Smarter Faster Better Book Summary and PDF

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg [Book Summary & PDF]

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg explores 8 different concepts and how they can make a difference to your life. Outlining the ‘secrets' to being more productive by starting with motivation, focus, teamwork, goal setting, managing others, making decisions, innovation and finally, absorbing information. This book is a really good read for anyone looking to kickstart their productivity and improve their choices and actions in business and in life.





Who is this summary for?

This book is a really good read for anyone looking to kickstart their productivity and improve their choices and actions in business and in life. Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg explores 8 different concepts and explains how they can make a difference to your life. Duhigg really explores the science behind productivity and explains what you need to do to improve yours.

About the author

Charles Duhigg is an American born author. He was a student at both Yale and Harvard. Duhigg was an award-winning New York Times business reporter and worked there from 2006-2011. Duhigg became interested in the psychology and science of habit formation while in Baghdad. After some observation and discussions with a U.S Military Major who explained to Duhigg that understanding habits were the single most important things he learned during his time in the Military. Duhigg wrote his first book The Power of Habit as a result of his time in Baghdad then went on to write Smarter Faster Better, explaining the science behind productivity.

In this summary

Duhigg outlines the 8 ‘secrets’ to being more productive in his book. This summary will summarise each of the concepts starting with; motivation, focus, teamwork, goal setting, managing others, making decisions, innovation and finally, absorbing information.



Motivation is Duhigg’s first ‘secret’ to becoming more productive. He identifies the new job market, with many more freelancers and less life-long employment. Companies and workers acknowledge that motivation is more important now that it was ever before. Individuals are in charge of how they allocate their time and energy. It’s up to them to set their own goals, priorities and make decisions. In order to be successful in this job market, you have to be able to motivate yourself. You can’t rely on someone else to tell you what to do or to motivate you.

It’s a skill

Duhigg explains that motivation is actually a skill. Despite many self-help books suggesting that motivation is an aspect of our personality, something we are born with. Science has proven that motivation is more complicated and has deeper roots in being a learned skill. Just like reading or writing, motivation can be learned and developed over time. Scientists believe that people’s motivation can definitely improve as long as they practice and nurture the skill.

You have control

Control is a fundamental part of motivating one’s self. Research has proven that in order to motivate yourself, you need to feel as if you are in control of your own life and your own actions. Without the control, you aren’t able to self-motivate.

”When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster.”

Duhigg explains that there are ways we can establish the desired control in our lives. One way is to make decisions. He explains that the act of making a decision, small or large, proves to yourself that you are in control of your own destiny. Don’t let other people make decisions for you. The goal of decision-making is to prove your autonomy.

”An internal locus of control emerges when we develop a mental habit of transforming chores into meaningful choices, when we assert that we have authority over our lives.”

Feeling numb?

Duhigg explains that often people who feel as if they have no motivation are experiencing what neurologists describe as emotional numbness. There are two different situations that this happens:

  1. People stop making choices, they forget how good it feels to be in control and motivation declines.
  2. In some cases, people never knew what it was like to be self-determined. If you grew up with a few choices this is probably why motivation lacks.

Duhigg explains that control is the key to helping ourselves and getting the motivation back. We can also help other people by rewarding and congratulating people when they are being self-motivated. This is why you reward a young child who tries to feed themselves.

”Unless we practice self-determination and give ourselves emotional rewards for subversive assertiveness, our capacity for self-motivation can fade.”

Apply meaning

One of the most important aspects of improving motivation and having control is showing yourself that the choices you make have meaning. Rather than simply making choices and moving on, take the time to ask yourself why you chose that option. It’s important to recognise that every small decision adds up to be a large part of you. Show yourself that you are making meaningful choices and that you are always in control.

”Self-motivation, in other words, is a choice we make because it is part of something bigger and more emotionally rewarding than the immediate task that presents itself.”


The second secret that Duhigg addresses is the importance of teams. He stresses that it doesn’t matter who is on the team, what matters is how the team works together. He identifies the superstar myth, we all thing that we need a superstar on our team. We waste energy looking for one, and overlook many good candidates in the process. Duhigg emphasise that even a team of average performers can achieve great thing as long as they work together well.

There are a few things that a fundamental to having a good team and one of them is ensuring that everyone feels as if they are heard. Nobody wants to feel ignored so ensure that everyone on the team has a voice and feels included.

  • A team needs to understand why their work is important.
  • It’s important to understand that the work is meaningful.
  • Goals and roles need to be clearly defined.
  • There needs to be trust within the team.
  • Teams need psychological safety.

