New horizons of productivity

Productivity. Few words have the mind of the modern knowledge worker more enthralled. But it can be difficult to define what exactly productivity is. So much has been written on the subject of getting things done and maximizing efficiency, and so many apps and programs have been developed that you can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. In Smarter Faster Better, New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg brings some needed clarity to the concept of productivity.

First and foremost, the book is engaging and well-written. Duhigg easily moves from anecdotes to case-studies to scientific research as he articulates eight different areas or dimensions in which he expands the concept of productivity. These range from motivation and focus to decision making and teams. Duhigg brings these different concepts together to form a view of productivity that is more holistic and humane than the usual emphasis on workflow and task management

At the same time, Duhigg is also good at making his ideas very practical and actionable. For instance, he talks a lot about setting stretch goals and then using the SMART formula to break those down into manageable chunks. Throughout the book, he stresses the importance of visualization and goal setting. If you can keep your end objective ever-present in your mind, it can make even the most mundane tasks much more manageable.

All of his observations are either grounded in psychological data or case-studies. The latter are one of the highlights of the book, as he draws examples from Google to the writers of SNL to the minds behind Disney’s Frozen.

One of the best sections of the book is the part that focuses on teamwork. Duhigg associates the most successful teams and companies with something he calls “Commitment culture.” When whole teams or companies are committed to a spirit of listening, learning, and mutual respect, it pays huge dividends. While the conventional understanding of productivity tends towards the cut-throat and makes the workplace a zero-sum game, Duhigg argues that teams that are willing to lift each other up and commit to each other are actually more successful.

The book isn’t perfect. Duhigg presents information on a broad range of topics. While the breadth and depth of the research is impressive, it can sometimes feel like he loses sight of the forest for the trees. The different chapters individually through new light on different aspects of productivity and are individually excellent. But his transformative reimagining of “real productivity” remains a bit low resolution. It isn’t always entirely clear what ties everything together.

That being said, the book is still very much worth a read. Like most self-help books, Smarter Faster Better promises to revolutionize your entire way of life; and like most self-help books, it fails to live up to this promise. But unlike many similar books, Smarter Faster Better is well-grounded in scientific research and real-world advice that any leader can learn from.

Smarter Faster Better is available for purchase here.

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