Smarter Faster Better Book Review


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

Smarter Faster Better is an instant classic. With it’s buzzfeed title and old school cover art it really fits the bill for being one of those books that will get referenced for years on end. I’ve already set it in my calendar to re-read soon and I am acting on ideas from it now.

Suggested Reading Ratings (tl;dr)

Of it’s category: 9/10. The content in this book far outweighs the amount of content in most books, especially getting things done books. There is no doubt the content pays for itself with this book.

Of all categories: 8/10. A great book, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm for productivity and innovation. Being that is the focus of this book, I dropped it a couple points to accommodate a broader audience.

Re-readability: 3 months. I will be reading this again soon as I know I didn’t write down all the good tips in this book, but I like to process the ones I did grasp, try them, then take on new ones after that. I give myself 3 months to try many of these.

Why I Read It

I read Smart Faster Better because a friend of mine, Kathy, who I deeply respect for her ability to get things done effectively and efficiently sent it to me on Audible for free. I didn’t even know you could do this, but that’s one heck of a book recommendation that I couldn’t pass up. I was excited and hopeful to learn new tricks on personally getting things done, a topic of recent conversation with Kathy. I was pleasantly surprised when the book covered so many great insights into building innovative teams, something I am also passionate about, and Kathy knew this. Thanks Kathy!


Smarter Faster Better uses example after example to showcase how to truly achieve big things in both life and career. Charles covers a broad spectrum of ideas including: building highly effective teams, motivation, stretch + “smart” goals, probabilistic decision making and innovation. His research covers years of examples including the non-friendly yet notoriously effective Saturday Night Live writers, famous historical plane crashes, Egyption invasion of Syria and Disney’s animated hit: Frozen. Did you know Frozen was about evil sisters and the snowman, Olaf, was an evil side kick, ~13 months before released in theaters? That’s quite a shift in story for THE most grossing animated film to date. Makes you wonder how a team make success out of a failing idea in such a short time period? He uses these examples to conclude effective habits for success that are not well known to every day workers. I have to say, I read a lot and the topics of this book are in my wheel house of interest but yet I was taking note after note while reading this book because he concludes the points in a succinct and actionable way that I have struggled with doing for years.


I honestly can say I related, enjoyed and agreed with basically every main conclusion Smarter Faster Better has to offer. When it comes to highly effective teams, my agile research is 90% overlap with the goals of this section. But having non software examples made obvious key factors to what it takes to have successful teams. One of my biggest struggles are teams that don’t tend to get a long. We don’t often form our own teams, so we have to deal with the hand we are dealt. Smarter Faster Better highlights how the Saturday Night Live crew were one of the most un-alike un-friendly teams put together. But their success came from a handful of attributes, the one that stuck out to me most was they ALL felt like it was safe to share every idea no matter what. Never was an idea rejected to the point of personal disgrace, only rejected for the sake of better ideas. It was a true psychological safe place to get all ideas out on the table, regardless of how people felt toward each other. This is something I learned from Crucial Conversations in regards to meetings and conversations, but I am sold that it needs to be a constant in every team, and any interaction that undermines this needs to be tackled head on. Other conclusions along the same lines that I agree with are: honest safety to take risks and potentially fail, clear goals, and that everyone feels like their work is personally meaningful.

Though I enjoyed all parts of this book, innovation was another one that hit me really hard. Innovating is part of what drives me to be in the software industry. So the Frozen story line that was failing, required lots of innovation, everyone knew it, everyone was being asked of it, lots of ideas were being shared, but innovation just wasn’t happening. Smarter Faster Better proves that most innovations to date are recycled old ideas, applied to new domains and in new ways. Charles convinced me of this by utilizing an algorithm to determine the most useful, highly rated books and find the root ideas references from older books. This was easy for me to be convinced, given that it was computer science that proved this after all. Utilizing this knowledge, how do we apply old ideas in new ways? Charles shows that you can start with the end goal in mind, create dissonance from your current approach to accomplishing that goal, and start applying how you feel success would be, what those feelings and emotions are telling us and apply old ideas with those new feelings. It’s quite hard to explain but it’s the basis for the current Frozen plot and particularly the ending which was a huge struggle even with the successful new story line.

The last topic I want to mention is the “smart” and stretch goals section. This particularly hit home for me as I had recently given a talk at the Nebraska.Code() conference where I discuss career coaching and to start with “why”. “Why”, being what motivates us, and to utilize small steps to get there. I concluded these from many previous writings as well as honestly, I live it myself. But again, Smarter Faster Better breaks down how you use these two concepts together effectively in a really elegant way to prove their success. He highlights the history of “smart” goals at General Electric and how they often led to impractical and useless “progress”, but progress none the less. He highlights how stretch goals, defined as goals that you don’t know how to accomplish, should drive what “smart” goals we are acting on. Identify the stretch, then break it down to smaller steps, and start taking action today. Again, this is a lot of what I pitched at my talk, but with different vernacular and a lot more historical references for proof. This is surely to convince the skeptics out there that may not be sold by the idea on it’s own.


Warning: the examples get long. Very long. This is my biggest problem with first time through reading the book. I found myself bored not knowing why the story was important, and unfortunately listening to an audio book made it easy to get side tracked mowing the lawn when a story was dragging on. This happened over and over for me and perhaps I just wasn’t as interested in plane crashes and Syria as others might be. I found myself enthralled in the history of Frozen (I have a wife and kid, don’t judge me!). I will say, I plan on reading this again, and I believe I will find more value in the stories the second time around as I will better understand the conclusions and how it relates. My only other criticism is I’m not sure how entirely persuasive the few examples are for the points. Fortunately, I have researched these topics over and over again, and the conclusions lined up entirely with where I was concluding on my own, so I was a much easier sell than most audiences.


Anyone interested in producing results: smarter, faster and better or if you are in any leadership position what so ever I strongly recommend this book to you. If you are someone who (wrongly) believes in command and control culture leading to big solutions, you may not get all the supporting arguments you are looking for. But if you are open minded and are willing to believe the author and myself that these examples are not the exception to the rules you will find yourself with many tools for success going forward.

Raw Notes

Check out my raw notes in their natural mind map form here:

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