Humans Productivity

How to Improve Work Productivity

“Every choice we make in life is an experiment.”

― Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business


I want to be more successful, so I have to be productive. Get promoted sooner, provide for my family, retire without depending on the children. These are all noble goals and of course, everyone wants them all.

The question is always: why some of us succeed, some of us don’t? What defines productivity for the successful? We have the same twenty-four hours to live every day. And we thought we have been living our life as possibly can. Yet, some can do much more. What are their secrets?

Charles Duhigg wrote the book Smarter, Faster, Better to answer the mysteries of productivity. In every chapter, he presented multiple stories: the successes, the failures, and what to learn from the failures. It’s like watching a movie where some seemingly unrelated scenes are shown to the viewers, telling two or more stories with different characters, while building up the stories to the climax. Except the climax were not all about the good always wins or the different characters meet each other to defeat a common enemy. Instead, it’s about the closures of the stories with the same topic and what do we learn from it.

The stories are real and fact-checked. The last pages of the book, about a quarter of the book’s thickness, contains detailed notes about the facts of the stories written in the chapters. It is recommended to read the notes after reading each chapter for more information.

So, what have I learned from this book? A lot. Scroll more to read.

Be Smarter, Faster, Better

Motivation comes from making meaningful choices

Ah, motivation. The classic reason for all. We attribute our actions or lack of them to motivation. Then, we agonize ourselves for lacking the motivation to do the task we already know we should do for the better future. We keep asking why do we lack the motivation and how does the productive self-motivate.

So, how do we generate self-motivation?

Start to find a choice. Making a choice is an expression of control. Do something about the activity, to show ourselves that we are in charge. For example, if we are overwhelmed by emails that needs to be responded, just decide to pick one and reply it. Or, if we have to confront someone, choose the place of the meeting. The specifics of the choice matter less, what we want is the feeling of being in control. Because it’s that feeling of self-determination that gets us going.

Though, it is not always that easy. Sometimes we need something more. That something more is meaning. Instead of agonizing why we lack the motivation, explain why doing the task can help us get closer to a meaningful goal. Affirm and link the reasons of the tasks to the values and goals we have. Then the choices we make will become meaningful choices. The trick to make starting feels easier is by explaining the why to ourselves.

When we develop a mental habit of transforming chores into meaningful choices, we tell ourselves that we are in control of our own lives.

In short, self-motivation is a choice we make because it is a part of something bigger. It is more emotionally rewarding than the impending task itself.

A great team gives psychological safety to its members.

If you have to pick a team to join on finishing a task, which of these teams would you join?

  • Team 1: Serious, successful, brilliant professionals and experts, or
  • Team 2: Some successful executives and some middle managers in the way of professional achievements.

Before considering joining the first team confidently, let’s think more about it. Why? They are people who works seriously and the best in their fields. In meetings, they would discuss in a serious manner, politely taking turn to speak, and the discussions would never go off topic. The meeting would also end as scheduled. They seem to be the efficient team.

The second team members, on the contrary, are more free-flowing. They interrupt each other when talking. When one member goes off topic, others would follow. Even at the end of meeting, everyone gossips around. They seem like to waste time.

We should choose the second team. Why? There are two reasons. First, everyone has the same portion of talking. Some groups take turn talking during each tasks, some groups speak in turn from assignment to assignment. But in the end, everyone has spoken roughly the same amount. Second, they are skilled at intuiting how members felt based on tone of the voice, face expressions, and how the members held themselves.

For the first team, the members still tend to act like individuals. Though, they will be successful working individually. There is not much evidence that everyone has an equal voice and sensitive to each others’ emotions and needs.

In short, the reason is that the second team gives psychological safety to its members by giving equal voices to all, and everyone has social sensitivity. Psychological safety raises the collective intelligence of the team, making the sum much greater than any of its parts.

Force yourself to focus and think

In this age, computers are the ones doing some of our activities and works. Then, the humans who created them are doing the more important task: the job of thinking bigger to improve their lives.

Then humans got comfortable. They forgot that computers can also fail. If this happens, some are not ready to face the crisis. They seem to continue making the wrong decisions and actions, not making things any better. In my opinion, which is not stated in the book, it’s equal to the state of panicking. And thus, bad things happen.

The state of seeming to make the wrong decisions is caused by cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking.

