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How to Be More Productive

This post is a summary of a Freakonomics Radio episode of the same name.

Productivity means different things in different settings, and doesn’t just mean producing more widgets per hour. It’s about how to achieve your goals with less anxiety and more opportunity to enjoy what you want to enjoy, and is centered around a different way of thinking about how you arrive at outcomes.

An example of the productivity paradox is when electricity replaced steam engines in factories, yet there was no significant increase in productivity. The problem is that the factories had machines physically positioned to accommodate steam-powered units; they simply replaced steam pipes with wires. The productivity was gained in reframing how electricity could solve the problems — different configurations, fewer workers, etc.

All of us only have 24 hours each day, but some people seem to get a lot more done within those 24 hours, and they seem less stressed and sort of worked up about it. And the reason is not because they’re hacking themselves or pulling strings; they’re not focused on efficiency. They’re focused on trying to figure out, “What are the right goals I should be chasing after?” — Charles Duhigg

Here are the eight factors that influence productivity:

  1. Motivation. We want to feel like we’re in control.
  2. Focus. Pay attention to the right things.
  3. Goal setting. Have a stretch goal, and a smaller more specific goal to head you in that direction.
  4. Decision making. Productive people think in probabilistic terms and envision contradictory futures.
  5. Creativity. Creative environments allow people to take cliches and mix them together.
  6. Absorbing data. The harder we have to work to understand something, the stickier it becomes.
  7. Managing others. Put responsibility for solving the problem with those closest to that problem.
  8. Teams. Who is on a team matters much less than how a team interacts.

The foundation of motivation is the locus of control — do you control your own fate, or do things just happen to you because you’re powerless? There are experiments that have shown that it’s more effective to tell children that they did well on a task because they worked hard (internal, because you choose how hard you work), rather than because they are really smart (external, innate ability that cannot be controlled). The U.S. Marine Corps has applied a technique for building up the internal locus of control for its recruits (e.g., only compliment people on things that are unexpected).

Everyone needs a chance to socialize with one another to strengthen social sensitivity. If you spend a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting allowing people to just chat, over time they will be more productive.

Laszlo Bock, the Senior VP of People Operations at Google, conducted several studies about how to build the best team. One study (Project Oxygen) was used to collect information to see if managers matter. Another study (Project Aristotle) was used to see how to make people happier and more effective.

Some of the academically accepted notions that matter for teams — consensus-driven decision making, workload, co-location — were not borne out. The most important attribute of a high-performing team was psychological safety, not who’s on it, who leads it, how many people there are, or where they are. Psychological safety means that everyone feels like they have the opportunity to speak up, any they all feel like they are being listened to as demonstrated by the fact that their teammates are sensitive to non-verbal cues. Can they fail openly, or will they be shunned? Are team members supporting them or undermining them?

Here are the five norms the best Google teams had in common:

  • Psychological safety.
  • Dependability. If one person is asked to do something, he/she can be relied upon to get it done.
  • Structure and clarity. People should know what everyone’s job is, and there is shared understanding across the team.
  • Meaning. The work should be meaningful to everyone in the room.
  • Impact. You need to think and believe that the work matters.

Some other practices are useful:

  • Have regular 1-on-1 meetings.
  • Make sure everyone in your team feels included. Is there someone sitting off to the side in a meeting who never says anything?

One study showed that if you have a handful (i.e., not too few, and not so many that you’re overstretched) of different projects, you can be most productive. Having a variety allows you to learn something new, and the more you learn, the more value you add.

Regarding to-do lists…

  • Using a to-do list for mood repair (i.e., putting things on your list that you’ve already done) is not productive, because then you give yourself a reason to take a break.
  • At the top of your list, write a stretch goal. Underneath that, write tasks that make that stretch goal tangible and into a plan. One way to write support tasks is to follow the SMART criteria (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound).


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