A Q&A with Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better
April 26, 2016
Charles Duhigg's first book, The Power of Habit, changed the way we view how habits form and how they change. His new book, Smarter Faster Better, released last month, is having a similar impact in the areas of motivation and performance. We sent him some questions about it all.
Charles Duhigg's exploration of productivity started from a very personal place. While finishing his first book, The Power of Habit, he reached to Atul Gawande to see if he had time to talk. Gawande is an accomplished surgeon and prolific writer, a MacArthur “genius” and advisor to the World Health Organization, and Charles wanted to ask him what his secret was, how he managed to be so productive. When Gawande replied that, unfortunately, he did not have the time because of other commitments, Duhigg understood:
I imagined his days were consumed with healing patients, teaching medical students, writing articles, and advising the world’s largest health organization.
No, my friend told me, I had it wrong. That wasn’t it. Gawande was particularly busy that week because he had bought tickets to a rock concert with his kids. And then he was heading on a mini-vacation with his wife.
In fact, Gawande had suggested to our mutual friend that I should email him again, later that month, when he would have more time in his schedule for chatting.
At that moment, I realized two things:
First, I was clearly doing something wrong because I hadn’t taken a day off in nine months; in fact, I was growing worried that, given a choice between their father and the babysitter, my kids would pick the sitter.
Second, and more important, there were people out there who knew how to be more productive. I just had to convince them to share their secrets with me.
Being the diligent and undauntable reporter that he is, he succeeded in that mission, and Smarter Faster Better is the result. One of the great things about the book is that, at the end of it, he tells you how he applied the ideas and lessons directly to the process of writing of the book. It's something I've never seen done before in a book, and it wraps everything up and really brings it all home in a great and memorable way. (If you'd like to learn more about Charles and his work, head over to charlesduhigg.com.)
I recently sent him some questions about the new book, and he was kind enough to answer them at length. So, without further ado…
A Q&A with Charles Duhigg
800-CEO-READ: All the scientific research you cite suggests that self-motivation can be taught—that it is not an intrinsic part of our moral character or makeup. Perhaps even more powerful, it suggests that once we learn this skill and begin practicing a “bias toward action,” the sense of control that it provides is self-reinforcing. So how or where do we start? How can we make our chores into more meaningful choices, and link our daily activities to a larger purpose?
Charles Duhigg: The key to self-motivation is realizing two things: First, to trigger the parts of our brain associated with motivation, we need to feel like we’re in charge. We need to feel like we have some agency and control over our lives. That’s why making a chore into a choice is so powerful: Because it gives us a chance to assert our control. But control, on its own, often isn’t enough. It needs to be accompanied by a sense that we’re pursuing our deepest aspirations, our most important goals.
The way we achieve this is, oftentimes, by taking a moment to ask ourselves why we’re doing something—and how we can assert our sense of choice. One researcher I interviewed, for instance, told me that his least favorite activity was grading student papers. And so before he started grading, in order to motivate himself, he always repeated a mantra that reminded him why this activity was important: “If I grade these student papers, the university will be able to collect tuition dollars, and if the university can collect tuition dollars, they can fund my laboratory, and if they can fund my laboratory, I can pursue my cancer research, and if I can pursue my cancer research, I can save lives.” Then, he would pick whatever question was his favorite one, and start by grading that first—he would, in other words, assert himself. He would find a choice in what, otherwise, seemed like a chore.
Now, this researcher had a PhD in genetics, as well as an MD. There is no reason why someone with that much education—someone who is brilliant, by any measure—should have to remind himself why he’s grading papers. And yet, he felt like this routine was important. So much of our days and lives are so busy that it’s often easy to lose sight of why we’re doing the task right in front of us. There is so much that forces us into a reactive mindset that it’s hard to remember that we can find a choice in any task, if we look just half-an-inch deeper. And yet, reminding ourselves of why, and finding opportunities to exert control, are critical to generating self-motivation. All it takes is a brief moment, and we can re-awaken that part of our brain that pushes us forward after that sense of control, and those goals, that we know make it easier to begin.
8cr: In self-motivation, why we are doing something is the key question. In teams, you’ve found that it is most important to ask how we do it. Why is that so important to teams, and why is it that teams made up of less intelligent or skilled individual members can be more effective and more intelligent collectively than a team of superstars?
CD: Four years ago, Google decided to answer a basic question: How do you build the perfect team? They spent millions of dollars examining their initial hypothesis: that what matters most is the right combination of personalities among teammates. They examined teams that were mixes of introverts and extroverts. They scrutinized groups comprised of friends, to see if knowing each other away from the conference table made a difference to a team’s effectiveness.
What they discovered, however, was that none of that mattered even a fraction as much as how a team interacts. The rituals, group behaviors and culture that a team develops, it turns out, are the most important ingredient in making a team click. And the most important behaviors are those that encourage ‘psychological safety’: A feeling that teammates can take risks and be honest among each other, without worrying about the consequences of voicing a bad idea.
