Book Review: Smarter, Faster, Better

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I’ve tracked my own personal productivity by one means or another since I was in my teens. I’m now 70. So, I’ve learned a lot along the way. But there’s always more to learn. I picked up Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business to learn more. I read Charles Duhigg’s book on habits when it came out, so I was prepared for something good. This book was better than Habits for me.

The introduction includes this quote, which will tell you everything you need to know about the purpose of the book:

“Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. It’s a process of learning how to succeed with less stress and struggle. It’s about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.”

I think the basic definition of productivity is good, but I also like the fact that Duhigg calls it “a process of learning.” That’s how it’s been in my life. Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about the book.

What’s in the book

After the introduction that sets out the basic purpose, Duhigg moves to eight chapters on key subjects. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Chapter one is titled “Motivation.” That’s probably not the most accurate title. I suggest you think of this chapter as about control. For the last couple of decades, we’ve been learning about how important it is for people to feel like they control their surroundings. This chapter will give you some ideas about how to feel more like you’re in control.

Chapter two is all about teams. There are two key examples here. One is the example of Saturday Night Live. The other, and the one that’s probably more meaningful for business people, is the results of Google’s research into what makes a successful team. The most important thing here for me is the discussion of psychological safety. Another thing which seems obvious once it’s stated, but which has not been at the forefront for most of my working life.

Duhigg titles chapter three “Focus.” He talks about cognitive tunneling and airline disasters. For me, the most interesting part was the discussion of mental models. Mental models have been a feature of a lot of thinking about productivity. You’ll find an excellent discussion of them in Anders Ericsson’s book Peak.

Chapter four is all about goal setting. I thought this was the weakest chapter of the book. There’s a lot about GE’s experience with goals and a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of SMART goals. The chapter missed the mark for me, I didn’t identify a takeaway that I could use. Duhigg’s appendix about how he learned to set goals helped, but not enough.

“Managing Others” is the title for chapter five. There’s a lot here about some changes in FBI culture that made it more possible for a team to solve a particular kidnapping. It was interesting and helpful. I’d use this chapter as a starting point to apply lean and agile thinking to managing a team. But I suggest that you go to Jeff Sutherland’s book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time for more details that you can use in your own life and work.

Chapter six is about decision-making, specifically about forecasting the future. The primary story is about learning to play poker at a professional level. It’s a good story, but the big learning point here is about what Duhigg calls Bayesian psychology. I learned it back in my college days as Bayesian inference. It’s a way to improve your forecast as you go. There are some great insights here about why so many of us are so bad at forecasting.

Duhigg says that chapter seven is about innovation. I guess it is, but for me it was more about how the entire creative process plays out and interacts with the way that individuals get a job done. The core story here is about creating Disney’s “Frozen. This chapter is mostly about the way we structure our human activities to create something new. If that’s innovation, so be it.

Now we come to chapter eight. Duhigg titled it “Absorbing Data: Turning Information into Knowledge in Cincinnati’s Public Schools.” That’s true as far as it goes.

There’s a belief that if we give people more data and information they can make their lives or their work better. That’s true, but as this chapter points out, that’s only true if people know how to use what they get. That becomes a matter of perception and process. There are two important bits of information in this chapter. The first is about how to structure data so that it’s most likely that people will be able to understand it and use it to make a difference. The second important idea is that process is important.

The chapter describes what Duhigg calls the engineering design process, but which I learned in college as simply the engineering process. It describes a structure for analyzing data and prototyping so that you come up with a good result. It’s as effective for analyzing new products as it is for figuring out how to fix a problem with the brakes on a car. It’s also the essence of what is now popularly called “design thinking.”

Bottom Line

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. Your best strategy might be to read the introduction then pick a chapter or two that you want to dig into. Later, you can come back and cover the stuff that you missed.


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