Smarter Faster Better - Critical summary review - Charles Duhigg

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Smarter Faster Better - critical summary review

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Corporate Culture & Communication, Management & Leadership and Productivity & Time Management

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0812983599

Publisher: Random House

Critical summary review

Most people think that productivity is about “working more or sweating harder.” As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth than that: rather than being simply “a product of spending longer hours at your desk or making bigger sacrifices,” productivity is “about making certain choices in certain ways.”

“Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg is a book about how to recognize these choices that fuel true productivity. It delves into the eight ideas that seem most important in expanding your efficiency and demonstrates how you can connect these ideas to become smarter, faster, and better at everything you do.

So, get ready to explore each of these eight ideas and prepare to learn how to separate yourself from the merely busy and become genuinely productive in this relentless and rapidly changing world of ours.

No. 1. Motivation

Located in your forebrain, the striatum is a cluster of neurons that coordinates multiple aspects of cognition, including reinforcement and reward perception. Fascinatingly enough, because of this, it is also directly responsible for your motivation as well: a couple of burst vessels inside it, and there’s a big chance that you might become apathetic and lose your drive or momentum altogether. 

Fortunately, in the absence of injury, you can always trick your striatum into cooperating. Studies have shown that the striatum lights up even when you’re playing boring games since its activity is often elicited by feelings of expectation and excitement, studies – such as guessing if a number is higher or lower than five – just because you have an option to choose. Your striatum wants you to be on top of things – and gives up on you when you’re strictly following orders. “Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control,” writes Duhigg. “The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going.” 

Well, use this knowledge to your advantage! To motivate yourself:

  • Make a choice that puts you in control. For example, if you have to reply to 40 emails, start by merely browsing them and choosing the few that you’re going to reply to first. Transforming a chore into a choice is the first step toward becoming motivated.
  • Make the first step to feel in charge. In the case of your emails, this would mean writing an initial sentence that expresses a blunt opinion or definite decision. It would be easier to keep going afterward.
  • Connect your tasks to something you care about. Explain to yourself why a certain boring task such as writing emails might matter: linking it to a meaningful future goal lights up your striatum because of the promised reward in the future. It will be much easier to start now.

No. 2. Teams

As any sports fan knows, the sum is often greater than its parts. In 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle embarked on a mission to discover why and, more importantly, when this is true. Two years later, they came out with the results.

They discovered that the most important factor that allows a team of average performers to accomplish exceptional results was “psychological safety.” Defined as “a shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks,” psychological safety engenders “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” In other words, in psychologically safe teams, members are encouraged to contribute because they are not scolded for making mistakes – and, thus, errors quickly evolve into portals of discovery that propel the whole team forward.

So, to create the perfect team:

  • Manage the how, not the who of teams. Psychological safety is all about the equality of opportunity: when every member of a team feels like they can play a part in a roughly equal measure, they are more motivated to contribute. 
  • Be empathic. To stimulate a psychologically safe atmosphere, as a leader, be sure to be sensitive toward the members of your team. Always think about the message your choices send. Don’t reward the loudest, but encourage equality by asking the silent to share their opinion. Reply to everyone’s questions and thoughts. React when someone is upset or flustered. Showcase sensitivity in a way that it becomes the norm – and others take it up.

No. 3. Focus

As far as we know, humans are the only species capable of imagining their future and making choices in the present based on such assumptions. Apparently, the same process helps us focus – something immensely important in a world where so many things compete for our attention. “We aid our focus by building mental models – telling ourselves stories – about what we expect to see,” writes Charles Duhigg. In other words, all those supposedly unpredictable distractions become less agitating when you picture them beforehand.

This is the reason why so many basketball players constantly imagine themselves in clutch situations on training: when the time for the decisive shot comes, they will be mentally ready to make it. Follow their lead if you want to stay focused:

  • Envision what will happen in advance. What will happen first? What distractions are likely to occur, and what are the potential obstacles? How do you intend to handle them? What is necessary for success. “Telling yourself a story about what you expect to occur makes it easier to decide where your focus should go when your plan encounters real life.”

No. 4. Goal setting

It’s cheesy, but it’s true: when you shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll probably land somewhere among the stars. Translation: if you want to lose 50 pounds (22,6 kg), it’s much better to aim a bit higher and set yourself on a track to lose 100 pounds (45 kg). That way, even if you don’t succeed – and, unfortunately, we rarely reach the summit – you’ll still have achieved an impressive result. However, setting an ambitious goal isn’t enough: you need to break it down into several milestones so that it forms a concrete step-by-step plan.

More specifically, whatever you do, you always need two kinds of aims:

  • Choose a stretch goal. This is “an ambition that reflects your biggest aspirations.” For example, writing a book.
  • Then, break your stretch goal into sub-goals and develop SMART objectives. SMART is an acronym that stands for five adjectives that, in turn, describe the perfect goal: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. In your case, since writing a book is a big goal, you need to make it much “smarter” or, more precisely:
  • Specific: “I’m going to write a book about the eight essential traits of productivity.”
  • Measurable: “I’m going to write 500 hundred words per day.”
  • Achievable: “I will be working each day for two hours.”
  • Realistic: “I will not check emails or answer phones during this period.”
  • Time-bound: “With this tempo, I should finish my first draft by September: I’ll call my agent to tell him that he will have a book by the end of the year.”

