When it comes to self-actualisation and personal development, we often find ourselves goal-oriented in our approach. Whether that goal is to run a marathon or a successful business, chances are we’re unlikely to reach it by focussing on the goal itself. By looking into the most successful strategies and systems behind daily habits, we can discover the reasons driving our actions and optimise them to improve our results. The 15 books covered in this article all provide their own unique systems and fundamental tools to help you solidify your daily habits.
Almost all of these titles are also available as audiobooks and several are available on Blinkist or as summaries if you want the concise version.
1. Atomic Habits – James Clear
A book which provides a compelling argument for the implementation of daily habits, ‘Atomic Habits’ addresses strategies of success by going to the root of the issue – proving that small actions can lead to big results. One of the best recent books on the topic of habits, the author proposes that in order to get the best results, we should switch our focus from goals to systems. To use running as an example, if you were to switch your focus from the end goal – a marathon – to the process, which would be your training, you would start to turn up to train every day regardless of whether or not you have already competed in the marathon. Goals drain our current capacity for contentment and set you up for unhealthy mindsets about how one day you will be happy once you have achieved them.
Starting small is crucial. The author compares daily habits to atoms; so small that on their own they don’t surmount to much, but accumulated they can add up to something great. Imagine for a moment Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He didn’t complete the work in a day, he accomplished it one small brushstroke at a time. The idea of overnight success viewed in this light seems impossible. Every time we have seen an example of overnight success, countless hours have been spent to get to that point. The most appealing part of this system of cultivating small habits is that what constitutes one of these habits can be something as seemingly insignificant as sitting down to write for 2 minutes each day. The author claims that by starting out with something so small – atomic, you could say – there is little room for failure and you have virtually no excuse not to execute on a daily basis. Before long you will have a week-long streak and can use that momentum to build on the already existing habit.
If you’ve given up on a goal before or had trouble sticking to a habit, this book will show you how to avoid falling into these traps with an incredibly simple approach to forming habits.
2. Discipline Equals Freedom – Jocko Willink
Taking on atone befitting of his character – a former Navy SEAL commander – the author takes no prisoners in his approach, and every page of the book is a stirring call to action. Daily practices in this book are defined under the umbrella of ‘discipline’. The author implores the reader to acquire the trait of discipline by just making one small decision at a time. Whether it’s saying no to fast food or deciding to go to the gym when it’s raining out, Willink’s system requires that you ‘declare martial law on your mind’. Often using the idea of going to war with your mind, Willink steps into his former Navy SEAL commander role to dish out short, but effective messages of motivation and advice until the notion of being discipline becomes appealing to the reader.
By appealing to our sense of pride, the author lists all of the excuses we give on a daily basis and tells us not to give them a vote. This no-frills approach to the formation of habits is a hard-hitting wake up call to shake us out of the auto-pilot tendencies we have when it comes to our daily habits. Emphasising the necessity to start the journey toward success right here and now, the author understands the power of small steps in the right direction. However, in order to keep you grounded, Willink constantly reiterates the fact that ‘there is no easy way’, and that all that’s necessary is that you take action right now.
A no-nonsense approach to building the necessary discipline in your life to start and maintain new habits.
3. Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins
While not a self-development book per se, this autobiography from the incredibly inspirational ex navy seal David Goggins tells the compelling story of how he overcame great adversity in his childhoodand used his suffering to become one of the hardest-working people around.Publishing daily videos on his Instagram account to supplement the hardline teachings of the book, the author is extremely driven by his suffering as he puts it. Goggins relates – through his rise up the ranks of the ultramarathon world and journey to become a Navy SEAL – how he would draw upon his suffering to adhere to unbreakable daily routines.
Playing on the human psyche and our hard-wired desire for comfort and convenience, the author questions our motives and claims that we should suffer on a daily basis to snap out of our comfort zone and reach our potential. Rather than suggesting a framework or strategy to achieving success, the author simply states the overwhelming necessity to strive to better ourselves with our daily actions. Once quoted as saying ‘nobody cares what you did yesterday. What have you done today to better yourself?’, Goggins hammers home the idea that we should embrace our suffering on a daily basis and confront our demons to tap into our potential for growth.
A compelling read from start to finish, this captivating autobiography will kickstart your habits with immediate effect.
4. Deep Work – Cal Newport
It becomes increasingly more difficult in today’s society to focus on one thing and see it through to completion. Given the endless number of distractions from mobile phone notifications to enticing social media feeds, how can we expect to get real work done and when our workflow is constantly interrupted? This is a question that Cal Newport tackles in his book Deep Work, in which he advocates for a minute by minute plan for each day, in order to ensure that there is minimal time wasted and every second is used productively. The incredible results you can achieve through daily habits combined with Newport’s system of laser beam focus on one task at a time will set you up for success in the long run.
