Traditionally, time-management experts have offered specific formulas and decision trees that, they claim, transcend the standard to-do list, from Alan Lakein’s “Drift, Drown, or Decide” to David Allen’s “Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it.” Duhigg avoids these aphoristic methods of cognitive training (habit formation was the subject of his last book) and instead focuses on strategies that cut across industries and scenarios. Chapters on motivation, teamwork, focus, and goal-setting precede tips on managing, decision making, innovation, and absorbing data. These core themes are held together by a selection of memorable characters and stories that play to Duhigg’s strengths as a writer. In the crowded market for productivity aids, this meta-approach is novel. It acknowledges that there is already a surfeit of calendar tools, coaches, and apps vying for attention in the quest for self-discipline.
Duhigg’s interest is in the more subtle personal and psychological challenges of working well, and if these preoccupations sound familiar to those of other management gurus, his examples show how these ones matter differently today. In an age of automation, for instance, focus is a matter of toggling between varying states of technologically-mediated cognitive assistance. This is the main obstacle many workers face as constantly-connected machines put out an endless number of requests for action. “Advances in communications and technology are supposed to make our lives easier” Duhigg writes. “Instead, they often seem to fill our days with more work and stress.”
When it comes to productivity self-help, the lessons imparted are, at best, findings from research that most people don’t have the time to read. At worst, they are truisms recycled with scant acknowledgment from much earlier examples of the genre. Duhigg, though, tends to transcend these two fates by recognizing that management fads are part of the problem. For instance, he notes, when GE instituted “SMART” goals—“Smart, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-specific” deadlines for assignments—employees spent hours bringing their tasks in line with the new criteria, and “much less time making sure the goals were worth pursuing in the first place.” Similarly, organizations that encourage “stretch goals”—audacious objectives beyond what’s actually realistic—tread a fine line between inspiring innovation and thinning workers’ confidence. These examples show that productivity theories are often hard to put into practice. Applied generically, across large companies that house many complex functions, simple formulas can generate perverse outcomes.
In the world of productivity self-help, success comes down to whether a regimen can be implemented and then adhered to. One may not be a theater director, factory owner, aircraft pilot, or phone designer, but the implication is that adopting some of the same strategies as these people will help one succeed. For most, the fate of passengers or million-dollar budgets are not at stake in their day jobs. The real test of self-help principles is whether a charismatic leader’s insights can withstand the ordinary messiness of everyday life.