No. 5. Managing others

In an attempt to understand how one can create “an atmosphere of trust” within a company, in 1994, Stanford Business School professors James Baron and Michael Hannan started a study of almost 200 Silicon Valley startups. Eventually, they collected enough data to realize that, in terms of corporate culture, all companies belong to one of the following five categories:

  1. Star model. At these firms, employees are usually A-listers hired from elite universities who, unsurprisingly, because of their qualities, receive a lot of autonomy.
  2. Engineering model. Inside “engineering firms,” there aren’t really any stars but groups of engineers (say, a bunch of anonymous programmers) solving technical problems and constantly proving their worth.
  3. Bureaucratic model. These companies are built around strict rules and hierarchies that need to be followed.
  4. Autocratic model. Similar to the bureaucratic business, autocratic firms are more centralized: all the rules and responsibilities in them revolve around the wishes and needs of the CEO.
  5. Commitment model. Unlike their autocratic counterparts, commitment CEOs say things like, “I want to build the kind of company where people only leave when they retire or die.” So, they are a throwback to the more traditional culture that prioritized, for centuries, slow and steady growth while encouraging employee contribution and lifelong loyalty.

However, Baron and Hannan didn’t stop with categorizing: they also wanted to see which of these models is empirically best. They discovered two things: first, that, when they work, star companies work far better than the rest; and second, that commitment companies always work. Surprisingly, they were the clear and consistent winner: not one commitment culture went bankrupt, and, on average, they were the fastest to go public. Most importantly, on the whole, they were the ones that maintain the highest profitability ratios.

So, if you want to manage others productively:

  • Try to build a commitment culture. This means building a culture of trust and loyalty – rather than one of stars, bureaucracy, or anonymity.
  • Practice lean and agile management. The more decision-making authority employees have, the smarter and better they work. These two styles of management have proven best in unlocking the hidden potential of employees and encouraging them to contribute.

No. 6. Decision making

Merely setting SMART objectives and developing a mental model to stay focused isn’t enough: you need to hone your decision-making process so that you know when to say “yes” to opportunities and when to decline them. 

For example, while Duhigg was writing “Smarter Faster Better,” a production company offered him to develop a TV show. To make a decision, he wrote out a few potential futures of what might happen if he agreed – everything from the show ruining his life while going nowhere to the show becoming a hit despite modest amounts of work. However, since he didn’t know how to evaluate and compare these futures, he started calling friends and asking them about their experiences. Then, he assigned each scenario a rough probability and went on from there.

Do something similar whenever faced with a difficult decision:

  • Envision multiple futures. Just by imagining various, contradictory possibilities, you equip yourself better to make wiser choices.
  • Try to find someone with similar experiences. You’ll know better which of the possible futures is most likely to occur if you ask around for other people’s ideas, perspectives, and experiences. “By finding information and then letting ourselves sit with it,” writes Duhigg, “options become clearer.”

No. 7. Innovation

In 2013, Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones, of Northwestern University, published their findings from a big data experiment that, with the help of a computer algorithm, evaluated the nature and originality of about 17.9 million scientific papers. They discovered that, on average, 90% of what was in “the most creative manuscripts” had already been published elsewhere. “Combinations of existing material are centerpieces in theories of creativity, whether in the arts, the sciences, or commercial innovation,” they wrote in the journal Science in 2013. “The building blocks of new ideas are often embodied in existing knowledge.”

Keep that in mind to be more innovative:

  • Be sensitive to your own experiences. Study your own emotional reactions to all kinds of events: this is how people distinguish clichés from real insights.
  • Embrace creative desperation. Stress and anxiety aren’t a sign that everything is falling apart, but what usually pushes people into seeing old ideas in a new way.
  • Be self-critical. Retain clear eyes by looking at everything from different perspectives: sometimes, creative breakthrough blind us to better alternatives.
  • If you are a leader, hire innovation brokers. Innovation brokers are, essentially, intellectual middlemen, i.e., people capable of transferring knowledge between different groups or settings.

No. 8. Absorbing data

Thanks to the internet, we absorb dramatically more data today than ever before. However, this doesn’t mean that we know how to use it; in fact, most of us are informationally blind, that is to say – unable to take advantage of data as it becomes more plentiful. The best way to overcome this obstacle – and learn to absorb data better – is to:

  • Force yourself to do something with the data. Turn it into a graph or a drawing, translate it into a note on the margin, or explain it out loud to yourself or a friend. “Every choice we make in life is an experiment,” writes Duhigg. “The trick is getting ourselves to see the data embedded in those decisions, and then to use it somehow so we learn from it.”

Final Notes

Charles Duhigg is an excellent storyteller, and “Smarter Faster Better” is best when he recounts the case studies related to his research. However, in our opinion, the book relies too much on these stories to be truthful: anecdotes are no arguments, and are persuasive for all the wrong reasons.

That being said, we don’t see a reason why you shouldn’t read it: it’s pleasurable, engaging, memorable – and, who knows, maybe even useful.

12min Tip

Whenever faced with a boring task, turn it into a choice, and, if necessary, visualize the different outcomes in advance: this will boost both your motivation and decision-making ability.

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Who wrote the book?

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and a bestselling writer of nonfiction. A longtime reporter for The New York Times, he is best known as the author of “The Power of Habit” and “S... (Read more)

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