Cognitive tunneling & Reactive Thinking

Cognitive tunneling is a mental state where the brain only focuses on only one thing, and ignoring other relevant data.

For instance, when in a meeting with your boss, you do a passive listening. Then suddenly, the boss asks your opinion about something. You must switch your brain from passive listening to active involvement. The sudden switch could make your brain focus wrongly to the easiest thing on answering the boss’ question. You could be answering something you would regret later.

Reactive thinking is actually a great thing itself. It is how we build our habits. And therefore, we can act faster to do the moves we practiced and can decide easily without much effort. The downside is that it’s so automatic it can overpower our judgement.

For example, when driving a car which is equipped with cruise control or automatic braking systems, the driver actually pays less attention to the road. When the unexpected things happen, for example the car suddenly slides or the driver do not notice the red light, the driver would be reactively stepping the brake pedal deeply. If it is the correct action, everything is alright. If not, bad things happen.

So, how do we prevent cognitive tunneling and knowing when to turn off reactive thinking? By practicing mental models.

CreatING Mental Models

Mental models help us to choose where to focus our attention. It enables us to think and decide what we have to do. In other words, we anticipate what things that might happen for the task we will do. By doing so, our mind will always be ready. When the emergency happens in real life, we know what to do.

The habit of creating mental models can be done by simply narrating the events of your life as it is occurring. Tell a story about what you expect to occur. Then it will be easier to decide when the event really happens. Here are some questions to ask on creating mental models:

  • What will happen first?
  • What are the potential obstacles?
  • How will you handle the obstacles?
  • How will you know you have succeeded on your task?
  • Is there anything else necessary to help you succeed?
  • What’s next after the success?

If it is too much to remember, just try to remember this art of war -ish mantra: Envision your day. Anticipate what’s next.

Set a goal by using stretch goal and SMART goal setting framework

A goal is an end target of something we want to achieve in the future. In soccer, the goal is getting the ball to the enemy’s goal post in 90 minutes, and the team which scores more wins.

Sometimes, a goal is not as clear as it seems. It could be that we can feel like we already did it right and achieve our goals, but things do not get better. Probably, the goal is too unrealistic it’s impossible to achieve, or it’s too easy it won’t change anything. There are also cases where the goal is not something we want to achieve, in other words, a wrong target.

Stretch goals

A goal which is to spark innovation and seems like impossible to achieve is called a stretch goal. Humans got this far because of the stretch goals they set on themselves to live a better life. And we have always done this even before stretch goals are called stretch goals. It is why we have computers, automobiles, rockets, and machines. Things that seem like magic then, is now called science.

A measurement of defining that a goal is a stretch goal is by not knowing or having a real idea on how to get there. It promotes a new way of thinking, and sometimes nearly everything in the system has to change to get the result we want.

There’s a caveat in stretch goal though. While it can spark innovation, the other side can also happen. It can cause fear and panic because it’s thought to be too impossible to achieve.

In order to make stretch goals not just merely an aspiration, there is another discipline we must learn and practice. It is a mindset of turning a far-fetched goals into a series of realistic short-term objectives. This discipline is called SMART goals.

SMART goals

SMART Goals is a framework to define a goal which must meet the five given criteria: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and based on a Timeline. The goal must be within reach and described as a concrete plan.

For example, one would like to exercise by running. And so, he set up a SMART goal like this:

  • Specific: I will exercise by running.
  • Measurable: I will run 10 kilometres.
  • Achievable:
    • 1st Week: 1K
    • 2nd Week: 1.5K
    • 3rd Week: 2K
    • etc.
  • Realistic: I will run on either 5 a.m. or 5 p.m every day.
  • Timeline:
    • 4rd Week: Achieve 2.5K
    • 8th Week: Achieve 5K
    • 12th Week: Achieve 7.5K
    • 16th Week: Achieve 10K

By splitting a seemingly big goal to smaller objectives, the big goal does not seem big anymore.

SMART goals also have its dark side on its own. While it gives us a sense of accomplishment by achieving realistic objectives, it sometimes also trigger our needs of closure in counterproductive ways. People with SMART goals are more likely to be obsessed with finishing projects, taking on easiest tasks, and freeze on priorities once a goal has been set. Crossing the checkboxes on the list becomes more important than asking if we are doing the right things, even though the tasks might not lead to the right goal in the first place.

