Habits Expert Charles Duhigg Dives Into the Science Behind Productivity Hacks

“This act of allowing yourself to think is very, very useful because it’s a structured time when we force ourselves to think more deeply about our lives, about the choices that we’re making.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How to make the most of your to-do list
  • Why SMART goals are so, well, smart
  • The reason why Saturday Night Live should’ve been a flop, but isn’t

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss the key habits that separate the most productive and successful people from the pack.

Ryan: Through all of your work and studying that you’ve done on habits and ways to be more productive in life and business, what are some of the common characteristics of leaders who have sustained excellence over an extended period of time?

Charles: The biggest thing that researchers find about why some people are more successful than others is that they seem to have habits that push themselves to think more deeply. One of the things about modern-day life is that it is possible to be busy every minute of the day and still get nothing really important done. You could spend an entire day replying to emails and sitting in on meetings, and at the end of the day or week, realize you did not do anything that actually aligns with your deepest goals.

The people who are most successful and most productive tend to have what psychologists call “contemplative routines.” These habits are part of their lives that push themselves to think more deeply about their priorities and the choices that they’re making. They think about how teams work together or how to push themselves to self-motivate.

Ryan: You say the best to-do list strategy is to pair stretch goals and SMART goals. Can you share more [about] the process?

Charles: When most people write a to-do list, they use it as an external memory aid. They just write down a list of things that they want to get done. What we know is that your brain will focus on the things that are easiest, the things that you can get done the fastest. In fact, about 15% of people will actually write down on their to-do list something that they’ve already accomplished because it feels so good to cross it off and feel that vicarious thrill of productivity. But that’s using a to-do list not for productivity but for mood repair.

What’s more important is to structure your to-do list in a way that pushes you to think about your priorities. At the top of your to-do list, you should write your stretch goal—this can be the most important thing you want to get done this week or this month or this year, but [must be] at the top of that list so that every single time you look at it, you are reminded, “This is the number one most important thing I ought to be focused on right now.”

Habits Expert Charles Duhigg Dives Into the Science Behind Productivity Hacks

The problem with writing a big stretch goal, though, is that it can feel overwhelming. The reason we’ve been putting it off is because it scares us a little bit. The question becomes, “How do we translate a stretch goal into a plan, and how do we do that efficiently?”

One of the methods that researchers recommend is SMART goals. S, specifically what do I want to get done first? M, measurable. How am I going to measure whether it’s a success or not? A, let me just make sure this is achievable, this is something that I can actually do. R, am I set up to be realistic about this? T, what’s the timeline? It only takes 45 seconds to do these, but then [you] actually have a plan. It seems so much easier to start because [you] know what the first step is.

Ryan: The Five Minute Journal is something I write in and the basic premise of it is that you take five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night to write three of your goals for the day and talk about three things that you are grateful for. You want to [exercise] that muscle in your brain to be grateful and happy for what you have. How do you think that plays out within what you do?

“Life is not just all about productivity.”

Charles: Let’s draw a distinction—there’s practices that we develop in order to be productive, and there’s practices that we develop in order to be happy. It’s important to recognize the difference there. Both of these are really, really important, but when we focus on gratitude, that’s not because it makes us more productive, it’s because it makes our life more pleasurable. Life is not just all about productivity. We know from a lot of the happiness studies that [gratitude] will actually make you more content, and that being content and at peace helps you figure out what your goals actually are, what you actually want to get done with your life. Now, what’s interesting is that when we look at these practices that people use to reflect on themselves, one of the oldest ones that’s received the most study is prayer, simply because prayer has been such a part of human activities for almost longer than anything else. There’s a number of studies on meditation as well, but prayer has been studied far more.

Prayer tends to break down into two categories. There is the type of prayer that allows people to reflect on what they have and allows them to work through, “Do I have enough? Am I happy with what I have? Am I sufficiently grateful?” Then there’s another category of prayer which tends to be focused on what is going to happen in the future, which is really a planning activity. Prayer is one of the best contemplative practices we know, whether we call it prayer or meditation or just taking a walk and thinking about life. This act of allowing yourself to think is very, very useful because it’s a structured time when we force ourselves to think more deeply about our lives, about the choices that we’re making.

If you look at the evolution of prayer and meditation, 300 years ago, prayer used to be an almost exclusively solitary activity. You did not go into a church in order to pray. People tended to pray on their own. Then there was essentially the codification of prayer as a led activity, which is to say that there was someone at the front of the room, a priest or a monk or someone, who would give you some type of intention to pray on. They would read a piece of scripture or share part of the Quran or some piece of Buddhist learning and ask you to reflect on that.

Much like the SMART goal process, one of the things that we know about contemplative routines is that when they have a structure around them, they tend to become much more powerful. Because if a contemplative routine is purely just enjoyable and relaxing, it tends not to push us to think about hard things. But if we have some type of intention, like a passage of scripture or a Confucian ideal that we’re being asked to reflect upon, it oftentimes pushes us to think more deeply about a specific question which otherwise we might avoid because it’s a hard question to answer.

