Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg


Productive people and companies force themselves to make choices that most other people are content to ignore. Productivity emerges when people push themselves to think differently.

  • Examines the science of productivity and how individuals and organizations can improve their performance.
  • Topics include motivation, decision making, teamwork, and goal setting, and provides practical strategies for increasing productivity and achieving goals.
  • Draws on research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to explain why some people and organizations are more productive than others, and offers insights into how to overcome common obstacles to productivity.

Key Concepts

To boost motivation

  • Transform a chore into a choice, make a choice that puts you in control.
    • Train yourself to take the first step and assert control, the specific choice itself is less important in sparking motivation than the assertion of control
  • Figure out how this task connects to something you care about
    • Explain why this chore will help you get closer to a meaningful goal, explain why it matters and that’ll make it easier to start.

To make teams more effective

  • Psychological safety is important
    • can lead to an average team outperforming one consisting of higher individual contributors
    • emerges when people feel like they can speak in equal measure and when teammates show they’re sensitive to how each other feel
  • Think about what message your choices send
    • Are you encouraging equality in speaking? or rewarding the loudest people?
    • Are you modeling listening, demonstrating a sensitivity to what people think and feel? Or are you letting decisive leadership be an excuse for not paying as close attention as you should?
  • Give others control, share control by
    • genuinely listening by repeating what someone just said
    • responding to their comments
    • showing we care when someone seems upset or flustered rather than acting if nothing is wrong

To manage others productively

  • Lean and Agile methodologies tell us employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision making authority and they believe their colleagues are committed to their success
  • By pushing decision making to whoever is closest to a problem, managers take advantage of everyones expertise and unlock innovation
  • 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 won’t be held against them

To encourage innovation

  1. Be sensitive to your own experiences
    • Pay attention to how things make you think and feel, that’s how we distinguish clichés from true insights.
    • Look to your own experiences as creative fodder, and broker your own experiences into the wider world.
  2. Embrace creative desperation
    • Recognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart, rather it’s the condition that helps make us flexible enough to see something new.
    • Creative desperation can be critical, anxiety is what often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. The path out of that turmoil is to look at what you know, re-inspect conventions you’ve seen work, and try to apply them to fresh problems.
    • The creative pain should be embraced
  3. Maintain critical distance
    • Remember that the relief accompanying a creative breakthrough – while sweet – can also blind us to seeing alternatives. It is critical to maintain some distance from what we create, without self criticism
    • Without tension, one idea can quickly crowd out competitors. But we can regain that critical distance by forcing ourselves to critique what we’ve already done, by making ourselves look at it from a completely different perspective, by changing the power dynamics in the room, or giving new authority to someone who didn’t have it before.
    • Disturbances are essential, and we retain clear eyes by embracing destruction and upheaval, as long as we’re sensitive to making the disturbance the right size.

To absorb data better

  • Engage with new information – do something with the data.
    • Write yourself a note of what you just learned
    • Graph data points on a piece of paper
    • Explain the idea to a friend
  • Every choice we make in life is an experiment the trick is getting ourselves seeing the data embedded in those decisions and to use it somehow so we learn from it


  • Bayesian Cognition or Bayesian Psychology – the brain is a “probabilistic inference machine” that uses prior knowledge and new data to make predictions and update beliefs
  • Bayes’ Rule – core principle is that even when we have little data we can forecast the future by making assumptions and skew them based on what we observe about the world. As more information comes in, the probabilities are further refined.
  • Cognitive Tunneling – A mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention. First instinct is to focus on the most obvious stimuli in front of you, even when it’s not the best choice. Causes us to be preoccupied with immediate tasks.
  • Engineering Design process – a methodical approach to problem solving. A series of steps that engineers follow when they’re trying to solve a problem and design a solution for something. Built around the idea that many problems that seem overwhelming at first can be broken into smaller pieces, and then solutions tested – again and again – until an insight emerges.
  • External Locus of Control –  perception of events being outside of ones control
  • Internal Locus of Control – a sense of control over one destiny. For example, attributing good grades to hard work instead of natural ability
  • Mental Models – simplified representations of reality that help individuals process information and make decisions
  • Psychological Safety – the belief that team members have equal voices and that honest discussion can occur without retribution
  • Reactive Thinking – a cognitive process in which the brain triggers an instinctive, automatic reaction to a stimulus or event. It can cause your focus to be diverted from its most productive path and make it difficult to stay on task. Lies at the core of how we allocate our attention, usually a tremendous asset.

Personal Notes

This book is why I created this Book Summaries section of my site, I’m trying to take the “Engage with new information” idea to heart. By taking notes, summarizing, and posting here, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to recall and more effectively utilize what I learn from the nonfiction books I choose to read.

Did you enjoy this summary of Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg?

I'd highly recommend buying the book!

Get a conversation started on LinkedIn or Twitter