Smarter Faster Better — #ReadIn10

Productivity, the in-thing that everyone strives for these days. It is essentially a way to get things done with the least amount of effort and stress. Some people seem to be really good at it. They have their hands on all great things possible whilst having the same amount of hours that we do. What is their secret? The author spends the main chunk of this book exploring that question and found that found that it boils down to making the right choice. It’s how we choose to do things, consume information and work with others. Here are the 8 ideas that expands on how we can make the right choice so we can work smarter, better and smarter.

1. Motivations

People think of self-motivation as something that people are gifted with. Research has shown however that it’s a skill that can be learned by and honed. With the right practice, everyone can find the right motivation to do things that matter to them. The key is to have internal locus of control — the belief that things that happen to us are the result of the choices we make. As human beings, we desire to be in control of the things we do. Te easiest way to achieve that feeling? By making decisions. No matter what or how small the decision is, we are telling our brain that we have the authority over our own life. That is why we feel good taking a different route during a traffic jam although it takes as long to reach the destination.

The next time we’re confronted with an arduous task, instead of thinking it as something we have to do, we can trick our brain to thinking it as something we choose to do. When replying an email for example, we can choose to write the main message without starting with the regular formality. When reading a heavy material, we can choose to start from the middle instead from the beginning. When writing, we can choose to start with the conclusion instead of the introduction. The decision that we make, matters less than the the fact that we are actually make a decision.

Not all decisions create equal motivational power however. The decision that gives us the strongest drive is one that we believe is meaningful. The result of our decision needs to add value to our live and contribute to our dreams. So before starting a task, ask yourselves why are we doing it. When we find the connection how a task adds to the large constellations that aligns with our bigger goal, we will spark the drive to get anything done.

2. Team

What makes a good team? Many think it’s having a bunch of star players. Researchers found that however, although these people are brilliant individually, they might not be as brilliant in a team as a whole. What a team really need instead is psychological safety. That is the feeling to be safe to express your thoughts without the repudiation of being rejected. Why so? When someone is discouraged to make mistakes, they are reluctant to take risks and thus no innovation can flourish. Moreover, as they are embarrassed by their mistake, they will not it voice out until it gets worse. As such, the quality of the team player matters less than how well they treat one another to create the circle of safety in the team.

As a leader, there are two things that one can do the harness this culture. First, you need to make sure that everyone has an equal share of voice. You should demonstrate that you value each team member’s thoughts by not cutting him until off he finishes his point or proactively ask someone for their opinion. Second, you need to be socially sensitive. Notice if someone is upset or happy and react to their feeling instead of being nonchalant. As a team member, you can also contribute to the excellency of the team by genuinely listening when other person is speaking and responding when necessary.

Essentially, everyone needs to be heard. When they know that their opinion matters and are rooting for each other, you know that you will go far as a start team.

3. Focus

At this age of constant notifications, overflowing emails and information overload, it’s almost impossible to focus on one thing at a time. It’s an irony that the innovations created to save us time cause more errors in our lives. We become too comfortable with the automation we enjoy today that when things crop up, we react directly to them without much common sense. Not everything that appear in front of us is important but because we’re caught off guard, we are compelled to attend to it. That is called cognitive tunnelling — the state where our mind jumps from the relax automation to a sudden panic mode.

The good news is, we can manage our attention by creating mental models. Mental model is a thinking, mental state and story that we create in our mind. By telling ourselves how a certain scenario will play out, we keep our mind vigilant of what we should do at the exact moment. This is why a certain nurse can spot an ill baby within a glance and why most pilot can act adeptly during an emergency. The repetition of their training and actions have formed a strong mental model that is able to alert them when something goes wrong and what to do in dire situations.

To create a mental model, we need to cultivate the habit of picturing the things around us. Before you start your day, visualize what you will do from the time you wake up and back to bed. Before you start a meeting, anticipate what questions you might get. Before you start a new goal, picture the challenges you will face and how you will combat them. The trick here is to be really detailed in playing out the scenarios. When we are that alert, we will know how to effectively handle unexpected matters or ignore them. Force yourself to think and you are halfway to taking full control of your attention.

4. Goal Setting

Almost everyone sets goals, but how many of us achieve them? One of the reasons that cause the failure is they they might not even be goals to begin with. When we don’t pair what we want with concrete plan, they are merely aspirations.

The key to make any goal is to use the SMART system. Before you commit to a goal, you’ve got to make sure that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and has a Timeline. Knowing the answer to each SMART component forces us to translate a goal into a detailed step-by-step plan to make it a reality.

Many books and articles have talked about SMART, but many of them lack in bringing bigger picture into focus. Because crossing tasks off our list feels really good, we will be tempted to only attend to the easy tasks. To prevent limiting our potential, we need to pair SMART thinking with a stretch goal. A stretch goal is something that you think is impossible when you first heard it. It is what pushes anyone to product innovations and accomplishments because it forces you to stretch beyond your limit.

