Smarter Faster Better - An Actionable Checklist
Productivity

Smarter Faster Better - An Actionable Checklist

Here are the key ideas from Charles Duhigg's Smarter Faster Better in a simple checklist, so you can skip the fluff and get straight to taking action.

One-Sentence Summary: enhance your productivity by combining stretch goals with smaller ones, anticipating distractions and planning ahead, staying focused by increasing your personal awareness, making active choices instead of forcing yourself to work, making better decisions by predicting the most likely result, innovating more by being comfortable with creative anxiety, and absorbing more information by engaging with what you learn.

TL;DR

  • Alternative to: Routine or Shallow Work
  • Energy required: Low
  • Expect results in: Days to Weeks
  • Best for: Productivity Enthusiasts, Creatives, Busy People looking to optimize their efficiency

The Checklist

Improve Your Motivation

  • Mentally choose to do your tasks and chores, avoid forcing yourself.

Lead Your Team

  • Defer judgement, give them a sense of control.
  • Ensure each member feels included and valued.
  • Genuinely listen without interrupting.
  • Show that you care when someone seems upset.

Plan Your Goals

  • Dream for a moment and define your biggest, stretch goals.
  • Choose one goal and break it down into smaller goals that you can realistically achieve within a few weeks or months.
  • Each goal must be a SMART goal: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.
  • Anticipate distractions and account for them.

Improve Your Focus

  • Step back from your work and be aware of your surroundings and how you got there.
  • Understand your personal narrative and how your story is evolving right now.
  • Decide what most deserves your attention in the moment.

Make Better Decisions

  • Envision various future scenarios and hold contradictory events in your mind at the same time.
  • Let your mind experience the wide range of success and failure.
  • Try to develop an intuition about which events are more likely to come true.
  • Make your best attempt to calculate the odds.

Innovate Better

  • Pay attention to how things make you think and feel.
  • Welcome creative anxiety as it can push us to see things in new ways.
  • Retain your criticism: remember that a creative breakthrough can also stop us from seeing better alternatives.

Absorb More Information

  • Actively do something with the knowledge you learn.
  • Engage with that new knowledge in a physical way.

Supporting Material

Here's a list of resources to help you on your journey in becoming smarter, faster, better, using the science of productivity.

The book is actually available FOR FREE on archive.org.

How I would use this checklist

This isn't the sort of checklist that you can do from start to finish. It's going to be a mix of one task here, one task there, and who knows when you'll get to that 3rd one. You'll have to keep an eye out for opportunities on when to use each task.

However, we have so much to do each day that the easiest way to get started is by thinking about how you do your chores.  

Do you feel like you're forced to do them?  Sink full of dishes, and you gotta clean that up?

Think about it differently, change your mental model.  Consider it a choice, where you value a clean home, and you're actively choosing to clean the sink. No one is forcing you to do that. You're making a meaningful decision.

Duhigg suggests that your belief in autonomy has a large effect on your motivation, where "those with an internal locus of control ... feel in charge of their own destiny." Furthermore, "productive people and companies force themselves to make choices." So, if you understand you're the one in control, making the decisions, you'll be more motivated to complete your work.

We can do that right now.

Keep doing making the mental choice to do a chore or another task anywhere you can apply it, so it becomes a habit.

Next, I would start with the goals task and go from top to bottom. In other words, dream big and define what you want to achieve. Then, start breaking those down into more manageable chunks.

Now that you have some work lined up, the real planning begins.

Smarter Faster Better - Goal Setting Flowchart

Making goals SMART is actually a lot of work. That goes double for long-term goals. You'll need to ask yourself things like "What is realistic here?" and "Can I achieve this within a month, or will I need two months?"  Keep both your short-term objectives and your long-term goals.

Smarter Faster Better - SMART Goals

This leads to another section, making better decisions.

We need to practice predicting the future. Not in a fortune-teller sense, but in a more simplistic, probabilistic way of "if I do X, what are the chances that Y will happen, and what % will Z happen?"  You can consider this a lot like playing Poker.

If you fail, think about the choices that led to your failure and adjust your "prediction calculator." Duhigg says that successful people spend a lot of time studying their failures to better understand where they went wrong. Aim to get better at forecasting your own future.

The section about leading your team, innovating, and absorbing information are more specific to certain scenarios. If you're a team leader, obviously it's good to apply basic leadership skills like ensuring psychological safety for your team. And, if you're not too concerned with short-term, immediate results, then focus on building a commitment culture, where the long-term results are far better.

Innovating is a big topic which I don't think Duhigg has enough material to adequately cover in his book, but essentially he is suggesting you aim for creative exhaustion, where you accumulate a large swath of ideas and struggle to produce anything more, as that is where the real creative, novel breakthroughs occur.

Lastly, his thoughts on absorbing information are spot-on, but also well-known. There's a reason why people say "if you want to learn something, teach it to someone else."  When we grapple with new information in different ways, like explaining it, our brain is able to form new connections that help us understand it more deeply.

Checklist with Examples

Improve Your Motivation

  • Mentally choose to do your tasks and chores, avoid forcing yourself.
    Example: "I'm cleaning the dishes in my sink because I really love having a clean kitchen and it brings me peace of mind. It also helps me sleep!"

