BOOK REVIEW: Work smarter, faster and better

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

AUTHOR Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times. He has put together some very compelling ideas about how to work smarter, faster and better.

To improve productivity at both the individual and the corporate level, Duhigg cites eight critical issues: motivation, teams, focus, goal-setting, managing others, decision-making, innovation and absorbing data. What follows are central ideas from four of these topics.


“Motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed,” Duhigg explains. Central to this skill is the belief that we have control over our actions and even our situations. When people take the position that they are in control, they work significantly harder. It is the feeling of having no control that, among other things, saps motivation.

General Charles Krulak, the commandant of the Marines, introduced this concept as a key to teaching recruits self-motivation. His task was to get trainees to take control of their own choices: “Today we call it teaching ‘a bias toward action'," he told Duhigg. The final challenge at the end of a Marine boot camp is the gruelling three-day ‘Crucible’, ending with the ‘Reaper’, the most difficult part of an inconceivably hard challenge.

Recruits are advised by their drill instructors to ask each other why they are doing this task, when they feel they cannot go on. If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier. The ‘why’ could be answered - “To become a Marine and build a better life for my family.”

Making a chore into a meaningful decision leads to self-motivation.


Studies of teams by Amy Edmondson found that good team norms seemed to be consistently associated with higher productivity. If, for example, making a mistake is held against you, team members are reluctant to report mistakes. People feel more willing to admit to errors if the manager goes to bat for her people.

“We call it ‘psychological safety'," Edmondson explains. Psychological safety is a “shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks”.

Psychological safety is the confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, in which people are comfortable being themselves,” she explains.

The challenge is to get the benefits of teams by creating psychological safety without losing the capacity for dissent and debate. It requires the leader to model listening and social sensitivity, and insist that each person in the group is given a voice.

Leaders should demonstrate they are listening by summarising what people say after they said it. No meeting should end until all team members have spoken at least once. People who are upset should be encouraged to express their frustrations, and teammates encouraged to respond in non-judgemental ways. Intergroup conflicts should be resolved by the leader through open discussion.


How do people and organisations manage their focus? With the plethora of stimuli there is so much to distract one. To illustrate how one key aspect of focus works, Duhigg describes how one nurse can glance at a baby in a crib and see the need to call the emergency team, while another does not see the danger signs.

High-level professionals, he explains, hold a picture in their minds of what they expect to see - a healthy baby. A glance alone could indicate that the image isn’t being matched.

In the world of work the most productive workers, similarly, hold a picture of their expectations. They can be as small as trying to envision a coming meeting while driving to work, or how a task is to be done.

“If you want to make yourself more sensitive to the small details in your work, cultivate a habit of imagining, as specifically as possible, what you expect to see and do when you get to your desk,” Duhigg explains. To increase focus and avoid distractions, take a moment to visualise, with as much detail as possible, what you are about to do. Experiments indicate that anyone can learn to habitually construct these mental models.
Absorb data

The ability to absorb data better is becoming an ever bigger challenge, while at the same time being ever more necessary. Many techniques have been proven to facilitate this learning.

One is to force yourself to do something with it. “Write yourself a note explaining what you just learned, or figure out a small way to test an idea, or graph a series of data points onto a piece of paper, or force yourself to explain an idea to a friend,” Duhigg explains. It is the activity that aids learning - listening or reading is not sufficient.

In essence, you have to make sense of the information or you are, metaphorically, putting it in some drawer in your mind, and then ignoring it.
If you have been following this column you will recognise many of the concepts Duhigg describes, which are the subject of whole books. The value Duhigg adds is to compile an insightful summary of important ideas, illustrated by engaging narrative drawn from case studies and events.

If you haven’t read a book on general management this year (something every professional manager should do), I can wholeheartedly recommend ‘Smarter Better Faster’.  It is solid, thought-provoking, and has immediately useable insights.

Readability:       Light --+-- Serious
Insights:          High -+--- Low
Practical :         High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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