Start with a grandiose goal and then break the plan down with SMART. This way you know that you are not just crossing off any tasks but things that are slowly building up to something great.

5. Managing others

It is a commons sense for a company to heavily reward star players and sack the low performing one. It was found however, through thousands of companies evaluated, a commitment culture far outweighs performance culture in building a lasting company. A culture which can mould the employees’ commitment so strong that they will only leave the company when they retire, is the one that proves to be the most successful. Every single company that carries out commitment culture lasted over a decade, went IPO the fastest and had the best business performance.

What is their secret? It’s the feeling of trust and safety the company creates for the employee. They invest a lot in their learning, benefits and growth. Such company does not fire their employees even at the toughest time. Apart from that, they often give a full authority to the lowest level employy to take charge and solve problems. This sense of control quickly turns into a great responsibility and motivation for them to do well in the company.

6. Decision Making

Good decision making is essentially about how good we are in predicting the future. Fortune telling isn’t real, but there is a way to increases the chance of making good decisions through probabilistic thinking.

Instead of thinking about what might happen as one absolute scenario, we must think about what will happen as an array of possibilities. When we are confronted with a dilemma, we can come up with various scenarios and assign each scenario with a probability of how likely it will occur.

The caveat in assigning accurate probability is that we need to have a strong assumption. Our assumption is based on our past experience and observance of relevant information. We however tend to be biased towards information that we chose to absorb and ignore which that is unfavourable. When you decide to start a startup for example, your assumption could be that you will enjoy being your own boss, make millions of money and live to the fullest everyday. This is the infamous assumption many people have thanks to the news we see everyday. The media only highlights the few companies that get million to billion dollar valuation but ignore hundreds to thousands of startups that fail.

It is not our fault to fall for it. We as a human being have the natural proclivity to think positive. We tend to forget the mistake we make, the failures we had and focus on the successes we had. Imagining the good thing is easy but picturing awful things that will happen to us is uncomfortable — hence why we shun away from even thinking about it. Having said that, it is crucial to be aware of all possible scenarios in order to make the best decision. We need to form unbiased assumption so that we will not fall for the big, unforeseen hole ahead of us.

To do that, we need expose ourselves to the full spectrum of an experience. We need to be attentive to information from the other side. Don’t only chat with someone who’s successful, have a conversation with people who failed before. When you made a mistake, don’t just let it pass by but ask yourself why did you not make it.

No one will be perfect in making decisions, but by equipping ourselves with the right information and multiple trials and errors, we can hedge our risks and make sure that we are moving to a better place that we were before.

7. Innovation

Creativity often feels like magic. When we saw someone producing something brilliant, we can’t help to ponder how we too, can think so far out of the box. Although creativity does not follow any processes, we can create the environment that push us to think creatively and thus produce great innovations.

There are few ways we can do to spark creativity. First is to be more sensitive towards our own emotion. 20% of the creative breakthroughs were developed because of someones’ frustration or anxiety towards something. Hence, when we’re feeling depressed or anxious, we should recognize it as as an opportunity to stir our creativity. Second, detach ourselves from your idea from time to time. Without criticism and tension, it’s easy to lose ourselves into creating something which we presume great but turned out nobody wants. Challenge yourself to look at things from different perspective by constantly critiquing your own idea or asking for someone else’s opinion. Sometimes when we’re stuck, disrupting the way we do things, will immensely help. Shake things up by changing your routine, expose yourself to new environment or giving the authority to someone new in your team. Disturbances are essential to help us see things in a new way.

It’s worth mentioning that almost all brilliant ideas that we see are not original. They are combinations of old ideas that are reapplied in a new way. That’s why almost anyone can be a “creative brokers” — the middleman who borrows ideas from other sources and launch in our own innovative ways.

8. Absorbing Data

Finding information is a piece of cake today. In fact, it’s so easy that we can be overwhelmed by the cosmic amount. To better absorb information and turn it into knowledge, we need to be proactive. Instead of just taking information as it is, we need to dive in with a curious mind set, putting our mind in alert with whatever data that is about to enter our mind.

We can do that by asking question, writing our thought process or re-explaining the information to our friends. The key is to make the information as disfluent as possible. By making the information harder to process, we are forcing our brain to put more attention in absorbing it hence the longer it will stay with us.

They are all great ideas to fuel our productivity. However idea is just an idea until you put it into action. At the end of the day, productivity does boil down to making the right choice because it starts by deciding to do something about it. We can all be better, smarter and faster over time but it is up to you to make it happen.


This is a summary of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charless Duhigg. If you’re interested to read more, go get the book here.

#ReadIn10 is my book summary series where you can learn the meat of top non-fiction books I’ve read in less than 10 minutes. I do this to strengthen my recall as well as to share my learning with others. Like this if you think someone else will benefit from this summary!