Eight quick books to help busy people save time

Overwhelmed and tired? Emma Gannon selects reads to boost your efficiency

Emma Gannon

Whenever I speak to friends, colleagues or strangers about goals, desires or big dreams, most of the time there is usually a sigh, followed by the sentence “I just wish I had the time.” We treat time as though it is this elusive shadowy figure that we cannot quite see or grasp, that floats away and can never be truly captured properly. The ever-lingering ghost of ‘more time’. In reality, we do have some time, and we are more in charge of our lives than we give ourselves credit for. As author Elizabeth Gilbert once said to me: it’s funny how we say we have no time to write, for example, and yet if we were having a steamy love affair, we’d probably make an hour for that.

In 2018, my self-help book The Multi-Hyphen Method had the strapline ‘work less, create more’ on it, and it was also a book about having multiple income streams. It seemed impossible surely — how do you create more by working less? How do we use our time more wisely? For me, the feeling of clawing time back was wrapped up in having better boundaries, saying no, being smarter with my decisions and knowing myself better. I have always been into time management and working differently. Here are eight of my favourite books on how to save time that have impacted me personally over the years.

This is one of my favourite fun books on making life more stress-free. My favourite part of this book is the ‘decide once’ motto. Basically, we all waste a lot of time deciding on stuff — what to wear, what to eat, what to watch on Netflix. Author, Kendra Adachi suggests a method for deciding in advance (for example: on Tuesdays I eat this, for work events I wear this combination of clothes, I check my emails this many times a day). At first, I thought it sounded restrictive and a bit boring, but it actually makes life so much easier once you make a few same decisions that flow throughout your weekly routines. The book is also big on how to let things go, how to schedule in rest, and banishing to-do list guilt.

This is a great practical read for overcoming procrastination which can lead to time-sucking habits. The charm of the exercises are all about making things fun again and taking the pressure off: such as making a 'could-do' list instead of a to-do list. Bennett also encourages the 15 minute rule (setting 15 minutes on the clock for a task you are dreading/worried about). Plus, general advice on how to take the overwhelming feeling out of scary tasks. Get yourself this book and a pomodoro timer and you’ll be off and away.

Emails and admin-based tasks steal so much of our time. This is my favourite book on how to get time back when it comes to an overwhelming time-rinsing inbox.  This is a modern sharply focused guide on making sure your long-term projects and the things that matter to you, get more air time. It includes the psychology behind email addiction, why we chase short-term rewards and how to understand completion bias. It will help you free up your energy for more meaningful work while also learning why our brains sabotage us sometimes without us realising.

As the arresting title tells us, a human life on average (if we’re lucky) is around 4,000 weeks. Oliver Burkeman, former ‘productivity guru’ columnist at the Guardian, tells us what we need to hear: stop trying to do everything. There is no productivity hack that will give you a longer life or the cheat code to immortality. I love how he encourages us to do less, understand our limitations and not feel bad about putting off unimportant things to the next day. This book may sound like it could bring on an existential crisis, but it will actually make you relax into the stark reality of not being able to do it all.

Tony Swartz is the voice of reason on how we should think of spending our time in ‘energy’ rather than just ‘minutes’. The book explains why we should work in 90 minute bursts (to match our ultradian rhythms) because humans, unlike computers, have natural cycles. He encourages us to take breaks every time our cycle is up i.e. whenever we notice physical restlessness, yawning, hunger, and difficulty concentrating. It’s normal. We are human. This book will help you stop ignoring your bodily signals, stop the temptation to ‘push through’ and save time in the process.

I love this book because it helped me reframe my reality and my perception of the things that are stressing me out. This book also introduced me to the phrases 'contaminated time' and 'uncontaminated time' — i.e. how much is your work overtaking your thinking time? Schulte speaks to an array of experts to help us dig into how we can be less overwhelmed: neuroscientists, sociologists, and hundreds of workers, who try and help dig deep into why society feels so overwhelmed with practical insights, answers, and inspiration into how to claw back our time.

Wondering what 'eat that frog' refers to? The title is based on the old-fashioned phrase that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you'll have the relief of knowing that it's probably the worst thing you'll do all day. For me, eating the frog is getting the important emails that will take two minutes done early in the morning and then I have the rest of the afternoon to write. This book promises to help you not only power through your workload but get things done in the best order.

This isn’t just a book telling you to get up earlier (I’m not a natural early bird so that wouldn’t appeal to me). This is all about ring-fencing an hour in the day just for you, for that thing you want to do but never have time for. Packed with insights and advice on how to reclaim your time and stop waiting for the ‘right time’ or ‘more time’ - it doesn’t exist. Start with one hour a day with the help of this handy guide.

The Success Myth, with Transworld, publishes in April 2023. Image by Tanita Montgomery/Penguin

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