Many of us wish that we were more productive in our professional and personal lives. However, actually becoming productive can be a struggle. It can be difficult to know where to start. Which elements of our behavior need to change for our productivity to increase?
In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg argues that becoming more productive isn’t about working longer hours or constantly pushing yourself to do more. Instead, it’s about making wise choices in certain areas of your life.
Duhigg discusses eight principles that he believes are crucial to improving productivity. Six of these principles relate to improving your personal productivity. The final two principles address how you can improve the productivity of an organization.
The first principle that is important in improving your personal productivity is finding motivation. If you lack motivation, you’re more likely to procrastinate your tasks and less likely to complete your work to a high standard. You may struggle to find the drive to pursue your goals. This ultimately harms your productivity.
Research has suggested that there are two things you can do to improve your motivation. Firstly, you can make choices that help you to feel in control. Even making a small choice about the task in front of you, such as deciding to respond to a particular email first, can help you to feel in control of a situation. In turn, this feeling of control will increase your confidence, make you more willing to push yourself, and boost your motivation.
The second action you can take to generate motivation is finding meaning in your choices. Sometimes, simply making a choice isn’t enough to increase your motivation, especially when the task in front of you is difficult or unpleasant. However, reminding yourself of the meaning behind your choices—why you’re doing what you’re doing—can give you the boost you need to get started. If you link a difficult task to a higher purpose, it can become more palatable and you can become more motivated to complete it.
Another important facet of productivity is maintaining focus on your tasks. If you constantly get distracted from your most important work, your productivity will suffer.
Two cognitive processes can harm your ability to focus. The first process is cognitive tunneling. If you enter a cognitive tunnel, your brain becomes hyper-focused on an immediate and obvious stimulus, such as an email you’ve just received, at the expense of everything else that’s going on around you.
The second harmful process is reactive thinking. When you think reactively, the brain responds automatically to a certain stimulus or event using a familiar mental process. For instance, if you’re driving and begin to approach a red light, your brain may instinctively tell you to start braking.
These cognitive processes can forcibly drag you away from your most productive path. After all, the most immediate and obvious stimulus may not be the one you need to focus on to get your work done. Likewise, thinking reactively becomes unproductive when the brain selects an inappropriate reaction to your current situation.
Cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking are often triggered when the brain has to jump from a relaxed state to a focused state quickly or unexpectedly, or when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
How can you avoid these harmful cognitive processes and teach yourself to focus? Psychologists believe that creating mental models can help you to stay on track.
Mental models are stories that you create about the world around you. You may internally narrate a story about what you’re experiencing in real-time. For example, during a meeting, you may create an internal narrative of who is speaking, what they’re saying, and how other participants are responding to their points. Narrating your life like this prevents your brain from slipping into a fully relaxed state. This makes its transition into “focused mode” much smoother and averts the panic that can cause unhelpful cognitive processes to take hold.
You can also create mental models that outline your expectations for the future. You can decide in advance what your goals for a certain period will be and what you need to do to meet these goals. When it’s time to put your plan into action, you know exactly what you need to focus on to maintain your productivity. If distractions crop up that don’t fit into your original mental model of the day, you can identify them quickly and choose whether to address them or dismiss them.
Setting effective goals is another principle you need to implement if you want to increase your productivity. You need to have a clear idea of what you’re working towards. You also need to make sure that you’re aiming for the right results.
There are two types of goals that you can use to enhance your productivity: stretch goals and SMART goals.
Stretch goals are far-reaching objectives that, at first glance, may not even seem possible. They’re ambitious and audacious, and often require a lot of forethought and effort to achieve.
In contrast, SMART goals are targeted and focused objectives that often represent the smaller steps you’ll need to take to meet your stretch goals. SMART goals must be specific; measurable; achievable; realistic; and timely.
For stretch and SMART goals to be effective, they must be used together. For instance, you may choose to set an ambitious stretch goal and then break it down into actionable steps using SMART goals.
If a stretch goal is used alone, it can become too overwhelming for you to work towards. If SMART goals are used alone, you may fall into the trap of “cognitive closure”—a mental process that makes you focus more on the satisfying feeling of...
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Smarter Faster Better explores the techniques that you can use to increase your productivity. But what does “being productive” actually entail?
Productivity can mean a lot of different things to different people. However, it commonly involves four key elements:
The first concept that is crucial in increasing your personal productivity is finding motivation.
Motivation is, in short, having the enthusiasm and drive to do something. It’s a crucial factor in being productive for two reasons. Firstly, if you don’t have the motivation to do something, you’re less likely to do it efficiently or well (or, in extreme cases, at all.) Secondly, if you’re demotivated, you’re more likely to procrastinate tasks and become paralyzed by inactivity. Consequently, your productivity will suffer.
Being able to self-motivate is becoming an increasingly important skill in the modern economy. Currently, more than a third of working Americans are self-employed, and this figure continues to rise. When you’re self-employed, you have no boss to motivate you. You have to set your own goals, manage your own time, and make your own choices. To do this effectively, you need a degree of self-motivation.
Unfortunately, finding motivation is something that many people struggle with. We can all recall the feeling of knowing that we need to do something, but fundamentally not wanting to do it!
Those of us who’ve turned to self-help materials in our quest to...
Learn how to become more motivated by linking your task to a higher goal.
What's a task you're not looking forward to tackling, or one that you frequently have trouble motivating yourself to complete?
Becoming motivated enough to complete a task is only one part of being productive. You also need to make sure that you remain focused on what you’re doing. If you continually become distracted or flit between tasks, you’re not going to be as efficient or as effective.
