Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2016)

Charles Duhigg tackles the subject of productivity in his most recent non-fiction work, a follow up to The Power of Habit, but his focus is on a more holistic view of productivity that the traditional “business speak” use of the word. Rather than focusing his research on ways to do more in less time — the frantic, endlessly multi-tasking and constantly exhausted business model that was king in the 1980s and 90s — Duhigg is more interested in presenting readers with methods that allow them to create realistic priorities and make targeted choices about where to put their energies to get the best life outcomes.

As is my habit, I often present my reviews of non-fiction books by offering what I think are the writer’s best tips and observations. Some of the highlights of the book include:

  • People who feel that they have control over their choices — at school, at work, in their free time — tend to have better outcomes and show more commitment to their projects. In one example, Duhigg says that residents at nursing homes who felt they had no choice (in activities, meals, rules, etc) experienced a much more rapid physical decline than those in places where residents have more personal choices.
  • Highly successful and productive people tend to demonstrate a strong “internal locus of control,” meaning they “believe they can influence their destiny through the choices they make.” Specifically, these people accept responsibility (or blame) for the role they play in outcomes rather than blaming outside forces. They attribute good grades to hard work, not natural smarts or perhaps they recognize that high sales numbers come from dedicated work, not good fortune.
  • If you can link a hard task with a outcome you care about, the task feels easier. “Turn a chore into a meaningful decision — something you need to do rather than have to do — self-motivation will emerge.”
  • “Linking small tasks to larger aspirations” leads to better self motivation. (For example, keeping the lawn tidy all fall will make the house more likely to sell when it goes on the market in the spring.)
  • Workplace productivity seems to be intricately linked with “psychological safety.” Employees who are most engaged and productive feel they can express themselves without criticism; draw attention to flaws or dangers; promote their good work or that of others; and take risks or be vulnerable to propose ideas that may or may not work.
  • Highly productive people know to “pay attention to the right things” and do only the tasks (or follow the steps) that lead to their exact goals. Duhigg says, “it is easy to be distracted by the information that is the easiest to grasp,” even if it is irrelevant or misleading. Mainly, they are able to minimize distractions, especially those that are not important to a current project or event. For example, someone working on a sales pitch might set up blocks of time to work offline to stay on task and not get distracted by email or social media; or a nurse might take the time to give a physical examination to a patient before reviewing her vital signs so that she does not overly rely on abstract data.
  • People who are experienced at  “creating mental models,” in other words thinking up “complex internal stories about possible future events or project outcomes,” tend to pay more attention to subtle nuances and small details and therefore tend to be more successful.
  • Productive people “keep control over their attention.” Over-reliance on automated processes — cell phone alerts to check your calendar, FitBit nudges reminding you to move, FB prompting you to remember your mother’s birthday — can link up to dulled mental awareness and a loss attention to detail. We outsource so many things we used to remember, and as a result we are less mentally sharp; finding a balance between routinization and new experiences is best to create a space for new ideas.
  • Employers (or people) who have “a high need for closure” tend to inadvertently thwart innovation and creativity by focusing too much on closure — checking off the boxes, meeting the deadlines, following the rules — and not on best possible outcomes. Productivity is easier to achieve if deviation from the norm and risk-taking are allowed and even encouraged.
  • Having wildly aspirational and hard to obtain “stretch goals” can “force people to commit to ambitious, out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation of productivity…by disrupting complacency and promoting new ways of thinking.” For example, having obese patients commit to running a marathon in order to get fit and lose weight might work, as long as there was a clear framework of steps and guidelines for them to follow. (Key? Having the stretch by “audacious” but not “panic inducing.”) To be most successful, “stretch goals innovations happen when the goal is paired with a system for breaking them into concrete plans.”
  • Engaging in “probabilistic thinking” can lead to more agile planning and a more flexible view of the future. “The future is not one thing, it is a multitude of possibilities that contradict one another until one becomes true.” Therefore, “probabilistic thinking is the ability to hold multiple possible conflicting outcomes in mind when making decisions.” Thinking this way means taking into account more than just what we want to happen, but also what is likely to happen and which decisions can we influence along the way to get us closer to our goals.
  • “Successful people spend time seeking out information on failure; asking for criticism along with reviews, and going over what went wrong” so they can better make predictions about how to improve in future endeavors. “Making good choices relies on forecasting the future, accurate forecasting requires information on successes and disappointments.”
  • “Innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways…small disturbances to jolt us out of ruts.”
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