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Book Brief - Smarter Faster Better

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Three ways to improve your productivity with Charle's Duhigg's Smarter Faster Better.

In August many of us are preparing our families and ourselves to get back into the groove of school days, whether that be in the school building or from a space in the home. Many on my team are working through those details and dealing with the reality of juggling roles as a professional and teacher/proctor. Wherever you fall in today's environment, I wish you luck, productivity and a hearty dose of patience.

Which brings us to this month's Talent Folks' Book Brief. We're covering topics that are back to Talent Development school this month and focusing on our own personal development. I recently read Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity by Charles Duhigg. It's a great read, and I noted plenty of advice that I've already applied to improve my productivity. I'd like to share those thoughts with you for your personal development.

As a reminder, Book Briefs offer talent development-specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. Not a review. Not a synopsis. A few bullets that you can apply to your daily TD life.

I like Charles Duhigg's approach to writing. He links stories and research to bring concepts to life with a new perspective. For example, he might connect a story from the world-stage, one from business history, modern psychological research and grounded thought leadership to provide insight on a topic, such as setting goals. Plus, he shares reflections on how he applied various concepts to improve his personal productivity.

The introduction he provides to productivity is concise and highlights: "the most productive people create habits that force themselves to think" (p 7). The rest of the book provides insight into eight concepts that improve productivity. We'll dig into three of them:

  1. Innovation

  2. Goal setting

  3. Motivation


Duhigg positions innovation in a new way. It isn't always a brand new thought. Think of creativity as an import / export business (p 215). You are applying existing ideas, practices, process or thinking to new problems and situations; connecting experiences you've had to new situations. Duhigg calls it being a "creativity broker (p 223)." Some folks do that naturally - they are actively seeking and collecting new experiences, paying attention to a situation and their reactions. Often when innovation strikes, it's an existing experience applied in a new way or to a new situation.

To do this well, Duhigg offers three pieces of advice:

  1. "Be sensitive to your own experiences. Pay attention to how things make you think and feel (p 236)." My addition here is to go out and gather new experiences. Look to experience the world around you in different ways or take on an activity that is not in your routine. Gathering new information and personal experiences, will give you that much more material to work with for your creative brokerage.

  2. Embrace stress as part of the creative process. We often have our best ideas when we're under the pressure of a deadline (p 236).

  3. Maintain distance from what you've created. We can get myopic about the best solution if we don't maintain objectivity and stay open to new ideas or tweaks on an existing idea (p 236).

scenery from Sedona, Arizona, cliffs and grasses

Experiencing Sedona, AZ, outside of the city proper and from a four-wheeler versus our rental car gave me a deeper, better appreciation for the beautiful landscape.

Goal Setting

If you've been in talent development long, you've heard of SMART goals. Duhigg shares that while SMART goals are helpful, they can also give us tunnel vision, causing us to work for immediate results (pp 118 & 120). He advocates for the addition of a good ol' BHAG. Do you remember those? As coined by Jim Collins, the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) keeps us thinking big and stretching our abilities. Applying the SMART process causes us to break that BHAG into short-term, concrete steps that we can tackle (p 129).

I really like this approach. As a big picture thinker, I often make tactical goal lists to stay focused on what I need to be doing, because otherwise I stay in ideation way too long. But sometimes those tactical lists cause me to lose sight of my "why" and the bigger scheme, and I lose motivation. Duhigg quotes a psychologist, Timothy Pychyl, about pairing SMART goals + BHAGs: "That way, I'm constantly telling myself what to do next, but I'm also reminded of my larger ambition so I don't get stuck in the weeds of doing things…" (p 131).


At the heart of motivation is feeling like we have control over what we do. Making choices gives us the semblance of control, which breeds self-determination and thus motivation. It's a human thing wired into our very DNA (pp 19, 20).

Studies show that those with a strong "internal locus of control" are typically more motivated. An internal locus of control is our belief that we influence our destiny with the choices we make. The popular psychologist, Carol Dweck, indicates in her work that the internal locus of control is a learned skill that we can strengthen over time (pp 24, 25).

Duhigg also shares that linking activities to a bigger "why," such as our values or goals, makes our choices more meaningful, and thus drives our self-motivation (p 30). Next time you have an arduous task before you, consider how it will help you close the gap on a bigger goal.

What I like about Charles Duhigg's guidance is that productivity is less about a way of crafting my to do list or structuring my day. While those things can make a difference, I find it's the why behind a task that gets me moving, along with the feeling that I can tackle a specific activity. I also have permission to give myself space to think about a situation leveraging what I already know and understand.

If you like these tidbits, then you'll also like his advice on Teams, Focus, Managing Others, Decision Making and Absorbing Data.

Sign in and leave a comment on what you found impactful from Smarter Faster Better. I look forward to hearing from you.


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