This time of year can feel like a marathon which ends at Christmas. Everyone is working around the clock to get things done before the end of the year, whilst planning for 2020 and juggling plans for the festive season. Much as I love my job, and the fun of being Santa for my children, my instinct at weekends is to hibernate with a good book. Here are 3 of the best that I’ve read recently which will help you make better decisions, manage digital distractions and challenge your thinking around diversity and inclusion.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favourite writers and I binged on all of his books a few years ago. So when I heard about his new book, Talking to Strangers, I couldn’t wait to read it.

What it’s about: One of the first questions I ask when I get through the door of organisations is how they make decisions. A big part of my job is helping people through change, and to do that well I have to work out what they aren’t telling me, and help them feel comfortable and safe enough to open up. Gladwell’s book is all about how we work out what’s right and wrong, what could persuade us to take a certain path, and how we perceive the truth.

Spoiler: it turns out that human beings are pretty rubbish at working out what to do. You’d hope that we’d evolved to the point where we could read people and make decisions methodically. No. Gladwell shares some extraordinary stories which demolish these ideas, from the spy who spent years undetected at the Pentagon (please can this be made into a Netflix series) to the guy who helped bring Bernie Madoff to justice.

3 key takeaways: 

  • Gladwell talks about how we all have a working assumption that the people we deal with are honest (otherwise known as the default to truth). How can we build challenge into where we make decisions, and how can we get people with different perspectives in the room to do this?
  • This book made me ask uncomfortable questions about my thought processes and how we end up doubting our reading of out of the ordinary circumstances. Gladwell explores some horrendous cases of abuse where parents and teachers dismissed what they saw and heard, despite witnessing evidence first hand. It got me thinking about when I assumed that those in power would act in line with my expectations. Should we ask ourselves that more often?
  • Map your assumptions. This isn’t easy to do, but even asking questions about ‘What do we know, think we know, and what don’t we know’ next time you’re in a meeting where someone states with confidence, “Our users need this” can get people reflecting on whether they’re making decisions based on sound evidence.

In his book, Gladwell talks about what impedes our ability to make good decisions (such as getting drunk). I think that lack of focus plays a role here too. Working in digital and juggling multiple projects, I’ve been wondering if multitasking is the best way to do things. I began tracking my screentime and was shocked to learn that on one day I picked up my phone 220 times. If I was reaching for chocolate that often I would consider myself to have an addiction. So when I heard Nir Eyal interviewed on the Today programme a few weeks ago I decided to read his new book, Indistractible, which is about how we can all be more focused (currently a hot topic in Silicon Valley).

What it’s about:  Eyal discovers how we can be more motivated, and how to recognise and manage the triggers that send us down internet rabbitholes, such as reaching for your phone when you feel anxious, bored or frustrated. Noticing this has encouraged me to use tech in a more mindful way.

It’s a really comprehensive book which covers how to minimise disruptions, manage your inbox so you can stay focused, and how to help children develop a healthy relationship with technology. I was especially interested in the advice on distraction in meetings. How often have you started scrolling through your phone during a long presentation? I also liked the ideas on how to make focus a core value in company culture and how organisations need to talk about technology overuse. Eyal encourages leaders to model focused work and also to be curious and ask questions about how we can also use digital more effectively.

3 key takeaways:

  • Some of the best advice I got from the book was about email management. Eyal has a rule to never open an email more than twice without taking action. I now follow this, and then either label them ‘reply today’ or ‘action this week.’ Read more of Eyal’s tips.
  • Don’t have meetings without a clear objective. Eyal argues that no-one should be able to call a meeting without circulating an agenda of the problem to be discussed. That person also needs to suggest a solution, argue the case for it and make a recommendation. I bet this would cut a lot of unnecessary meetings from all our diaries.
  • Find ways to make yourself accountable. That might mean using the Forest app to work for an unbroken stint, or having an accountability partner (several of my colleagues recently starting doing this). According to Eyal even just defining yourself as someone who manages distraction successfully can help. There’s more advice from Eyal here.

My final book recommendation is by writer, performer and film maker Amrou Al-Kadhi. I first heard about them (Amrou identifies as non-binary) and their new book: Unicorn, The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen on The High Low Podcast. In the charity sector many of us are talking about diversity and inclusion, and it strikes me that we use a lot of jargon when doing so.  I wonder if the real power is in stories of lived experience, like Al-Kadhi’s.

This is a moving, funny and thought provoking book about what it’s like to grow up and move through the world feeling that you’re different, how that shapes your identity, and how we choose to define ourselves.

What it’s about: Al-Kadhi’s stage persona is a tough talking drag queen. Their route to this may surprise you. They grew up in a strict Iraqi Muslim family, and later attended Eton and Cambridge. As a BAME woman, Al-Kadhi’s experiences really resonated with me. If you’re going to read one book about how we can understand different perspectives and be more inclusive, let it be this. It’s a story about identity, forgiveness, love, and ultimately acceptance.

3 key takeaways: 

  • We need to learn home truths about inclusion. There is a scene at the end of the book where Al-Kadhi attends the Gay Pride parade on Oxford Street and says that it feels very corporate to them, and that there needs to be more ‘outward celebration of queer people who do not conform to heteronormative social ideals.’ This is a brilliant challenge to us all. When aiming for inclusion, we can’t assume that everyone wants the same thing.
  • Challenging prejudice is a lifetime’s work. Al-Kadhi goes on a journey of moving away from their Arabic roots whilst at Eton as a teenager, to embracing them as an adult and drag performer. I wish we could all be as open about discussing this issue. A handy conversation starter is The Law Society’s excellent 5 step guide to reducing unconscious bias at work.
  • Humour is a powerful tool. I don’t think I’m alone in that when discussing diversity I worry a lot about saying the wrong thing. Al-Kadhi deals with very serious subjects in the book (from racism to abusive to relationships) but is also incredibly witty. Making people laugh can break down barriers and get everyone talking about differences.

Which books are you reading? I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.