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Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity Paperback – March 7, 2017
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“A pleasure to read . . . [Charles] Duhigg’s skill as a storyteller makes his book so engaging to read.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Not only will Smarter Faster Better make you more efficient if you heed its tips, it will also save you the effort of reading many productivity books dedicated to the ideas inside.”—Bloomberg Businessweek
“Duhigg pairs relatable anecdotes with the research behind why some people and businesses are not as efficient as others. . . . He takes readers from inside the cockpit of a crashing plane to the writing room of Disney’s Frozen.”—Chicago Tribune
“The book covers a lot of ground through meticulous reporting and deft analysis, presenting a wide range of case studies . . . with insights that apply to the rest of us.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[Duhigg] looks at the numerous ways that people can become more effective, whether in improving motivation, setting goals, making decisions or thinking creatively . . . [He’s] an effective storyteller with a knack for combining social science, fastidious reporting and entertaining anecdotes.”—The Economist
“Engagingly written, solidly reported, thought-provoking and worth a read.”—Associated Press
“Charles Duhigg is the master of the life hack.”—GQ
“A gifted storyteller, Duhigg . . . combines his reporting skills with cutting-edge research in psychology and behavioural economics to explain why some companies and people get so much done, while some fail. Almost all books written in this genre are full of case studies and stories, but Duhigg’s storytelling skills make this book memorable and persuasive. Duhigg succeeds in challenging our mindsets and existing thought processes. It is not just another productivity book. It is about making sense of overwhelming data we live with.”—The Financial Express
“There are valuable lessons in Smarter, Faster, Better. . . . Duhigg is a terrific storyteller, and a master of the cliffhanger.”—Financial Times
“As he did in The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg melds cutting-edge science, deep reporting, and wide-ranging stories to give us a fuller, more human way of thinking about how productivity actually happens. He manages to reframe an entire cultural conversation: Being productive isn’t only about the day-to-day and to-do lists. It’s about seeing our lives as a series of choices, and learning that we have power over how we think about the world.”—Susan Cain, author of Quiet
“A brilliant distillation of the personal and organizational behaviors that produce extraordinary results. Duhigg uses engaging storytelling to highlight fascinating research and core principles that we can all learn and use in our daily lives. A masterful must-read for anyone who wants to get more (and more creative) stuff done.”—David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
“Charles Duhigg has a gift for asking just the right question, and then igniting the same curiosity in the rest of us. In Smarter Faster Better he finds provocative answers to a riddle of our age: how to become more productive (by two times, or even ten times) and less busy, how to be more effective in the world and more in control of our lives. Duhigg has rendered, yet again, a great service with his sharp, lucid prose.”—Jim Collins, author of Good to Great
About the Author
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and the author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
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But the book promises to be more than just entertainment. The title takes off the Olympic motto: Citius Altius Fortius (Faster Higher Stronger), and its cover shows a runner smartly running directly to the center of a maze. A self-help, self-improvement type of book, it promises "the secrets of being productive in life and business". That I don't think the book delivers.
Why not? The book is full of stories. Anecdotes. Case studies. Whatever you want to call them. Charles Duhigg researches a lot of disparate incidents involving various people, and tries to bring them together to show us how to draw on other people's experiences to be more productive. But he fails.
That's because you can pull out of anecdotes pretty much anything you want to. I can find an anecdote to support any argument I want to make. Anecdotes are like statistics. As Simpson's paradox says, often the same statistics can be used to show something and its exact opposite. The same with anecdotes.
Take Charles Duhigg's use of the life of Rosa Parks in his book The Power of Habit. He says that she shows the power of social habits. He tells of how her husband said she was so social she rarely ate dinner at home, instead eating at the home of friends. That gave her the social strength to start a movement.
But Susan Cain (a blurber for this book) in her book Quiet, tells the story of Rosa Parks to support her argument of the power of introverts. While extroverts tend to gain their energy in social situations, introverts typically recharge through solitude and feel drained from too much stimulation. The same person, but one author sees her as a social butterfly and another as an introvert who sought solitude.
That's not to say that Charles Duhigg or Susan Cain is wrong. And I don't want to push this example too strongly. But I do think that many authors, and most TED talk speakers, depend too much on anecdote and story telling to persuade, while they would do better to just entertain. I have no problem using anecdotes to pump people up. But to try to derive secrets from them seems a step too far.
Take another example, this one from this book. Charles Duhigg uses the example of the 2009 Air France Flight 447 jetliner crash in the Atlantic as an example of "cognitive tunneling" and poor mental models. In that tragic accident, the Airbus A330 plane was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris and ran into bad weather. The plane was flying fine, but its pitot tubes apparently froze up and gave the pilots the wrong speed information. They acted on that wrong information, put the plane into a stall, and fell into the ocean.
