Productivity isn’t just about getting things done. At its core, it’s about being resourceful with your time. In a recent interview with author Charles Duhigg, he told us, “You can spend your entire day being busy and not get anything important done. Productivity is about getting important things done.” In his new book, Smarter Faster Better, Duhigg explores this fuller meaning of productivity and how to achieve it.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist at the New York Times and author of the bestseller The Power of Habit. The book spent over 60 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and we’ve discussed it here a number of times. We even interviewed Duhigg for our How We Work series and excerpted part of his new book here.
In Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Duhigg uses research and science to explain how all of our productivity habits work, but he intertwines those points with real-world examples, many of them notable events in history, to illustrate how those behavioural concepts work in practice. The result is a book that guides us through the relationship between psychology and productivity while suggesting ways to use that information for the reader’s own benefit.
Who This Book Is For
Most of us have been stuck in the Cult of Busy. We’re all stressed. We all have a lot on our plates. We’re all busy. “Busyness” keeps us from getting the important things done, and as Duhigg points out:
To get important things done you have to give yourself enough time and space to figure out what’s actually important.
Prioritising your time seems to be the overarching theme of the book, and its Introduction lays this idea out in detail, explaining that our busy, stressful culture can sometimes make it difficult to take a step back and pay attention to the right things.
If any of that sounds vaguely familiar, you’ll get something out of the book. You’ll learn how to use the psychology behind motivation, focus, goal-setting and decision-making to work in your favour. In short, the book is for anyone who wants to manage time better or optimise their work.
What You’ll Get
Each chapter of the book tackles a different productive habit and fully breaks down how that habit works. Typically, the chapter starts with a story about something familiar: The cast of Saturday Night Live or the Yom-Kippur War, for example, using the story to illustrate how those productivity habits work in practice. From there, Duhigg not only cites interesting studies that show exactly how our brains work, he digs deep into those studies, describing the stories and the subjects behind them. For example, in a chapter on Focus, Duhigg tells the story of a neonatal nurse named Darlene who was able to predict that an infant in her unit was experiencing the early stages of sepsis, saving the infant’s life. Duhigg writes,
There was nothing specific she could point to, but this baby simply didn’t look like Darlene expected her to. Darlene found the attending physician and said they needed to start the child on intravenous antibiotics. All they had to go on was Darlene’s intuition.
The story comes from researcher Beth Crandall, who co-authored the 1991 study, Guide to Early Sepsis Assessment in the NICU. Throughout the chapter, Duhigg interviews Crandall on her research, characterising her work with the real-world stories behind it.
Beyond the stories and research, the book also peppers in actionable advice so the reader can apply each concept. Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll find in every chapter:
The Chapter ‘Motivation’ Explains How to Take Control of Your Situation
Some of us have an internal locus of control versus an external one. In basic terms, an internal locus of control is the belief that your actions affect your destiny. People with a strong internal locus of control tend to be less stressed, more motivated and have greater academic success. To build your own internal locus of control, focus on choices. Duhigg told us:
What we know is that you can definitely teach to it and you can train to it…You don’t ever tell anyone that they’re a natural born leader because that signifies that they don’t have a choice in being a leader. Instead what you say is, “I saw how hard you worked and you earned that leadership.” That way you keep the internal locus of control is that you point out, you make clear to people how their choices, how their actions are having these positive outcomes.
Then you put them into situations where they actually have to make controlled choices and in doing so they learn.
Decisions play a crucial role in self-motivation, and Duhigg suggests a two-step process for motivating yourself: Give yourself a choice, then tie that choice to a greater goal.
The Chapter on ‘Teams’ Explains How Individuals Thrive When Working Together
No matter how smart each individual is, they probably won’t work well as a team if they don’t have “psychological safety“. This basically means, in order to thrive, each member of the team has to feel accepted, respected and free to share their craziest ideas. Duhigg writes:
In general, the route to establishing psychological safety begins with the team’s leader. So if you are leading a team…think about what message your choices send. Are you encouraging equality in speaking, or rewarding the loudest people?
To cultivate this safety, team leaders have to give members control. They must ask for their opinion and put stock in their judgment.
The Chapter ‘Focus’ Tells You How to Stay Calm in Stressful Situations
Automation is convenient, but when we put too many important things on autopilot, we risk cognitive tunnelling. In other words, when faced with stress, we focus on and act according to the systems in place rather than reality or common sense. You’ve probably seen this in action when someone doesn’t know how to handle the unexpected because they have no policy or procedure for it, and can’t think on their feet. Duhigg told us:
We all know that when we’re in a cognitive tunnel because we feel ourselves just reacting to things. Like when you’re driving down the freeway, you’re not speeding but you see a cop car and you slam on your breaks. That’s a cognitive tunnel. That’s you being reactive rather than thinking or being thoughtful.
The solution is to develop mental models: envision the outcome of possible events. While you’re driving, for example, imagine passing a cop car or finding someone in your blind spot or approaching a car with an erratic driver. When you put yourself in these hypothetical situations, you give yourself the capacity to make choices. In simple terms, you pull yourself out of autopilot.
The Chapter ‘Goal Setting’ Explains How to Link Long-Term Goals With Daily Tasks.
In this chapter, Duhigg talks about cognitive closure, or our desire to solve a problem rather than allow our minds to wander and leave a problem open-ended. Cognitive closure feels productive, so we often make hasty decisions for the satisfaction of getting something done. We can rush our goal and lose sight of the bigger picture. Duhigg told us:
The question is how can you just make sure that the things that you’re checking off are the right things to do? That you’re not just doing the easy things because it feels so good to check them off?
The key is to combine “stretch goals” — our bigger, maybe more long-term goals — with traditional SMART goals. SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Boxed. When we break goals down that way, they’re easier to digest, but you risk losing sight of the bigger picture. Productive people keep their stretch goal in mind when making monthly, weekly or daily goals. With your stretch goal in mind, you can channel the need for cognitive closure to your top priority.
Duhigg helps you absorb all of the data in the book with a “Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas” in his Appendix. If you want to speed read the book, you could check out that section to see the actionable takeaways. The book is chock-full of useful information, though, so you’d barely scratch the surface.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
Duhigg’s two-step process for motivation is hard to beat. Personally, though, his tip for combining stretch goals with SMART goals helped the most.
It’s pretty simple: Write your long-term stretch goal, or your overarching ambition, at the top of your daily to-do list. When you make a SMART goal, write your stretch goal at the top of the list. The idea is to keep that goal in front of you so you can focus on what matters to you most.
I do this every morning when I write my daily task list. It keeps my long-term goal front of mind. This motivates me, yes, but it also helps me prioritise tasks and weed out the tasks that get in the way of my long-term goal.
Smarter Faster Better doesn’t just tell you how to be more productive, it clarifies what productivity is in the first place and why it’s important. Obviously, we’re no strangers to that topic. One criticism of productivity is that it turns you into a robot. You become so concerned with optimisation and efficiency that you forget to just live and enjoy life. This misses the mark, though. As Smarter Faster Better explains, productivity is simply using your time in the best way possible so you have more time to enjoy life.
Duhigg knows his stuff — the book is packed with an intimidating amount of knowledge and research. However, this research only complements and supports his larger, more relatable lessons. Duhigg takes our most subtle habits and breaks them down in a way that’s obvious and digestible.
For example, I’ve had issues with cognitive closure my entire life, but up until now, I didn’t even know it had a name. And I certainly didn’t understand how it worked. Now that I understand it, I can combat it — or better yet, make it work in my favour.
You can buy Smarter Faster Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business from Book Depository for $22.95.