Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

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A few years ago, Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize−winning New York Times reporter and the author of 2012’s bestselling The Power of Habit, was particularly swamped: he was working at the newspaper and finishing his book, and his wife had just given birth to their second child. During this frenzied period, he reached out to a friend of a friend, Atul Gawande — writer, surgeon, professor, father, MacArthur Fellow — to ask if they could meet. Gawande struck Duhigg as preternaturally productive, and Duhigg wanted to know how he managed to accomplish so much. When Gawande turned him down, Duhigg understood; after all, he was so busy! But when their mutual friend told Duhigg that Gawande was taking his kids to a concert and going on a short vacation with his wife that week, Duhigg, who hadn’t taken a day off in months, began to wonder whether there might be a difference between being merely busy and truly productive.

That question drives Duhigg’s new book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. During several years spent researching productivity, Duhigg immersed himself in studies from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and economics and conducted his own reporting, interviewing experts in business, education, the military, law enforcement, and the arts. Using a familiar management guide template, the book distills his findings into eight principles to aid productivity; they concern ways to maximize motivation, set effective goals, create committed teams, foster innovation, and more.

The connection between them, what Duhigg calls their “powerful underlying principle,” is not presented very powerfully and is, in fact, rather tepid: it’s that “productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways.” The usefulness of this otherwise cloudy statement is its emphasis that productivity is firmly within our control. It’s unlikely that all of Duhigg’s eight concepts will resonate with any one reader; moreover, some of them have a familiar feel. Still, Duhigg has turned them into engaging reading by dramatizing each one, Malcolm Gladwell style, with stories that illustrate his larger point. So while, as a freelance writer who largely toils alone, I’m not overly concerned with team dynamics, I still enjoyed the author’s analysis of effective teams, which uses the early seasons of Saturday Night Live as a case study. (Who doesn’t want to read about John Belushi breaking into castmates’ apartments in the middle of the night to make spaghetti?) According to Duhigg, effective teams, above all else, create a feeling of psychological safety, and the writers and cast of SNL, despite well-documented competitiveness and infighting, felt comfortable enough with each other to take risks with their work.

Chapters on other topics, like creativity and focus, include practical suggestions that can be put to immediate use. The chapter on focus tells a fascinating story about a neonatal intensive care unit nurse named Darlene, who, during a shift, noticed a baby whose appearance unsettled her. Another nurse, who’d been keeping watch over the incubator, was unconcerned: the infant had normal vital signs and was breathing, eating, and sleeping well. Going only on intuition, Darlene convinced the attending physician to start the baby girl on intravenous antibiotics; when test results came back, they revealed that she had been in the early stages of sepsis, which would likely have killed her.

When Darlene, who was interviewed by a researcher studying focus, was asked to explain why she had felt that the baby was ill, she explained that she went about her day with a picture in her mind of what a healthy baby ought to look like, a process psychologists call mental modeling. Seeing the infant with characteristics that deviated from that picture — mottled skin, distended belly — activated an immediate alarm. The other nurse, meanwhile, was distracted by everything going right with the baby. “The secret of people like Darlene is that they are in the habit of telling themselves stories all the time,” Duhigg writes. “They engage in constant forecasting. They daydream about the future and then, when life clashes with their imagination, their attention gets snagged.” Not every job is as high-stakes as Darlene’s, of course, but we can all benefit from creating mental models, especially given that our attention spans have been weakened by technology and automation. In a helpful appendix in which Duhigg describes how he applies his findings to his own life, he notes that every Sunday night he takes a few minutes to visualize what the coming week will look like. “By the end of this exercise,” he writes, “I have a story in my mind . . . and, as a result, when distractions inevitably arise, it’s easier to decide, in the moment, whether they deserve my focus or can be ignored.”

Readers might already engage in some form of mental modeling, even if they hadn’t put a name to it. The same is true for some of Duhigg’s other concepts. I’m aware that I remember books I’ve reviewed in greater detail than books I haven’t written about, but now I know that by grappling with the information in a book, rather than just passively receiving it, I am “creating disfluency.” In a chapter on absorbing data, Duhigg advises, “If you read a book filled with new ideas, force yourself to put it down and explain the concepts to someone sitting next to you.” That sensible advice is characteristic of this genial book. Now, having explained these concepts, I look forward to seeing whether, when writing my next review, I do a smarter, faster, and better job.