If you’re fond of anecdotal contradictions from which insightful lessons let alone actionable takeaways are scant, have at it. Take, for instance, Mr. Duhigg’s retelling of Golda Meir’s Director of Military Intelligence.
His clarity, decisiveness, and ability to separate intelligence signal from noise earn him heaps of praise for forestalling defense build-up. “Be decisive” seems like fairly unimpeachable, if well-trodden advice.
Until it backfires when an unprepared Israel is caught off-guard in “the most traumatic event in [its] history” (the Yom Kippur War). What exactly is the lesson here? Decisiveness and clarity are the marks of a good leader until someone becomes *too* decisive?
This is hardly practical given that the Goldilocksian appraisal of what constitutes “just right” decisiveness is only available in hindsight. The Jack Welch era at GE gets a mini-hagiography for its “S.M.A.R.T.” criteria (business goals should be “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timeline” based).
Duhigg commits pages upon pages lauding S.M.A.R.T.’s benefits. Until it’s revealed that SMART made the company incredibly short-sighted and performance suffered. He then advocates something different from S.M.A.R.T. called “FLEX.” So are we supposed to be applying SMART or FLEX? I don’t know, and I’m not sure Duhigg does either.
Aspiring business managers looking for lessons from GE’s S.M.A.R.T. debacle will be hard-pressed to find anything beyond Duhigg’s inability to hew to a consistent management thesis.
Others have pointed out how Duhigg draws conclusions from other historical incidents that are at odds with what other researchers have concluded (notably, Air France 447 and Rosa Parks’ sit-in). History appears to be ripe for molding events to fit one’s pop-psych explainer du jour.
Did Air France 447 crash because the pilots were cognitively tunneling (as Duhigg asserts) or because instrumentation showed contradictory readouts (as the official investigation asserts)? The answer depends on whether you’re writing a lucrative book about cognitive tunneling.
There is an appendix which, thankfully, finally, offers some valuable advice: e.g. to generate motivation, assert control and remind yourself why whatever goal you’re working toward is meaningful. That this beneficial advice doesn’t really surface until the end says much about the book.
Smarter Faster Better PDF
Productivity put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. Itʼs a process of learning how to succeed with less stress and struggle.
Itʼs about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way. Krulak began reviewing studies on how to teach self-motivation and became particularly intrigued by research, conducted by the Corps years earlier, showing that the most successful marines were those with a strong “internal locus of control”̶a belief they could influence their destiny through the choices they made.
Locus of control has been a major topic of study within psychology since the 1950s. Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure, rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence.
A student with a strong internal locus of control, for instance, will attribute good grades to hard work, rather than natural smarts. A salesman with an internal locus of control will blame a lost sale on his own lack of hustle, rather than bad fortune.
“Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span,” a team of psychologists wrote in the journal Problems and Perspectives in Management in 2012.
People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer, and report greater professional success and satisfaction. In contrast, having an external locus of control believes that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control.
“is correlated with higher levels of stress, because an individual perceives the situation as beyond his or her coping abilities,” the team of psychologists wrote. It wasn’t that wards with strong teams were making more mistakes. Rather, it was that nurses who belonged to strong teams felt more comfortable reporting their mistakes.
The data indicated that one particular norm – whether people were punished for missteps influenced if they were honest after they screwed up. As her research continued, Edmondson found a handful of good norms that seemed to be consistently associated with higher productivity.
On the best teams, for instance, leaders encouraged people to speak up teammates felt like they could expose their vulnerabilities to one another people said they could suggest ideas without fear of retribution the culture discouraged people from making harsh judgments.
As Edmondsonʼs list of good norms grew, she began to notice that everything shared a common attribute They were all behaviors that created a sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance. “We call it ʻpsychological safety,ʼ ” she said.
Psychological safety is a “shared belief, held by members of a team, that a group is a safe place for taking risks.” It is “a sense of
confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmondson wrote in a 1999 paper. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
The researchers eventually concluded that the good teams had succeeded not because of the innate qualities of team members, but because of how they treated one another. Put differently, the most successful teams had norms that caused everyone to mesh particularly well. “We find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a groupʼs performance on a wide variety of tasks,” the researchers wrote in their Science article.
“This kind of collective intelligence is a property of the group itself, not just the individuals in it.” It was the norms, not the people, that made teams so smart. The right norms could raise the collective intelligence of mediocre thinkers. The wrong norms could hobble a group made up of people who, on their own, were all exceptionally bright.