Psychological safety

Duhigg explains that psychological safety is the most important feature that a team needs. And it is the responsibility of the team leaders to ensure that every member feels safe and secure. It’s important that leaders are good role models and practice certain behaviours to ensure that everyone feels psychologically safe.

  • A leader should never interrupt.
  • Leaders should be good at listening and have the ability to summarise what they have heard.
  • A good leader is transparent and admits when they don’t know something or are wrong.
  • When having a team meeting, a leader should ensure that every member had an opportunity to be heard.
  • Leaders need to help resolve conflicts and encourage open discussions.
  • Leaders and teammates need to express sensitivity towards others emotions.

“Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels. You need the right norms to make arguments productive rather than destructive. Otherwise, a team never becomes stronger.”

We’ve discussed how important control is in establishing self-motivation. On a team level, psychological safety is so important because individuals are often required to give the control to another teammate. And in these situations trust is entirely necessary.


Duhigg identifies automation as having a significant effect on our ability to focus. He explains that technology has become such a fundamental part of our lives and automation has become so engrained. Cognitive automations give us the ability to multitask, our subconscious decides what can be ignored and what we need to pay attention to. However, Duhigg explains that the more automation introduced into our lives, the more we risk our attention spans failing us.

Cognitive tunneling

”You can think about your brain’s attention span like a spotlight that can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused. Our attention span is guided by our intentions. We choose, in most situations, whether to focus the spotlight or let it be relaxed.”

Duhigg explains that this spotlight, our attention spans are being dimmed. When we go onto autopilot or allow technology to pay attention for us, our brains use this as an opportunity to conserve energy and dim the light. So we’ll be lulled into a false sense of security, then when an emergency arises or something urgent comes up at work, our brain is forced into full light mode suddenly. This sudden shift means that you’ll likely focus on the most obvious stimuli, even when that’s not what needs your focus right now. And this is what Duhigg calls cognitive tunnelling.

Cognitive tunnelling occurs when you are focused on the immediate task at hand or something directly in front of you. This tunnel reduces your ability to focus and you end up working on the easiest and most obvious task. Common sense goes out the window.

Being reactive

Duhigg explains that reactive thinking is responsible for how we build habits. Reactive thinking focuses our attention and is why we find ourselves using calendars and to-do lists. Duhigg explains that our reactive instincts take over and we are able to know what to do next without too much thought. Although this all sounds great, Duhigg acknowledges that there is a disadvantage when it comes to reactive thinking. Sometimes our habits and reactions become too effective and they overshadow our own personal judgement.

”Reactive thinking, in a sense, outsources the choices and control that, in other settings, create motivation. Once our motivation is outsourced, we simply react.”


”If you need to improve your focus and learn to avoid distractions, take a moment to visualiSe, with as much detail as possible, what you are about to do. It is easier to know what’s ahead when there’s a well-rounded script inside your head.”

Duhigg recommends that you take time every day to visualise the day ahead and what you plan to get done. While in the car on the way to work picture what your day is going to look like and how it’s going to go. He recommends you get to a point where you are constantly anticipating what is next, therefore you never feel unprepared or surprised.


Duhigg emphasises the importance of setting goals. He recommends using stretch and SMART goals. However, the criteria for these goals is just a guideline, it doesn’t have to be strict. The key is that you have ambition and have established a system that helps you shift your goals into realistic plans.

Todo lists and goals

Everyone knows what a to-do list is but there are many different ways you can use them. Duhigg explains that there are people who note down an easy task, just so they can cross it off quickly and feel like they are being productive. He explains that this is actually counter-productive and being used as a mood-booster rather than an effective tool.

Duhigg recognises that to-do lists really are just a list of short-term objectives, and we feel satisfaction each time a task is crossed off. This re-enforces our desire for closure.

”We are encouraging our need for closure and our tendency to freeze on a goal without asking if it’s the right aim. The result is that we spend hours answering unimportant emails instead of writing a big, thoughtful memo—because it feels so satisfying to clean out our inbox.”

How to use the to-do list better

Duhigg’s made it pretty clear that having only short-term objectives on your todo lists isn’t the best way to work. But he explains that neither is filling a list with stretch goals. Writing down long-term goals doesn’t mean you’ll achieve them, in fact, the longevity of a goal can scare you off.

