“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff break down what they learned from the best business and marketing books.
If you even have a passing interest in business books, you’re probably familiar with “The Power of Habit,” a perennial top-seller on business book charts ever since its release in 2012.
The book’s wild success led to a busy lifestyle for author Charles Duhigg, who also won a Pulitzer writing for The New York Times. It would seem he was already wildly productive, but he confesses that it was often at the sacrifice of seeing his family.
That experience lead him to write his latest best-seller, “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.” It surely isn’t the first book on the subject, but given Duhigg’s extraordinary skills at explanatory writing, it is almost by default a must-read of the genre.
As Duhigg explained at a recent talk he gave on the book at The Free Library of Philadelphia, he simply saw that some people seemed to be accomplishing more, even though they have just as much time in the day as everyone else, and don’t have to sacrifice their entire personal life. He wound up interviewing as many as 500 people, and boiled their secrets down into eight categories of productivity. Here they are, plus some short summaries he gave on a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio.
Motivation: “We trigger self-motivation by making choices that make us feel in control. The act of asserting ourselves and taking control helps trigger the parts of our neurology where self-motivation resides.”
Teams: “Who is on a team matters much, much less than how a team interacts,” and feeling safe in proposing new ideas is a fundamental part of successful team dynamics.
Focus: “We train ourselves how to pay attention to the right things and ignore distractions by building mental models, which means that we essentially narrate to ourselves what’s going on as it goes on around us.”
Goal Setting: “Everyone actually needs two different kinds of goals. You need a stretch goal, which is like this big ambition, but then you have to pair that with a specific plan on how to get started tomorrow morning,” which GE famously defined as SMART goals, an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (or relevant), and timelined.
Managing others: “The best managers put responsibility for solving a problem with the person who’s closest to that problem, because that’s how you tap into everyone’s unique expertise,” and it leads people to commit to what they’re working on.
Decision making: “People who make the best decisions tend to think probabilistically. They envision multiple, often contradictory, futures and then try and figure out which one is more likely to occur.”
Innovation: “The most creative environments are ones that allow people to take clichés and mix them together in new ways. And the people who are best at this are known as innovation brokers. They’re people who have their feet in many different worlds and, as a result, they know which ideas can click together in a novel combination.”
Absorbing data: “Sometimes the best way to learn is to make information harder to absorb. This is known in psychology as ‘disfluency.’ The harder we have to work to understand an idea or to process a piece of data, the stickier it becomes in our brain.”
Duhigg does a wonderful job explaining and reinforcing all these concepts through fascinating stories, making “Smarter Faster Better” an interesting non-fiction read, more so than a so-called “business” book, or something you’d find in a self-help section. We’ve already begun referencing the book’s lessons with our clients, and we always tend to tell the stories first, then explain what productivity truth they illustrate.
Here are some specific lessons from the book that our team found most valuable.
Jamie Kloss, Senior Account Executive
As a marketer, I found Duhigg’s insight on creative productivity to be the most compelling part of his book. He digs deep into the trenches of creativity – into the heart of writer’s block and fruitless brainstorms – to find exactly how some of the greatest stories of our time have emerged.
Duhigg asserts that although creativity is not formulaic, “we can create the conditions that help creativity flourish.” Of course, my favorite example comes from the development of “Frozen,” in which the writers found themselves in a creative rut while writing the end of the movie on a tight deadline. They needed to inject a new perspective into their workflow, so Disney’s executives promoted one of the writers to serve as second director. By slightly disrupting the dynamics, the team approached the film with a new mindset, and this sparked the idea for the heartfelt ending that solidified the film in the history books.
Mixing up team dynamics is one proven approach to idea generation. In our story brainstorms, it’s common for senior leaders to hand the whiteboard marker over to the most junior account executive to lead the discussion or even role play a sales pitch. This quick jolt to the meeting’s structure lets the account exec take the brainstorm in a new direction, voice their craziest ideas, and think more holistically about the problem. It also allows senior leaders to pick up on new patterns and insights.
Duhigg provides many more examples of how organizations have successfully navigated the creative process. His message is an important one: “Anyone can become more creative; we can all become innovation brokers. We all have experiences and tools, disturbances and tensions that can make us into brokers—if, that is, we’re willing to embrace that desperation and upheaval and try to see our old ideas in new ways.”
Lee Procida, Senior Account Executive
The idea of using mental models is one that immediately intrigued me, and which I already integrated into my everyday life. When Jamie and I saw him speak at The Free Library of Philadelphia, he talked about this as a story you tell yourself about what you’re supposed to accomplish and how you’ll do it. Thinking through a narrative of how I’ll spend my day, laying out what projects I’ll work on and how I’ll respond if things change, has helped me make order of the daily chaos in an incredibly busy agency like ours.
Of course, all these ideas are extremely useful not only on the individual level, but for any organization. The concepts of psychological safety boosting team effectiveness, of commitment workplaces being the most successful, of probabilistic thinking leading to clearer decision making, and many other ideas all should help businesses run better.
We talk a lot about “best practices,” but the truth is it’s often hard to determine what’s truly best, because there are so many snake oil salesmen calling themselves thought leaders. I personally put more trust in the findings of a respected journalist over a self-proclaimed productivity guru, which is why I’ve recommended Duhigg’s book for all our clients looking to boost organizational efficiency.
Ryan Richmond, Marketing Intern
My favorite story from the book, which was also excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, was about Project Aristotle, a research project at Google. One of the key researchers, Julia Rozovsky, was tasked with finding what makes certain teams thrive, and what causes others to quickly unravel.
The amount of data collected was enormous, and after examining 180 teams with no obvious findings on what truly makes a productive team, the group took a new approach. They began to examine the effect of “group norms.” Their research unearthed two essential traits of successful teams.
The first trait was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” meaning that every member spoke an equal amount. The second trait was a high “average social sensitivity,” or the ability of the team members to pick up on the emotions of others through tone of voice, expression and other non-verbal cues. Collectively, these traits helped produce more psychological safety, a sense that members will not be punished, rejected or embarrassed by speaking up.
Those findings were eye-opening for me. The conventional wisdom, or at least the modus operandi, is that you need to demonstrate your authority in group setting, talking louder and more forcefully than others. The fact that rigorous data shows listening and empathy are in fact much more powerful ways to build an effective team is something that all professionals should take to heart.