Reactive thinking is at the core of how we allocate our attention, and in many settings, itʼs a tremendous asset. Athletes, for example, practice certain moves again and again so that, during a game, they can think reactively and execute plays faster than their opponents can respond.
Reactive thinking is how we build habits, and itʼs why to-do lists and
calendar alerts are so helpful: Rather than needing to decide what to do next, we can take advantage of our reactive instincts and automatically proceed. Reactive thinking, in a sense, outsources the choices and control that, in other settings, create motivation.
But the downside of reactive thinking is that habits and reactions can become so automatic they overpower our judgment. Once our motivation is outsourced, we simply react. People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models.
By developing a habit of telling ourselves stories about whatʼs going on around us, we learn to sharpen where our attention goes. These storytelling moments can be as small as trying to envision a coming meeting while driving to work̶forcing yourself to imagine how the meeting will start, what points you will raise if the boss asks for comments, what objections your coworkers are likely to bring up̶or they can be as big as a nurse telling herself stories about what infants ought to look like as she walks through a NICU.
If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, of not getting overwhelmed and distracted by the constant flow of emails and conversations and interruptions that are part of every day, of knowing where to focus and what to ignore, get into the habit of telling yourself stories. Narrate your life as itʼs occurring, and then when your boss suddenly asks a question or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way.
To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When youʼre driving to work, force yourself to envision your day. While youʼre sitting in a meeting or at lunch, describe to yourself what youʼre seeing and what it means. Find other people to hear your theories and challenge them. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate whatʼs next. If you are a parent, anticipate what your children will say at the dinner table.
Then youʼll notice what goes unmentioned or if thereʼs is a stray comment that you should see as a warning sign. However, if our urge for closure is too strong, we “freeze” on our goals and yearn to grab that feeling of productivity at the expense of common sense. “Individuals with a high need for cognitive closure may deny, reinterpret or suppress information inconsistent with the preconceptions on which they are ʻfrozen,ʼ,” the Political Psychology researchers wrote.
When weʼre overly focused on feeling productive, we become blind to details that should give us pause. It feels good to achieve closure. Sometimes, though, we become unwilling to sacrifice that sensation even when itʼs clear weʼre making a mistake. By the 1980s, this system had evolved into a system of so-called SMART goals that every division and manager was expected to describe each quarter.
These objectives had to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and based on a timeline. In other words, they had to be provably within reach and described in a way that suggested a concrete plan. Such systems, though useful, can sometimes trigger our need for closure in counterproductive ways. Aims such as SMART goals “can cause [a] person to have tunnel vision, to focus more on expanding effort to get immediate results,” Locke and Latham wrote in 1990.
Experiments have shown that people with SMART goals are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set. “You get into this mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important than asking yourself if youʼre doing the right things,” said Latham.
Numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals, and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity. Stretch goals “serve as jolting events that disrupt complacency and promote new ways of thinking,” a group of researchers wrote in the Academy of Management Review business journal in 2011.
“By forcing a substantial elevation in collective aspirations, stretch goals can shift attention to possible new futures and perhaps spark increased energy in the organization. They thus can prompt exploratory learning through experimentation, innovation, broad search, or playfulness.” There is an important caveat to the power of stretch goals, however. Studies show that if a stretch goal is audacious, it can spark innovation. It can also cause panic and convince people that success is impossible because the goal is too big.
There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crushes morale. For
a stretch goal to inspire, it often needs to be paired with something like the SMART system. This lesson can extend to even the most mundane aspects of life. Take, for instance, to-do lists. “To-do lists are great if you use them correctly,” Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University, told me.
“But when people say things like ʻI sometimes write down easy items I can cross off right away because it makes me feel good,ʼ thatʼs exactly the wrong way to create a to-do list. That signals youʼre using it for mood repair, rather than to become productive.” The problem with many to-do lists is that when we write down a series of short-term objectives, we are, in effect, allowing our brains to seize on the sense of satisfaction that each task will deliver.
We are encouraging our need for closure and our tendency to freeze on a goal without asking if itʼs the right aim. The result is that we spend hours answering unimportant emails instead of writing a big, thoughtful memo because it feels so satisfying to clean out our in-box. So one solution is writing to-do lists that pair stretch goals and SMART goals.
Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, a month?
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