Smarter Faster Better

The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

By Charles Duhigg


StarStarStarHalf StarStar

Originally published

Mar 8, 2016


PurchaseExternal link
On motivation
"My life felt like a treadmill of to-do lists, emails, rushed meetings, and subsequent apologies for being late" (3)
"There are some people who pretend at productivity...Then there are others...who seem to exist on a different plane of getting things done" (4)
"Productive people have habits—what psychologists might call 'contemplative routines'—that push them to think more deeply about the choices they make" (6)
"The difference between being merely busy and genuinely productive is about taking control of how we think and making better choices—instead of simply reacting to life's constant demands." (6)
We go day to day, "never stopping to ask ourselves if we're getting important things done or simply checking items off our to-do list." (7)
The key is to be focused and purposeful in everything. Doing this at scale and over time necessitates "self-motivation" (19) or an "internal locus of control" (23)
"Each choice—no matter how small—reinforces the perception of control and self-efficacy...even when that choice confers no additional reward" (19) — put yourself in the driver's seat
Can be used the other way: make users and clients feel as if they are in control of the outcome by involving them in meetings, giving feedback, etc.
In line with this, give unexpected compliments, and compliment the person for their actions rather than "natural" characteristics
On teams
Duhigg takes a deep dive into the People Analytics group at Google: "At the most basic level, the division's goal was to make life at Google a little bit getter and a lot more productive. With enough data, People Analytics believed, almost any behavioral puzzle could be solved." (42)
Duhigg also discusses nursing wards in hospitals, coming to the interesting discovery that "The wards with the strongest team cohesion had far more errors...It wasn't that wards with strong teams were making more mistakes. Rather, it was that nurses who belonged to strong teams felt more comfortable reporting their mistakes." (48)
These are byproducts of psychological safety: "shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks" (50)
This is largely trickledown: "the teams with the highest levels of psychological safety were also the ones with leaders most likely to model listening and social sensitivity...this is how psychological safety emerges: by giving everyone equal voice and encouraging social sensitivity among teammates." (64)
Important ingredients:
Feel work is important
Personally meaningful work
Clear goals, defined roles
Faith in other team members
On focus
"Even without technology's help, all humans rely on cognitive automations, known as "heuristics", that allow us to multitask" (75)
"Our brains automatically seek out opportunities to disconnect and unwind"; in situations where the brain does not know what to do, it defaults to heuristics, or cognitive tunnels. "Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus. Instead, we latch on to the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense" (77)
When speaking of a nurse who failed to identify a life-threatening condition in a child, Duhigg argues, she "didn't have a strong picture in her head of what she expected to see, and so her spotlight focused on the most obvious details" (87)
"If you need to improve your focus and learn to avoid distractions, take a moment to visualize, with as much detail as possible, what you are about to do. It is easier to know what's ahead when there's a well-rounded script inside your head" (92-93)
"To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge" (102)
Notably, Dihugg ended the book discussing how the book's teachings helped him to write the book in the first place. "Something as simple as jotting down a couple of reasons why I am doing something makes it much simpler to start" (273) "Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate (to ourselves) that we are in control" (273)
On goal setting
People in general "have a high emotional need for cognitive closure" (108)
"However, if our urge for closure is too strong, we 'freeze' on our goals and yearn to grab that feeling of productivity at the expense of common sense" (109)
SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, based on a timeline
However you can fall into a trap: he outlines a case where "Workers spent hours making sure their objectives satisfied every SMART criterion, but spent much less time making sure the goals were worth pursuing in the first place." (119)
Instead what worked is a team which "balanced the psychological influence of immediate goals with the freedom to think about bigger things" (122) → stretch goals
On managing others
"Lean manufacturing—relied on pushing decision making to the lowest possible level...they were closest to the glitches that were inevitable in any manufacturing process. So it only makes sense to give them the greatest authority in finding solutions" (144) → "atmosphere of trust" (145), culture of commitment
On decision making
"The trick to this game is making predictions, imagining alternative futures and then calculating which ones are most likely to come true" (168)
"Good decision making is contingent on a basic ability to envision what happens next" (170)
Referring to the rise of poker player Annie Duke, Duhigg notes "Intermediate players grave certainty. But elite players can use that craving against them, because it makes intermediate players more predictable." (173) "Poker is about using your chips to gather information faster than everyone else" (173). It all comes down to information gathering and probability.
"Envision tomorrow as an array of potential outcomes, all of which had different odds of coming true" (177) → live with uncertainty and bake it into your calculations
"Our assumptions are based on what we've encountered in life, but our experiences often draw on biased samples" (195)
"We become trained, in other words, to notice success and then, as a result, we predict successful outcomes too often because we're relying on experiences and assumptions that are biased toward all the successes we've seen—rather than the failures we've overlooked" (195)
Classic Wharton story that everyone thinks they can start a restaurant
We have to work to understand what causes negative outcomes so we can learn from them and accurately factor them into our predictions
On innovation
On the writing of Westside Story, "The biggest challenge, however, was figuring out which theatrical conventions were truly powerful and which had become cliches" (211) → the creative process is based on "taking proven, conventional ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways" (212)
Intellectual middlemen (brokers): "They've seen a lot of different people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work" (215)
Develop a breadth of experiences across different segments
Ed Catmull, former president of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, said "If you can't let let go of what you've worked so hard to achieve, it ends up trapping you" (227)
Known as creative complacency
Joseph Connell is a biologist who studied why biodiversity is wider in certain areas. He found that "Once a species solved the problem of survival, it pushed other alternatives away. But if something altered the ecosystem just a little bit, then biodiversity exploded" (229)
"Local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent" (230)
"When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can't prosper. So sometimes the best way to spark creativity is by disturbing things just enough to let some light through." (231)

← Back to all books