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Smarter Faster Better : Charles Duhigg

The secrets of being productive

A book following up on Duhigg's excellent bestseller "Power of habit". In this book he looks at the science of productivity. As in his previous book Duhigg brings in his unenviable narrative and oratory skills and explains motivation, focus, goal setting and team work. These are familiar terms, but through his meticulous analysis and again accompanied by scientific case studies which Duhigg has the knack of of explaining to even a simpleton like me. Who knew motivation can be cultivated and is not just a colloquial term to be used in hot air speeches which you see motivational speaker rant!!

About the Author:

Charles Duhigg is an investigative business journalist who has written extensively for New York times. One of his most famous and recognizable work is a series of articles about Apple factories in china published in New York times under the title "iEconomy" coauthored with Keith Bradsher and David Barboza among others. The series won a Pulitzer prize in 2013, few notable links related to the article below.

(Link to the series of article : iEconomy)

About the Book:

I have to admit I found this book more intriguing during my second read as I wrote this blog than during my first read. It also has a interesting Australian twist to it where Duhigg draws from an example of a Qantas aviation mishap as an illustration of mental models. Interested? Well read on and more so read the book!

"Qantas Fight 32 from Singapore did ring a bell to me though I thought it was juts another minor incident. You wouldn't know the seriousness of the incident until you read this book and the brilliance of its Flight Captain Richard Champion De Crespigny (Aussie) and best case study of how mental models work, I have read so far". Yes I know and I too have heard/listen to Knowledge project podcast and Shane Parrish but this is better!

Duhigg himself has explained this incident brilliantly proving what a great orator he is as well as an author. I have included the video below watch it! Watch the whole video, but if you are low on time and are looking for specifics start at 5 minutes!!

Unlike his previous book there is a clear demarcation between chapters and distinct topics, hence I have discussed them in individual sections.

Chapter 1 Motivation:

Duhigg tries to make a salient point that motivation is not intrinsic or inherited it can be cultivated. You are not bound by your genes or personality and motivation can be generated. Though I would I like to add there are many other factors which influence motivation such as adversity, grit, perseverance but he identifies one of the key less talked about factor "degree of control".

According to Duhigg giving choices to individual or team and then allowing them autonomy to choose the method through which they achieve goals fosters motivation.

He also calls it as "internal locus of control", which for layman like me sounds like "stop self-pity and take responsibility for you own goals". The humble flawed me (yours truly) used to and still sometimes, does blame many external anomalies like aliens in "Area 51" for my own follies and indecision. If you watch the hit show "Billions" you might have heard the lead protagonist saying"

"Don't ask someone else about your future make your own f#c%king future".

That's the gist of the chapter with examples drawn from US Marine Corps training and brilliant example of Robert Philippe who lost motivation after a brain aneurysm.

Chapter 2 Teams:

This is more relevant for folks looking for what makes teams click , team work and what good leadership is or should look like. There are few great examples from Saturday Night Live and Google which illustrate how great teams work and perform. The key mantra in this chapter is about giving equal time to voices in the team (not equal voice but equal time) , acceptance of mistake and uninhibited presentation of ideas and views without judgement or retribution. An effective team is where each member has equal opportunity to say what they have to say. Whether each advice is accepted and incorporated or not is not of essence as long as they are told "why" and there is a robust discussion. Further there is no repercussion for speaking your mind and there is a intellectually honest discussion about it. My experience has been that , either there is a flimsy shaking of head in unison and treatment of people as imbeciles or outright bullying and shutting down of any new ideas in most corporate environment I have been witness to. If you are managing someone provide them "psychological security".Further if you are not the expert then its essential to understand that problem is solved by those who are closest to it and know most about it.

Hence as a manger your task it to observe, provide input and avoid hogging the limelight. Curious case study : Project "Aristotle" in Google. (Google it!)

Chapter 3 Focus:

This is my the favorite chapter and I have already talked a lot about it in the introduction aka Qantas flight 32. Though there are two examples of aviation accidents one of which unfortunately was fatal and ended in loss of all lives aboard (Air France flight 447).

