ARC, Books, Professional Development

Book 422: Smarter Faster Better – Charles Duhigg

Duhigg, Charles - Stronger Faster BetterWhen I requested a copy of this upcoming book (released March 8, 2016) from Random House*, I was really hoping for a repeat of Duhigg’s 2012 The Power of Habit. Unfortunately, there was something missing from this one. I can’t quite figure out what it is, but I think it has to do with the first book being much easier to apply and this one overall being more theoretical.

That being said, this was incredibly readable and had a lot of great case studies that I’ve encountered in numerous settings and other books I’ve read recently about work productivity and managing up. Duhigg’s writing style is incredibly easy to read and he seamlessly ties together disparate examples to elucidate his points. Off the top of my head a few are: the development of Disney’s Frozen, General Electric (I feel like I’m an expert after Badowski’s excellent Managing Up), aviation near-crashes, the writing and staging of West Side Story, Google, Cincinnati school reform, debt collection and many others! Needless to say you will easily find at least one example that you really identify with.

Where I really found myself nodding my head and “mmhming” (mentally and verbally – it got me a few odd looks on the subway), was when Duhigg discussed teamwork throughout the book. It was fascinating to see the numerous examples and to think about the successful (and less successful) teams I’ve been a part of in my professional, educational and personal lives.

“The data shows there’s a universality to how good teams succeed. It’s important that everyone on a team feels like they have a voice, but whether they actually get to vote on things or make decisions turns out not to matter much. Neither does the volume of work or physical co-location. What matters is having a voice and social sensitivity.” (Ch. 2, Teams, my emphasis)

“I stressed that no one at Disney needed to wait for permission to come up with solutions. What is the point of hiring smart people, we asked, if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?” (Ch. 5, Managing Others, Ed Catmull – Pixar co-founder)

Duhigg and the many example he provides, drill down to the essence of team work and the importance of communication, going up AND coming down. When I think about the times I’ve felt lost or inconsequential at my jobs it’s been when I’ve had all decision-making abilities removed from either a change in management or lack of flexibility. Using Duhigg’s suggestions of finding ANYTHING you can make a decision about will be incredibly useful going forward. I’m aware that allowing workers the freedom to make choices and being a worker who is able to make choices is a perk of seniority and longevity, but it was interesting to read that at ALL levels this ability is just as important as the ability to feel as if you are being heard, regardless of the outcome.

The other big thing that stood out to me is how productive I must already be (and I know I am), because Duhigg has now given me the vocabulary to describe what it is I do. I try to explain things to supervisors about why I’m able to produce the amount of work I do and still have the time for the creative impulses to strike, but I’ve never had the vocabulary. Now that I know I’m constantly creating mental models and desperately need clear delineated psychological safety (aka team standards), I’m (if possible) even more confident in my abilities.

As a last note, I really enjoyed this line about real life siblings and how they Frozen ultimately adopted it as the “conflict” for the stories sisters.

“Siblings don’t grow apart because one is good and one is bad. They grow apart because they’re both messes and then they come together when they realize they need each other. That’s what I want to know.” (Ch.7, Innovation, Jennifer Lee – Screenwriter/Director, Disney’s Frozen)

It really struck true and reminds me of how many siblings while living together through high school are ready to “murder” each other or want nothing to do with each other, but the second there is some independence and/or maturity from living alone, they start to bond a lot better. I know it was true for my sister and I. The older we get and the more sorted our lives become the better we are at communication and feeling like we’re not the crazies in the family 😀

The only thing that bothered me about this book was the citation scheme. Similar to Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, there was no line, footnote or end note citation (minimal but only for immediate clarification). The citations were all listed by chapter and with a brief snippet of whatever text the citation referred to to guide you. If anyone knows what system this is please let me know so I can read more about it and find ways to break through it’s seeming lack of clarity.

Recommendation: If you’re expecting a how-to-guide don’t bother. Although Duhigg provides a lot of tips (especially in the Appendix, read it if you read anything), this isn’t a how to book. This is a book of case studies that illustrate the general ideas of how to become more productive, and although fascinating, you have to take a lot of extra time to extrapolate what it is you think you should get out of them.