The author suggests 4 important rules to abide by to achieve the level of focus that will allow you to put all of your energy into every task you take on. From working deeply – the kind of work you expect a writer to produce when all alone in an isolated cabin – to embracing boredom and quitting social media, these rules will guide your daily progress and set you up for sustainable, long-term success. Employing the system for working in this book, learning a new skill becomes possible in a short amount of time meaning you can fast track your success.
Why Read? In a world of non-stop distractions, this book provides the keys for real progress and results. Get on Blinkist
5. Slight Edge – Jeff Olson
A book based solely on the formation of good habits, Slight Edge aims to put you on the right track through incremental improvements. The author starts the book with a story about how he quickly attained unfathomable success, only to then lose it all just as quickly. The author attributes his fall from wealth to focussing too much on the goal of success rather than the steps it took him to get there. Once achieving his goal, Olson lowered his standards with regards to his daily habits and actions and as a result began to flounder.
To combat the ever-present desire in society for a quick way to attain success or some kind of shortcut which inevitably ends badly, Olson proposes an alternative which is less attractive but much more likely to work. The author cites the secret ingredient as your philosophy on life. He asserts that we should believe in the power of everyday actions. By giving importance to a seemingly small habit like doing ten pushups a day, we can condition ourselves to be content when we have done it. On top of this we also take a step – albeit small – in the right direction rather than trying to do everything at once like going to the gym five times a week, only to quit shortly after because we over-exerted ourselves.
Why Read? A great overview of why habits are what we should be focussing on, and how they can benefit us exponentially in the long-term.
6. Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Although the author introduces the book by saying it doesn’t necessarily fall under the branch of self-development, he presents a very strong motivation for action through the idea of the flow state. One way to ensure you do something on a daily basis is to make it both challenging and rewarding, when it is, you have probably entered the flow state. The author defines the Flow state as attainable only when our level of skill and the difficulty of the challenge match up. If we take this definition and apply it to our daily actions, it can prove to be a powerful way to set ourselves up for success. Adding the element of difficulty to scale to our skill level provides an intellectually stimulating challenge that allows us to enter the state of flow, where time ceases to exist and we produce our best work.
‘Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.. as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself’. The author suggests that by pursuing this state of flow we can achieve success and happiness on the way. Rather than making the common mistake of putting these concepts on pedestals and making them the end goal, they should come about as byproducts of the search for the flow state.
Why Read? An interesting take on the idea of flow state, this book argues that we should always be striving to achieve flow instead of happiness or success. Get on Blinkist
7. Tools of Titans – Tim Ferriss
A book written by an expert in the field of self-development (Tim Ferriss), Tools of Titans – as the title suggests – provides you with the necessary tools to get your life on track and propel you forward. We can often learn a great deal by emulating successful people’s habits and routines, and that’s exactly what this book is about. By seeing what someone highly successful in the field that you are looking to get into does on a daily basis, you can build a good picture in your mind of what your days should look like if you are to make solid progress. The most interesting part of the book in relation to the formation of habits is the section where he asks all the interviewees about their morning routines. From stretching out, to cold water exposure, to completing a few reps of an exercise first thing in the morning, there are plenty of excellent ideas to make your mornings much more productive.
Why Read? An incredibly informative reference book which contains sage advice from the best of the best.
8. Eat That Frog! – Brian Tracy
This curiously named book relies on a simple premise to increase daily productivity: tackling the most intimidating task on your to-do list first. If you’re one of many people who reads a self-development book and feels overwhelmed by not knowing where to start or what to do first, the system in this book will help. One of the biggest obstacles to getting things done and making progress on a daily basis is feeling like you don’t know where to start and have so much information that you don’t know what to act on. The author argues that your success depends on your willingness to jump straight in at the deep end and take on that one challenging item on your list that is holding you back from moving forward.
Maybe you’re trying to start your own business and spend a majority of your time brainstorming and contemplating different ideas before you’ve even started it. Prioritise the one important task, like submitting a business plan or conducting the first transaction, and you will feel a huge weight lifted and can start to build real momentum.
Why Read? This book introduces a simple, yet highly effective idea to prioritise your work. Get on Blinkist
9. The ONE Thing – Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan
Opting for the path of simplicity and subscribing to the philosophy of less is more, the ONE thing suggests that we focus our efforts in one area to maximise efficiency. This book is about narrowing your focus and finding your niche so as not to dilute your output. One of the easiest ways to decide what you should be doing to move in the right direction is to ask yourself: what ONE thing could I do that would drive me forward? By simplifying the strategy – unlike most self-development books which can fill your head with ideas – this book invites you to find out and dive into the single, most important passion or skill that, over time, will lead you down the path of success. If you spread yourself too thin, you will end up as a jack of all trades, but master of none. In order to stand out in a highly competitive market, you’ll benefit from singularly focusing on what it is that can set you apart from the rest.
