"Smarter Faster Better" by Charles Duhigg

Book Summary:

Smarter Faster Better” examines eight key productivity concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done.

Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this painstakingly researched book explains that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently.

Author Charles Duhigg.

Author Charles Duhigg.

Author Bio:

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and the author of “The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better.” He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.



1) To become more motivated, make the task a choice not a chore

The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.
— Page 19

Charles Duhigg writes that motivation is more like a skill, such as writing, that can be learned and honed. An important lesson to learn is that taking control of the task and making it a choice instead of a chore, will increase your level of motivation to get it done.

Duhigg writes that “When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster” (pg 19).

One of the best ways to prove that we are in control is by making decisions. Each choice reinforces our perception of control and self-efficacy. Interesting, even if making a decision delivers no benefit, people still want the freedom to choose what they do.

Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate (to ourselves) that we are in control–and that we are moving toward goals that are meaningful. It’s that feeling of self-determination that gets us going.
— Page 273

In a study by the Marine Corps, researchers found that “the most successful marines were those with a strong ‘internal locus of control’–a belief they could influence their destiny through the choices they made” (pg 23).

The author goes on to say that people with an internal locus of control tend to assign responsibility for themselves, not to things outside their influence. For example, if a student with a high internal locus of control fails a test, he’ll think “I need to study harder” instead of thinking “This teacher is horrible.”

Internal locus of control has also been linked with “academic success, higher self-motivation, and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depressions, and longer lifespan” (pg 23).

So what does this all mean?

It means you should think of ways to take control over a difficult task and take responsibility instead of doing nothing or putting the blame on outside influences.

Duhigg gives an example of when his email inbox was filled with a ton of messages, which caused him to feel overwhelmed and resulted in him procrastinating on the task. So what did he do?

He took control. He made the choice to reply to each email with just one sentence. That’s it. When he took control, he felt more motivated and the task of replying became easier and he finished his work in thirty-five minutes.

Figure out how this task is connected to something you care about. Explain to yourself why this chore will help you get closer to a meaningful goal. Explain why this matter–and then, you’ll find it easier to start.
— Page 274

2) Use Both Stretch and SMART Goals

SMART goals often unlock a potential that people don’t even realize they possess. The reason in part is because goal-setting processes like the SMART system force people to translate vague aspirations into concrete plans.
— Page 118

SMART goals, also known as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound, actually work. Duhigg found that “Some 400 laboratory and field studies [show] that specific, high goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ‘do one’s best’” (pg 118).

Having the good intentions of completing a goal is good, but coming up with a timeline and a way to measure success is even better.

SMART goals work best when paired with stretch goals that are often unclear and large. Stretch goals can spark innovation, writes Duhigg, but it can also cause panic or convince people that the goal is too big.

Here are a few common stretch goals: writing a book, creating a website, learning to play the guitar. These stretch goals are both exciting and frightening.

That is why it needs to be paired with a SMART system. “Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach” (pg 127).

For example, let’s say you want to run a marathon. Here is how the stretch and SMART goals would look like:

  • Stretch goal: Run a marathon

  • What is a specific subgoal: Run 10 miles without stopping

  • How will you measure success: Finish the run without walking

  • Is this achievable: Yes, if I run 3 times a week

  • Is this realistic: Yes, If I wake up early on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays

  • What is the timeline: Run 3 miles this week, 4 miles next week, 5 miles...

Duhigg writes that the most important thing to take away is that people need to have a large ambitious goal and a system for figuring out how to make it into a concrete and realistic plan. By breaking a large goal into subgoals, a person can check off smaller tasks and see progress as they get one step closer to reaching their final goal.

3) Write Things Down To Better Absorb Information

When we encounter new information, we should force ourselves to do something with it. Write yourself a note explaining what you just learned...the trick is getting ourselves to see the data embedded in those decisions, and then to use it somehow so we learn from it.
— Page 283

Duhigg writes about a 2014 published study with researchers from Princeton and UCLA that looked at the relationship between learning and disfluency by looking at the difference between students who took notes by hand while watching a lecture and those who used laptops.

The researchers found that taking notes by hand was both harder and less efficient than typing on a keyboard. Longhand is slower and hands are more likely to cramp up. Students that used laptops, however, spent less time taking notes, and yet they still collected about twice as many notes.

However, and this is a BIG however, when the researchers looked at test scores of the two groups, they found that the hand writers scored twice as well as the laptop note takers.

The research group was skeptical of the results and conducted similar experiments several times. But the answer remained the same.

“The students who forced themselves to use a more cumbersome note-taking method–who forced disfluency into how they processed information–learned more.” (pg 265). This is a useful lesson to remember for all aspects of learning in life.

Duhigg says that if a person wants to lose weight, instead of just stepping on a scale and having your weight sent to an app, physically write down your weight each day and plot it on a graph to track progress. Similarly, if you’re reading a book, write down notes in the book or on a post-it.

When you find a new piece of information, force yourself to engage with it, to use it in an experiment or describe it to a friend–and then you will start building the mental folders that are at the core of learning.
— Page 266


Smarter Faster Better” is a book for readers who really want to know the science behind being productive. The author is an NYT reporter and writes about several scientific studies and stories based on other people’s experiences.

For that reason, readers may feel disconnected from the author because he doesn’t give much insight into how he uses the lessons learned from this book, except in the very last chapter. That’s not a knockdown, I’m simply saying if you’re looking for a personal story or journey, you might want to read “The Productivity Project.

However, if you do like scientific studies with real science to back up lessons instead of personal experiences, then I recommend reading this book. Regardless of which book you choose to read, both will make you more productive!

Rating: 4/5 stars

If you’re interested in reading the book, click here or on the image below!

For literally 5 bucks and a few hours of time, a book will give you an enormous amount of valuable information that can help you in life. It’s practically highway-robbery. So take advantage of this and read as much as you can.

If you want to check out my list of recommended books, you can find that here.

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