this one is that “Follow your passion” is bullshit career advice. (A point a wholeheartedly agree with!)
“…the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”
“Working right trumps finding the right work.”
21. Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean - Josh Bernoff
This is the first book I’ve seen on writing content that will be read on screens (reports, emails, social media posts, blog articles, etc.) This should be required reading for any professional who needs to write, in any capacity.
“Bullshit is communication that wastes the reader’s time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately. With no editors, clarity and accuracy are hit or miss, and bullshit is inevitable.”