Why Read? This book is all about finding your niche and what can set you apart from the competition then going all-in on it. Get on Blinkist
10. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
A classic of its kind, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people was one of the first books in the self-development genre to address the formation of daily habits as a crucial ingredient to attain success. Proposing an alternative to the strategies of positive thinking, Covey claims that the building of habits is one of the ‘primary traits’ necessary for success. Using an analogy where he compares habits to the foundations of a building, Covey advises us to go back to our roots and build from the bottom up to set ourselves up for sustainable results.
Covey sees habits as attitudes and mindsets which lead to positive results. Rather than specific things like exercise and reading, the author provides us with the mental tools to establish strong, daily routines. After all, ‘we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. The author invites us to reframe how we see success; instead of viewing it as something that comes after a long series of actions, it should be considered as the actions in themselves, however insignificant they may at first seem.
Why Read? A self-development classic, this book provides fascinating insights on the mindsets necessary to become highly successful. Get on Blinkist
11. The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
A creative idea, based on a monthly system, the Happiness Project taps into our desire to have structure with our habits. Rather than focussing on what you could potentially achieve in a few years, the author suggests that you break your goals down into the 12 months of the year. Say you want to get stronger, January can become the month where you decide to focus on strength. So for every day of that month, when you are at a loss for what to do to move in the right direction, you can remember the theme of the month and act upon it. This unconventional system to create the environment for good habits is very effective, and introduces different habits to you organically after 28 days which means you have enough time to make them automatic.
Why Read? A very accessible, easy to read book which offers a simple solution to your struggles with habits and goals. Get on Blinkist.
12. Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan
Happiness by design is a book which presents a logical approach to reaching the desired yet evasive state of happiness or contentment. In a nutshell, the concept of happiness is a balance of purpose and pleasure according to the author. The author argues that the meaning of moments is more important than the meaning of life as a whole. As a result, we should aim to fill our days with pleasurable and purposeful moments to ensure that we satisfy our needs. He categorises people as either more of a ‘purpose engine’ or a ‘pleasure machine’, then invites the reader to explore the balance in their own lives and see if they are tipping the scale too far in one direction, and if so, then to re-calibrate. Since the central theme of this book hinges upon the balance of the two concepts, we should adjust accordingly and add either purpose or pleasure inspired activities into our daily routines.
Why Read? Offering an interesting perspective on how to attain happiness, this book can help you work towards a healthier outlook. Get on Blinkist.
13. The Flinch – Julien Smith
A self-proclaimed ‘manifesto about starting’, the Flinch is a book about facing up to discomfort and doing what needs to be done on a regular basis. Whether it’s pitching a business idea or public speaking, there is always something that strikes fear into our hearts and paralyses us, impeding our progress. If we are to make any progress with our goals and want to make the step up to the next level, chances are at some point we are going to be faced with something that makes us flinch. The author suggests that by facing up to these fears directly – starting as simple as making the decision to have a cold shower every day – we can react positivity to challenge and let it propel us forward rather than set us back.
Why Read? A book for everyone who knows deep down that their fear of confronting something is holding them back in life.
14. The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
The wild card of the list, this esoteric book from spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle provides a different take on self-actualisation. Tolle’s writing is like his speech – slow, and deliberate – making this an easy read if you allow yourself to be open to the subject. More of a fascinating insight into the world of meditation and being present than a call to action, this book can give you a now-focussed perspective which will aid you when it comes to concentrating on daily efforts over long-term goals.
Obviously a strong advocate of meditation as a daily practice, Tolle offers a spiritual take on its importance and provides us food for thought about this often over-looked habit. As mentioned by many of the high-performing athletes and great minds in Ferriss’ Tools of Titans: meditation is a powerful way to start the day and focus the mind before it gets a chance to be distracted. Like the glue behind many of the other daily habits you strive to acquire, meditation in the words of Tolle is a way to end ‘the dreadful enslavement to incessant thinking’ and so give you more time to focus on what’s truly important to you.
Why Read? A fantastic introduction to the practice of meditation, this book can help you realise why you should make the practice a habit. Get on Blinkist.
15. The Little Book of Ikigai – Ken Mogi
Not a book a lot of people would expect to see on a list like this, the little book of Ikigai is a great introduction into a Japanese life philosophy that values hard work and purposeful, daily action. Why is this philosophy relevant in creating daily habits? Well, because Ikigai can be explained as the reason to get up in the morning. The life philosophy can help us pinpoint what it is that will get us out of bed in the morning and get after our habits with a strong sense of purpose. It is about finding whatever it is that gives you joy, then pursuing it relentlessly despite what society or your social circle might think, in order to live comfortably in the knowledge that you are acting on your passion and doing what you love every day.
Why Read? This book provides a great introduction to the Japanese life philosophy of Ikigai, and explains how you can use it to great effect in your own life.