I read a lot of self-improvement books. And while I usually enjoy reading them, the main point is to improve your life in some way. The best self-improvement books make you behave differently, or at least see the world through a new lens. Each of the following books have done this for me, and I know they can for others too. So here are the five books that have most improved my life.
Practical Ethics (1979), Peter Singer
This one is not your usual ‘self-help’ book. But it’s nonetheless improved my life massively. Each chapter takes you through Singer’s approach to an ethical question we face in day-to-day life. He argues, for example, that we have a moral duty to help the poor in faraway places, that we should stop eating animals, and that abortion should be allowed in almost all cases. Singer is controversial, but no matter what you think of his views – or those of utilitarians generally – he’s a very clear writer.
Deciding which ethical theory you subscribe to, and how that plays out in practice, is important. It can guide you not only in theoretical debates, but in deciding what to do with your life. Since reading the book I’ve done a lot of volunteering, donated 10% of everything I’ve earned, and had more purpose in my life as a result. Science would back me up in saying that those things have made me happier1, as well as doing some good for others.
Getting Things Done (2001), David Allen
Getting Things Done is one of the OG books on productivity. It introduces management consultant David Allen’s system for capturing, organising and executing tasks of any type. This book has made a massive difference to my life, in three ways:
- It started me on the road to productivity. Without reading this, I would not have gone on to read several other books that have also improved my life. So some of the benefit of this book was because it had first-mover advantage, but it’s also because it was compelling. Had my first foray into productivity been disappointing, I might not have bothered reading more.
- It encouraged me to use a proper system for my To Dos. That in turn has led me to using Things, which I’ve happily used for over ten years. I might have got there in the end without Getting Things Done, but it’s likely I would have stuck to a basic list for a long time, which would have left me more stressed.
- It encouraged me to form ‘collect’ and ‘review’ habits. Sometimes concepts are really obvious, but having a label for them helps keep them in our mind. Since reading Getting Things Done, I’ve been better at writing down everything I need to do. They now sit in my Second Brain, rather than going missing in my actual brain. I’ve also done daily and weekly reviews with some regularity, which I wasn’t doing before I read the book.
The book is dense, and not enough in itself to leave you ‘stress free’, as it claims, but it’s still one of the most important books to read on personal productivity.
Atomic Habits (2018), James Clear
Everyone and their dog has written about this book since it came out, so I won’t repeat what they’ve said. The two key takeaways for me have been that systems are more important than goals, and Clear’s four steps for building good habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy and rewarding.
Making habits easier has been the most potent change for me. I used to do the classic thing of trying to be flawless in new habits. I would then give up entirely if I missed a single iteration. Since reading Atomic Habits, I’ve been miles better at sticking to habits, and have thus improved at everything from working out to writing.
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (2012), Austin Kleon
I like this summary of Steal Like An Artist, and I don’t intend to do my own here. But I do want to say how it improved my life: by reducing my anxiety around creating. Given I’m now trying to create professionally, that’s making a big difference already – and I only read the book this year.
A bit I particularly like from Steal Like An Artist is about a creator’s job being to collect good ideas and put them back out into the world. That’s a hell of a lot less daunting than most usual conceptions of what it means to be an artist.
The Old Man And The Sea (1952), Ernest Hemingway
A fiction book shouldn’t really make it on here, but The Old Man And The Sea is so beautiful that it’s in my top five. While there are other fiction books I love nearly as much – A Little Life, for example – the fact The Old Man And The Sea is so short means that if you need to escape for an afternoon, you can read it cover-to-cover. I do so about once a year.
If I’m going to be so bold as to claim that The Old Man And The Sea has changed how I behave, then it did also make me realise – in a way that my English teachers never quite could – that short, punchy language can be beautiful too. I’m using the Hemingway App to improve this.
- Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Akin, Michael I. Norton (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science 21 March 2008: Vol. 319, Issue 5870, pp. 1687-1688.