Smarter, Faster, Better: Charles Duhigg

Categories: Others


Have you ever had the perception that you are not as productive as others or how a colleague manages to get everything done despite all the interests he/she has? if you have, then Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg is the book you should read.

Duhigg connects productivity to 6 areas: Motivation, Focus, Goal Setting, Teams, Managing others, Decision making, Innovation and Adsorbing data.


Core concept here is: Internal locus of control (i.e.: the outcomes of our actions are results of our own abilities). People with internal locus of control think that results are a products of their own actions and decisions. Opposed to internal locus of control is external locus of control (successes or failures result from external factors beyond our control, e.g.: luck).

  1. for small tasks: try to make the first step as soon as possible. At first it doesn’t have to be perfect but this is crucial to get started. Example (that Charles makes on his book): you get a meeting invitation but you know it’ll be long and boring so you wait before accepting … what do you do? hit the reply button and without thinking reply that you can attend but you have to leave after 30 min. It’s not perfect and it’s not the final version but it’ll help you to get going and (more importantly) to be in charge of the decision.
  2. for bigger tasks: “Self motivation becomes easier when we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals“. In short: why this task is so important? To facilitate the discovery of the inner value I believe the 5 why analysis technique can help.

to sum up: make choices that put you in control and link your task to something you care about.


Cognitive Tunnelling is a mental state that make the brain to focus on one thing (and get stuck with it). I’m sure this happened to you at least once, you got stuck with a problem and got unstuck after you changed context or if someone had a look at the same problem with external eyes. How to overcome this?

Charles suggest to create mental models: what we expect to happen. He, for example, suggests to spend some time on Sunday to imagine what the next week looks like. Pick all the tasks you want to get done and for each answer a set of questions:

  1. What will happen first?
  2. What distraction will most likely occur?
  3. How will you handle the distraction?
  4. How will you know you’ve succeed?
  5. What is necessary to succeed?
  6. What will you do next?

so that when/if they occur for a task it’s easier to decide whether the distraction can be ignored or instead deserve attention.

Goal Setting

Setting SMART goals is a necessary condition but not sufficient. For each task we need to set a stretch goal too. A stretch goal is an ambition that reflect the biggest aspiration, for example:

  1. Stretch goal: Run a Marathon
  2. Specific: run 7 miles without stop
  3. Measurable: twice around the park, no walking
  4. Achievable: Yes, if you run three times a week
  5. Realistic: Yes, if I wake up at 6:30am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  6. Timeline: Month 1: 3 miles this week, 4 miles next week, … Month 2: etc ..

make a list of tasks you want to get done the week ahead and for each and create the Stretch+SMART goals. Also for each create a mental model (previous paragraph).


To make a team more effective try to establish a sense of psychological safety. Two general principles:

  1. Everyone feels like they can speak
  2. Members show they are sensitive to how one another feel.

the concrete tactics a team (and leaders) can adopt are many, for example:

  1. listening by summarising what people say after they speak.
  2. they should admit what they do not know.
  3. they should not end a meeting until all team members have spoken
  4. they should encourage people who are upset to express their feelings, frustrations etc (encouraging team mates to respond in non judgemental way).
  5. Resolve conflicts in open discussions.

a complete list is here: How to foster Psychological Safety on your teams. I also suggest this post.

Managing Others

This chapter is about Managing Others productively. For this reason the author talks about Lean, Agile and culture of trust. In a nutshell, to mange other productively:

  1. Agile and Lean help to move the decision making authority toward the team.
  2. Pushing decision making as close as possible to the problem. This take advantages of everyone’s expertise and promote innovation.

Absorbing Data

The key points to lean a concept effectively:

  1. write down a note about what you just leant
  2. try to figure out how to test or experiment with the new data/info
  3. explain it to a friend or colleague.


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