Duhigg explains focus through the concept of mental models, cognitive tunneling and situational awareness. How I can surmise it is that, most people focus on whats in the front of them and are reactive rather than having a mental model on how they will behave when certain circumstances arise. While Flight 447 was victim of cognitive tunneling where the pilots where overwhelmed with information and alarms and were only focused what was in front of them. While Captain De Crespigny of Qantas flight 32 had situational awareness and when all given model failed he started imagining he was flying a Cessna rather than a mammoth Airbus 380!! Whats the difference? Well Airbus is on the top left whilst the invisible Cessna is bottom right. The key lesson is that, we can take control of our attention by building mental models, through them we can anticipate whats may come next and how to act not react and have situational awareness rather than focusing on events. Decide what gets your attention!

Chapter 4 Goal Setting:

This chapter introduces a simple and straightforward method for goal setting :


Inspiration and example for this chapter came from Jack Welch (CEO) era of GE (General Electrics). For the curious ones Jack Welch made "Six Sigma" and "A,B,C" classification of employees popular. Ahh!!! And yes the "C" category was for nonperforming employees and they were made redundant each year (about 10% of the employees not much). I am sure reality is more complicated than the caricature I draw but just to give a quick background to the story that will suffice.

Though the principles behind the goal setting is that goals should be at the upper limits of your ambition, hence the name "Stretch Goals" . Though according to Duhigg these stretch goals are useless unless you divide these Stretch goals into feasible sub-goals (SMART), define the parameter of success for each sub-goal and then fit them into a timeline. "Not planning is planning to fail" is an adage which comes to mind after reading this chapter.

Most people including your's truly like to think goals as New year resolution or just a brain fart. Good for thinking that one has goals but fail to plan. hence this becomes wishful thinking that it will happen some day, some time in some other lifetime.

Another recent epiphany of mine is when it comes to SMART sub-goals one needs to time box them meaning schedule them at a time and for specific duration.

I find to do list another productivity misnomer to delude oneself. Think in terms of planning to have coffee with a friend, you know the time the place and it cannot be more than an hour or your boss will know. Goals live in ether until they are scheduled and time boxed.

Chapter 5 Managing Others:

The terms which scream out of the chapter are "AGILE" and "LEAN". Yeah! I know what you are thinking those bastardized terms "lean and agile methodology" which made Atlassian owners billionaires . Yes the confounding confluence and the billion dollar machine !

Though this one talks about what real examples of those terms mean and how different they are from the second rate copy of the methodologies which are espoused today. The story which you can google is about "NUMMI" an automotive manufacturing plant previously under GM management and then taken over by Toyota in California. How this plant came to cherish the attributes of

empowering the lowest rung of the employees,

trusting them,

decentralizing authority and decision making in spirit not just in word is illustrated below so read on. I will just quote one example where the President of Toyota bows and apologizes to the production line worker.

So Toyota was one of the first to implement the lean agile philosophy in its production line. the idea being any worker when seeing an issue had the full authority to stop the production line by pulling "Andon cords"(look it up), rectify the issue as the worker sees fit and even bark order at senior managers and then once fixed the production line commences again. In contrast the american thought process was, never stop the production line even if quality suffers as each minute of lost time is worth $15,000 (myopic self defeating vision).

So when Toyota takes over the plant, the old GM crew / employees are still hesitant to pull the cord. Here is where Tetsuro Toyoda (President of Toyota and grandson of the founder) walks in sees a worker trying desperately to fix a issue while the production line is moving, and is unwilling to pull the cord. Tetsuro walks up to the worker and politely asks "Joe please pull the cord", by this time Joe is sweating bullets and all the senior managers are around watching him. Joe nervously utters "No Sir I can fix it before it reaches the end of the section", so Tetsuro gently holds Joe hands and pulls the cord. Now comes the astonishing part after issue is fixed, here is what Tetsuro says and does:

"Joe please forgive me. I have done a poor job of instructing your managers of the importance of helping you pull the cord when there is a problem. You are the most important part of this plant. Only you can make every car great. I promise I will do everything in my power to never fail you again."

Off course it was spoken in Japanese but was translated by a lieutenant in real time on the floor of the factory for everyone to hear and see him bow and apologize.

