Charles Duhigg Explains the Science of Productivity and Innovation

“The most productive people don’t just write to-do lists once, but every day or multiple times a day.”

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit, discussed his latest book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business with Heleo’s CEO, Rufus Griscom. Duhigg offers illuminating answers to our questions about why self-improvement is such a high-demand topic, what the most productive people do with their time, and how to stay on task to create something innovative.

(To watch the video of their conversation, click here.)

Rufus Griscom: You can imagine someone writing a book with the title, Smarter, Faster, Better, maybe as “Skinnier, Cuter, etc.” with the subtitle, “Americans’ Obsession with Self-Improvement.” Is this national obsession with self improvement a good thing? What do you think about the genre and how it’s evolved over time?

Charles Duhigg: These are fantastic books. We actually do need them, not because of this prurient need for self improvement, but because we’re living through times when two important things are happening.

First, we’re in a period of economic and social change which most economists agree is going to be as profound as the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. In 1980 or 1982, when you went home from work, there was no way for you to really connect with your colleagues. Information was scarce and we defined people by the scarcity of information. Now we have a surplus of information, it’s a post-scarcity age.

When you read about the Industrial Revolution, it sounds so romantic and interesting in retrospect. At the time though, people wrote how anxious and uncertain they were, because the very definition of what it meant to be productive or successful was changing under people’s feet. That is happening right now. We are living through a period that people will look back at and say, “This was a pivot in human history.”

The second reason is there’s been this explosion in understanding how our brains work, and also an explosion in metaphors. In many ways, the last time this happened was when Darwin published The Origin of Species and introduced the concept of survival of the fittest. That huge debate ended up taking the next 40 years, regarding what value we should assign to the idea of evolution.

We are seeing a debate now around what we’re learning about determinism from the brain. We understand how the brain works in ways that we never thought possible. And metaphors are emerging, these metaphors of networked societies. For the first time, we have tools to understand this change around us, and that creates a huge amount of excitement, but also anxiety. I think these books are an attempt to say, “It’s going to be okay,” and it’s going to be okay because we understand our way out of it (not because we close our eyes to how the world is changing).

Rufus: When you think of the explosion of discoveries and the analysis of behavioral economics, this feels like a Golden Age. For centuries, we focused on the heavens, and now there’s more focus on applying scientific method to understanding our own human effectiveness—our own lives.

Charles: If you think back to when Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, it seemed so fresh and new because of the capacity of someone to take research and explain it in narrative form. Academics didn’t know how to do that. Now academics are starting to say, “Actually we should be the ones doing this. It shouldn’t be journalists.” That’s a reflection of the fact that we are living through this age of anxiety and opportunity.

Academics are being increasingly pushed to come up with ideas that have application in the real world, which is not dissimilar to what happened with biological scientists about 30 or 40 years ago that led to the explosion in new pharmaceuticals.

Rufus: The innovation chapter is fascinating because you describe this great Gladwellian Era of combining compelling stories with science. Do the most innovative science papers reference very common ideas, but in new ways?

Charles: This guy named Brian Uzzi wanted to get tenure, so he looked at 18 million science papers to figure out who writes papers that get them tenure. He came up with an algorithm to judge which were the most innovative, and which were the most influential. His hypothesis going in was that if a paper contained 65% new information, people would love it. It turns out if you write a paper with 65% new information, 12 people will read it during your lifetime.

Then he drops down to 50%, 40%… the numbers don’t improve until he gets to 10%. 10% new information and 90% ideas that have been picked over by scientists for years—that’s when a paper can explode. It has to be a good paper, not every paper works, but that’s the magic ratio. If something is too new, there’s no purchase.

“I would get home and have 150 emails to deal with and all I wanted to do was drink a glass of wine and watch Breaking Bad.”

Rufus: It feels like at some level, this book is a relatively personal project. In your podcast discussion with James Altucher, there was a great moment when you were describing how you had won a Pulitzer Prize, The Power of Habit was a glowing bestseller, you had just closed on a new book that you were starting to write, and you said to your wife, “Honey, if this is what success feels like, sign me up for failure.”

Charles: I would get home and have 150 emails to deal with, and all these opportunities I felt like I had to seize. And all I wanted to do was drink a glass of wine and watch Breaking Bad.

I became curious because I saw people around me who seemed like they just had it together much more. They had this ability to be good parents, good spouses, to get important work done, and to work in multiple fields.