* I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in return for my honest opinion. No goods or services were exchanged.

Opening Line: “My introduction to the science of productivity began in the summer of 2011, when I asked a friend of a friend for a favor.”

Closing Line: “We can all become more productive. My hope is that you now know how to start.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from Stronger Faster Better (Sorry for the lack of page numbers, but the galley is off I’m pretty sure by a few pages so I just put the chapter in which the quote appears.)
“Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. It’s a process of learning how to succeed with less stress and struggle. It’s about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.” (Introduction)

“Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.” (Ch. 1, Motivation)

“‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’ said Woolley. ‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined. The conversations didn’t need to be equal every minute, but in aggregate, they had to balance out.” (Ch. 2, Teams)

“Team members might behave certain ways as individuals—they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently—but often, inside a group, there’s a set of norms that override those preferences and encourage deference to the team.” (Chapter 2, Teams)

“For psychological safety to emerge among a group, teammates don’t have to be friends. They do, however, need to be socially sensitive and ensure everyone feels heard.” (Ch. 2, Teams)

“In the age of automation, knowing how to manage your focus is more critical than ever before.” (Ch. 3, Focus)

“People like Darlene who are particularly good at managing their attention tend to share certain characteristics. One is a propensity to create pictures in their minds of what the expect to see. These people tell themselves stories about what’s going on as it occurs. They narrate their own experiences within their heads. They are more likely to answer questions with anecdote rather than simple responses. They say when they daydream, they’re often imagining future conversations. They visualize their days with more specificity than the rest of us do.” (Ch. 3, Focus)

“Researches have found similar results in dozens of other studies. People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models.” (Ch. 3, Focus)

“To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day. While you’re sitting at a meeting or at lunch, describe to yourself what you’re seeing and what it means. Find other people to hear your theories and challenge them. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next. If you are a parent, anticipate what your children will say at the dinner table. Then you’ll notice what goes unmentioned or if there’s a stray comment that you should see as a warning sign.” (Ch. 3, Focus)

“Stretch goals can spark remarkable innovations, but only when people have a system for breaking them into concrete plans.” (Ch. 4, Goal Setting)

“Good decision making is contingent on a basic ability to envision what happens next. (Ch. 6, Decision Making, author’s emphasis)

“This, ultimately, is one of the most important secrets of learning how to make better decisions. Making good choices relies on forecasting the future. Accurate  forecasting requires exposing ourselves to as many successes and disappointments as possible. We need to sit in crowded and empty theaters to know how movies will perform; we need to spend time around both babies and old people to accurately gauge life spans; and we need to talk to thriving and failing colleagues to develop good business instincts.” (Ch. 6, Decision Making, author’s emphasis)

“In theory, the ongoing explosion in information should make the right answers more obvious. In practice, though being surrounded by data often makes it harder to decide.” (Ch. 8, Absorbing Data)

“It’s not enough for your bathroom scale to send daily updates to an app on your phone. If you want to lose weight, force yourself to plot those measurements on graph paper and you’ll be more likely to choose a salad over a hamburger at lunch. If you read a book filled with new ideas, force yourself to put it down and explain the concepts to someone sitting next to you and you’ll be more likely to apply them in your life. When you find a new piece of information, force yourself to engage with it, to use it in an experiment or describe it to a friend—and then you will start building the mental folders that are at the core of learning.” (Ch. 8, Absorbing Data)


4 thoughts on “Book 422: Smarter Faster Better – Charles Duhigg”

  1. I’m still deciding whether I’ll pick this up or not, but that is so true about productivity going up when you’re given the ability to make decisions. I’ve been in both situations, and making those decisions definitely gives you a feeling of ownership, and that goes a long way to motivate hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a different read. Like I said I liked the case studies, but it was a bit disappointing not to have as many how-to’s laid out for you as he did in his first book.


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