So how do we encourage psychological safety? Studies by the researcher Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, as well as others, show that the key to creating psychological safety involves two things. First, the members of a team need to speak, on average, in roughly equal proportion. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to speak equally at every meeting. Nor does it mean that everyone needs to chime in on every topic. But, over time, there should be what’s known as ‘equality in conversational turn taking.’ Put differently, everyone needs to feel like they can speak up when they feel like it.
Second, teammates need to demonstrate—sometimes ostentatiously—that they are listening to each other. They need to repeat what colleagues have said, and need to build on each others remarks, instead of merely waiting their turn to talk. They need to close their computers—so they can make eye contact—and when someone seems upset or distracted, the team leader needs to interrupt the conversation to ask them what’s going on inside their head.
What’s interesting about these behaviors is that they are not necessarily efficient. Encouraging teammates to speak about topics they don’t know much about (in order to encourage equality in conversational turn taking), and stopping a meeting to ask someone why they look so distracted might prolong a meeting. They aren’t the steps we might take to make sure everyone gets done on time. But they are critical building blocks for psychological safety—and study after study show that they will help a group really come together and find those insights and solutions that individuals are likely to overlook. Encouraging everyone to speak, and then demonstrating that we’re listening, are how a group becomes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
8cr: What is an innovation broker, and how can we promote this kind of work in our organizations to do more creative work, more quickly? At the same time, how can we make sure one strong idea doesn’t crowd out others? You tell us that “Creativity can’t be reduced to a formula.” The creative process, however, may be different. How so? and how does that tie back into how we make decisions and set goals?
CD: An innovation broker is someone who has seen people attack the same problems in different settings, and so they know how to solve a dilemma when an old obstacle comes up in a new place. They are, in other words, people who transfer ideas between various departments or groups. “This is not creativity born of genius,” the sociologist Ronald Burt wrote. “It is creativity as an import-export business.”
Innovation brokers are critical to how creativity occurs, because much of what we think of as being ‘creative’ isn’t the product of an artist’s brainstorm. Instead, it's someone importing an old idea into a new environment. Take, for instance, when Disney was making the movie Frozen. Most of us know Frozen as a blockbuster, one of the most successful films in modern history. But what most people don’t realize is that Frozen was on the brink of catastrophe until just months before it was released.
To make Frozen into a success, Disney committed itself to a creative process that asked the filmmakers to indulge their innovation broker instincts. During one particular meeting, the head of Disney animation asked the Frozen filmmakers to talk about what ideas they wanted to combine within this film. He asked them what they really wanted to say with this movie. The filmmakers said that one critical idea was princesses: they wanted to say something new about the princess genre (and Disney, they noted, knows more about princesses than almost anyone else. So they were on safe territory when playing with that idea). Then they had to decide what they wanted to combine ‘princesses’ with. What ideas did they want to broker?
One filmmaker mentioned sisters. The thing about sisterhood, this person said, is that it’s interesting. Typically, a family doesn’t contain an evil sister and a good sister. Rather, sisters are usually equally messed up. Sisters often come together, and then grow apart, and then come together again. That seemed like an important idea to explore.
Once the Frozen filmmakers knew what ideas they wanted to combine—what they wanted to broker—making Frozen became a lot easier. Their story wasn’t a traditional princess tale, where the prince saves a damsel in distress at the end. Instead, it was an exploration of sisterhood—which meant that the sisters could save each other, and that the prince could be the villain (and that they could withhold that revelation until the movie’s end). Creativity isn’t a formula, but there are processes—like pushing ourselves to figure out what ideas we want to combine—that let us see old stories or problems in new ways, and that increase the odds that something original and new will result.
8cr: We live in an information glut, both at home and at work. How can making that information and data “more cumbersome to absorb”—taking it out of spreadsheets and databases and forcing us to us interact with it in a tactile, more hands on manner—make it more useful to us?
CD: Within psychology, there is a concept known as ‘disfluency’ that helps explain how we make things easier to learn. Oftentimes, if we just see an idea—or read about a concept, or glance at some fancy graph that makes data easy to understand—we’re likely not to really absorb that piece of information. To make ideas and data stick inside our heads, we often need to do something with the information. We need to explain it to a friend, or write down what we just learned, or come up with an experiment that lets us test if what we just heard is really true. It’s not enough for your bathroom scale to send daily updates to an app on your phone. If you want to lose weight, force yourself to plot those measurements on graph paper and you’ll be more likely to choose a salad over a hamburger at lunch. If you read a book filled with new ideas, force yourself to put it down and explain the concepts to someone sitting next to you and you’ll be more likely to apply them in your life. That’s when information becomes knowledge. That’s when we really absorb something new.
8cr: What book has influenced your work the most?
There are two books that have probably influenced me more than any others. The first is Hiroshima, by John Hershey. Hiroshima is a demonstration of the power of narrative non-fiction, the ability a book has to take even life’s biggest events, and make them seem intimate and compelling—as long as they are told through characters and experiences we can relate to.
The second is Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis. Liar’s Poker is a wonderful demonstration of how much fun it can be to read, and how engaging a piece of literature can be when a writer’s first goal is to entertain themselves and the world.