What the Most Successful People do at Work: A Book Review

Laura Vanderkam sent us her new e-book, “What the most successful people do at work.”

As with all of Ms. Vanderkam’s writing, this was a very easy read.  She’s got the Malcolm Gladwell thing down.  (Well, maybe not Malcolm Gladwell… there’s not quite as much suspense, but she has breezy edutainment down cold.)

The book touches upon a number of topics about productivity.  Unfortunately, it just touches upon them, giving a vivid example from a single case study for each idea, and maybe another from her own life, but in most cases not going into any depth about how universal each of these ideas is.  And it turns out there’s a lot of research out there on psychology.

Early on, she talks about getting in the zone.  There’s been books written on how to get there and what it means to get there, only instead of calling it “in the zone,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow.”  Laura V. is a far better writer than Mihaly C., and we’d love to see her do his material justice.

(#2 thinks C. is a fine writer!  #1 had a hard time with one of them– the other was easier, but not what one would call fun.  V. books are actually fun.)

Understanding sunk costs is a basic concept of productivity from economics– don’t throw good money (or time!) after bad.  Understanding them can also help productivity by keeping you from lingering emotionally.

The idea of a planning period also has research and randomized controlled trials to back it up.  Our favorite productivity researcher, Robert Boice, talks about the importance of planning and schedules and routines or habits.  And, of course, there’s the new best-selling book on The Power of Habit out there.  Something that should be noted that isn’t included in the research… whenever you’re working with other people, they will often drop the ball.  So it’s important to have secondary plans.

One chapter that’s completely missing from this ebook is the research on creativity:  the need for regular breaks to allow your subconscious to puzzle things out.  The breaks may be mentioned, but there’s hard science and reasons why, and not just about Willpower (another recent best seller) or energy levels.

The chapter on meetings had good ideas, but was a little disorganized.

I am reminded that I should do more networking.

The book’s discussion of progress on a goal brought to mind Virginia Valian’s solving a work problem.  (And, of course, there’s a huge dry psychology literature on goal setting, that we bet Laura Vanderkam could sex up.)

The book ends suddenly– a page or even a paragraph summing things up would make it seem longer!

Overall, I felt like this book was only the article portion of something that could be a real book.  It felt a lot like the book prospectuses I occasionally review for publishers.  It left me wanting Ms. Vanderkam to write a real book on productivity.  Something that ties all the research out there together into one magnum opus, but an opus no longer or more difficult to read than say, NurtureShock, with a chapter dedicated to each idea.

Such a book will require research.  And there’s a lot of research on productivity out there.  Best-selling recent books on Habit and Willpower are only the tip of the iceberg.

As she says, it’s priced at ebook novelette price, not full book price.  But I think she’s got a $24.95  (or $13.95 if you buy from Amazon) book in there that isn’t just a “What the most successful people” compilation.  So, yes, it’s well worth $3.99 (Buy it!), but it will leave you wanting something more substantial.   And I do think she’s the right person to give us that more substantial best-selling book on productivity.

Would you buy an in-depth book on productivity by Laura Vanderkam?  One that translates the academic research into real action items you can use?

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4 Responses to “What the Most Successful People do at Work: A Book Review”

  1. Jacq Says:

    Maybe the book you’re looking for re. productivity is Halvorson’s “Succeed”?
    http://www.amazon.com/Succeed-How-Can-Reach-Goals/dp/0452297710/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1369752917&sr=1-9&keywords=goals
    Lukeprog noted a general lack of research on productivity in this post:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/3nn/scientific_selfhelp_the_state_of_our_knowledge/

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hadn’t seen that book, but that’s only got some of the story, same as the other books we mentioned.

      There isn’t a general lack of research on productivity. There’s a huge amount of literature on productivity. It is true there are missing pieces (for example, putting numbers to hour limits for different types of work and different types of people), but you would suffocate in a room full of papers written on productivity, no matter how large the room.

      • sarah (SHU) Says:

        Gretchen Rubin is apparently working on a book on habits/willpower for her next book. I would love to see her and LV team up!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Weird, given that a bestseller on habits and one on willpower just came out in the past couple years. But perhaps she’s applying them to happiness.


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