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‘Smarter Faster Better’: The New Science Of Productivity

‘Smarter Faster Better’: The New Science Of Productivity by [email protected]

Why are some people so much more productive than others? How can we increase our own productivity? A new book by New York Times reporter and bestselling author Charles Duhigg mines recent scientific findings for the answers.

In the following book review, [email protected] shares highlights from Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

In an economy ruled by change, disruption, and uncertainty, it seems that everyone — individuals and companies alike — is searching for an edge. Stephen Covey published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 1989; since then, interest in the art and science of habit formation has grown steadily and shows no signs of abating.

New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg has contributed to that literature — but with a difference. While the majority of books about habits are geared to personal transformation, his book The Power of Habit focused equally on the habits of individuals, but also on those of organizations and societies. His new book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, builds on his previous one and maintains its broad scope.

[drizzle]Although the word “habit” doesn’t even appear in the book’s index, Duhigg’s latest work isolates a very particular set of habits: those that govern decision-making. Enhanced productivity, he argues, flows from “making certain choices in certain ways.” How we frame those choices, and the incentives and motivations and inputs we attach to them, will “separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

Motivation and Control

Productivity begins with motivation; and motivation, according to the research Duhigg cites, begins with control — or more precisely, the location of control. Psychologists have been considering the question of our “locus of control” since the 1950s. Those with an external locus of control have a sense of life happening to them; they believe their lives are primarily influenced by forces outside their control.

Those with an internal locus of control, by contrast, feel in charge of their own destiny and attribute success or failure to their own efforts. An internal locus of control yields vastly superior results. One representative study finds it “has been linked with academic success, high self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span.”

It might be tempting to view locus of control as an innate personality trait, like the tendency to be introverted or extroverted. But researchers like Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck see it not as a fixed, static quality, but as a “learned skill.” And like any skill, it can be practiced and consciously cultivated.

This view has been adopted, perhaps surprisingly, in a new approach in the Marine Corps to basic training. Boot camp has long been associated with discipline and taking orders — giving up individual control in the interest of the group. But General Charles C. Krulak found that the recruits he was seeing needed more than discipline: “they needed a mental makeover,” and a “vocabulary for ambition.” So he pushed for a redesign of basic training that forced trainees to take control of their own choices — sometimes creating situations that required recruits to modify and work around given orders.

Consciously instilling a “bias toward action” in the Marine Corps begins at a small, mundane level — like suddenly leaving a group of recruits in charge of cleaning the mess hall, without any instructions or guidance. And that approach seems to work for the rest of us as well. The point is to trigger a “will to act.” Faced with an overwhelming stream of emails, for example, just pick one from the middle of your inbox and answer it. If you’ve been avoiding a difficult sales call, settle on your opening line. “Find a choice, almost any choice, that allows you to exert control.”

Goals: ‘SMART’ Stretching

Control is only a start. In order to “self-motivate more easily, we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals.” Without overarching meaning and purpose, without linking smaller tasks to larger aspirations, we can “seize” on an isolated decision just because it makes us feel productive.

The experience of General Electric is an object lesson in the importance of ambition. As early as the 1940s, GE had formalized what was widely seen as a model system of corporate goal-setting. SMART goals had to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and based on a Timeline. Yet by the 1980s, GE was seeing some of its key divisions lag. In 1993, CEO Jack Welch visited Japan, and heard first-hand how in the 1960s they had succeeded in developing high-speed “bullet trains” that traveled an average speed of 120 miles per hour. Engineers had initially estimated 75 as the top “realistic” speed; the head of the railway system insisted that wasn’t good enough, not even close. So the engineers doubled down, and via hundreds of innovations small and large, eventually broke through — an achievement instrumental in Japan’s decades-long economic boom.

Welch returned determined to get GE to adopt “bullet train thinking.” In a letter to shareholders, he proposed marrying SMART goals to what he called “stretch” goals. That would mean “using dreams to set business targets — with no real idea of how to get there. If you do know how to get there — it’s not a stretch target.” Welch tested the new approach with GE’s airplane engine division, which had announced it was going to try to reduce defects by 25%. Not good enough, Welch said. He told them he wanted 70%, and gave them three years to get there. The audacious goal “set off a chain reaction” in which the division completely reimagined the entire manufacturing process. By 1999, defects had dropped 75%.

“Numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals,” Duhigg writes, “and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity.”

On a personal level, we can apply this to something as mundane as a to-do list. A commonly traded productivity tip is to first write down easy tasks that can be completed and finished right away. A psychologist Duhigg interviewed says this is exactly the wrong way to approach a to-do list, and accomplishes little more than “mood repair.” Genuine productivity grows from starting a to-do list with larger goals and then splitting them up into bite-sized “smart” goals.

Tunnel Vision

The need to balance large goals and small goals — the big picture and the small one, the forest and the trees — is an ongoing theme in Duhigg’s investigations. Our need for “cognitive closure” can compel us to “seize” on a sub-par choice or goal simply because it “meets a minimum threshold of acceptability.” On the one hand, it’s healthy to activate our decision-making and to avoid the paralysis of endless second-guessing. Yet if our urge for closure is too strong, we can “freeze” our goals and analysis.

The challenge is to balance order and chaos, certainty and ambiguity — a challenge that is particularly pronounced in high-stakes jobs like flying an