You, too, can be a productivity expert

Paul Nolan

With his new book, “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business,” Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg has followed up his bestseller on habits with a close look at the choices the most productive among us make that the rest of us don’t.

SMM: Joel Stein of Businessweek wrote in his review of your book, “He’s a reasonable man trying to figure out how we all can do a little better by adjusting our life a bit.” Is that a fair summary of what you were after with this book?

Duhigg: It was about four years ago and “The Power of Habit” had just come out and was doing fairly well. In addition I was working on a big project for the New York Times that would go on to win the Pulitzer [editor’s note: a series of articles about the business practices of Apple and other technology companies entitled “The iEconomy”],so professionally it was a very successful period for me. But I would come home and tell my wife, “If this is what success feels like, sign me back up for failure because this is really, really hard.” I would get home after a long day and I really wanted to do was have a glass of wine and have dinner with my kids, and I would have 100 emails to deal with and four memos that I was halfway through and needed to finish up. It just felt like I was on this treadmill and the faster I was running, the more I was falling behind.

I felt like there were people out there for whom that wasn’t true – who seemed to get everything done that I did and more, but who still seemed relaxed and on top of things. I reached out to researchers to ask them, “Am I right? Are these people super-productive?” And researchers said they are. We know from research and science that there are some people who are vastly more productive than others. There are some companies that are more productive than other firms. The secret isn’t that they are working harder, it’s that they are working differently. They are thinking differently. They are in many ways thinking just a half an inch deeper about their goals, about their priorities, about how they sharpen their focus, how they self-motivate. And that half-inch makes all the difference whether someone is vastly different or simply busy.

SMM: Is this an innate quality, something that is learned, or is it a bit of both?

Duhigg: It’s absolutely learned. Anyone can train themselves to think differently in ways that create more productivity. Anyone can take more control over their life. It’s a matter of simply being exposed to the right lessons. But it’s a skill, just like reading or writing.

The problem is that many peoples see it as innate – that it’s the product of being exceptionally smart, or going to the right schools, or working for a company that has a lot of money. That obscures the truth. Many of the most productive people went through periods of hardship, went through periods where they didn’t go to the best schools, or they didn’t work for the best company, and it’s actually because of that period that they became more productive. When your back is against the wall you can’t afford to simply be reactive. That’s often when we train ourselves in these skills that are most essential to productivity.

SMM: In one chapter, you examine two airplane emergencies that had significantly different endings – one in a tragic crash into the Atlantic Ocean and the other with a spectacular emergency landing that is now taught in aviation schools. You state that the difference between life and death in this instance was a lead pilot’s insistence on running through all of the possible emergencies in his head before the plane ever took off. In sales, is that mental model exemplified by role playing?

Duhigg:  That is absolutely fair. One of the best ways to establish strong mental models is to tell yourself a story of what you expect to happen. Role playing is exactly that – it’s taking a script and practicing that script. What we know is the people who seem to do best at sharpening their focus and being able to avoid distractions are people who have unusually detailed mental models – unusually detailed stories that they have told themselves.

SMM: You hear the same thing about the best athletes – that they envision the game playing out in their head before they actually compete.

Duhigg: Absolutely. Michael Phelps visualizes every single race down to each stroke before he jumps in the water for exactly that reason – he wants to figure out, “What should I pay attention to and what should I ignore?”

SMM: You talk about the importance of combining SMART goals [specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) with larger stretch goals. A lot of sales managers will say that salespeople make their quotas by performing a series of smaller steps.

Duhigg: There is the saying, “Plan your work and then work your plan.” I think that’s the same thing, with one caveat: If you are too focused on the small steps, it’s possible to lose sight of your bigger priorities. Our brain craves that feeling of accomplishment from checking something off of our to-do list. It craves it at the expense of other, more important things. If you use a to-do list as an external memory aid, your eyes are going to go immediately to the easiest thing or the second-easiest thing on that list because you’re going to crave that sense of accomplishment. About 25 percent of people who write to-do lists actually put something they have already done at the top of their list.

Researchers say in addition to having a list of tasks, what you need to do is write a stretch goal at the top of your list – your biggest goal for the day or the month. The reason is to remind yourself constantly that this is the most important thing. If what you are doing right now doesn’t add to your ability to get the most important thing done, you should rethink what you’re doing right now. Don’t fall in love with the short-term accomplishments. They also recommend that you rewrite your to-do list every morning, because what you’re really trying to do is get your to-do list into a device that not only helps you keep track of what you want to get done, but forces you to ask, “What is the most important thing today? What should I be devoting most of my energy to?”

The one thing about writing down a stretch goal that way is that it can also be overwhelming. Our mind shies away from it. It wants to find something easier. You can hijack that instinct by developing systems to break large goals into smaller pieces. That is why SMART goals are so important. The idea is you need to pair that big ambition with something that helps you figure out something specific to do when you get to your desk.

SMM: You explore the five different cultures that companies tend to fall into, the most successful being a commitment culture. Can you summarize what you feel a commitment culture is?

Duhigg: It’s a place where people feel the company is committed to their success in a long-term manner. That tends to manifest in companies that are resistant to layoffs or companies that try to accommodate employees when they have life changes. The reason this is so powerful is because the type of company that we work in – the signals that we send by how we treat some of our C team players – that sends a message to some of our A team players. Keeping A team players and B team players and, frankly, sometimes C team players is actually the hardest task for a company. Losing employees to competitors is the single greatest cost to a company. So the question is how do you establish a culture where people believe that the company is committed to their success in good times and in bad?

SMM: As you were researching that, did any companies stand out as being strong commitment companies?

Duhigg: If you look at the ways that companies like Google – now Alphabet – and Facebook and Netflix are changing, all of them are trying to become more commitment companies. Google spends literally millions of dollars studying how to make their employees happier and more productive.

SMM: You work at the New York Times, a newspaper that last year published a highly publicized story on Amazon depicting the company as very different from a commitment company – one that doesn’t mind burning out employees and cycling in new ones on a regular basis. Do you have any thoughts on Amazon?

Duhigg: I didn’t work on that story and I don’t know a lot about Amazon’s culture. I think they have a culture that is very goal-oriented and they are honest about that. In some ways you could argue that they are a commitment company because commitment companies sort quickly for the types of employees who are likely to be successful there. The issue isn’t necessarily having everyone be smiling and happy. The issue is being very clear about what your culture is and abiding by the cultural promises that you make. When you go to work for Amazon, they tell you this is a goal-oriented place. If you’re the kind of person who likes high expectations and high rewards, this is the right place for you. I do know that Jeff Bezos and Amazon work very hard to retain people.

SMM: Can a manager tell ahead of time if someone is likely to be productive?

Duhigg: The best proxy for how someone will behave in the future is how they behaved in the past. Look for people who seem to have the ability to be contemplative about the choices they are making because they are people who are more likely to be productive. When you’re hiring, you should look for people who have done something unexpected and then, most importantly, who have stuck with that unexpected task until it was successful. Part of productivity is you are self-motivated and you make things happen. The truth is it’s very easy to go through each day and be reactive. People who have done something that seems unexpected for them and who say the reason why is because they thought about a goal and found a path that other people haven’t seen before, those are the people who are bound to be more productive than everyone else.

SMM: Your first book was about habits. Are there any habits you have adopted in your quest to be more productive?

Duhigg: I write my to-do lists very differently and I try to spend my time on the subway when I commute in visualizing very deliberately what my day is going to be like and what my top goals are.