Review: “Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg

Readers of this blog know that I’m a productivity junkie. (Oxymoronic words to be sure).

I am—like you perhaps—always looking for ways to get smarter, faster, better. So, when Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit, writes a book with that aspiration as its title, I’m in. Cover to cover. And having just finished it, I didn’t regret reading one page.

Review: Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (2016, Random House) has a different feel than his earlier work, The Power of Habit (read my review). Both are written with the deep reporting insights you might expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist. But in Smarter Faster Better, Duhigg weaves deeper, more compelling narratives to illustrate his points. Where the The Power of Habit, was tightly focused on habit formation, this work covered a wider ground of productivity topics, making it more of a potpourri of productivity insights rather than a progressive treatment on the science of self-improvement.

Chapter One explores motivation; what gets us going and keeps us going. Duhigg points out that “motivation is more like a skill…that can be learned and honed.” You don’t need to wait to get motivated. Simply starting something—anything— will reignite within you a “internal locus of control” that can get you moving in other areas too.

Chapter Two discusses teams, drawing upon anecdotes from workgroups at Google and Saturday Night Live to illustrate the power of getting more accomplished when “everyone feels like they can speak up and when member show they are sensitive to how another feels.”

Chapter Three covers a vital topic in a distracted age—focus. But more focus is not always a good thing. Duhigg tells a frightening story about how cognitive tunneling—our ability to over focus—contributed to the plight of Air France 447. The key to developing the right kind of focus, it turns out, is to create a mental model of what you are trying to achieve.

Chapter Four’s topic is ground zero for productivity: goal setting. Duhigg summarizes what we know about SMART goals and stretch goals and reminds us, importantly, that “the desire to get something done, to be decisive, can also be a weakness.”

In Chapter Five Duhigg weaves two seemingly disparate stories—an FBI kidnapping investigation and an automobile plant restart—to demonstrate how lean management and agile methods can inspire higher employee engagement and innovation.

Chapter Six explores the techniques of top poker players to reveal the secret to good decision making. “How do we learn to make better decisions?” Duhigg asks. “In part, by training ourselves to think probabilistically.”

Chapter Seven goes behinds the scenes at Disney to show how creative desperation transformed what was sure to be a disaster into the hit movie Frozen. Innovation and creativity is an “import-export” business and the most successful companies have strong “innovation brokers” to spread ideas around.

Finally, Chapter Eight confronts the challenges of data proliferation and suggests how to absorb data. It’s just not enough to look at it. We need engage with it—to create a “disfluency” that forces us to absorb its meaning. Duhigg writes, “Those who are most successful at learning…know that the best lessons are those that force us to do something and to manipulate information.” (This post is my way of applying this lesson to this book’s data.)

At nearly 300 pages, including a helpful Reader’s Guide appendix, Smarter Faster Better presents solid productivity principles in an engaging way. It’s not a formalistic how-to book nor is it academic survey of performance psychology research, though there are over 70 pages of notes at the back for those so inclined. Rather, Smarter Faster Better, is for the reader wanting to envision, through the stories of others, how these principles can be applied to their own lives.

And you don’t need to be a productivity junkie like me to appreciate it.

Comment below: If you’ve read this book, what are your impressions?


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