“This act of allowing yourself to think is very, very useful because it’s a structured time when we force ourselves to think more deeply about our lives, about the choices that we’re making.”

Ryan: I’d like to dig more specifically into mental models. A pilot in a story that you share in Smarter Faster Better says, “You can’t delegate thinking. Computers fail, checklists fail, everything can fail, but people can’t. We have to make decisions, and that includes deciding what deserves our attention. The key is forcing yourself to think. As long as you’re thinking, you’re halfway home.” I’d love to expand on the mental models approach and some of your research on putting this together for your book Smarter Faster Better.

Charles: Mental models are really, really interesting because they’re essentially how our brain decides what to focus on and what it can safely ignore. A mental model is basically a story we tell ourselves about ourselves as our day proceeds. One of the things that we know is that the people who are more productive than others tend to have more robust mental models. Their mental models are a little bit more detailed than everyone else’s.

A lot of what we know about mental models comes from studying people like firefighters. Why are some firefighters so much better than others? The best firefighters, when they walk into a burning building, they tend to start telling themselves a story right away about what they see. They walk into a room and they say, “Okay. In this room, I expect to see that the flames are big in that corner. There’s a staircase over there, and I expect to see the staircase have a lot of flames on it because stairs burn faster than other parts of a building.”

As a result, when they walk into that room and they’re telling themselves that story and they look at the stairs and the stairs have fewer flames than they expect, it makes them think to themselves, “Okay. Pay attention to those stairs. There’s something going on there that might be worrisome or that I just need to pay attention to. I can ignore the other corner because it looks basically like what I expected.”

Think about when you walk into your office in the morning—there’s all these distractions. Your phone is buzzing in your pocket, there are emails waiting to be responded to, there are people knocking on your door asking if you can come to a meeting. What we know is that the executives who tend to be most successful visualize or tell themselves a story about their upcoming day that’s [slightly] more detailed than everyone else.

“Mental models are really, really interesting because they’re essentially how our brain decides what to focus on and what it can safely ignore.”

Most of us say, “Okay. I’ve got a meeting from 10 till 11 o’clock.” The best executives will say, “Okay. I have a meeting from 10 till 11 o’clock. If I just imagine what’s going to happen, it’s going to start with Jim bringing up that dumb idea he always brings up. Then Susie’s going to disagree with him because Susie always disagrees with Jim. At that moment, if I come in with my idea, I’m going to look like the peacemaker. Everyone’s going to think I’m brilliant.” They tell themselves a story about what they expect to occur that day.

The reason why that’s really powerful is because our brain relies on that narrative to decide in a split second, “Pay attention to this. You can safely ignore that.” Building these mental models, getting into the habit of telling ourselves stories about what is going on as it occurs, that is really powerful in terms of preparing our brain to decide what to focus on and what distractions we should not allow to consume us.

“As long as you’re thinking, you’re halfway home.”

Ryan: Your work is full of fascinating stories. Can you explain the principle that explains why Saturday Night Live is a hit show?

Charles: That focuses on teams and why some teams are more successful than others. One of the things that we know is that the most successful teams, they tend to have what’s known as “psychological safety.” It was based on [research] looking at Google. For many years, Google tried to build the perfect team. Initially they thought that the perfect team was reliant on putting the right people together. [But] what they figured out is that who is on a team matters much, much less than how a team interacts. If you have the right culture and norms on a team, the right behaviors, then almost any team can be successful.

Habits Expert Charles Duhigg Dives Into the Science Behind Productivity Hacks

There are two norms that are more important than anything else. The first is that everyone gets to speak in a roughly equal proportion. The second is that people show each other that they’re listening, or they engage in ostentatious listening behaviors where they do things like repeat what someone just said or say, “What I hear you saying is this.” Or they pick up on non-verbal cues, so they say, “Jim, I haven’t heard you say anything in a little while, and it looks like you’re not that into this conversation. Can you tell me what’s going on inside your head?” When you have those two behaviors, people all speaking up in roughly equal proportion and people showing each other that they’re listening, you get this thing called psychological safety.

“If you have the right culture and norms on a team, the right behaviors, then almost any team can be successful.”

Psychological safety studies show that it’s the single greatest correlate with a team being effective as a unit. Saturday Night Live is a great example of that. When you think about it, Saturday Night Live should have been a disaster. Comedians are not people who get along very easily, and the thing about Saturday Night Live is that if your sketch goes on, someone else’s sketch is getting cut.

The reason why Saturday Night Live worked and the reason why it’s worked for 40 years is because Lorne Michaels forces psychological safety. If you sit in on a meeting with Lorne Michaels, executive producer of Saturday Night Live, he will force you to speak up. You can’t make it out of that room without that guy forcing you to talk. He listens ostentatiously. Any time someone says something, he says, “That’s a great idea. What I hear you saying is X and Y and Z.” Other people start mirroring that behavior. John Belushi says to Dan Aykroyd, “What I hear you saying is this thing,” and picking up non-verbal cues. Lorne Michaels creates psychological safety, and that’s why Saturday Night Live became such a hit.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Charles and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.