Books to Make You Happy, Productive, Focused, and Smart

Kim Ukura

Staff Writer

Kim Ukura is a book lover, recovering journalist, library advocate, cat mom, and lover of a good gin cocktail. In addition to co-hosting Book Riot’s nonfiction podcast, For Real, and co-editing Book Riot’s nonfiction newsletter, True Story, Kim spends her days working in communications at a county library system in the Twin Cities area. Kim has a BA in English and journalism from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When not getting to bed before 10 p.m., Kim loves to read nonfiction, do needlework projects, drink tea, and watch the Great British Baking Show. Instagram: @kimthedork Twitter: @kimthedork


When the weather first turns terrible for winter, as it already has here in Minnesota, I need books that make me feel good. I need books that make me feel like I can make positive changes, and I need books that make me motivated get my shit together.

the happiness project by gretchen rubinA couple years ago, the book that kicked my slump was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. The book chronicles Rubin’s 12 month quest to become happier, focusing her energy on one area of her like each month and obsessively tracking her results. I thought it was delightful and a little weird, but it made me feel filled with possibility.

I didn’t like her second book, Happier at Home, nearly as much, mostly because fact that she lives an awfully privileged lifestyle hides just underneath the surface. I was feeling a little intimidated by how much she accomplishes every day until I learned that she’s married to senior partner at a hedge fun, living in an Upper East Side triplex, and employs a sitter and a housekeeper. My life could a lot happier if I didn’t have to do the dishes all the time, too.

All that said, I can’t help but be a little excited about Rubin’s newest book coming out in March, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Instead of focusing on happiness directly, Rubin is turning her attention to habits, which she sees as a way to master self-control and ultimately contribute to happiness.

But since that book is still several months away, and many of us set January 1 as an arbitrary date to try and change our lives for the better, I’ve got four suggestions of books on habits, willpower, and happiness you can read today. Thanks to the rest of the Book Riot crew for chiming in on several of these suggestions.

getting things done by david allenGetting Things Done by David Allen

Getting Things Done is basically the bible of productivity (and pretty much the only reason anything gets done at Book Riot). In the book, Allen outlines fives stages of workflow and shares a system that helps maximize productivity at each of those stages. And even if you read the book and don’t feel like implementing the system, his basic principles – write things down, put them in the place that makes sense, review your lists, find ways to give yourself reminders in context and keep strong walls around your systems – make total sense in other contexts, too. Don’t let the self-helpy cover turn you off; if you want to be more organized and productive, this one is a must read.


the distraction addition by alex soojung-kim pangThe Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

One of my ongoing bad habits is getting distracted by my smartphone and by the Internet at large. The Distraction Addiction was the first book I read about distraction that asked the right question about technology – “Can we stay connected without diminishing our intelligence, attention spans, and ability to really live?” – and offered smart answers to that question. Pang doesn’t advocate we get rid of our devices, but does encourage readers to think carefully about how we let them interrupt our lives and attention. After I read the book, I turned off nearly every notification on my phone (including email) and have not looked back since.


the power of habit by charles duhuggThe Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I haven’t actually read The Power of Habit yet, but several other Riot writers have raved about it. In the book, Duhigg, a New York Times business reporter, looks at the science behind habits to look at why they exist and what we can do to change them. The whole first section is filled with diagrams to illustrating the Habit Loop and how to use that loop to your advantage. Because Duhigg has a business background, the book is full of examples of marketers who’ve taken advantage of triggers to connect products to daily habits. Sounds super interesting.



mange your day-to-dayManage Your Day-to-Day edited by Jocelyn K. Glei

If you’ve read a ton about time and productivity, then this book isn’t going to provide anything new. But if you’re just diving into this topic, then this collection of short essays is a great place to start. The book brings together “leading creative minds” to talk about how they find time to do creative work during otherwise hectic lives. The essays are organized into four sections – building a rock-solid routine, finding focus in a distracted world, taming your tools, and sharpening your creative mind – and are nice to pick up during brief moments when you need a brain break. I felt like this one was largely practical, with lots of concrete information about the routines of talented people.


Book Riot Live is coming! Join us for a two-day event full of books, authors, and an all around good time.