Sunday, March 6, 2016

Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better

Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, made a real name for himself with his 2012 book The Power of Habit. He has now turned his attention to the question of productivity in Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (Random House, 2016).

As expected, the book is well written and fast paced, with lengthy illustrative stories. Although he draws on “hundreds of interviews, papers, and studies,” Duhigg doesn’t get bogged down in social science jargon. For instance, my favorite chapter, on decision making, begins: “The dealer looks at Annie Duke and waits for her to say something. There is a pile of chips worth $450,000 in the middle of the table and nine of the world’s best poker players—all men, except for Annie—impatiently waiting for her to bet.” (p. 133) And the chapter ends: “Anyone can learn to make better decisions. … No one is right every time. But with practice, we can learn how to influence the probability that our fortune-telling comes true.” (p. 155)

In eight chapters Duhigg writes about motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing others, decision making, innovation, and absorbing data.

We learn that “subversive” residents of nursing homes—those who “made choices that rebelled against the rigid schedules, set menus, and strict rules that the nursing homes tried to force upon them”—flourished while the obedient residents experienced rapid physical and mental declines. Their “subversive” choices convinced them that they were in control. They endowed their actions with larger meaning. (pp. 31-33)

We learn that committing to (or being forced to commit to) “stretch goals”—ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives—“can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity.” (p. 103) At least they can spark these jumps if they are paired with SMART goals—goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and have a timeline.

Smarter Faster Better is not as focused as The Power of Habit and probably won’t be hailed as a breakthrough book (though my predictions have been known to be wrong), but it has much better story lines. All in all, it’s a great read.

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