Book Reviews Culture Leadership

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

I was a fan of Duhigg‘s book The Power of Habit, it was popular at a time when I was working at Weight Watchers, and we were interested in anything related to behavior change and the psychology behind it. Whenever I think about The Power of Habit, I also think about BJ Fogg, the work that we did with him, and his story of how he triggered doing push-ups he whenever used the bathroom. I shutter a little each time I think about that…

I had high hopes for Duhigg’s second book, Smarter Faster Better, and I liked the narrative, storytelling of his interview recounts. The first three chapters are where I found the most insightful information to team management and leadership vs. helpful ways to make yourself more productive.


The first chapter is focused on Motivation and shares stories from Boot Camp, Nursing Home Rebellions and introduces the concept of the Locus of Control.

Duhigg shares that “productivity is about making certain choices in certain ways. The way we choose to see ourselves and frame our daily decisions; the stories we tell ourselves, and the easy goals that we ignore; the sense of community we build among teammates; the creative cultures we establish as leaders: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

Duhigg then tells the story of a University of Pittsburgh researcher who was curious about how players brain activity responded to what he called one of the most boring games in existence. The game was to guess if a number was going go be higher or lower than five by pressing buttons, and it was rigged – participants would win certain rounds, but not others. He was shocked to find that participants were asking if they could continue playing the game once the session ended (even when they knew it was rigged) because “they just liked playing it.” The researcher then changed the game so that half the time, a computer was guessing for the participant, and enjoyment levels decreased. On the fMRI machine, when the participant was able to choose (vs the computer) their brains lit up like the previous experiment.

The researcher found that participants said “they enjoyed themselves much more when they were in control of their choices. They cared whether they won or lost. When the computer was in charge, they said, the experiment felt like an assignment. They got bored and wanted to end.”

Duhigg concludes that “participants were more motivated to play simply because they believed they were in control. When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more…The first step to creating drive is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with a sense of autonomy.”

There are two types of Locus of Control – internal and external. Duhigg shares that a Marine Corps General found that the most successful marines had a strong internal locus of control, which is a “belief they could influence their destiny through the choices they made.”

This motivation theory is very close to the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset work of Carol Dweck, and she’s quoted in the book. (I recapped a similar tendency, the Proving vs Improving Mindset, at the Women in Agile Meetup event earlier this year).  Below are the definitions of the two types of Locus of Control and a person’s tendencies (quoted from the book).

  • Internal Locus of Control – People with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure, rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence. A student with a strong locus of control, for instance, will attribute good grades to hard work, rather than natural smarts.
  • External Locus of Control – People with an external locus of control – believing that your life is primarily influenced by events outside your control – is correlated with higher levels of stress, often because an individual perceives the situation as beyond his or her coping abilities.

Like most mindsets, a person’s locus of control can be influenced and reinforced by feedback and training.


Most of the information in the Teams section was based on the Psychology Safety Work at Google, which I really appreciated the story because while I had read the New York Times article, I liked learning more about the people behind it and their stories.

It also brought to mind the work of Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile and how safety, primarily psychology safety, is a key tenet.

Duhigg includes a lot of stories about the Saturday Night Live cast that had me laughing out loud.

There is a strong emphasis on successful team norms, and the point that resonated for me were:

“Members of good teams spoke roughly in the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘equality in distribution of conversation turn-taking’.” Basically, “if everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time the collective intelligence declined. The conversations didn’t need to be equal every minute, but in aggregate, they had to balance out.”

“The good teams tested as having ‘high social sensitivity’ – a fancy way of saying that the groups were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces.”

Good teams are where each member has “an equal voice and members are sensitive to teammates’ emotions and needs.”

Other Highlights

Below are other points I took away from the book:

  • The importance of not having Cognitive Tunnelling – in the most simplistic way, keep an eye on the forest, don’t just focus on the trees, or don’t become too reliant on technology that you forget to think.
  • Use caution when setting goals as they can promote small thinking because people are focused on achievable results, and lead to achievable goals (which tend to be smaller). Dream big.
  • Consider daily if goals make sense – a person still needs to think, not just blindly move toward a goal that no longer makes sense. The old “but we achieved the plan!” mindset.
  • (Spoiler Alert!) On Culture, Duhigg shares that of the various workplace/organization cultures (Star, Engineering, Bureaucratic, Autocratic and Commitment), organizations with a Commitment Culture performed the best because it united “workers and managers around a common cause through mutual commitment and shared power.” These organizations “encouraged collaboration by allowing teams to self-manage and self-organize. They emphatically insisted on a culture of commitment and trust.”

Closing Thoughts

When I started this post, I was going to wrap up with how these learnings could apply to organization cultures and team dynamics in product development, but I hope that by sharing the points that resonated with me, it’s clear.

These insights provide some additional clarity to help spot the reasons why some teams just seem to work so well together, be highly motivated, committed and able to adapt as needed.

Book photo courtesy of

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