Lead Your Team

  • Defer judgement, give them a sense of control.
    Example: when your team asks for advice, ask them what THEY think they should do (and let them do it)."
  • Ensure each member feels included and valued.
    Example: don't end a meeting until every member has spoken.
  • Genuinely listen without interrupting.
    Example: when commenting after someone has spoke, briefly repeat what they have just said and explain how it relates to your comment.
  • Show that you care when someone seems upset.
    Example: If you sense some unease in the room, speak up and acknowledge it (with care and empathy), don't ignore those feelings.

Plan Your Goals

  • Dream for a moment and define your biggest, stretch goals.
    Example: "I want to run in the Boston marathon."
  • Choose one goal and break it down into smaller goals that you can realistically achieve within a few weeks or months.
    Example: "I will complete a 5k run within the next 3 months, and a 10k run in 6 months."
  • Each goal must be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.
    Example: "I will jog 3 days a week for a 30 minutes, for 4 weeks."
  • Anticipate distractions and account for them.
    Example: "When I feel like sitting at home, I will walk instead for 5 minutes, and then decide whether to keep going or jog for the full 30 minutes."

Improve Your Focus

  • Step back from your work and be aware of your surroundings and how you got there.
    Example: "Before I start my next task, I'm going to take 2 minutes to just become aware of my surroundings, listen to the sounds in my environment."
  • Understand your personal narrative and how your story is evolving right now.
    Example: "Take a moment to understand what is happening in the moment and why you are working on your current task."
  • Decide what most deserves your attention in the moment.
    Example: "Consciously choose to do the most important work at this moment. Try not to get stuck working on low priority tasks."

Make Better Decisions

  • Envision various future scenarios and hold contradictory events in your mind at the same time.
    Example: "If I buy enough Bitcoin, I could become a millionaire in a few years.  I could also lose all that money if Bitcoin becomes worthless."
  • Try to develop an intuition about which events are more likely to come true.
    Example: "In my past experiences, I've never been a great gambler... It's likely this would be another failure."
  • Make your best attempt to calculate the odds.
    Example: "There is evidence that 90% of cryptocurrency traders lose money. Would I be in that 90% that lose, or the 10% that win?"

Innovate Better

  • Pay attention to how things make you think and feel.
    Example: "Practice mindfulness each day for several minutes."
  • Welcome creative anxiety as it can push us to see things in new ways.
    Example: "When you start to feel the anxiety in your creative process, try to stick with it and persevere."
  • Retain your criticism: remember that a creative breakthrough can also stop us from seeing better alternatives.
    Example: "When you find a good solution to a problem, think a little bit longer about alternatives and see if you can come up with a better one."

Absorb More Information

  • Actively do something with the knowledge you learn.
    Example: "Write a blog post about new topics that you're studying, and explain them."
  • Engage with that new knowledge in a physical way.
    Example: "Create a deck of flash cards about a new topic you're studying, and post them on your refrigerator."

Reviews and comments

I really wanted to enjoy this book as the premise was initially very interesting: How to be Smarter, Faster, Better. With this genre of book, however, it's really important to cite interesting stories and examples, then provide actionable insights into how to apply the information we've just been given. This didn't end up happening until the appendix, which was the most interesting part of this book. With the exception of one or two eyebrow raising moments, most of the book dragged on. I found myself rolling my eyes after listening to what seemed like the same paragraph rephrased over and over. I know the author was trying to go for a Malcolm Gladwell type of book but it just wasn't as well written nor was the content that interesting. The performance of the narrator was very clear, but felt that he wasn't being absorbed by the content either, resulting in dis-engaged, robotic storytelling.

Source: audible.com

I loved The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and have been looking forward to his next book, Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. I must admit being disappointed, but only slightly. I still recommend this book and it's “productivity hacks”. is well written, with great stories which bring quality science to life. Smarter Faster Better

Source: happybrainscience.com

We loved Smarter, Faster, Better. But as champions and practitioners of genetic creativity – which is all about combining existing elements in new ways – we would. Duhigg's book provides more ammunition in the quest to convince clients not to start innovation in the abstract – with ‘ideas', ‘needs' or ‘concepts'. Innovation is hands-on, real and dirty – combining real things that exist not inventing new ideas that don't. But innovators are a traditional bunch, and the idea that a brand's next breakthrough innovation is going to be a creative combination of existing solutions, remains a tough sell.

Source: brandgenetics.com

This book has a lot of useful insights and examples that can improve individual and team effectiveness in many situations. It's written in the typical style that journalists use, (the Malcolm Gladwell approach) and so it's engaging, interesting, at times even riveting. Where I think it falls short is in the application department. There is a short chapter at the end where the author briefly explains how he applied what he learned writing the book to how he actually works. Mostly, the listener is left to work out the application of the principles for themselves. This would have been a much more effective book if the author had paused at the end of each chapter and taken the time to suggest how the principle covered in the chapter could be applied to individuals and teams with practical examples instead of story examples. I think it's worth a read and full of useful material, but I feel that the author failed to complete the last lap.

Source: audible.com