Similar philosophy was espoused when an offtrack project for software development. FBI wanted a software which could collate disparate evidence through this project was floundering . Using the above agile/lean methodologies the program was delivered under budget ( for less than 10% of the initial outlay and 6 months before the deadline). The FBI program name is "Sentinel" and was deployed in 2012 when Robert Mueller (yes the same one who did the Trump investigation) was FBI's director.

Chapter 6 Decision making:

This will amuse those of us who are statistically minded or into behavioral psychology or economics ( Daniel Kahneman -Thinking fast and thinking slow!). Annie Duke if you have not heard of her through her books (Thinking in Bets!) and Ted talks then let me give a brief introduction. Annie Duke has a Phd. in psychology from Columbia University but was not sure academics was her path way and suffered debilitating anxiety. Inadvertently she got into poker and won the world championship one of the few woman to do that. She did this using Bayes formula and applying statistics overlay over her decision making. Bayes statistics differs from the Big Data and AI jargon you keep on hearing because it starts with prior base rate and with the given data makes assumption and doesn't require huge amount of historical data to make an inference (in short it runs multiple models and posterior probabilities are updated or skewed with observed real world outcomes). Noteworthy mention in this chapter is of "Good Judgement Project" by University of California Berkeley about how to teach brain to think in probabilistic decision making terms. Google this fascinating work by the University!!

If you are interested in "Bayesian cognition" and "Bayesian Psychology" this chapter is a fascinating read.

"Average Poker players crave and look for certainty while the winners or the pro's are comfortable with knowing what they don't know. Knowing what you don't know is a huge advantage".

Chapter 7 Innovation:

This chapter is composed of two examples from Broadway and Hollywood, namely "Frozen" and the "West Side Story". To understand the true beauty of how he ties these examples to the theory of cultivating innovation you must read this book. As all along during my interpreted summary I have been only giving you a snippet of what this books offers and that is lifelong worth of wisdom with real life events and case studies.

What I gather from this is that innovation is about problem solving and it comes when you are desperate for solution and slightly anxious for it (when push comes to shove). Also most innovation are built on other prior innovation and discoveries. "I stand on the shoulders of Giants" rings true . So there is always a humble pie to be eaten.

Chapter 8 Absorbing Data:

"Disfluent" remember that term and forget about the naive regurgitated terms data driven culture and AI age. The query each one of us need to ask is whats the use of data and graphs if you do not know how to interpret and implement it?

It's like whats the use of eating if you cannot digest it's just diarrhea and you might just as well flush your plate food down the drain. Similarly in this information age too much information is akin to snow blindness. (Snow blindness:when due to too much snow you cannot make trees from the hills) The phenomenon of information blindness, where pretty charts and key stats blindside true interpretation and implementation of information.

We can talk as much as we like about AI or data driven model but if the people who are meant to use it cannot digest and implement it then all of this boast is of no avail.

Duhigg makes a brilliant argument about making information "disfluent" or in the verb sense the act of "disfluency". Disfluency means breaking down the information and making it easier to digest. This act also requires effort by all parties especially those who are using it to break information into its constituents and derive actionable insights from it. A layman example is when you look at a wine list, which has hundreds of wines. What do you do? I divide them into white, red, rose and sometime dessert categories. I then divide the lsit further into a blocks by price and region, Barossa shiraz nice.....Hunter valley ignore.

Then when the time comes like at the time of dessert I know I can skip to dessert wine section to make the choice.

The idea of disfluency is shown through case study of a poor school district in Cincinnati. An under performing school was able to improve the test results of their students by using the concept of disfluency . The school use to receive teachers with elaborate charts and daily stats on their student performance flashed on to a screen in the form of dashboard but nothing seemed to work. Only when the new school Principal mandated each teacher prints out the information and were forced to digest information in its granularity,the miracle happened. The teacher were able to see that Dante was struggling in math even though the aggregate score of the class was near average that they could really help the students.

Final Word:

There are numerous other case studies and personal stories which keep you riveted.

Though I would recommend reading Duhigg's first book "Power of Habits" before picking up this book. I would further prescribe reading "Atomic Habits" if you need a framework to implement the ideas presented in the two books.

The book is more about productivity and the mental models which can help you achieve that goal. Though there is no prescriptive framework hence I would suggest taking notes and follow it up with James Clear book.


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