Duhigg explains that one option is to have a to-do list that combines stretch goals and SMART goals. First, establish your big goals, stretch them out and establish what your dreams are. Then you need to break down the bigger goal into short-term, actionable steps. Consider what you can achieve in a day, a week or a month. What steps need to be taken in order to reach this big goal. By breaking a large goal down into smaller steps with a realistic timeline you are setting yourself up to succeed.

”Within psychology, these smaller ambitions are known as “proximal goals,” and repeated studies have shown that breaking a big ambition into proximal goals makes the large objective more likely to occur.”


Duhigg reflects on a study performed by Stanford professors Baron and Hannan in 1994. Baron and Hannan studied 4 different workplace cultures in a bid to find the most effective. They looked at engineering culture, bureaucratic culture, autocratic culture, and commitment culture. It became significantly evident that the commitment culture was the best type of management style. The companies in their study that had a culture of commitment had higher profits, went public the quickest, were leaner and had few middle-managers.

Duhigg explains that the reason commitment culture won, in the end, was because all employees, managers, and customers had a better relationship and there was more trust. Employees were motivated to work harder and back each other and the company. Companies that embraced the commitment culture rarely had to lay off staff and they dedicated resources to training and development. The result was better teamwork and employees who felt psychologically safe and secure.

It’s not about being lavish

Duhigg explains that rather than spending money on fancy interiors or upper-class cafeterias, companies with the commitment culture spent their money more wisely. They usually offered long maternity packages, offered child care programs and gave people options to work from home. These kinds of initiatives result in happier workers who remain loyal to the company. Duhigg identifies having good employees as one of the most important assets, but it’s also the hardest to come across. If you can have staff that are loyal and hard working then you are doing the right things.

”Customers stayed loyal because they had relationships that stretched over years. Commitment firms dodged one of the business world’s biggest hidden costs: the profits that are lost when an employee takes clients or insights to a competitor. “


Duhigg describes decision making as an attempt to forecast your future. He uses private schooling as an example, by spending money on your child’s future, you are attempting to forecast a future of success and opportunities for your child.

”Good decision making is contingent on a basic ability to envision what happens next.”

Duhigg explains that although good decision making relies on making forecasts about the future, it’s important to remember that forecasting is never certain, it’s not an exact science and is often imprecise. In making these forecasts you need to acknowledge what you don’t know as well. Duhigg explains that in order to make good decisions, you actually need to get comfortable with uncertainty.

Uncertainty can be confronting and scary, but there are ways you can deal with it. We’ll discuss a few of Duhigg’s methods for managing the uncertainty:

  1. Probability. Duhigg explains that probability is as close as you can get to fortune-telling. Learn to tell the difference between what you would like to happen and what is most likely to happen.
  2. Patterns. When making an assumption, pay attention to what you already know and what patterns have already been established. For example, if a death has occurred, it’s much more likely to be someone elderly than someone young due to patterns of lifespan.
  3. Assumptions. It’s important to make the right assumptions. Duhigg explains that an assumption is based on our experiences in life and what we have encountered. He explains that most people pay attention to their successes rather than their failures. To make really good assumptions you need to be realistic and pay attention to both successes and failures.


Living in a fast-paced world, where everything seems to be accelerated, the need to innovate has become more significant than ever. Our lives have become so saturated that the need for originality is increasing and become more difficult. And innovation and originality are demanded quickly. Duhigg explains that many people dedicate the vast majority of their time to figuring out how to innovate and do it faster than ever before.

We’ll discuss a few of Duhigg’s tactics for innovating and innovating fast!

  1. Combinations. The first method Duhigg explains is taking different, proven ideas and combining them in new, original ways. This way, some of the work is already done and there are usually countless way things can be combined. Original ideas can grow out of old concepts!
  2. Drawing on experience. This method is always so successful and means that anyone can innovate. By taking a look at tour own life and your own experiences you may find an opportunity you want to explore. For example, when creating Frozen, the Disney team drew upon their own relationships with siblings to build that of Anna and Elsa.
  3. Disrupting. Sometimes, when things seem to be going in circles or stuck in a rut you need to disrupt the norm. Change the team’s dynamics by assigning a new leader or change the way you’ve been working to see what new ideas can be sparked.

Creativity in innovation

Duhigg explains that creativity isn’t straightforward, there is no definition or formula for creativity. To be creative there need to be new concepts with a sense of spontaneity or novelty and freshness. Duhigg goes on to explain that the creative process however, is a different story. We have the ability to lay down the foundations that encourage creativity.

”For example, we know that innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways. We know that, sometimes, a little disturbance can help jolt us out of the ruts that even the most creative thinkers fall into, as long as those shake-ups are the right size.”


We have information about almost anything available to us whenever and wherever we want with the wonders of the internet, smartphones, and Google. However, Duhigg explains that it’s important to realise that searching for an answer is quite different to having an understanding of something.

Duhigg explains that we have seen an extreme influx of information flood our lives over the past twenty years. Our smartphones can count our steps, track our sleep and count or calories. This is all information that previously we just didn’t have access to. Duhigg explains that all of the information and data seems like it can be an asset, giving the appearance of helping you be more productive, healthy, organised etc. However, sometimes we don’t harness the information right and we might end up as a hinderance as there seems to be just too much going on.

”In theory, the ongoing explosion in information should make the right answers more obvious. In practice, though, being surrounded by data often makes it harder to decide.”

Blind to the information

Duhigg uses the term ‘information blindness’ to refer to when you aren’t able to harness the data usefully and take advantage of it. He explains that the reason this happens is that the way we learn has changed. We are designed to absorb information – provided it is broken down into small bits and pieces. In order to digest large quantities of information, our brain breaks it down into smaller pieces and this becomes knowledge. However when we are presented with huge amounts of information or numerous different choices we struggle to analyse them. Our brains revert back to a simple decision; do I attempt to understand this huge amount of information or simply ignore it?

Overcoming the blindness

It’s not all bad, there is a way to overcome information blindness that Duhigg outlines. He explains that you need to encourage your brain to transform any information you can take on into a series of questions or choices. This process does involve some work from you. Rather than ignoring information, you have to compare what you are learning and make decisions. For example. If you are presented with numerous different insurance plans, you’ll need to find the differences between the plans and make choices on what’s more important. Ask yourself where you need the most cover and what you could sacrifice.

”Information gets absorbed almost without our noticing because we’re so engrossed with it. We have to interact with the information in order to learn. Ask questions, make comparisons, hypothesise about potential outcomes.”


Another skill that’s important to learn is reframing choices. Duhigg explains that once a decision has been made, it can be tricky to change. Your view is clouded by your predetermined choice.

If you want to change your perspective you need to force yourself to look for a new vantage point. Your brain wants to keep things simple so you have to actively engage with it to reframe your choices.

”One of the best ways to help people cast experiences in a new light is to provide a formal decision-making system—such as a flowchart, a prescribed series of questions, or the engineering design process—that denies our brains the easy options we crave. Systems teach us how to force ourselves to make questions look unfamiliar. It’s a way to see alternatives.”


Key takeaways

  • You can’t rely on someone else to tell you what to do or to motivate you.
  • Motivation is a skill
  • In order to motivate yourself, you need to feel as if you are in control of your own life and your own actions.
  • Teams are incredibly important.
  • It doesn’t matter who is on the team, what matters is how the team works together.
  • It’s important that team members feel psychologically safe and that everyone understands their own individual role.
  • It’s really important to learn how to focus.
  • Unfortunately, automation can be a hinderance to our ability to focus.
  • Cognitive tunnelling occurs when you are focused on the immediate task at hand or something directly in front of you.
  • Reactive thinking is responsible for how we build habits.
  • Take time everyday to visualise the day ahead and what you plan to get done
  • Set stretch and SMART goals
  • Although good decision making relies on making forecasts about the future, it’s important to remember that forecasting is never certain, it’s not an exact science and is often imprecise.
  • In making these forecasts you need to acknowledge what you don’t know as well.
  • Living in a fast paced world, where everything seems to be accelerated, the need to innovate has become more significant than ever.
  • Use combinations, drawing on experience and distractions as ways to innovate.

Further reading

By the same author, The Power of Habit not only focuses on work-related habits but also personal habits, therefore it is ideal for anyone who’s interested in making a change in their life whether it be professional or personal. Duhigg discusses habits of individuals and the habits of organisations and society, so whether you are an individual, a business owner or a leader of a community group this book will be useful for you. Duhigg examines exactly what a habit is before delving into how we can mould shape and change these habits.

Getting Things Done is arguably one of the world's most well-known book on productivity. The lessons in this book should be considered essential reading for anyone looking to pursue a more productive lifestyle. Arguably just as influential as Allen’s Getting Things Done is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey explores a number of different paradigms, principles and habits that will help you become more productive!

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action steps

  • Download the complete book on Amazon
  • Set some stretch and SMART goals.
  • When receiving information, work through it and engage with it.
  • Learn how to motivate yourself and feel as if you are in control of your own life.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.