Award-winning summit keynote Duhigg shares ‘Smarter Faster Better’ insights

charles duhigg

Charles Duhigg took the stage at The Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence’s first Leading Through Excellence summit nearly five years ago.

A lot’s changed since then.

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Summit keynote Charles Duhigg speaking during his keynote at COE’s inaugural summit in 2013.

A mere three days after his featured keynote for the event, he was part of a team of New York Times staffers who won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting for its iEconomy series, what the Pulitzer committee called a “penetrating look into business practices by Apple and other technology companies.” And the book The Power of Habit? Released in February 2012, it became a bona fide hit, spending more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. He followed up Habit with Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, another Times bestseller he’ll be speaking about as a featured keynote on Wednesday, April 11, at COE’s sixth-annual summit.

In the run-up to his return to the Buckeye State, Duhigg spoke to COE Associate Director Matt Burns about the inspiration for his latest work – and what we can take away from it. Here’s a (lightly edited) recap of their chat …

Matt Burns: What led you from The Power of Habit to Smarter Faster Better?

Charles Duhigg: After The Power of Habit, a question kept coming up. People kept on saying, “We know how to change habits – what are the right habits?” At the same time, I started noticing things happening in my own life: The book did really well, and I was grateful for that. I was getting opportunities to do lots of things but I just felt like I was working all the time. I started asking myself: “What am I doing wrong?” If this is what success feels like, sign me back up for failure.

Then, I started to contact researchers and ask them how people can get so much done and not let it ruin their lives. And what they said is that rather than working hard, the people who are the most productive and successful have figured out how to work smarter. They understand the difference between being busy and being productive – and the difference is that instead of working all the time, you’re working on things that actually matter. They can recognize the right priorities and goals in such a way that priorities are honored and responded to. They can innovate on demand rather than waiting for a muse to strike them. They can take some of the amazing amounts of data that we have and grasp knowledge from them.

MB: You start the book off by writing about motivation. Looking at how you’ve observed people functioning in organizations, where are they going wrong in this regard?

CD: People focus too often on the wrong kind of measurement. We tend to focus on what we measure, so if your measure is getting your inbox to zero, it’s not going to be surprising that you spend all your time e-mailing. The first thing that happens when it comes to motivation and goal setting is you have to take a step back and ask: “What do I really want to achieve here? What’s important to me?” If your answer is just that you want to make it through the day, you’re gonna make it through the day. But if you have the time and space to say, “What is my deeper aspiration? What is my bigger goal?,” then you’re going to be able to align your choices to what actually matters to you.

MB: You spend a lot of the time in the book on team building. What surprised you about your research in this area?

CD: The biggest surprise for me was that who is on a team matters much less than how that team interacts. The conventional wisdom is that we should spend a lot of time thinking about “casting,” getting the right types of people on the team: introverts, extroverts, people who believe in the same type of leadership style. But all the research shows us that how a team interacts with each other matters much more than who is on it. You could have all “A” players on a team – but if you don’t have the right culture, they’re not going to gel together. You could have all “B” players on a team and if the culture is right, they could exceed what the “A” players do.

The other thing that’s really interesting is you can come up with a formula to help people come up with the right team culture by driving a sense of psychological safety: conversational turn-taking, ostentatious listening – those are just a few things that contribute to it.

MB: One of the big themes at our summit this year is disruption, namely how things like automation and data are driving changes in our work – and that’s something you address, too. How are these forces changing how we should be making decisions?

CD: Decisions can be much more informed now. Before, information was a scarce resource and the people who made great decisions were the people who had access to more information. That’s no longer true. But as a result, people have stopped applying critical thinking in some respect and allowed information to guide their choices. We now know there’s a big difference between being exposed to information and turning that into knowledge.

The key there is the concept of disfluency (Editor’s note: Duhigg’s book defines this as making information “harder to process at first, but stickier once it was really understood” [242]). This can seem slower and less productive in the short run – instead of looking at an Excel spreadsheet you have to sit down and mess around with it – but we know that, over time, this makes people more productive. Instead of absorbing information, they’re transmitting it into actual knowledge.

MB: You framed The Power of Habit with a great little anecdote about your “cookie habit” and how you used research from that book to break it. How has Smarter Faster Better changed you on a day-to-day basis?

CD: A great example of this involves my kids. When I wrote The Power of Habit I spent a lot of time with my kids looking at cues and rewards and shaping behavior, but with Smarter Faster Better the conversations I have with my kids are more about asking them: What can you do every day to put yourself in charge of your own life? When we go to school some mornings, I ask them to “tell me the story of today:” What do you think the best part of today and the worst part of today will be? The reason this is a good conversation is that it teaches them to build mental models about their day.

If we build mental models about how we want our day to unfold, we know that helps our brain remain focused – it also teaches us to have an internal locus of control. We are in charge of what happens every day in our lives. If you’re in charge, you have the power to guide yourself.

Most of life is reactive – the point is to become more proactive, and if you can learn that as a habit, it can be really powerful.

Duhigg will be signing copies of his books following his 3:40 p.m. keynote on April 11. The Leading Through Excellence summit is nearly sold out, with only a few seats available.

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