I read a lot this summer. Despite my Ph.D. in English, I don’t read much fiction. I love reading nonfiction, especially the Malcolm Gladwell style books that boil down interesting research into stories that are directly applicable. So I read quite a few books along those lines, mostly about learning and accomplishing goals. I’m going to write about all of them eventually, but I’m going to start with the one that has stuck with me the most. I keep telling stories from this one. It’s, as the title of the post suggests, Smarter Better Faster by Charles Duhigg. I read his other book, The Power of Habit, a while back as well. What I liked about both books is that Duhigg is trying to find solutions to his own problems using evidence from psychology, social science, and neurology. So the solutions he presents are evidence based, which I love. He would admit, I think, that science changes over time, so these solutions might too. But this is what we’ve got for now.
There were a lot of great tidbits in this book, a lot that were applicable to me as I try to grow my own skills, but also applicable to me as I try to grow the skills of my faculty and students. The very first chapter is about motivation, and I’ve been telling stories from that chapter perhaps the most, as I often struggle to motivate people to do challenging things (and I struggle with motivation myself, who doesn’t!). The coolest thing he says about motivation is that it can be learned. A lot of people I talk to, especially teachers, but others as well, believe that if someone isn’t motivated that they’re a lost cause. But we as teachers, co-workers, and spouses can create conditions under which those we’re trying to motivate (including ourselves) can practice self-motivation. A key, Duhigg points out, is believing that you’re in control:
The first step in creating drive is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with a sense of autonomy and self-determination. In experiments, people are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands.
When you have something difficult or unpleasant to do, figure out what’s in your control, make a decision about it, and that will motivate you. If you have to write a tedious report, decide on the font or the title. Another word for self motivation is internal locus of control. That is, you believe that the decisions you make are what leads to success or failure. If you fail, you blame yourself not someone else. Shifting the locus of control from external to internal can be done through practice. If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, that’s what it’s all about. It’s retraining students to think that they are in control of their abilities by focusing praise on their hard work, something they can control, rather than on their innate intelligence.
When things get really challenging, you might need to draw on a lot of self-motivation to get through. Finishing a Ph.D, getting through boot camp, finishing any long project or difficult task takes a lot of motivation to see through to the end. In addition to making choices along the way so that you continue to feel in control, you can also connect those choices to a bigger picture, the why you’re doing the task in the first place. As Duhigg puts it, “we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals.” The smaller, sometimes unpleasant, tasks along the way are part of a bigger picture, an emotional reward bigger than the task itself.
These ideas about motivation have really helped, and will help in the year ahead. The other chapter that resonated with me significantly was the one on setting goals. I had gone through with the department chairs the idea of setting SMART goals after I saw that some of the goals people were setting were super vague and really wouldn’t guide their work in meaningful ways. Duhigg points out, though, that SMART goals are really only the beginning. Some people who set SMART goals
are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set. “You get into this mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important than asking yourself if you’re doing the right things,”
When I was in GTD mode, I did that a lot, although it did ultimately lead me to finishing my dissertation and stretching myself, which is exactly what Duhigg suggests we do, stretch ourselves. And here is how he puts it:
So one solution is writing to-do lists that pair stretch goals and SMART goals. Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, month?
I ended up providing my department chairs with a chunk of the chapter on goals. I want people to dream big. What’s something that seems crazy to tackle and then figure out how you might get there. I’d rather see one goal like that than three goals that can be accomplished within the opening months of school (i.e. attend a conference or get more organized which should be smaller goals tied to a bigger one).
There’s a lot more to the book, chapters on teams and managing others, a chapter on mental models that’s really great for those of us who teach. He discusses using data, both in decision making and in changing how you do things. There’s also a helpful guide in the back that articulates easy ways to put the ideas in the book into practice. I keep returning to this book over and over again, in conversations with others, in structuring my own work, in thinking about how to approach my classes. Well worth a read.