I read widely this past year, and as I look back I see a pattern in the topics to which I gravitated. 2016 was a big year for me both personally and professionally. I celebrated another year in the Department of Institutional Advancement at Blackburn College and I was promoted to Director of Annual Giving. There were also major events in my personal life as well, and I found myself needing to adapt and develop new workflows and approaches to productivity.

Not surprisingly, much of the reading I did this year focused on such themes as productivity, vocation, and vision. Having been a devotee of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for years, I found that I needed a fresh approach to the way I think about work. Covey’s ideas remain seminal, but I read a number of books that address things in ways that account for new technologies and new paradigms. The following three books influenced me in 2016 to such an extent that I overhauled almost all of my workflows, tools, and processes.

Getting Things Done – by David Allen
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Allen published the first edition of his groundbreaking book back in 2000, but I read the second edition published in 2015. The greatest strength of Allen’s methodology is the unflinching admission that the human brain is very good at problem solving and creative thinking, but very bad at remembering things. The two biggest takeaways for me were:

  • Get everything out of your head and into a trusted system that you review regularly. Do not try to remember everything.
  • Organize next actions lists, not according to the roles in your life (as I was doing with Covey’s 7 Habits), but according to contexts. So, I now have a list just for calls, a list for things that can only be done at the computer, or only while physically in the office, or only while at home, etc. The power of contextual next actions lists is that they take the guess-work out what you can do wherever you are at any given time.

Of course, there is much more to Allen’s GTD methodology, but these were the two big breakthroughs that really changed how I approach my work. If you want to learn more about David Allen and GTD, check out his website.

Living Forward – by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
9780801018824I read this book back in May, and it is all about living with intention. Hyatt and Harkavy point out how easy it is for one to fall into “the drift.” That is, a state of life where each day just flows into the next without much direction or purpose. The drift is dangerous, because it leads to a situation where key relationships get neglected, talents go unused, and one ends up not leading the life one wants. The focus of the book is about crafting a plan that accounts for all of the areas in one’s life that are most important so that nothing gets shortchanged. The authors walk you though a day-long process that asks a number of questions:

  • Who would you want to speak at your funeral, and what would you want them to say? Begin with the end in mind, as Covey would say.
  • What are 8-10 of the most important areas of your life? The authors call these life accounts. These can be things like God, health, spouse, children, work, etc.
  • What is the envisioned future you want for each of these accounts? What do you want your relationships in these areas to look like?
  • What is the current reality in each of these areas? This helps you assess where things are now relative to where you want them to be.
  • What specific commitments will you make in each account to move towards the envisioned future?

The life planning process outlined by Hyatt and Harkavy helped me gain greater clarity about what I want and where I am heading. It also produced a document that I have incorporated into my GTD system so it gets reviewed and revised regularly. The life plan is not a rigid thing, but rather a tool to help remind one of what is most important. Plus it gives one the ammunition to say no when necessary, so that one can say yes to what matters most. There is a website for the book with more information, which you can check out here.

The Art of Work – by Jeff Goins
418o0vnffhl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is a splendid book, and it is all about discovering one’s vocation in life. “A calling is not some carefully crafted plan,” he writes,  “It’s what’s left when the plan goes horribly wrong.” That statement resonated with me immediately, as I have had to make major changes over the years when my best laid plans did not work out. 

Goins dispels the myth that a vocation is the One Big Thing you are meant to do with your life. Rather, we are meant to do many things, and each season of life has its own calling. That is, what you are meant to do relative to where you are. Each new situation leads you to another, and another. The trick to finding your calling in any given moment is to listen to the people and circumstances in your life and see where they are leading. This has far and away been the biggest takeaway for me. Vocation is not a one-time discernment, but a lifelong process of living in the moment, and living with intention. It’s a great read, and you can visit the book’s website here.

Question: What were the most influential books you read in 2016, and why? Please leave a reply below.

Posted by Dr. Mark Zobel

Director of Annual Giving at Blackburn College

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