Why not both?

Stretch goals without SMART goals are impossible. SMART goals without stretch goals could lead one to the wrong final objectives. And so, we have to combine both stretch goals and SMART goals.

The first thing to do is to define the stretch goal, and then the SMART goal. The stretch goal is the final target we want to achieve, so we won’t lose our way. Using the example from SMART goal, we set the stretch goal to running a marathon. It would become something like this:

  • What is the stretch goal?
    • I want to run a marathon.
  • What is the specific subgoal?
    • I want to run 5K non-stop.
  • How to measure success?
    • Run 5 rounds of the park without walking
  • Is this achievable?
    • Yes, by running 3 times a week.
  • Is this realistic?
    • Yes, if I wake up early on Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
  • What is the timeline?
    • 1st Week: 3K
    • 2nd Week: 4K
    • 3rd Week: 5K
    • etc.

By doing this, we are able to tell ourselves to do what’s next, but also reminded of the larger ambition. That way we don’t do things simply just to make us feel good.

The rewards of autonomy and commitment cultures outweigh the costs

According to the fifteen years research of close to two hundred firms by two of business schools professors in Stanford, James Baron and Michael Hannan, they concluded that most companies’ culture fell into one of the five categories:

  • Star Culture
  • Engineering Culture
  • Bureaucratic Culture
  • Autocratic Culture
  • Commitment Culture

The Star Culture is built from executives from elite universities or other successful companies, also giving them huge amounts of autonomy. It is the A-team, and is considered the safest bet for venture capitalists. After all, they are the best of the best. But, this culture might grow the fastest, but less likely to make it to an IPO, compared to the other category. The risk of infighting is high, because everyone wants to be the star.

The Engineering Culture is built from engineer employees which as a group, has an engineering mindset in solving problems and approaching hiring decisions. It’s the stereotypical Silicon Valley start-up, and might be the next generation of stars once they prove themselves.

The Bureaucratic Culture is built from a thick rank of middle managers. There are job descriptions, organizational charts, thick handbooks, also rituals such as weekly meetings.

The Autocratic Culture is similar to the bureaucratic culture, but all the rules, goals and stuffs are all ultimately pointed to the one person: the founder or CEO. To put it simply, the model is “You work. You do as I say, you get paid.”

The Commitment Culture is built on the foundation of a set of values. It might prioritize slow and steady growth, but the employees work there for a long time. Companies with commitment culture are more hesitant to lay people off. The CEOs in these companies believe that the right culture is more important than designing the best product.

Why commitment culture?

The studies found that a commitment culture performs better than any of the others in almost every meaningful way. The companies were the fastest to go public, had the highest profitability ratios, and having fewer middle managers. The people was committed to the company, and they tended to know the customers better, which enabled them to detect changes faster.

The reason that commitment cultures were successful, was because a sense of trust emerged between the workers, managers, and customers. The trust encouraged them to work harder and stick together through setbacks.

The other characteristics were that they avoided layoffs unless there were no alternatives, invested more in training, gave generous maternity leaves, daycare programs, and work-from-home options. These companies valued making employees happy over quick profits.

The results of all these were higher levels of teamwork and psychological safety. They also were more likely to turn down higher-paying jobs at the other companies. What’s more, the customers stayed loyal because of the relationships built over the years. And finally, they were able to dodge the profits lost when an employee takes clients or insights to a competitor.

give authority to those closest to the problem

Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision-making authority and believe that their colleagues also committed to their success.

Managers can push the decision making to those closest to the problem, in order to take the advantage of everyone’s expertise and unlock innovation.

An important note is that to convert the employees’ motivation to innovation, they need to know that their suggestions are heard and if they make a mistake, it won’t be held against them. Because it’s a bigger misstep if there is never an opportunity for an employee to make a mistake.

Make decisions based on the probability of events that might happen

No one knows with 100% certainty how things will turn out in the future. So, how come some people can predict better than others? What do they do differently?

It’s simply that they can envision multiple futures, the hopes and the disappointments, of the things that likely will happen. They are able to think probabilistically, and are able live with uncertainty. And they know the difference of hoping and what is more and less likely to occur.

