Smarter Faster Better May Make You All of Those Things

Tips to avoid being dumber, slower, and worse.
Illustration: Bratislav Milenkovic for Bloomberg Businessweek

Not only will Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business make you more efficient if you heed its tips, it will also save you the effort of reading many productivity books dedicated to the ideas inside. You needn’t read Superforecasting—that’s covered in Smarter Faster’s Chapter 6: Decision Making—Originals (Chapter 7: Innovation), The 4-Hour Workweek (Chapter 4: Goal Setting), Work Rules! (Chapter 2: Teams), Sources of Power (Chapter 3: Focus), and probably a bunch of other books I don’t even know about. Plus a lot of Harvard Business Review case studies I think I’ve heard about on NPR. That’s, like, 30 hours saved right there.

Charles Duhigg, the author, elevates the life-hacking genre. The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times business writer had a hit in 2012 with The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. His writing is smart, measured, and fun. In Smarter Faster there are even little cartoons to illustrate some of his ideas. He uses the Malcolm Gladwell model of shaping academic studies into hacks but applies a less excitable tone and a more cinematic style. He’s a reasonable man trying to figure out how we all can do a little better by adjusting our life a bit. He even starts and ends his book by showing how he struggled to use his own tips to write it without flipping out on his wife and kids.

Almost all the chapters begin by throwing the reader into the middle of a catastrophe: the Yom Kippur War, the kidnapping of a national security consultant by the Bloods, the final table in a huge poker tournament, being assigned a really lame study group at Yale’s B-school. Then Duhigg stops the narrative to introduce some unlikely person who undertook some unlikely experiment to discover some unlikely psychological quirk that led to some unlikely improvement in her work. He refrains from that annoying business book thing when he tells you exactly how you can use this in your middle-manager job. He assumes you can figure that out yourself.

Even if you’ve already read a lot of his productivity tips elsewhere (seriously, stop checking your e-mail), the stories Duhigg chooses to illustrate these tactics are compelling. He compares a 2009 plane crash, in which pilots tried to right the craft by focusing too intently on individual instructions from the flight computer, with another flight in which the engine destroyed a wing but the pilot saved the day by picturing his enormous jet as a simple Cessna. In doing so, Duhigg shows that training yourself with mental models and not mindlessly reacting to data can make you smarter.

He talks about how the Saturday Night Live work culture might be harsh and competitive and have horrifying hours, but by ensuring that everyone is heard at every meeting, producer Lorne Michaels creates psychological safety, making the group better. Duhigg unearths an anecdote from 1955, when the head of Japan’s railroads demanded his engineers design a train that wouldn’t top out at 65 miles per hour, the fastest at the time, but rather hit 120 mph, leading to the radical innovations that created the bullet train. His interviews with a factory worker at a plant jointly run by Toyota and General Motors show that empowering workers closest to a problem is the best way to solve it. And he shares how the writers of Frozen had a creative breakthrough and saved a failing script by drawing on their personal experiences with having a sister. I don’t know if that’s smarter, faster, or better, but I do know it’s good marketing to have something about Frozen in your book.

Duhigg’s final tip is to avoid swimming in data by doing something with the useful parts—just like we’re taught to use a new word in a sentence immediately. “If you read a book filled with new ideas, force yourself to put it down and explain the concept,” he writes. Doing that here, I wasn’t only able to get through Smarter Faster Better in three days, despite being a slow reader, but I also finished this review in a few hours. I believe Duhigg could turn my accomplishment into a swashbuckling tale of heroism.

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