Smarter, Faster, Better

A few findings from reading Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Goodreads).

On self-motivation: Ask yourself, why am I doing what I’m doing? If you are doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, you’re not going to care.

Envisioning the day: Make a habit of picturing how things will go, what goals you have from meetings or tasks—it can make you much more productive.

Distractions: We can trick our brain to ignore things by spending time visualizing what we want to occur, like going to the store for only lasagna and ignoring the special display of holiday cookies.

Tests, finances, decisions: Slow down to make better choices, called “disfluency.” Also helps with overload of data; it’s easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything. Fight it by slowing the information down, make it stickier.

Internalize new ideas: Tell someone about it, interact with the idea, and it’ll stick with you better. For example, telling a colleague about a book you’re reading, not to educate them, but to lock in the ideas.

Financial life: Force yourself to interact with the data, even if it seems inefficient. Sit down regularly and see what you spent money on—is it expected? Do you need to change habits? Not only look, but write it down.

Editorial note: I published this with the WordPress desktop app, a superbly focused and native experience to write posts and manage your blog settings.

Adam Savage on Problem Solving

From the “Recently Watched and Enjoyed” department, this video is now six years old, but still great: Adam Savage Presents Problem Solving: How I Do It from Maker Faire 2010.

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Questions he asks all throughout the problem solving process:

  1. How much time do I have left? Set artificial goals to help push ahead.
  2. Am I missing something stupid?
  3. How does this thing fit into the bigger picture? How does the whole look?

At the 75% mark of completing a given project Adam thinks, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” When he says, “I know how to do this,” he screws it up. Reminds me of The Investigative Mindset a bit.

AFK Oblique Strategies

If you’re not familiar with Oblique Strategies, they are a collection of short phrases, dilemmas intended to make you think. Originally published as a set of notecards in 1975, these contradictions are one of my favorite discoveries while working for Automattic.

In my case I like to say they cause brainwaves.

Luckily, you don’t need the original index cards to use Oblique Strategies any time you want to change your thinking, because there are electronic versions such as a Mac dashboard widget and an iOS mobile app (one of several apps).

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Example of the OS X dashboard widget.

The original strategies include phrases such as:

– Listen to the quiet voice
– Make what’s perfect more human
– Do the last thing first

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Example of the iOS mobile app “Oblique Productivity.”

I took two-and-a-half months off work this summer—a lot of AFK time (away from keyboard)—and I’d like to share with you several of my own AFK-related Oblique Strategies that came to mind as I planned meaningful activities during the break.

Which isn’t to give you advice or say I have any answers. Rather, these are food for thought that I hope jar your brainwaves like they did mine. Save them for your next thinking time, or for the next time you take a bit of vacation from your work.

– Stay at home on your travels
– Make today a dull repeat of yesterday
– Read an old book with new eyes
– Most frivolous as most meaningful
– Be still for as long as possible
– Start with the least urgent
– Turn the computer —on —off
– Are you more joyful?

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Book review for Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

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This fascinating book takes a deep dive into how to harness the adaptability of your brain and body to achieve abilities that would otherwise be out of reach.

Focused and concise, illustrated with research, and bringing new science to light, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning and improving.

The main premise is to explain that what we think about acquiring abilities is probably wrong. Are gifted people at a natural advantage to become experts? Can anyone apply certain techniques to achieve the same results as others? Does high IQ play a role?

Answers abound. There is no such thing as natural ability; anyone can become an expert by putting in the time. Illustrated with exploring prodigies through history, their skills reduce down to two questions: 1) What is the exact nature of the ability? 2) What sorts of training made it possible? Traits favorable to a task help at the beginning but don’t make a difference at high levels; it all comes down to your own effort.

But not just any effort. The 10,000-hour “rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success is not the full story—the how long isn’t as important as how. Just practicing over and over doesn’t lead to mastery as you’ll soon plateau and stop improving. Important to know that you aren’t reaching a set potential, you are developing your potential because it’s not a fixed state. Surprising to read about many studies showing adult brain plasticity and adaptability. The brain’s adaptability is incredible.

The key piece is deliberate practice: training with expert teachers, eliminating your weaknesses by forming mental representations that drive you consistently to great performance, and spending lots of time in private practice on the right things.

The best among us in various areas do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain.

Since there are no shortcuts to expertise, and you aren’t born with natural advantages, to improve you must engage with your training and stick with it, getting out of your comfort zone to reach the next level. You can control your environment, and adapt to changes by learning new skills.

Deliberate practice is knowing where to go, and how to get there.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt (2008) is sensible and matter-of-fact, a gem of a book that works well both as reference and as inspiration. A science-based lifehacker manual that serves as the ultimate guide to personal productivity.

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Full of tips, tricks, philosophies, and science behind how our brains function best for learning and thinking, the book covers topics such as reading and study habits, control over context and environment, trusting intuition while questioning everything, discovery and capture of ideas, and how to pay better attention. All tied to harnessing the power of opposite sides of the brain, creative versus practical, reactive versus thoughtful. Seeing both the forest and the trees.

Since the book is too full of useful information to summarize in one blog post, I’d like to share a few of my favorite parts.

Intuition and pattern matching replace explicit knowledge.