I started calling researchers and asking them what others were doing that I couldn’t figure out. The researchers said, “Actually we have studied this. There are now 30-35 years of understanding high performers and productivity.”

Now we know those people do think differently. They are doing something very distinct from everyone else: they’re creating systems in their lives, they’re creating habits, or they’re creating what are known as “contemplative routines” that force them to think a half-an-inch deeper about their priorities and goals. That half-an-inch more of depth pays huge dividends.

Rufus: Among all these prescriptions or methodologies, what has most impacted your own productivity and effectiveness?

Charles: The most impactful thing for me is this basic insight that efficiency and productivity are in tension with each other, and that in order to be more productive, you have to force this thinking into your life. There’s this phrase “contemplative routines,” the problem with this phrase is it sounds very pastoral, like “you should meditate.”

However, the contemplative routines are often very active and they don’t look like contemplation. Smarter Faster Better is structured on eight concepts that the most productive people tend to think differently about. One of them is innovation. How do people become innovative on demand? How do they speed up the productivity of creativity?

West Side Story is a great example of this. The team behind West Side Story was basically three guys, the key idea guy was Jerry Robbins, the choreographer. The ambition when they were starting West Side Story was that they wanted to create something wholly new. For nine years they worked on this amazing script, and they invented an entirely new language for their characters. Their characters would say things like, “skip the frabba jabba” and “cracko jacko,” which is the first time in drama that that phrase has been used.

Three weeks before the play is supposed to premiere, Jerry Robbins turns to his colleagues, and says, “I just don’t think this is working. This vocabulary is too new, it’s too original. I don’t think people are going to understand what we are trying to communicate with them.” So he says, “Let’s take three weeks and try and figure out how to fix this.”

Now, there are two things going on that are interesting: first, dime store novels about gangs have given Americans a vocabulary about gang membership. And second, Jerry Robbins is steeped in classical dance—his background is in ballet. He’s staged Swan Lake and the Nutcracker Suite. Now, what Robbins says is, “Instead of creating something entirely new, let’s take these two vocabularies that people know and let’s push them together.”

Imagine for a minute that you’re sitting in the theater in 1959. The curtain comes up on West Side Story, and you see these characters walk onstage who are dressed just like the teenagers outside the theater doors. For the first nine minutes, they don’t say anything. Instead, they start to dance, but the choreography echoes classical ballet. They start by doing this move that’s famous from Swan Lake of people interweaving and raising up their arms. All the male actors do a rond de jambe, which is a way of raising up your leg and showing possession of the stage. The reason we know West Side Story is because of this opening. It transformed everything that came afterwards in musical theater. What’s interesting about it is that it’s based on clichés, it’s based on these established vocabularies. Where the sense of newness comes from is the juxtaposition of old ideas in new ways.

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So, how did Jerry Robbins know that these ideas belong together? He is what is known in academic literature as an ‘innovation broker.’ He had incredibly wide ranging tastes. He read Romeo and Juliet and loved dime store novels. He knew ballet, but he would also go to these Jitterbug contests that they had all over New York. None of his friends from the ballet world would come with him. He would go to Communist meetings and he literally did not understand what Communists were, he just liked to watch people argue with each other. Then Jerry would come home and he would sit down and write these incredibly long letters—30 or 40 pages long. When he mailed them to friends, they would write back, “I read the first 6 pages of your letter and I threw the rest away, but here’s my response.” He wasn’t writing them for other people though, he was forcing himself to think about what he had just seen. He was forcing himself to take these ideas and try and push them together.

That was his contemplative routine, he wrote letters, and it was hard and boring. Productive people are people who force themselves to think more. They force themselves to engage in what Anders Ericsson, who wrote Peak and studied high performance, calls “deliberate practice,” where we do things that are a little bit hard and uncomfortable, but that force us to think.

That is the thing that I’ve carried away. It’s changed how I write my to-do list. It’s changed how I spend my time on the subway. It’s changed everything because I now recognize that the trick is forcing yourself to think more than everyone else around you.

“The most productive people don’t just write to-do lists once, but every day or multiple times a day.”

Rufus: What I’ve most applied to my life from your book is to-do lists. Apparently I was doing it entirely wrong. The first thing I would do in the morning is write out the last three things I did—brush my teeth, floss, kiss my wife—three checks. And then I’d  just write a bunch of other things I haven’t done. I was quite shocked to read that is not actually the right way to write to-do lists.

