Increase Your Productivity and Reclaim Your Life

Interview with Charles Duhigg

Episode Description

Do you feel like no matter how hard you work, you’re always behind?

You may be successful. Perhaps you’re at the top of your game. But some part of your life is suffering. It could be family. Maybe it’s your health. Or that best friend you never have time for.

The worst part is you know of highly productive people who have time for everything important — family, health, friends and business. Nothing has to be sacrificed upon the altar of success.

What are their secrets?

Today’s podcast guest will reveal them. Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter Faster Better, used to be sitting in the same place you are now. He had achieved an incredibly successful career, but was still miserable. His daily life whizzed by in frantic activity that left him feeling empty.

Charles began investigating these highly productive people who go on vacation, spend time with family, and pursue a fulfilling work life. As he studied these people, he realized they lived differently. They were productive, yet happy and balanced. In the book, he discusses how they live and give us advice for living and working better, too.


Create Mental Models to Take Charge of Your Day

Last week, Chris McChesney described how we can get caught in the whirlwind. Emails pop up, people ask you questions, you’re invited to a meeting, and the phone rings. As you deal with all this demanding stimuli, you descend into what is called “cognitive tunneling.”

Cognitive tunneling is a natural reaction to too much stimuli.

Charles gives an example of when you see a police car out of the corner of your eye and brake suddenly, even though you’re going the speed limit. When there is a lot going on around you, your brain is wired to filter out everything but the immediate threat, he explains.

While this is very helpful in the natural world, the problem is you live in a world of information. Instead of real dangers approaching, you’re pestered by a myriad of non-threats. And yet, your brain still closes in on each stimuli as if your life depended on it.

“Once in a cognitive tunnel, you lose your ability to direct your focus,” Charles says. “Instead, you latch onto the easiest and most obvious stimulus, often at the cost of common sense.”
So, how do you get out of it?

At StoryBrand workshops, we teach that storytelling is the most powerful sense-making device for the human brain. Thus, to put yourself back in charge, Charles says you should tell yourself stories about what you think will happen and what is happening right now. Psychologists call this creating mental models.

For business leaders, this means getting up in the morning and narrating your day before it begins. Go through your meetings, how they’re going to feel, how you’ll communicate, and the likelihood of challenges and difficulties that will arise. The more specific you are, the better.

As you go through your day, continue to narrate what’s happening. This gives you better information to more accurately forecast the next situation. The goal is to create a lattice work of accurate models that help you make better decisions.

By creating mental models of the situations we face each day, we gain more control over them. We can then direct our attention to what’s really important.

Maintain an Inner Locus of Control

“When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more,” Charles points out.
Researchers back this up. They say that the trick to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings.

Program your subconscious to produce a self-image of someone with an internal locus of control.

Program your subconscious to produce a self-image of someone with an internal locus of control. Even when it feels like you’re forced to do something, remind yourself you’re choosing to do it.

As this becomes habit, making decisions becomes easier and your control increases. Soon, it becomes instinctual to say no to things that aren’t priority which is the goal. (For more on this, read or listen to Greg McKeown’s talk).

You want your brain’s self-image of being in control to automatically dictate your plan for the day and direct your attention to what is most important.

Change the Way You Make To-Do Lists

Most people use to-do lists as memory aides. You have a list of 20 or 30 things you want to get done in the next two weeks. There’s a mix of important and unimportant items all jumbled together.

This isn’t necessarily wrong, Charles points out. You shouldn’t carry all that stuff around in your head. The problem is you may be tempted to direct your eyes to the easiest items on that to-do list because it feels so good to cross them off.

“All people have this need to feel productive,” Charles says. We all crave cognitive closure.

The result is you spend hours answering unimportant emails because it’s satisfying instead of moving forward on your big and exciting goal.

Productive people tend to make to-do lists very differently than everyone else. They make a daily to-do list with only three things on it.

Productive people tend to make to-do lists very differently than everyone else. They make a daily to-do list with only three things on it.

I agree wholeheartedly. For those of you who have been reading this blog and listening to the podcast for a while, you may remember when I shared my productivity schedule. It makes space for only the three most important things to do. The rest goes in the junk drawer.

By limiting what’s on your daily to-do list, you’ll use that need for cognitive closure to your advantage. Resist that pleasure of crossing off something on your list until you’ve actually accomplished something that moves you toward your ultimate goal.

Link Unpleasant Activities to a Deep Aspiration

All of us have some part of our work that’s tedious or dull and we struggle with motivating ourselves to do it.
Charles suggests, “Make a chore into a meaningful decision and self-motivation will emerge.”

A good example is a neurologist and oncologist at Oxford who faces the dreaded task of grading piles of students’ papers. Before he begins, he says a mantra: “If I grade these papers, then we can collect tuition. If we can collect tuition, they can pay for my research. If they can pay for my research, I’m going to cure cancer. If I can cure cancer, I’ll save millions of lives. So, by grading these students’ papers, I’m going to save millions of lives.”

It seems ridiculous, particularly for a guy who has an MD-PhD, to have to do that. But, Charles points out, the reason he has an MD-PhD is because he automatically does this before tackling boring tasks.

If you link menial tasks to some deeper aspiration, goal or value, you’ll find the motivation to do them.

View Your Choices as Experiments

Most business leaders have a few regrets about previous decisions that didn’t work out.

Rather than beating yourself up about your choices, see them as experiments that will teach you something every time.
Charles says, “The whole point of running experiments is to figure out where things succeed and fail to sharpen your hypothesis.”

He cites poker as an example. You can’t become successful as a poker player unless you’re willing to lose some hands. When you lose a hand, it gives you useful information for the next round.

Mathematicians use Bayesian decision-making when they are programming computers. This is a fancy way to describe how a computer learns from what happens and makes adjustments to its future decision-making based on those results. Charles points out that the human brain is actually really good at doing this automatically. Humans easily find patterns and predictions in data that help you make better choices.

If you rescue your choices from a judgmental framework and reassign them to a Bayesian decision-making framework, you’ll see your choices as an important part of your personal programming. Learn from them and take those results to the next level.


The truth is productive people think and view the world very differently than most people— but it’s not a case of the haves and have nots. These mindsets can be learned and developed. If you shift your thinking and develop these habits, you’ll grow your motivation and increase your productivity. And you’ll do all that without working longer and harder.

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