Smarter Faster Better


The difference between being busy and being genuinely productive is often intention. It’s about taking control of how we think rather than just reacting to life’s demands.

Productive people have habits…that push them to think more deeply about the choices they make.


Our motivation is a skill than can be both learned and strengthened. Key to both is a feeling of agency. We need to recognize that we have authority over our actions and environment. And when we’re stuck or unmotivated the best thing to do is start, anywhere.

Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control.

Possessing a strong internal locus of control helps. This is a belief that we can influence our destiny through our choices. It can also be built through training and feedback. One example:

Complimenting students for hard work reinforces their belief that they have control over themselves and their surroundings…telling young people they are smart reinforces their belief that success or failure s based on factors outside of their control.

We praise people for doing things that are hard. That’s how they learn to believe they can do them.

Sergeant Dennis Joy, USMC

If you can make a chore into a meaningful decision then it’s easier for self-motivation to emerge. Asking why-based questions can help.


Psychological safety boils down to, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” It originates in research from the late 1990s. For Google they worked to square this with the necessity and benefit of disagreement.

It was the norms, not the people, that made teams so smart. The right norms could raise the collective intelligence of mediocre thinkers. The wrong norms could hobble a group made up of people who, on their own, were all exceptionally bright.

Google’s own research zeroed in on five key norms of a strong team. Teams need:

  1. To believe that their work is important.
  2. To feel their work is personally meaningful.
  3. Clear goals and defined roles.
  4. To know they can depend upon one another.
  5. Psychological safety.


Consistent studies have shown that as people are forced to toggle between automation and focus errors become particularly likely. Practice can ingrain certain reactions. This reactive thinking is at the core of how we balance demands on our mind. The downside or risk is that this reactive thinking can become so automated that it overpowers our own judgement.

Researchers from MIT found that the most productive workers shared a handful of traits:

  • They tended to work on only 5 projects at once.
  • They signed up for projects that required them to seek out new colleagues and build new skills.
  • They were disproportionately drawn to early stage projects.
  • They generates lots of theories about why things were (or weren’t) working.

Building mental models can help improve our decision making, especially under stress. It’s a learnable skill and helps us shape where our attention goes.

Models help us choose where to direct our attention, so we can make decisions, rather than just react.

Goal Setting

Psychologists track a trait known as “the need for cognitive closure.” This is the desire for a confident judgement (any one) instead of confusion and ambiguity. There are risks to a strong need for this. It can lead you to crave a decision. And this can lead you to make hasty decisions and be more reluctant to revise past decisions.

There are two components in this desire:

  • The need to seize a goal. This helps enable commitment and is generally productive.
  • The need to freeze on an objective. This can lead us to grab onto something against our common sense or better judgement.

GE relies upon goal setting and the SMART framework. But over time its utility decreased and productivity issues arose.

Workers spent hours making sure their objective satisfied every SMART criterion, but spent much less time making sure the goals were worth pursuing in the first place.

They eventually balanced this by pairing SMART goals with much higher level ideas. They encouraged vague project ideas (stretch goals) alongside specific planning.

There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crushes morale…for a stretch goal to become more than just an aspiration, we need a disciplined mindset to show us how to turn a far-off objective into a series of realistic short-term aims.

Having a system for turning a stretch goal into a concrete plan is vital. Otherwise the energy and enthusiasm can be entirely wasted. Duhigg breaks it down in a 6-step flowchart:

  • What is your stretch goal?
  • What is a specific subgoal?
  • How will you measure success?
  • Is this achievable?
  • Is this realistic?
  • What is your timeline?

Managing Others

A few key points from research by James Baron and Michael Hannan:

  • The way a business treats workers is critical to its success.
  • Key to this treatment is trust between employees.
  • Most companies and cultures fall into one of five categories: star, engineer, bureaucratic, autocratic, and commitment.
  • The consistent winner in terms of performance was commitment.

Much of the rest of the chapter relates the application of lean manufacturing and Agile development to other contexts (e.g. FBI investigations). Duhigg recaps it with:

Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision-making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success. A sense of control can fuel motivation, but for that drive to produce insights and innovations, people need to know their suggestions won’t be ignored, that their mistakes won’t be held against them. And they need to know that everyone else has their back.

Decision Making

The paradox of learning how to make better decisions is that it requires developing a comfort with doubt.

Researchers found that giving people just basic training in probabilistic thinking significantly improved their abilities to forecast the future. A big part of this is learning how to hold multiple possible futures in your mind at once.

Our prediction ability is highly contingent upon our initial assumptions. If those (known as our base rate) are off the so too will be every adjustment we make to our mental model. Part of keeping our assumptions honest entails seeking out stories of failure. This helps counter the bias toward success that’s present in so much of our lives.


A lot of the people we think of as exceptionally creative are essentially intellectual middlemen. They’ve learned how to transfer knowledge between different industries or groups.

Brian Uzzi

While creativity or innovation cannot be forced we can build an environment that encourages it. There is a creative process that we can describe and, more importantly, learn. Duhigg outlines three ways to do that:

  1. Be sensitive to your own experiences.
  2. Recognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart.
  3. Remember that the relief accompanying a creative breakthrough, while sweet, can also blind us to seeing alternatives.

Absorbing Data

Having more data on hand doesn’t always help us make better decisions. Instead there’s a point at which more data leads to worse decisions. We develop information blindness and stop absorbing data once there’s too much to take in.

The quality of people’s decisions generally gets better as they receive more relevant information. But then their brain reaches a breaking point when the data becomes too much. They start ignoring options or making bad choices or stop interacting with the information completely.

Martin Eppler

To aid this it’s important to build mental scaffolds that can act as filing cabinets that enable us to store and access information. If we force ourselves to interact with the data and ask a series of questions we’ll often process it better.


This acts, overall, as a recap of key concepts and how to apply them.


Motivation becomes easier when we transform a chore into a choice. Doing so gives us a sense of control.

Self-motivation becomes easier when we see our choices as affirmations of our deeper values and goals.

Goal Setting

Choose a stretch goal: an ambition that reflects your biggest aspirations.

Then, break that into subgoals and develop SMART objectives.


We aid our focus by building mental models—telling ourselves stories—about what we expect to see.