5 things I learned from the book “Smarter Faster Better — The Transformative Power of Real Productivity”

When I picked up “Smarter Faster Better — The Transformative Power of Real Productivity” I expected the same kind of conventional wisdom prescribed in Charles Duhigg’s last book, The Power of Habit. A couple of anecdotes and a handful of case studies later, I beg to differ. I’ve picked five concepts to share, which I’ve found to be helpful or personally enlightening in some way. Not all concepts are productivity hacks, but all are definitely interesting:

1) Writing things down encourages disfluency.

Duhigg introduces the lovechild of productivity, the idea of disfluency. Our brains have been evolutionarily programmed to function on autopilot most of the time. Unfortunately, this means that hard choices are usually reduced to a simple binary choice (yes or no), which is the easiest cognitive route. So when we write things down, draw a mind map, or jot down notes, we automatically force our brains to more consciously and deliberately slow down, internalize concepts, and consider alternatives.

I figure there’s some truth in this kind of mental mapping because I realise I tend to recall and perform better on tests when I jot down notes than when I’m manically typing notes at 9,000 words per second on my laptop.

“Systems such as the engineering design process — which forces us to search for information and brainstorm potential solutions, to look for different kinds of insights and test various ideas –help us achieve disfluency by putting the past in a new frame of reference. It subverts our brain’s craving for binary choices …by learning to reframe decisions in new ways” (Duhigg, 260).

Daniel Kahneman discusses this at length in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (also a great read).

2) You can increase your motivation levels by increasing your internal locus of control.

According to Duhigg, having a sense of control over your choices is positively correlated to self-motivation and social maturity. Citing a study he did with U.S. marines, he describes how these marine recruits — who had few prospects in life when they started the program — quickly learned to think for themselves with a renewed sense of drive once they realized they were making purposeful choices.

These choices became purposeful once they reminding themselves of why they enrolled in the marines in the first place.

People with an external locus of control, on the other hand, tend to ascribe their circumstances to the environment i.e. having nothing to do with them. That’s why even small acts like praising children for their hard work (a self-willed choice) instead of praising children for their intelligence (innate; and thus, not earned) can already instill motivation to perform well at a young age.

For the rest of us worker bees, tackling problems by making bite-sized, but delibrate choices — like the simple act of choosing which e-mail to write first — can cause a cascading effect to clear out your whole inbox.

3) We need to reframe how we think about goal — setting.

We’ve all heard of SMART Goals. SMART goals stand for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timeline, and can be concrete way to turn plans into actionable reality. Duhigg takes this a step further when he discusses the need for stretch goals to complement SMART goals to optimise effectiveness. A stretch goal is sort of an umbrella vision that can draw you back into your overall purpose whenever you feel yourself wandering. It is the “why.”

“Chose a stretch goal; an ambition that reflects your biggest aspirations.Then, break that into subgoals and develop SMART objectives” (Duhigg, 277)

Pre-empting what will happen and what distractions you may encounter will also give you a mental arsenal that will prepare you to face any challenges.

4) Be an “innovation broker” by reflecting on your own experiences.

Contrary to popular belief, creative spurts from the world’s geniuses don’t (always) come out of thin air. Rather, as Duhigg reveals through his interviews with the team of the Walt Disney team hit Frozen and West Side Story – in order to be truly original, we often need to only turn on our own experiences.

Often times, being sensitive to our own experiences can avoid clichéd storylines and reveal nuggets of truth about the human experience. In the case of Frozen, it was reflecting on their own lives to realize the empowering story that love triumphs fear, and to never run away from your own powers. Oh, and an appropriate amount of stress can help catalyze the process, too.

“ Recognize that the stress emerges amid the creative process isn’t a sign everything is falling apart. Rather, creative desperation is often critical: Anxietycan be what pushes us to see old ideas in new ways” (Duhigg, 283).

5) Our obsession with productivity can be limiting

The endless e-mails, and need for various Pomodomo techniques has led to an information-cluttered world where multitasking has now taken the form of replying to five e-mails in the elevator while listening to a podcast forwarded at 3 times the speed.

Sound familar?

Duhigg discusses one drawback of this - what he calls “cognitive closure.” In our never-ending search to maximise productivity levels, we tend to settle on the quickest (and often subpar) solution or product all in the name of efficiency. Unfortunately, the world does not operate like this.

Rather than read about productivity and motivation hacks on Medium, maybe it’s time to go a walk and get some fresh air to clear the mind instead.

You can check out the rest of my book reviews at my Goodreads account, and more writing at https://sharonlam.co