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Tl;dr Book Review — Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Tl;dr – ★★★★★

Every once in a while, we read a book that defies our Tl;dr concept — a book that we want everyone to read in full. We loved this book.

It was one of my favorite books I read all year, and that doesn’t mean favorite books I read for work, it means of all the books I read last year, I’d recommend this one.” — Kayl P., Business Manager

What most books about productivity miss is the practical link between what you’re reading & what you’re expected to actually do. From the movies Frozen to airplane crashes, Charles Duhigg helps bridge that gap by providing tons of real-life examples where you can see his concepts in action.

It’s a highly-readable book about productivity.

There are a handful of subjects tackled in Smarter Faster Better including motivation, collaboration, focus, goal setting, decision making, innovation, and absorbing data.

We’ll give you one line summaries for each chapter, with the hope that you’ll find time in your increasingly busy schedule to give the book a chance.

If you want more detail on any of the above, check out our full Tl;dr review below.👇

Chapter 1 – Motivation

One line summary – When you’re looking for motivation, do one thing that makes you feel in control. Then, find a way to connect that action to something bigger – connect it to the why.

Essentially, by explaining the “why” to teams, leaders can motivate employees to motivate themselves towards a larger goal.

Understanding why we are doing things allows us to motivate and make decisions towards “doing” — and instills a sense of ownership and control around our actions.

Chapter 2 – Teams

One line summary – Manage the how and not the who of teams. Create an atmosphere of psychological safety and think about how your choices reveal yourself to the team.

Covers Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle from Google.

Chapter 3 – Focus

One line summary – Envision what can happen; build mental models. Tell a story about your expectations, so you know where to focus when it comes up in real-life.

Examines automation and cognitive tunneling. Cognitive tunneling is a psychological state, typical of people concentrating on a demanding task or operating under conditions of stress, in which a single, narrowly defined category of information is attended to and processed.

In other words, cognitive tunneling means we focus on a piece of data, instead of the full story that data is telling together. It can “cause people to become overly focused on whatever is directly in front of their eyes or become preoccupied with immediate tasks.”

Automation makes it harder to avoid cognitive tunneling, because we’ve trained ourselves to relax. If we’re then needed to focus immediately, our minds tend to focus on one thing, the most immediate thing – instead of the best thing.

MIT studies into productivity found shared traits among superstars:

Chapter 4 – Goal Setting

One line summary – Combine stretch goals with SMART goals (the big, audacious with the reasonable, achievable) to produce the best individual and team performance.

Chapter 5 – Managing Others

One line summary – Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have control over decisions and when they can link their work with a higher-order goal. Decision-making should be assigned to those closest to the problem, but trust and innovation will only be fostered if ideas and insights aren’t ignored.

We return to the idea of psychological safety in this chapter – and explore how management can influence it in the workplace. This happens through empowering those closest to the work the ability to make mistakes and to make decisions to pivot. It’s a form of agile project management.

A Yale study of startups found 5 typical workplace cultures:

Commitment companies were the most successful overall (none of the commitment companies studied failed, not one). They were the quickest to go public, had the highest profitability ratios, and tended to be leaner (with fewer middle managers). There were fewer internal rivalries, employees felt loyal and committed, and there was a culture of trust among employees.

The only rules were “everyone had to make suggestions, anyone could declare a time-out if they thought a project was moving in the wrong direction, and the person closest to a problem had primary responsibility for figuring out how to solve it.”

Chapter 6 – Decision Making

One line summary – Envision multiple futures, especially futures that contradict each other and you will be more prepared to make wise decisions.

Duhigg positions future forecasting as a process and tool for decision making.

Duhigg uses poker playing as an example, saying that losers are “always looking for certainty at the table” while winners are “comfortable admitting to themselves what they don’t know”. The understanding that you can use uncertainty to your benefit provides a huge advantage.

“Accurate forecasting requires exposing ourselves to as many successes and disappointments as possible.”

Harnesses failures to your advantage, instead of pushing them out of your mind (which is usually the knee-jerk reaction). “Many successful people…spend an enormous amount of time seeking out information on failures.”

Chapter 7 – Innovation

One line summary – Creativity often results from combining old and tested ideas in new ways. Embrace the stress of the creative process – creativity desperation may be critical as it pushes you to envision your ideas in new ways.

Chapter 7 posits that innovation, or creativity, can be thought of as a troubleshooting process. This description of creativity asserts that it isn’t some sort of divine inspiration, but rather a method of finding new uses for previously used (but successful) ideas.

In a study of academic papers, the most creative usually combined “previously known ideas mixed together in new ways”.

The term “innovation” can seem daunting – or appear to be some sort of innate characteristic or skillset. Duhigg insists, however, that innovation can be learned as a practice.

“This is not creativity born of genius… It is creativity as an import-export business”.

The Creative Process:

Chapter 8 – Absorbing Data

One line summary – When you encounter new information, force yourself to do something with it.

This chapter focuses on how to make data into information – and then how to take that information and turn it into actionable knowledge.

We live in an information-rich world. We’re accosted with so much information on a daily basis that we tend to ignore most of it. “Data can be transformative, but only if people know how to use it.”

In a case study around public school performance, teachers were provided with a ton of data about their students, but “rather than simply receiving information, teachers were forced to engage with it.”

Engaging ultimately allowed teachers to turn data into knowledge, which they could then use when creating lesson plans, assigning homework, and dealing with students that were falling behind.

“There’s a difference between finding an answer and understanding what it means.”

Duhigg talks about testing scenarios in a workplace – tests didn’t have to be successful, but performing test after test causes workers to digest the information they’re consuming differently.

“This is how learning occurs. Information gets absorbed almost without our noticing because we’re so engrossed in it.”

Duhigg also explores the “engineering design process” which asks you to define a dilemma, collect data, brainstorm solutions, and debate approaches — before you experiment. This process works in a loop and is a “methodical approach to problem solving”.

The process was designed around the “idea that many problems that seem overwhelming at first can be broken down into smaller pieces, and then solutions tested, again and again, until an insight emerges”.

This reframing allows us to “evaluate our own lives more objectively, to offset the emotions and biases that might otherwise blind us to the lessons embedded in our pasts”.

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