But does that anecdote unequivocally show cognitive tunneling? And can one take from that anecdote a lesson about how not to cognitively tunnel? I don't see how. I've read several other accounts of that Air France accident, and none of them blamed it on cognitive tunneling (although one did mention tunnel vision as one of many factors).
The Air France accident seems to me more like what Charles Perrow described in Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies. Just like with the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, people do not do well when their instruments lie to them about situations they cannot see with their eyes. Another account blames the Air France accident mainly on over-reliance on automated systems in the Airbus planes. (William Langewiesche's article in Vanity Fair is fascinating reading.)
My point is that any anecdote can, by its nature, be interpreted in many different ways. Just like in the old fable six blind men saw six different things in an elephant. None were wrong, yet none were right.
Rather than books like this one, I prefer my anecdotes in the form of biographies. When I read a good biography, or a good history, the author presents a life or a series of stories in a way that the reader can draw their own conclusions. I'm sure the author's slant comes through to some extent.
But when I read a book by someone like David Halberstam or David McCullough, I usually feel as though I read a gem that provides lessons for my life. I didn't get that with this book. To me, at least, it seemed too shallow, too broad, and too pushy. Not deep, focused, and subtle.
In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg sets the table: Various advances in communications and technology are supposed to make our lives easier. “Instead, they often seem to fill o0ur days with more work and stress. In part, that’s because we’ve been paying attention to the wrong innovations. We’ve been staring at the tools of productivity — the gadgets and apps and complicated filing systems for keeping track of various to-do lists — rather than the lessons those technologies are trying to teach us…This book is about how to recognize the choices that fuel true productivity…This is a book about how to become smarter, faster, and better at everything you do.”
He focuses on — and devotes a separate chapter to — “a handful of key insights” shared by hundreds of poker players, airline pilots, military generals, executives, and cognitive scientists who kept mentioning the same concepts again and again and again. In this book, he explores “the eight ideas that seem most important to expanding productivity.” Here they are, accompanied by my own annotations:
1. Motivation: Make choices that place you in control of a situation. If empowered, you will speak and act more decisively and accelerate gaining the respect and trust of others.
2. Teams: Manage the [begin italics] how [end italics], not the [begin italics] who [end italics] of teams. Send messages that empower others. Keep in mind this passage from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:
"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves."
3. Focus: Envision what will probably happen. What will happen first? Obstacles? How to avoid, pre-empt, or overcome them?
4. Goal Setting: Choose a stretch goal (a BHAG), then break that into sub-goals and develop SMART objectives.
5. Managing Others: Employees work smarter and better when they feel they have the power (see #1) to help make the right decisions about what to be done and how best to do it. They will be more motivated if convinced that others recognize and appreciated what they think, feel, and do.
6. Decision Making: Envision multiple futures as well as their potential implications and possible consequences. Obtain a variety of different (and differing) perspectives from those closest to the situation. Although this 360º process is helpful, you must be prepared to make the given decision.
7. Innovation: Combine new ideas in old ways and old ideas in new ways. Constantly challenge assumptions and premises. If they are sound, they will survive. Incremental innovation makes disruptive innovation even better.
8. Absorbing Data: When encountering new information, do something with it. Write it down. Read it aloud. Formulate Qs that it evokes. Put it to a small test. Ask others “Did you know that…?” Most new information is really unfamiliar information.
These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Duhigg’s coverage:
o Motivation (Pages 13-21 and 33-47)
o U.S. Marine Corps boot camp (22-31)
o Teamwork at Google (41-46, 50-51, and 65-68)
o Mental Models (88-93, 97-98, 101-102, and 277-279)
o Qantas Airways flight 32 and mental models (93-101 and 277-278)
o Prelude to Yom Kippur War (103-106 and 109-112)
o Stretch goals (125-128)
o Frank Janssen (134-139 and 161-165)
o Rick Madrid (139-144, 150-151, and 154-155)
o James Baron (145-150)
o Categories of culture (146-148)
o Productivity and control (153-155)
o Bayesian psychology (192-193)
o How Idea Brokers and Creative Desperation Saved Disney’s Frozen (205-215)
o West Side Story (210-212, 216-220, and 223-224)
o Information blindness (243-247)
o Debt collection (247-252)
o Stretch goals paired with SMART goals (274-279)
In addition to his lively as well as eloquent narrative, I commend Duhigg on his provision of the most informative annotated notes that I have as yet encountered. I urge everyone who reads this brief commentary to check them out (Pages 293-368). They enliven and enrich his narrative in ways and got an extent that must be experienced to be believed.
The best journalists as well as the best leaders are terrific storytellers and that is certainly true of Duhigg. He anchors his reader in hundreds of real-world situations to illustrate key points. Dozens of poker players, airline pilots, military generals, executives, and cognitive scientists that he interviewed learned valuable lessons with regard to the dos and don’ts of being productive in life and business, especially when under severe duress.
I highly recommend Smarter Faster Better as well as Charles Duhigg’s previously published book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, also published by Random House.