Smarter, Faster, Better: The transformational power of real productivity by Charles Duhigg (Book Summary)

Jun 29, 2022

In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg describes eight key concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—through the rich storytelling of why some people and companies get so much done.  

I found the book very engaging as the author explains concepts from neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics through the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters.

By the end of the book, I understood how the most productive people, companies, and organizations view the world and their choices and take actions in profoundly different ways.

Productivity emerges when people push themselves to think differently. 

  • Be clear on your “why” and deeper values and break big aspirations down into realistic steps
  •  Visualize the day/week/month ahead and set SMART goals to make focused decisions that affirm your “why” and align with your future forecasts
  •  Learn and use new information by connecting it to old ideas, applying it to personal experiences, teaching it to others, and being open to others challenging that information
  •  Foster a motivating culture of equality, empathy, autonomy, and trust by actively listening, supporting all ideas, empowering others’ decisions, asking for feedback, and encouraging friendly debate

The Big Ideas

  1. Motivation:  To improve motivation, you must believe you have autonomy over your actions and surroundings. Making choices that affirm your deeper values and goals improves your motivation.
  2. Teams: To improve team culture, build psychological safety through group norms of equality and empathy
  3. Focus: To improve focus, narrate future experiences so you are prepared when your mental model encounters real life, and you can direct your attention instead of just reacting.
  4. Goal Setting: To improve goal setting, break big aspirations (stretch goals) into realistic steps (SMART goals).
  5. Managing Others: To improve managing others, create a culture of commitment and trust by decentralizing decision-making (giving more autonomy)  
  6. Decision Making: To improve decision-making and intuition, forecast a spectrum of future scenarios, and use probability to logically decide.
  7. Innovation: To improve innovation, connect old ideas in new ways through the lens of your personal experiences and allow intermediate disturbance to mix things up.
  8. Absorbing Data: To improve learning, use the information and make it stick through friction.

Motivation

Make choices connected to your “why”

  • Motivation becomes easier when we transform a chore into a choice, and we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals
  • People with a strong locus of control believe that their choices determine their rate of success or failure. As such, they are more likely to work harder and more likely to have a growth mindset.
  • To improve motivation, make a choice that puts you in control and figure out how it is connected to your deeper values and goals. If you are struggling with starting a task, start small and take the time to ask yourself “why.”
    • Application: When unmotivated to workout, simply chose when you plan to work out and remember how exercise supports your physical and mental well-being

Teams and Managing Others

Build physiological safety via equality and empathy, create a culture of commitment and trust by giving more autonomy

  • Group norms play a critical role in the success of a team. It matters more how a team is managed than who is on the team. The five key norms that make teams great:
  1. Teams need to believe their work matters
  2. Teams need to find work as being personally meaningful
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles
  4. Teams need to know they can depend on each other
  5. Teams need psychological safety
  • The most critical determinant for team effectiveness is the idea of psychological safety which emerges when everyone feels like they can speak in roughly the equal measure and when teammates show they are sensitive to how each other feels. Team members need to know that they can be heard without repercussions.
  • Lean and agile management techniques tell us employees work smarter and better they have more decision-making authority, their suggestions won’t be ignored, their mistakes won’t be held against them, and that everyone else is invested in their success.
  • Decentralizing decisions and giving more autonomy to whoever is closest to a problem utilizes everyone’s expertise, unlocks innovation, and inspires and motivates 
  • Application: If you are leading or participating in a team, encourage equality in speaking, reflectively listen and ask questions, demonstrate sensitivity when someone is upset, and give other team members autonomy.

Focus & Decision Making

To improve focus, narrate future experiences so you are prepared when your mental model encounters real life, and you can direct your attention instead of just reacting.

