Book Review: “Smarter Faster Better” by Charles Duhigg

Smarter Faster Better Book Review

I’ve been home from travel for almost four months, and I’m finally catching up on my reading. I still have a pile of books that I picked up from FinCon15 (six months ago!), and I’m steadily working my way through them. I’ll probably finish just before FinCon16.

But then (shameless name dropping) Charles Duhigg e-mailed me.  Yeah, the best-selling author and NYT investigative reporter.

We bloggers can learn a lot from his marketing. I first heard from him nearly three years ago after I mentioned a copy of his earlier book, “The Power Of Habit”. He (or more likely, his assistant) e-mailed to let me know that they were releasing the paperback version in January 2014, just in time for readers with New Year’s resolutions. The paperback would have some extra material, and would I like to review that as well?

Why, yes. Yes, I would.

The paperback version of “The Power Of Habit” was an even better read than the hardcover edition.

He only had to do that for a couple of dozen reviewers to build a new buzz for the book all over again.

Image of the cover of Smarter Faster Better, a new book by Charles Duhigg |

Read it for the stories.

But even more impressively, two years later he’s he e-mailed me yet again to let me know that his new book “Smarter Faster Better” is out. I haven’t signed up for any mailing lists or launch teams. He simply kept my e-mail on file from his last book and then re-used the process which had worked so well all those months ago. Pretty smart move for an author who writes books on habits and productivity hacks.

Those hacks will work on your finances and your team skills as well as your time management.

Mr. Duhigg starts off by explaining how he struggled (successfully) to maintain his good habits from his last book. Then he struggled to apply the productivity tricks that he learned while researching this one. I was glad to see that, because habits are hard to maintain when life smacks you upside the head. After you recover, you have to resume that habit all over again.

Like his last book, Smarter Faster Better covers plenty of medical and psychological research that shows how our brains work and how we can overcome our behavioral psychology. But this is not just a motivational psychobabble pep talk. The first chapter describes the striatum, a part of our brains that seems to coordinate human motivation and our emotions to help translate ideas into action. People with damage to their striatum essentially lost their initiative and creativity. They were still able to carry on a discussion or carry out tasks, but they were generally apathetic and unresponsive. They could perform when directed by others, yet they didn’t care. They had zero motivation.

Later Mr. Duhigg analyzes the group dynamics of a number of situations where seemingly marginally-productive people performed well above their own expectations. They not only got more things done. They occasionally solved complex problems with innovative ideas that led them to enjoy outrageous success. He explores why groups of these people routinely out-performed other groups which included brilliant, powerful, and dynamic executives. How do we replicate those successes for ourselves?

These issues are important because the American workforce has changed significantly in the last 30 years. As late as 1980, over 90% of workers reported to a boss. Today more than a third of us are contractors, freelancers, or entrepreneurs. The result is that fewer people are being told what to do. Today many of us have to pick our own goals, set our tasks, and carry out our own projects. We have not only be motivated, but we have to figure out how to work with a team to get stuff done. Yeah, he describes the SMART goal system, and he shows how General Electric turned it into a total failure. Then Mr. Duhigg describes a better way to use the SMART system.

The book’s military example is impressive: Marine Corps recruit training. Although motivation is linked to the striatum, our level of motivation can be trained and developed like any other skill. The key for personal motivation is believing that we can control our actions and our surroundings. If we think we’re in control (whether or not that’s actually the case) then we’re more motivated to do something. We actually try harder and work longer.

The way to trigger that motivation is to make a choice which shows your control. Do something– almost anything at all– to get started. Write any part of an e-mail, or decide where to have a meeting, or just figure out what questions you’re going to ask. Surprisingly, it really doesn’t matter where you choose to start or what choice you make about it. Once you exert some control over your response to a situation, you’ll gradually develop the motivation to carry on.

Which brings us to the Marines. The other branches of the U.S. military recognize (grudgingly or enviously) that Marines exert more motivation, initiative, and decision-making authority at even lower levels than anywhere else. We already know that doesn’t depend on intellect or command leadership. What makes a Marine behave like a Marine?Image of a Marine Corps mouse breaking through a labyrinth maze to get the cheese |

In the 1990s, General Krulak completely overhauled recruit training. He wanted Marines who were self-starters and could make independent decisions, yet work as part of a team. The drill instructors put the recruits into situations where they had to develop their internal locus of control. Instead of feeling like they couldn’t make a difference, the recruits had to practice taking control of tactical situations and being in charge. They were praised for working hard, stepping up to leadership challenges, and exceeding their potential. There aren’t any spoilers here, but you’ll enjoy his descriptions.