When you’re learning how to remain focused, it helps to consider the factors that can prevent you from doing so. The brain’s ability to focus effectively can be hampered by two factors:
Cognitive tunneling arises when your brain is forced to transition from an automatic state to a focused state too suddenly.
When you enter a state of “automatic pilot,” your brain takes the opportunity to rest. It disengages you from your surroundings. When you suddenly have to focus again, often due to an unexpected event such as receiving an unforeseen message or an unarranged...
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We’ve considered the methods you can use to stay focused on your goals and boost your productivity. But how can you set effective goals in the first place?
Having the right goals is crucial in maintaining productivity for a number of reasons. Firstly, to be productive, you need to know exactly what you’re striving towards. Secondly, you need to be sure that you’re aiming for the right results. Finally, whether or not you meet your goals is often used as a measure of how productive you are. That measure will be inaccurate if your goals were flawed from the start.
This chapter considers two types of goals that you can use in tandem to enhance your productivity:
A stretch goal is an aim so audacious that at first glance, it might not seem possible. Examples of stretch goals include running a marathon, starting a successful company, or writing a book.
Learn how to make a stretch goal more manageable by setting a SMART goal.
Describe a stretch goal that you’d like to work towards. Remember, this goal can be as audacious and ambitious as you want.
Now that you’re motivated, focused, and have stretch and SMART goals to aspire to, what else do you need to do to maximize your productivity? The next step is ensuring that you’re making productive decisions; decisions that will move you further towards meeting your goals. Making bad decisions can lead to mistakes, wasted energy, and unproductive actions.
But how can you make sure that your decisions are productive? In short, making good, productive decisions is arguably all about being able to predict the future with some degree of accuracy. You need to be able to discern the consequences of your decisions, whether these consequences will be positive or negative, and whether they’ll help or hinder your productivity. Once you’ve got an idea of what the consequences of your decision will be, you can decide whether or not to proceed with it. If the likely consequences are positive, great! If not, it might be time to rethink your course of action.
Admittedly, accurately predicting the consequences of your decisions can be a difficult and imprecise art. Nobody can fully foresee what’s going to happen in the future, and nobody is going to get it right all of the time. However,...
The next element of productivity to consider is becoming a productive innovator. You may not think of yourself as an innovator, but innovation is likely a crucial aspect of your job. If you make your creative process more productive, you’ll increase your overall productivity. But what does being a productive innovator actually mean?
An innovator comes up with new and exciting ideas. A productive innovator does this relatively quickly while also maintaining a high standard of work.
To be a productive innovator, you need to be creative. This is a skill that in many ways can’t be taught. After all, creativity is often spontaneous. It’s hard to artificially trigger it by following a prescribed set of instructions.
However, you can learn how to create the right conditions for creativity and productive innovation to thrive. There are four principles that you can implement to create such conditions:
This first principle...
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The final method you can use to boost your personal productivity is learning how to use data productively.
Thanks to improvements in technology and the omnipresence of the Internet, we have access to vast amounts of data, both about ourselves and about the world at large. We can measure and track everything from our spending habits, to our calorie intake, to the number of steps we take every day.
If we make the most of this data, it can be a powerful force for change. We can track patterns, identify areas for improvement, and use the data to drive personal growth. We can even use data to help us solve problems and make better decisions. However, the idea of “making the most of the data” is easier said than done. While having access to lots of data can be very useful, it can cause problems.
Studies have shown that if we’re presented with too much data at once, we can enter a state called “information blindness.” Our minds simply cannot cope with the huge amount of data they’re being asked to process—so, we stop trying. We either start to ignore some of the data, misinterpret the data, or become so overwhelmed that we refuse to engage with it at all.
If you want to avoid...
Learn how to absorb data effectively by interacting with the information.
Describe some data that you’ve been struggling to absorb. What type of data is it—numerical, written, or another form? What does the data relate to?
Learn how to use data to help you solve a problem.
Think of a problem that you’re currently facing. Describe this problem in detail. What area(s) of your life is it affecting? How did the problem originate?
So far, the concepts we’ve explored have related to increasing your personal productivity. Now we’ll shift the focus to organizational productivity. In particular, we’ll discuss how you can build productive teams in the workplace.
At some point in your working life, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll need to work in a team. In this situation, maintaining your personal productivity isn’t always enough for you to meet your goals. Instead, the team as a whole must be productive. How can you ensure that this is the case? What are the secrets to building an effective team?
Creating a productive team isn’t necessarily about who is part of the team. Research has shown that the personal attributes of team members are not that important when it comes to making a team effective. For example, one study found that having a team filled with people with high intellect didn’t necessarily mean that the team would be more productive. In fact, the opposite often proved to be true. These teams were often less effective than teams made up of people with lower intellect.
Instead, the key to building an effective team is creating the right norms within the...
We’ve learned how creating a culture of psychological safety can boost the productivity of teams. We’ve also considered how crucial managers and leaders are in fostering psychological safety. However, that’s not the only step managers can take to increase organizational productivity.
According to Duhigg, workers become more productive when they believe two things:
It’s up to managers to create a culture in which these two beliefs can flourish.
To do this, you should implement two management techniques. The first is lean manufacturing. In this ideology, the person who's closest to the problem should have the authority to fix it.
The second technique that you should implement is the creation of a “commitment culture.” This is a workplace culture in which employers are truly committed to their employees’ growth, success, and happiness, causing their employees to commit to the company in return.
Also known as the Toyota Production System due to its origins in the company of the same name, lean manufacturing is a system designed to...
Reflect on what you’ve learned from Smarter Faster Better.
Of the eight principles discussed in the book, which do you think will be most useful in improving your or your organization’s productivity?