Smarter Faster Better

Summary Written by Ronni Hendel-Giller
"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."

- Smarter Faster Better, location 80

The Big Idea

Productivity is About Choices

"Productivity is about recognizing choices that other people often overlook. It’s about making certain decisions in certain ways. The way we choose to see our own lives; the stories we tell ourselves and the goals we push ourselves to spell out in detail; the culture we establish among teammates; the ways we frame our choices and manage the information in our lives."- Smarter Better Faster, location 4360

In a book with so many disparate topics—many of which are seemingly disconnected from one another—the thread that sits behind all of them is that we make choices—all the time. Productivity isn’t only about how we use our time, it’s about how we approach our work and our lives—alone and together. It’s about who we bring in and how we engage them. It’s about how we frame our decisions—and it’s about our mindsets as we work and live.

Productivity isn’t, as we might think, about efficiency. In fact, there is waste and there is messiness. Productivity, according to Duhigg, is about thinking differently.

For me, this opens up ways of thinking about how I work and live that I hadn’t considered before and new ways to define and measure my productivity.

Insight #1

Setting Goals—SMART is Not Sufficient

"If you’re being constantly told to focus on achievable results, you’re only going to think of achievable goals."- Smarter Faster Better, location 1938

We often talk about setting SMART goals. The problem is—that’s not enough. I love my to-do lists—and Duhigg points out why that’s not always serving me. Our brains get enormous satisfaction when we check items off the lists—when we get closure. At the end of the day, however, we may not be doing what matters most. The satisfaction of cleaning out our inbox can be enormous—except the result is that we didn’t write the article that was significantly more important. At the end of the day we can tick a bunch of items off our list (and feel great in the moment)—but not move to our important goals.

On the other hand, stretch goals aren’t sufficient either. Without a way to get them done—we are unlikely to achieve them. The tasks that create closure will win out over the big stretchy goals.

So, the answer is to create stretch goals that are supported by SMART goals (or any other method to break down the stretch goal—SMART isn’t the only way.) Every task is in service of a large ambition—the tasks, taken together, result in achieving the greater goal or ambition. When we write down the goals together with the tasks that support them, we literally keep our eye on what really matters as we check off the steps to get there.

I’m starting my months, weeks and days now by thinking about what I really want to accomplish—what matters most—and then putting my lists together more consciously in service of those bigger ambitions. And, I’m working harder to keep the larger goal top of mind as I work on the tasks that will get me there—rather than spend my day focused exclusively on the tasks and items on my list.

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Insight #2

The How of Teams vs. the Who of Teams

"The right norms could raise the collective intelligence of mediocre thinkers. The wrong norms could hobble a group made up of people who, on their own, were all exceptionally bright."- Smarter Faster Better, location 951

I found the chapter on teams to be the most intriguing in Duhigg’s book with both surprising and quite practical implications. We learn about Google’s People Analytics team’s quest to understand why some teams perform better than others. After analyzing a trove of data, the team finds itself unable to identify patterns that would correlate anything about a team’s composition with its success. Bottom line, who was on a team didn’t seem to matter.

So, what did matter? The answer was the groups norms—how they operated—not who they were. In strong teams, norms were established that created psychological safety. Healthy teams of nurses, for example, were those who had permission to report mistakes. Norms that exemplified strong teams created a “sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance.”

A team of “mediocre thinkers” might display more collective intelligence with the right group norms than a team of exceptionally bright people who were not psychologically safe in their team.

One particularly interesting measure of psychological safety that also provides a practical way to assess a team is that members of strong teams speak in pretty much equal proportion. If one person or a small sub-set speak all the time, collective intelligence drops. “The conversations didn’t need to be equal every minute, but in aggregate, they had to balance out.”

So, great teams, from the outside, might look loud and messy, with people speaking over one another—going off on tangents. Less productive teams could look efficient—quiet, with no one interrupting anyone. Those “efficient” teams are likely still made up of individuals acting individually, whereas the messy team is more likely to be one in which people are speaking as much as they need and are attuned to one another. And, they are much more productive.

It was hard to choose two Insights to share here—as each chapter is built around a insight related to its particular topic. Many of them are easy to incorporate into daily life—others are ways of operating differently in groups and teams. All are useful.

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Charles Duhigg

My name is Charles Duhigg, and I’m a reporter for The New York Times. I’m also the author of a forthcoming book from Random House, The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.

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