The Smarter Faster Better way to write nonfiction

This is a follow up to my recent rant post, Why (almost) no one reads nonfiction anymore.

A few months ago, I started coaching a handful of product managers at my company. New to this type of coaching, and wanting to model the approach of successful executive coaches, I purchased a book on the subject. With great anticipation I started reading my new book, excited for the lessons I hoped to learn.

Two months later, I’m stuck at page 37. I just can’t get through it. Over the last few weeks I’ve picked it up several times but can only make incremental progress before putting it down. The book is painfully monotonous and the long, drawn-out chapters seem to regurgitate the same message ad nauseum. I doubt I’ll ever finish it.

Alternatively, I recently finished reading Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. Though I loved Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit, I was hesitant to pick up his second book, which focuses on the secrets of productivity. The title wasn’t as compelling to me, but I went ahead and gave it a shot.

Smarter Faster Better is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It stands as a model of how great nonfiction can be. Here’s an example of why I loved it so much.

Chapter 5, titled Managing Others, tells the fascinating story of how a General Motors factory—that was once shutdown for performing abysmally—leveraged lean manufacturing principles from Toyota to become one the company’s most productive factories. It also shares how changes in how the FBI makes decisions led to the solving of a high-profile kidnapping case. These stories are beautifully woven together to drive home the key lessons of the chapter:

“Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success.”

Duhigg could have led the chapter with his core thesis and backed it up with facts, figures, and a few anecdotes. This is the approach many writers take.  

Rather, he starts with two seemingly disparate stories that come together as the chapter progresses. Duhigg’s ability to craft an engaging narrative is what makes Smarter Faster Better such a good read. And his approach of leading with story not only makes the book more interesting, it also creates stickier and more memorable lessons for his readers.

This is why Charles Duhigg is a New York Times bestselling author. This is why his book will be highly recommended in my next monthly newsletter. And this is why I’ll buy any book he writes in the future, regardless of the topic.

Authors, take note. 

4 Ways to Conquer Career and Workplace Stress

“I don’t know why this is so hard. Are you stupid or something?”

I was already under a lot of stress. These words from my manager only made matters worse. New to my job, I was working around the clock building a complex financial model for a software company our firm was advising.

A few numbers in the model weren’t adding up, and my manager was in my face, demanding to know why. The tension had been building inside of me for weeks. I knew if I didn’t find an outlet, I’d fall apart.

This kind of workplace stress is something we all deal with at some point, regardless of our career focus or goals. While many view it as entirely negative, stress is not inherently bad. In fact, a certain level of stress can improve your focus and sharpen your attention.

But for many, stress can become debilitating. Left unchecked, stress can reach a point when it negatively impacts your career, life and health. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this firsthand.

But situations like that manager questioning my intelligence don’t have the same negative impact as they once did. As time has passed, I’ve learned techniques for overcoming triggers that cause stress.

Here are four ways I conquer career and workplace stress so I can perform at a high level:

Stay Active

The benefits of exercise are well known, so there’s no need to expound on those. The tough part is making time to exercise. This is no easy task, but I’ve found that blocking off time in my calendar is critical. If I don’t set aside a specific time to exercise, it doesn’t happen. If there’s no time for an extended workout, even 15 minutes of exercise will give you a boost of energy and relieve stress.

About a year ago, I started the habit of going on short walks throughout the day. Taking a moment to get up from my desk and go outside is always refreshing. These walks elevate my heart rate, if only for a few minutes, and enable me to go back to my work with renewed focus.

Read a Good Book

Social media has become ubiquitous, and the next post, tweet or status update is always one click away. At the same time, book reading has steadily declined. Too many of us miss out on the many benefits of reading good books.

A few years ago I was challenged by a professor to read 30 books in a year. He promised that doing so would help me think more strategically. As I worked toward this goal, I found reading was a great stress reliever. We all are constantly pulled in a number of directions, and balancing it all takes a toll. Reading good books can be relaxing, help you sleep better, and reduce your stress. (If you’re looking for ways to read more, here’s a great resource.)

Write It Down

One of the best ways to conquer stress is to simply write down how you’re feeling. What’s bothering you? Why is it bothering you? What are some ways to take action? Taking a moment to reflect and write down what you’re experiencing will provide relief.

The writing process also provides clarity of thought. You can put pen to paper or keep a digital record on your computer or phone. The benefits are there regardless of the medium. Keeping a journal and writing down my thoughts and feelings has allowed me to compartmentalize my frustrations. Writing will help you find clearer solutions to your problems and enable you to focus on what you can control.

Find Someone to Serve

Shortly after finishing college, my company went bankrupt and I was out of a job. It was the height of the great recession and I struggled to find work. During one rough stretch, I was encouraged to serve others, and I volunteered to organize service projects at my church.

One Sunday morning I was coordinating parking for a large church meeting. Our parking lot was fairly small, and my job was to direct cars to the various parking lots nearby. A heavy rainstorm struck shortly before the meeting and I stood in the rain for several hours.

By the end of the meeting I was completely soaked, but I had never felt better. Serving others had a cleansing effect on my soul and eliminated the selfish cares that were holding me down. I’ve found the fastest way to forget your own needs is to focus on the needs of others. This may sound counterintuitive, but it works.

Next time you’re overcome by career stress, try one of these four techniques. Go for a walk or run, read a good book, write down how you’re feeling, or find someone to serve. The benefits are real and immediate.

Don’t let stress debilitate you. Take action. Be proactive. Learning how to effectively conquer stress will enable you to achieve greater career success than you can imagine. Invest in yourself by implementing one of these four practices today. You won’t regret it.