Thinking probabilistically about the future forces us to think through the things that might be fuzzy today, but are really important over time. And it forces us to be honest with ourselves, including being honest with the things we don’t know yet. Also, it prepares us to be more ready for the possibilities that might occur.

People who make great decisions about their future calculates these probabilities. They learn much about which assumptions are certain or flimsy. And they have exposed themselves with many successes and disappointments.

Adjust the bIASES

In other words, they know the accurate base rates by adjusting their biases with many experiences. Why does this matter? Because we are much more likely to remember the successes and forget about failures. Even the newspapers and magazines cover only the successes, such as most popular movies and successful companies.

We are biased to success too much, and it results in predicting and making assumptions of successful outcomes more often. To put it simply, we are not ready to fail because we failed to predict our failure.

In contrast, many successful people also paid attention to failures. They adjusted their biases as realistically as possible. That way, they improve the odds of making great decisions.

We can train ourselves to think probabilistically by envisioning various futures. Try to hold contradictory scenarios in our minds simultaneously. We must expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of successes and failures to develop an intuition about which forecasts are more and less likely to come true.

Innovation is simply old working ideas mixed together in a new way

Turns out that creativity is simply by taking proven, conventional ideas from other settings and combine them in a new way. It’s a very effective tactic that everyone use to spark creative successes. And therefore, those we thought as creative people are essentially an intellectual middlemen, or often referred as innovation brokers.

These innovation brokers know how to transfer knowledge between different industries and groups. And they know which kinds of ideas are more likely to work.

Be an innovation broker

The next question is: how can we learn to be innovation brokers?

The first is to be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention on how things make you think and feel to distinguish between cliches from true insights. As Steve Jobs said, the best designers are those who have thought more about their experiences than other people.

The second is to recognize that the stress that emerges in the creative process isn’t a sign everything is falling apart. Just embrace and feel the anxiety. It’s what often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. The only way out is to look at what we know, reinspect the conventions we’ve seen work, and try to apply them on the new problems.

Lastly, always remember the sense of sweet relief after making a creative breakthrough could also block us to other alternatives. This is important because we have the tendency to quickly like one idea and ignore the others. Learn to be a critic to what we have already done by making ourselves to look at it on completely different perspectives.

Innovation brokers learn that feeling scared is a good sign for being creative. They are just people who pay more attention what problems look like and how they’ve been solved before. Because, creativity is just problem solving. It’s not magic.

Do something with the information given to learn new things

We encounter new information every day. But it is not useful if it is just stored in the memory. We would just forget about it after a while. To properly use the data we have obtained, we have to make it more difficult to absorb. It has to be harder to process, but stickier once it’s really understood. There is a difference between finding an answer and understanding what it means.

For example, if you make people use a new word in a sentence, they will remember it longer. If you make them write the word in a sentence, they will use the word in conversations. There’s also an experiment about making instructions difficult to read. Therefore, as people struggle to make out the words, they read it more carefully. The difficult-to-read text will make them think more deeply about what they read and to make sense of it.

People who are most successful in learning know how to transform the data they absorb to learn something. They force themselves to do something with the data. Whether it is by testing an idea at work or talking through a concept with a friend, they make it easier to understand by doing something.

We are living in an age where data is easy to get and plentiful. The data is also cheaper to analyse and easier to translate to action than ever before through our devices. Every choice in our lives is an experiment. Get ourselves to see the data in those decisions, then always try to use it somehow to learn from it.


Phew. Finally the conclusion. This is a very long post. The longest one I ever write. But, I learnt a lot from this book.

I remember that some time before I started writing blog posts, I read a certain article, in which the writer pointed out that by sharing or teaching to others on what you just learn, you will understand it better. Yes, it resonates with the last key idea. That’s why I write about key ideas about the books I read to make sure I understand it better. The way is proven by the research done in this book. Thanks Charles!

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg is a must read book. It shares many stories with many insights to learn from. The book shares about the best ways of productivity and how can we achieve them. Should you ever encounter this book, buy and read it!

I hope you find this post useful! Tell me what you think in the comments. What have you learn by reading this book?

Live your code and code your life!

“Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach.”

― Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

By Ericko Yap

Just a guy who is obsessed to improve himself. Working as a programmer in a digital banking company. Currently programming himself in calisthenics, reading books, and maintaining a blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *