Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg: Summary and Notes


“Every choice we make in life is an experiment”

Rating: 6/10

Related Books: Eat That Frog, The Power of Habit, Mind Hacking, Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Smarter Faster Better: Short Summary

Smarter Faster Better will teach you how to become a better version of yourself. Duhigg and his co-authors distill expert opinions and scientific research to offer tips on how you can become better at what you do.


When you transform a goal into a choice, motivation becomes easier. People who feel in control of their choices are on average more confident and can overcome setbacks faster. This happens even when the decision delivers no particular benefit to the individual.

To build your motivation, make choices that demonstrate that you are in control.

For example:

If you are struggling with starting a task, start small.

People with a strong locus of control believe that their choices determine their rate of success or failure. As such, they are more likely to work harder and more likely to have a growth mindset.

If you make a chore a meaningful decision, motivation will emerge.  When faced with an unpleasant task, take the time to ask yourself “why.”


When teams have the right mix of extroversion and introversion, they function well.

The five key norms that make teams great:

  1. Teams need to believe their work matters
  2. Teams need to find work as being personally meaningful
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles
  4. Teams need to know they can depend on each other
  5. Teams need psychological safety

The most critical determinant for team effectiveness is the idea of psychological safety. Team members need to know that if they air their views, they can be heard without repercussions.

Decentralizing decisions helps inspire a workforce. It is important to allow employees to make their decisions as they do their tasks, as such autonomy is motivating.


Cognitive tunneling: A mental glitch when the brain is forced to transition abruptly from a state of relaxed automation to a panicked state.

Cognitive tunneling can lead to bad decisions because it forces you to be distracted by your immediate tasks.

Because reactive thinking is wired into our brains, we can take advantage of it to increase our productivity.

For example:

I like to use the Pomodoro technique to tackle my Deep Work sessions.

Mental models tell us how things or the world works and you should use them to help you focus. When you create mental pictures -commonly referred to as visualizing- you get a clearer idea of what you need to do when things are not going according to plan.

“People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models.”

Goal Setting

smarter faster better - Goals

People who are more decisive and self-assured tend to work harder and get their tasks completed more promptly.

Cognitive closure: “the desire for a confident judgment on an issue, any confident judgment, as compared to confusion and ambiguity.”

People who have a strong desire for cognitive closure are more likely to be self-disciplined and act as leaders.

Cognitive closure can also be counterproductive because people can make hasty decisions just because they need closure.

To make it easier to achieve your goals, make them SMART:

  • Specific: make your goals clear and well-defined. To “go on a two-week trip to Europe next May” is more specific than to “travel more”
  • Measurable: avoid any abstract notions – you should be able to tick “done” any goal you set as well as any step it involves
  • Achievable: think if the goal depends on something you cannot affect.  Make sure you have enough time and resources (money, free time, energy) to achieve it
  • Relevant: your personal goals should be relevant to your life goals and feel rewarding
  • Timed: set a deadline for achieving each goal and subgoal. Without a clear time-limit, a goal turns into a pure dream that you hope to achieve any other day

Specifics lead to a higher level of task performance compared to goals that are abstract or vague.

Stretch goal: A goal that is so ambitious that you have no idea how to achieve it

Stretch goals are needed because concentrating too much on SMART goals can result in a lack of ambition. Stretch goals can also spark innovation. Elon Musk is a big proponent of stretch goals.

Managing Others

Employees work smarter and better when they have more decision-making authority.

A sense of control can fuel motivation, but this alone won’t drive insights and innovations. People need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored and their mistakes won’t be held against them. Additionally, they need to know everyone else is invested in their success.

The decentralization of decision-making can make anyone into an expert—but if trust doesn’t exist, organizations lose access to the vast expertise we all carry within our heads.

For example:

When people are allowed to stop the assembly line, redirect a huge software project, or follow an instinct, employees take responsibility for the company’s success.

On the other hand, there are good reasons companies don’t decentralize authority. A small group of unhappy workers with enough power can bankrupt an entire firm.

For example:

Inside the FBI, a misguided programmer can build the wrong computer system. Or an agent might follow the wrong hunch.

But, in the end, the rewards of autonomy and commitment cultures outweigh the costs. The bigger misstep is when there is never an opportunity for an employee to make a mistake.

Decision Making

To make good decisions, we need to forecast the future. But forecasting can be problematic and for most people terrifying. The future is not what’s going to happen but a series of possibilities that might occur.

“The future isn’t one thing. Rather, it is a multitude of possibilities that often contradict one another until one of them comes true. And those futures can be combined for someone to predict which one is more likely to occur.”

Compared to losers, winners are more comfortable admitting that they don’t know.

“Even if we have very little data, we can still forecast the future by making assumptions and then skewing them based on what we observe about the world.”

Successful people spend a lot of time seeking information on failures. You’ve got to be comfortable not knowing where your life is going.


Intermediate disturbance hypothesis: “Nature’s creative capacities depend on some kind of periodic disturbance”

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis also works for humans too. A single dominant idea can edge out other ideas too.

“When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper.”

When old ideas are mixed in new ways, innovation becomes more likely.

If you want to be innovative:

  • Pay attention to your experiences. Pay attention to how you think and feel
  • Recognize that the panic and stress that you feel as you try to create something new is not a sign of things falling apart. It is a condition that helps you become flexible enough to identify something new
  • Remember that the relief that accompanies something new can also blind you to alternatives. Without self-criticism, there is the risk that one idea can crowd all others

Absorbing Data

Humans are good at absorbing data, as long as it is broken up into smaller, comprehensible pieces.

For example:

If you regularly drink wine at restaurants, you will not be overwhelmed by a huge wine list. You will use your knowledge about wine and about yourself to make your pick. You will divide wines into categories like red or white, and dry or sweet, combined with the price to make a decision.

However, when the data is too complex, you lose the ability to absorb it due to Information blindness.

Information blindness: The inability to take advantage of data as it becomes more plentiful

The engineering design process has the following steps:

  • Define the dilemma
  • Collect the data
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Debate approaches
  • Experiment

“When we encounter new information and want to learn from it, we should force ourselves to do something with the data.”