This echoes my philosophy of The Investigative Mindset where rules are not a substitute for clear thinking while considering the context. You can trust your intuition, yet you would do well to verify it by asking questions and digging deeper and keeping in mind your expectations and cognitive biases.

If you don’t keep track of great ideas, you will stop noticing you have them. Everyone has good ideas, fewer go further to keep track, act on them, and pull it off.

So true. Keep a journal, review it often, and take action on the best ideas. Share them with others for accountability, they can improve with feedback, or someone else can run with it if you don’t have time or energy to do so.

Rewire your brain with belief and constant practice; thinking makes it so.

This idea of mastery through constant, focused effort echoes what I’ve learned elsewhere, including a new book I’m excited about, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (review to come soon).

A random approach, without goals and feedback, tends to give random results.

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” —Yogi Berra

The best efforts need a plan, because if you work on a team like mine at Automattic you’ll know from experience that starting on things without a clear goal in mind, nor a plan on how to get there, without specific metrics to track it — means it’ll be almost impossible to measure the results.

I love the concept of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed. Reminds me of Google’s Objectives and Key Results.

Read deliberately with SQ3R (scan, question, read, recite, review), which I find similar and complementary to Adler’s ideas on how to read books, as described by Ian Stewart.

You are who you hang out with: attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and emotions are all contagious.

What does it take to stay sharp? Awareness. Learn to quiet your mind’s endless chatter, keep track of your ideas by working on and adding to your thoughts in progress, and avoid context switching.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is a must-read for all thinkers and learners. Hat tip: Nikolay Bachiyski.

Review: Superforecasting

This is a review of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner.
Although “Destined to become a modern classic” from the book jacket description might be a bit overstating the book’s impact, I did enjoy the reading it and came away inspired and energized. The style is approachable and authentic.

Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested—not treasures to be guarded.

In this book we learn who superforecasters are, why they are good at what they do, and how anyone can mimic their approach to improve their thinking.

81eccldB55LThe future, in the near term, can be predicted. This skill can be learned, practiced, and improved—and some people are much better at it than others.

Superforecasters are smart, but not genius-level and are comfortable with numbers and statistics. They live in perpetual beta. They exercise caution, nuance, and healthy skepticism while developing techniques and habits of mind to bring smart thinking for the future (and now). They are constantly belief-updating and fact-checking. In short, they are teachable.

They have:

1. A healthy appetite for information
2. A willingness to revisit and revise when new information arises
3. An ability to synthesize material from very different sources
4. An ability to think in fine gradations
5. A growth mindset: determination, self-reflection, and willingness to learn from mistakes
6. Awareness of their biases
7. Grit

Their methods:

1. Gather evidence from a variety of sources
2. Think probabilistically
3. Work in teams
4. Keep score
5. Be willing to admit error and change course

One favorite thread of mine in this book was how it addressed other impactful books like Thinking Fast and Slow from Daniel Kahneman and Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. As another book about meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) the authors weave elements of the other works into this one while both agreeing and disagreeing with their philosophies and techniques. The book feels pragmatic and up-to-date.

For example, Taleb’s black swans are unimaginable and impactful. In that view, forecasting will only interest short-term thinkers because it can’t predict black swans. However, the authors of Superforecasting argue—and I agree—that incremental change can be profoundly impactful. One style risks a lot for a rare huge win while the other pays off slowly, modestly, and more often.

Takeaway lessons for my work include: 1) think clearly, not too fast, and do the needed research 2) be willing to adjust and learn from evidence and new information 3) models are valuable even if not 100% accurate—they are simplified in order to explain and predict, and 4) keep going, keep learning.

GTD Quadrant Flowchart

From time to time I take a close look at my workflow to see if I can improve it in any way. Incorporate new tools, processes, or ideas—or remove things that don’t work or cause more noise than signal.

I’d like to share a productivity hack that’s worked well for me recently when trying to decide what to work on each day. Faced with a full plate of tasks, requests, emails, and interruptions—which should I tackle first?

I apply a few simple questions to each email, task, or incoming ping—things I might need to work on next. The questions are:

  1. Do I have to do it?
  2. Do I want to do it?
  3. Is it urgent for today?
  4. Can someone else do it?

Here’s my version of a decision tree that combines the questions and answers.


GTD Quadrant Flowchart by Lance Willett


I’m inspired by similar grids and charts that you might have seen. There are several variations of these “getting things done” (GTD) decision trees and quadrant matrices.

1. David Allen’s GTD philosophies, illustrated in this flowchart:

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2. The Eisenhower Matrix (see also this Todoist implementation):

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3. Stephen Covey’s “time management matrix” which uses quadrants to rank task in a two-by-two matrix based on importance and urgency.

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4. A “want to do/have to do” prioritization method using a two-by-two matrix. (I don’t know where this comes from; anyone know the source?)

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A few notes about my flowchart graphic [direct download in PNG format, 224 KB].

  • I use @ notation for email labels to determine both status and type of action needed: @action, @reply, and @read/review, etc.
  • The “Soon / Later” items at the bottom right—those logged for later—do become things to start with again once they come up in review. In my workflow, I repeat the flowchart decisions for each item during weekly and monthly review.
  • “Quick wins” aren’t mapped here; they are tasks that don’t take much time and are easy to complete. You can shortcut the flowchart from “Not urgent for today” to “Do it now” for these quick ones.

Sweet! Now I can mark as done posting this to my blog.