In a world that seems to be moving faster and faster, we are constantly looking for ways to increase our productivity. The eternal question is, how can I get more things done in a shorter amount of time? But maybe we’re framing the question wrong. Perhaps we need to step back and examine what’s most important to us and how we’re forming habits that reflect those priorities.
For this installment of our “6 Questions With” series, we spoke with Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author of both The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, about habit formation, productivity and (you guessed it!) language learning.
1. You’ve made several career changes, going from working in private equity to being a journalist, and now an author. Was this always your plan, or have you been kind of playing it by ear as you go?
DUHIGG: It’s been happening over a long time. I wouldn’t say I’ve been playing it by ear over the last 25 years [laughs]. I started as an entrepreneur. When I graduated from college, I started a company in New Mexico, which is where I’m from, and decided to go to business school. In business school, I was trying to decide whether to go into journalism or stay in business. I decided to go into journalism. That’s what I’ve been doing since then.
2. What was it about habit formation that sparked your interest?
DUHIGG: Well, I think that everyone has habits. I felt like I was a fairly successful and smart person. I couldn’t figure out why there were these parts of my life, these habits, that I felt like I didn’t have perfect control over. Why was it so hard to exercise? Why was it so hard to eat more healthily? If I could make myself work 12 or 13 hours in a row at journalism, why couldn’t I make myself get up in the morning to go for a jog? I wanted to spend more time understanding where habits really come from, and then what causes them. As I was getting into it, I found that it was just fascinating.
3. You wrote a book on habit formation and then you wrote another book on productivity. How do you define productivity and how does it relate to habits?
DUHIGG: I think that the question I was asking with Smarter Faster Better was, “Why are some people and companies more productive than others?” At the root of that, I found one of the answers was that people who are really productive are people who spend time thinking about what productivity is. Throughout history, thinking more deeply has always been the killer productivity app. The people who can train themselves to think hardest are the ones who end up doing the most important things. Secondary to that is that people need to realize that there’s a difference between productivity and being busy, because you can be busy all day long and not get anything important done.
I think that to be productive, you need to ask yourself, “What is productivity for you? What does a productive Wednesday look like versus a productive Friday? How important is it to you, in terms of thinking about productivity, that you have time to spend with your kids versus getting all of your work done?” For many people, productivity doesn’t mean that you reply to every email. And yet, we know that you can make yourself feel busy all the time by answering email after email. I think those are all important things to think about.
4. How do you personally define productivity in your life?
DUHIGG: I define productivity as feeling like I’m doing important, satisfying work every day, and that I’m doing work that is smart, and that I’m on top of the things that I need to be on top of in order to feel like things aren’t getting out of control. For instance, I run half marathons. Getting enough training in that I can run a half marathon, without it being devastating, is important to me. I have two kids, so feeling like I’m actually spending time with them, and that it’s meaningful time, is also important for productivity. Doing reporting and writing stories on topics that I think are important, and meaningful, and that will be meaningful to other people, and that have something smart to say — that’s also really important to me.
5. Out of all of the work you’ve done in the areas of habit formation and productivity, what are a couple of the biggest takeaways, or tips that people can use to improve their lives?
DUHIGG: I think there’s a couple. The first is that the more that you build thinking into a habit, the easier it’s going to be and the more successful you’re going to be. When I say that, sometimes people think that means, “I should go take a long walk in the woods.” That isn’t necessarily what it means. What it oftentimes means is that, for instance, you write letters to friends. Because the thing about writing a letter is that it forces you to think about what’s going on inside your life, the choices that you’re making and whether you’re on track or not.
A habit that I have is that every day when I come home from work, I tell my wife about that day. I tell her what I got done that day and what I didn’t get done. I kind of force myself to reflect in conversation with her about what went well today and what could have gone better. How can I make it better next time? Or it could be taking a walk, but taking a walk where it feels like work, and you’re actually asking yourself a series of questions. Within psychology, these are known as cognitive routines. When we get into the habit of doing something that pushes us to think a little bit more deeply, these routines tend to help us understand our goals better and how to achieve those goals.
Secondarily, there’s also thinking about your own habits; taking a moment to ask yourself, “Okay, which habits do I want to create? Which ones do I want to try and change?” Then to diagnose the cues and the rewards that are driving those habits. “Okay, so if I want to create an exercise habit, what’s the cue for that? What reward am I going to give myself after I come back from a run? If I want to change my eating habits, what am I going to do? What’s the cue for eating snacks instead of something healthy? What can I do instead that corresponds to the old cue and to deliver something similar to the old reward?” If you get in the habit of thinking about your habits, if you get in the habit of helping yourself think more deeply by having some cognitive routine or ritual, that pays huge dividends.
6. Can these findings can also be applied to learning a new language?
DUHIGG: Absolutely. I think that if you’re studying a language, you have to think about how you reward yourself when you learn something new in that language. We know that habits only take root when there’s a reward there to cause your brain to say, “Oh, this is something I should remember for the future and make easier.” If you learn 10 new vocabulary words, what’s the reward that you give yourself? If you have a great conversation, what’s the reward that you give yourself? What’s the cue in order to practice that language?
Are you going to a Middle Eastern restaurant once a week so you can practice your Arabic or your Farsi with your waiter? That’s kind of scary to do the first time. But if you go in, and you work up your courage, and you try out your Farsi with someone who you’ve never spoken to before, and even if it’s not perfect, what do you reward yourself with? How do you reward yourself for doing something that’s hard?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.