« Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

May 20, 2018 • 4 min read

Book Review

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In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg tries to solve the science of productivity for individuals and teams. It’s a great follow up to Cal Newport’s Deep Work, and if you’re a productivity nerd like me, this book will appeal to you every single bit as well. In addition, Charles Duhigg is one of my favorite authors, and I recommend this one as much as his other book The Power of Habit that I reviewed earlier this year.

There are 8 big ideas in the book, and Charles is a master at tackling them one by one with engaging stories spun around them. Here are my brief takeaways:


Motivation

Motivation is a product of having an internal locus of choice — in very simple terms, it means that to generate motivation, make a choice that puts you in control. If you can train yourself to take the first step by doing something that makes you feel in charge, it’s easier to keep going. But this in itself may not be enough. Self-motivation becomes easier when we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals. So to motivate yourself to go through a task you’ve been putting off for a while, write down why it is important to get it done — where does it fit in the grand scheme of things? Explain why it matters, and you’ll find it much easier to get started.


Focus

One of the top ways to aid focus is by telling ourselves stories ahead of time about what we expect to happen. Before you start doing anything, visualize what’s going to happen over the course of time: What will happen first? What distractions are likely to occur? How will you handle that distraction? How will you know you’ve succeeded? What is necessary for success? What will you do next? Telling yourself a story about what you expect to occur makes it easier to stay on track when life inevitably gets in your way.


Goal Setting

The big takeaway from this section was that you need to have two kinds of goals:

  • A stretch goal, something that sparks big ambitions.
  • A SMART goal, to help you formulate a concrete plan. SMART expands to Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timeline.

You would ideally break down a stretch goal into multiple subgoals, and develop SMART objectives to tackle them all. To give an example, here’s how I would formulate goals for writing these book reviews:

Stretch: Write 50 book reviews in 2018 🤯
Specific: Revisit one book each week and review it 🤓
Measurable: A book review must be up at 8 am every Sunday 🙄
Achievable: Clear out two hours each Saturday 😬
Realistic: Use scheduled time to write a review for next Sunday 😎
Timeline: Set a calendar reminder for 1-3 PM for Saturdays to write the next Sunday's review. Have one review buffered and ready to go via Medium's scheduled publishing at all times 😇

Decision Making

How do you make good decisions? By envisioning multiple futures, and then forcing yourself to figure out which ones are most likely, and why? In short, before you make a decision, force yourself to walk down the Bayesian decision tree:

  • list down all the possible outcomes,
  • assign probabilities to each outcome,
  • gather more data by seeking out different experiences, perspectives, and other people’s ideas to assign a utility value to each outcome.

Going through this process will make your options clearer and make you better equipped to make wiser choices.


Teams

To make teams more effective, focus on nurturing psychological safety within the team. Psychological safety emerges when everyone feels like they can speak in roughly equal measures and when teammates show they are sensitive to how each other feels. If you’re leading the team, think about the message your choices and actions reveal:

  • encourage equality in speaking
  • show you’re listening what people say by repeating them and replying to their questions and thoughts
  • react when someone seems upset or flustered
  • showcase senstivity so that others may follow your lead

Managing others

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. A sense of control can fuel motivation, but for that drive to produce insights and solutions, people need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored and their mistakes wouldn’t be held against them.

The Toyota production system, and the lean and agile management techniques that sprung out of the same school of thought fully imbibe and nurture these values. By pushing decision making to whoever is closest to the problem, you take advantage of everyone’s expertise and unlock innovation.


Innovation

Creativity often emerges by combining old ideas in new ways. To become an innovation broker within your organization, remember the following:

  • Creative desperation is often critical for innovation to emerge. Just the right amount of anxiety can often push people to see old ideas in new ways.
  • Study your own emotional reactions. Be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you feel. Does it move you? This will help you distinguish clichés from real insights.
  • Don’t let creative breakthroughs make you blind to alternatives. Force yourself to critique what’s already done, look at it from different pespectives, and give authority to someone who didn’t have it before.

Absorbing Data

To absorb new information better, force yourself to do something with it. It will slow you down, but has a huge payoff in terms of retention.

When you learn something new, write yourself a note explaining what you just learned. Force yourself to explain it to a friend. If you encountered new data, graph it on a piece of paper. Force yourself to create index cards with key metrics that you want to improve.

We have a torrent of data being dumped on us each day — by going through this process, we separate what’s important from what’s not, and file them in the appropriate mental cabinets.

When information is made disfluent, we learn more.


This concludes my review of Smarter, Faster, Better. If these ideas clicked with you and you want to dive deeper, here’s the Amazon Smile link.

This is #19 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.

Chicago Athletic Association Hotel has a wonderful café tucked in on the second floor
Chicago Athletic Association Hotel has a wonderful café tucked in on the second floor