Smarter Faster Better

Summary Written by Dianne Coppola
"We’ve been staring at the tools of productivity – the gadgets and apps and complicated filing systems for keeping track of various to-do lists – rather than the lessons those technologies are trying to teach us."

- Smarter Faster Better, page 8

The Big Idea

Rock, Paper, Scissors

"The future isn’t one thing. Rather it is a multitude of possibilities that often contradict one another until one of them comes true."- Smarter Faster Better, page 179

I think the short answer is that thinking is hard work. It’s hard because for many situations in life, there is not one right ‘answer’ or solution. And our school system has trained us (inadvertently perhaps?) to seek out the ‘right’ answer and so we are reluctant to be wrong. As Duhigg points out, the future is a multitude of possibilities. And the larger the number of possibilities, the harder it becomes to sort out which solution is the right one for us. While we can never predict the future with 100% accuracy, the good news is we can improve our chances.

Statistics always boggled my mind in university and yet I was fascinated by the research Duhigg presents on probabilistic thinking and patterning (often referred to as Bayesian cognition). Apparently humans frequently rely on mental forecasting to aid our decision-making even when we have very little data to go on. What really astounded me is that research has shown we are surprisingly accurate with many of our ‘predictions’ without needing to think about them too hard. We rely a lot on our lived experience and our observations of past events when considering possible outcomes and over time our instincts become quite good – so long as our base assumptions are correct.

My big ah-ha? If you want to make smarter, faster, better decisions, you’ll need to strengthen your Bayesian thinking muscles!

Insight #1

Always Consider Multiple Outcomes

"To become better at predicting the future – at making good decisions – we need to know the difference between what we hope will happen and what is more and less likely to occur."- Smarter Faster Better, page 180

I’ve lost many a chess game because I was too focused on what I hoped a particular move would cause my opponent to do rather than thoroughly considering all the possible counter-moves. We may think we approach decision-making in a calm, collected, rational manner, yet if we were honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that in the final moment, it is our emotions not our logic that heavily influence our choices. We usually go with what feels right and pay more attention to facts (and assumptions) that support our emotional decision.

Successful people have developed habits that help them make decisions more effectively. Specifically, they:

  • work at managing their emotions,
  • reflect on and analyze failures as well as successes,
  • constantly question and update their assumptions, and
  • envision multiple futures and outcomes.

Oh, and they do one other thing better than most people. They make peace with uncertainty, knowing that over time the odds will be tilted in their favour. With practice, you too can leverage the power of probability to improve your decision-making outcomes.

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Insight #2

Master the Art of Chunking

"One way to overcome information blindness is to force ourselves to grapple with the data in front of us, to manipulate information by transforming it into a sequence of questions to be answered or choices to be made."- Smarter Faster Better, page 246

Duhigg describes ‘information blindness’ as “our mind’s tendency to stop absorbing data when there is too much to take in.” While it is important to consider multiple scenarios before making a decision, we do risk overwhelming ourselves with too much information which results in indecision instead of clarity. In business this is often referred to as analysis paralysis.

Duhigg notes that when we become overwhelmed by the data surrounding a decision, our brains automatically pivot to a more binary decision – “Do I try to make sense of all this information or just ignore it?” Knowing that binary choices simplify decision-making provides us with a strategy for moving out of analysis paralysis – data chunking.

Let’s say you walk into an ice cream parlour that offers fifty different flavours of ice cream. How will you choose which one to order? You can simplify the decision by breaking it down into multiple smaller decisions that are easier to make. Do I want ice cream or gelato? Something new or familiar? Tart or creamy? Cone or bowl? One scoop or two?

For low risk decisions like ice cream, we do this fairly quickly and without a lot of thought or debate. For higher-risk decisions (like buying a car, choosing a university, selecting investments) we will progress more slowly and thoughtfully, influenced by how we choose to organize and manipulate the information as well as our values and priorities. Interacting with the data in some way is critical; it’s less about the tool (calculator vs spreadsheet) and more about creating smaller, easily managed data chunks.

So the next time you are faced with a decision that involves processing a lot of information, try asking yourself a series of binary questions. Not only will it help you organize that information into more manageable information chunks, it will shrink the perceived risk associated with each decision point. Will that be a waffle or sugar cone?

Actually, if you want to improve your productivity and sense of accomplishment, you should be asking yourself which of the two Insights I’ve discussed in this summary you will start practicing! When faced with a tough choice will you envision multiple potential outcomes or experiment with data chunking? Will you practice this skill at work or in your personal life? Will you read Ronni’s summary or purchase the book? Will you apply what you’ve learned today or simply hope you will become Smarter Faster Better? The choice is yours!

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Charles Duhigg

My name is Charles Duhigg, and I’m a reporter for The New York Times. I’m also the author of a forthcoming book from Random House, The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.

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