Charles: One psychologist who studies to-do lists told me that’s a fine way to keep track of what you need to get done, but people who do that are using a to-do list for mood repair, not for productivity. You’re writing a to-do list to make yourself feel good as you check things off.

The most productive people recognize that a to-do list is a device for prioritization, but only if you push yourself to make it into a device that forces you to think about your priorities. The way you do that is at the top of the page, write your stretch goal. What is the biggest aspiration you want to get done this week or this month?

The most productive people don’t just write it once, but every day or multiple times a day. They sit down and ask, “What is my top priority? Am I certain that what I wrote this morning is still my top priority? More importantly, does what I am doing right now line up with my top priority? Is it something that pushes me to do my highest aspiration?” Instead of being simply a list of tasks, a to-do list is something that constantly challenges you and forces you to think. It reminds you what your top priority is. And it forces you to visualize what you actually want to get done this morning. Once you have that, you’re pretty much unstoppable.

I do this every morning. It takes four minutes. Then at 1 o’clock, right after coming back from lunch, I look at the stretch goal and I try to figure out, “Does what I’m doing right now actually line up with my top priority?” If it doesn’t, stop doing it. What’s crazy is that 80% of the time, what I’m doing does not line up with my top priority. It’s probably true for you as well. We become overwhelmed by the minutiae of life, but productive people find ways to force themselves to think about their choices.

Rufus:  I wondered whether there is a utility in toggling between a highly productive, goal-oriented, scientific mindset and then retaining space to play and free associate and make those creative connections that enable you to problem solve effectively. How do you think about it?

Charles: The things that you call procrastination might actually be just yourself creating tension, because you’ve learned that a certain amount of tension and stress causes you to think in ways that you don’t otherwise do. Adam Grant wrote a chapter on procrastination and its virtues in his latest book, Originals, and he put it aside. He forced himself to put it aside and when he came back to it he found that he had all these new ideas. Part of that is because he had time for certain cognitive deliberations. Part of it, though, is because he kept on getting more and more anxious about writing this chapter and ended up thinking, “I’ve got to come up with some way to end this chapter.”

Being anxious forces us to think in different ways. If you think about how you structure your own life, you probably do things to try and create tension.

In the book, I tell the story of Qantas Flight 32, a plane that took off in 2010 from Singapore. About 20 minutes into the flight, there’s a sound like thousands of marbles being thrown against the hull. One of the jet engine turbine blades had just detached from the shaft and punched a hole in the wing big enough for a man’s body to fit through, then hit another blade. It exploded into thousands of pieces. This was shrapnel moving through the plane. It’s the worst mid-air mechanical disaster in modern aviation.

The guy who’s flying the airplane, Richard de Crespigny, is steeped in situational awareness, which is building mental models. It gives our brains a script that helps distinguish what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Richard de Crespigny basically said, “I need to think of this plane as a Cessna.” By imagining the huge passenger plane as a small Cessna and giving himself a script, he’s able to land the plane.

What’s really interesting about Richard de Crespigny is that he was so into the idea of situational awareness that when taking the shuttle from the hotel to the tarmac, he would ask his co-pilots to tell him stories about what they would do in emergencies. What are the first words out of your mouth? Where do your eyes go? Where are you going to put your hands if engine two goes out? Then he would pick fights with them. He would argue with them about what they were going to do with their hands. This is his contemplative device. He was inherently argumentative, because it forced him and the people around him to think more deeply about the stories they’re telling, the stories that they’re going to rely on in order to land this plane.

We tend to look at these productive people and think, because they’re so successful, they can indulge their eccentricity. They can be an argumentative jerk or they can be someone who’s quasi obsessive compulsive or they can take long baths in the morning or do something else weird. We say, “Oh, he’s rich so he can afford to do that.” Actually, the reason that he’s rich or she’s rich is because they do that, because they have this device that forces thinking into their life.

This is all a long way of saying, you should indulge in your eccentricities. The thing that drives your wife crazy or your husband crazy or the things your friends make fun of your for, that is actually the thing that will make you successful. It creates tension, because when you’re doing something weird, you have to justify to yourself why you are doing it and it pushes you to think a little bit more about what you’re doing.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.