Mr. Duhigg’s other memorable example hits me right between the Boomer demographic eyeballs: the TV show “Saturday Night Live”. (It premiered when I was in high school.) It was clear from the very beginning that this group was just makin’ stuff up as they went along, and 40 years has not significantly changed their process. The show even fell apart during a brief period when Lorne Michaels left, and now he’s returned to a producer’s life sentence with no time off for good behavior. How can other producers replicate his success?

The answer turns out to be “psychological safety”. When the writers & actors are around the table hashing out the next show, everyone has learned to feel comfortable with risking their creativity. They start building on each others’ ideas. There’s mutual respect, and the team members have proven to each other that nobody will be rejected or punished for speaking up. Everyone might be a little dysfunctional on their own, but together they play off each other with extraordinary creativity. Michaels even makes a point to balance the skits among the group and to encourage outrageous ideas so that they can eventually get cleaned up enough for air time.

Mr. Duhigg goes on to analyze another dozen examples of team dynamics:

  • Better hospital operating rooms and intensive care units
  • Google’s approach to hiring employees and building “Project Aristotle” teams
  • Disney’s desperate attempt to figure out the theme of “Frozen” (parents, pay attention here)
  • The crash of Air France Flight 447
  • The Yom Kippur War
  • The FBI’s Sentinel database and a kidnapping
  • Toyota’s turnaround of a General Motors plant with lean manufacturing
  • Winning poker tournaments
  • Applying Bayesian probability to everyday life
  • Nursing home rebels
  • How not to do stretch goals
  • How “intermediate disturbances” create biological diversity

The entire book analyzes compelling successes (or failures) on the themes of team focus, goal setting, management, the decision process, and fostering innovation. There’s even a chapter on really using data (not just creating reports) to change student performance. Mr. Duhigg applied his own productivity techniques to interview the people who were directly involved in front-page news (both good and bad). They explained their successes– or he shows how team dysfunctions led to failure.

This book is leadership advice. Whether you’re in charge of a team (or part of one) you’ll learn how to adapt your behavior to improve the team’s performance. You won’t just be a better leader. You’ll be able to use better team-member techniques to “manage up” the chain of command and help the entire team pull in harness.

In your personal life, you’ll learn how to jump-start your motivation by taking control of your choices. Rather than avoiding that onerous chore, you can make a decision about when you’ll do it or how much time you’ll spend on it. Decide what your first step will be, or even what clothes you’ll wear. Make a choice and do something about it.

The financial benefits are also clear. You don’t have to decide today how much you’re going to save for a retirement which is still years away, but you can sign up for the Thrift Savings Plan. You can pick a fund and put your contribution level in autopilot. You can choose to read a little about asset allocation or decide how you want to handle your spending. Saving for financial independence is a big gnarly project, but you can pick what parts you want to work on. Today. For just a few minutes.

I’m a hardcore eBook reader now, so the Kindle version of Smarter Faster Better was a smarter faster better read on an iPad Air 2. You could wait a few months to see whether it ends up in the Kindle Unlimited library for “free” (with a $9.99 monthly fee), or you could listen to the entire audio book for free with a trial of Amazon’s Audible service. (After 30 days you’ll be asked to pay $14.95.) Hack those productivity tips during your commute or your workout and see which format you prefer.

Or you could wait for the paperback version. Either way you’ll be better than you were before. The key is reading the book and then exerting control over your decisions. Your motivation will improve, and so will your performance.

Now you know how to use your motivation to take control and make things happen.  Here’s your call to action:  see the “Related links” below if you’re not signed up for the Thrift Savings Plan or if you’re a military spouse who’s building a portable career.

Related articles:
Early Retirement: Getting Things Done
Book Review: The Power Of Habit
Book Review: Work Rules! At Google
Military Spouse Portable Careers
Financial Advice To Start Your Military Career
Getting Older In Early Retirement

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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