  • The brain’s attention span is like a spotlight that can go wide/diffused or tight/focused, and changes as we toggle between relaxation and concentration. Cognitive tunneling happens when we are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed to focused, and the brain will instinctively focus on the most obvious stimuli, which often puts our attention on the wrong things and distracted decisions.
  • Building mental models, telling ourselves stories about what we expect to see, and narrating our own experiences build a scaffold for the torrent of information that constantly surrounds us. This makes it easier to decide where your focus should go when your plan encounters real life, and we can direct our attention instead of just reacting.
    • Envision what you expect to happen: What will happen first? What distractions are likely to arise and how will you handle them? How will you know you’ve succeeded? What is necessary for success? What will you do next?
  • Make better decisions by envisioning multiple futures and figuring out which ones are more likely and why. We can make wiser choices by seeking out different experiences and perspectives, envisioning contradictory scenarios, and using probability to forecast which future is more likely.
  • Application: Let’s use reading this book as an example. I envision various future scenarios ranging from disliking this book, finding it unhelpful, enjoying it but forgetting the information, and taking notes and implementing the information. Based on the outcome of those scenarios, I decide to write a blog post about the book. When I envision writing this blog post, I know I will start by reviewing the tagged quotes and writing a summary of each concept. I will likely get distracted by my phone, email, and social media. To avoid this, I will turn notifications off, turn on app blockers, and keep my phone in a different room. I will succeed when I’ve posted a complete review and summary of the book and I will likely need 3-4 hours to complete this. Once this is completed, I will add the core concepts to a section of my presentation on preventing burnout and reducing stress through improving work habits

Goal Setting

Break big aspirations into realistic steps

  • Stretch goals paired with SMART thinking can help you put the impossible within reach
  • Stretch goals: spark big ambition, aspirational, feels out of reach and you have no idea how to achieve it
  • SMART goals: help you form a concrete, realistic plan
    •  Specific: make your goals clear and well-defined
    •  Measurable: define what "mission accomplished” is
    •  Achievable: define what resources (money, free time, energy) are necessary to achieve it
    •  Relevant: how is this aligned with a stretch goal and your deeper “why”
    •  Timed: set clear time-limits and deadlines for achieving each goal and subgoal
  • Write more effective to-do lists by writing your stretch goal at the top and then the SMART components under each subgoal
  • Application: My stretch goal is to help as many people as possible lead better lives. I have many subgoals on this, one of which is to learn more about productivity. Reading and processing this book is a subgoal of that. My SMART goal for this book was to study and practice the concepts in this book, measured by writing a summary blog post, using 3-4 hours of my time, and to complete it within one week of finishing the book. At the top of this goal, I write my “why,” which is to help people lead better lives

Innovation

Connect old ideas in new ways through the lens of your personal experiences and allow intermediate disturbance to mix things up

  • Creativity is just problem solving, connecting things in different ways, and  combining old ideas in new ways
  • Pay attention to your own experiences and emotional reactions, and think more about your experiences than other people to notice creative connections
  • Intermediate disturbances promote innovation: When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so that alternatives can’t prosper, and spark creativity by disturbing things just enough to let some light through (friendly debate, outside ideas, criticism)
  • The creative process can be broken down and explained, thus anyone can be more creative
  • Application: Observing my own life as a dentist, yoga teacher, and wellness coach, I have creative solutions to reducing stress and improving lifestyle, and these ideas grow more creative when I keep an open mind to criticism

Absorbing Data

Use new information ASAP

  •  When we encounter new information, we should force ourselves to do something with it immediately: write notes explaining what you just learned, test an idea, draw/graph it, or teach it to a friend
  •  Every choice we make in life is an experiment, the trick is getting ourselves to see the data embedded in those decisions, and then use it to somehow learn from it
  •  Application: While I was reading this book, I tagged important lines. After completing it, I took notes and then tried to connect different concepts together, applying them to my own life. 

Conclusion

  •  The overall lesson is that productivity emerges when people push themselves to think differently. 
  •  Be clear on your “why” and deeper values and break big aspirations down into realistic steps
  •  Visualize the day/week/month ahead and set SMART goals to make focused decisions that affirm your “why” and align with your future forecasts
  •  Learn and use new information by connecting it to old ideas, applying it to personal experiences, teaching it to others, and being open to others challenging that information
  •  Foster a motivating culture of equality, empathy, autonomy, and trust by actively listening, supporting all ideas, empowering others’ decisions, asking for feedback, and encouraging friendly debate

If you enjoyed this post and want to read more about optimizing well-being, check out some of my other posts!

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