Secrets from Scientists, CEOs and Four-Star Generals

Charles Duhigg felt that he was always wasting time. In a world where he was able to communicate with anyone at any hour and learn any fact within seconds, technology should have enabled him to do everything faster and better. But it often just made him busier and less focused, not more productive. As a Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper ­reporter, Duhigg realized that he was in a unique position to find out why. He had access not only to leading cognitive scientists studying productivity but also to some of the country’s most accomplished and productive individuals ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs to four-star generals.

What Duhigg discovered after years of investigation was that highly productive people don’t necessarily work longer hours or make more sacrifices than everyone else. Instead, they use certain strategies to decide how to ­prioritize their time and energy, avoid procrastination, make better decisions and motivate themselves. That’s especially valuable nowadays because more than one-third of all working Americans are freelancers or in transitory positions. Succeeding in the so-called New Economy requires the ability to take care of things that are important to your success with less stress, struggle and waste.

Here are five strategies Duhigg learned that anyone can use to become much more productive…

Make Small Choices

When highly productive people are faced with tasks that seem either too intimidating or too mundane, rather than put off the tasks as most people do, they pinpoint some aspect of the tasks in which they can make an immediate choice—and then they make that choice. Exercising even a little bit of influence over an activity helps break up your “internal logjam.” And once you gain even a little momentum, it’s much easier to keep going.

Example: For years, geriatric researchers have been trying to figure out why some seniors thrive inside nursing homes. At one facility in Santa Fe, the residents who fared best practiced an odd ritual in the dining hall. As soon as they were served their meals, this group of seniors started trading various food items. This small act of control—or even defiance—may sound inconsequential, but it invigorated and empowered the residents for other parts of their day.

Before I started using this strategy of making many small choices, I used to let hundreds of e-mails pile up in my in-box. Now I hit reply to a dozen e-mails at a time. In each of the reply windows that opens, I quickly write an initial sentence in which I assert some preference.

Example: If someone has asked to meet with me, I might write, “Sure, I’ll do it, but I’m only going to spend 15 minutes.” Immediately afterward, I go back to each e-mail to decide whether each of my choices is a good one. Getting out that initial sentence makes me feel more in control and makes it a lot easier to fill out the rest of each e-mail and plow through my in-box.

Identify A Larger Purpose

When you run into a setback or challenge, you might lose enthusiasm for what you’re doing. At times like that, highly productive people step back and ask themselves, Why is this task important to me?

By interpreting what they’re doing as being part of a larger constellation of projects, goals and/or values that are emotionally rewarding, they can tap into hidden reserves of motivation. ­Alternatively, if they can’t answer the question of why the task is important, it’s a sign that they should find a way to avoid or minimize it in the future.

Example: In the 1990s, US Marine Commandant Gen. Charles C. ­Krulak, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, began an experiment in which all recruits in basic training challenged one another to explain what motivated them most in the midst of the grueling 13-week course of training. A group of recruits might shout to one of their own, “It’s your birthday today. Why are you here cleaning a mess hall?” And the recruit might shout back, “To serve my country and build a better life for my family!”

In the years after Krulak began encouraging this technique and implemented several other changes, performance scores of new recruits and the number who completed boot camp both increased by more than 20%.

Smarter “To-Do” Lists

To-do lists were an essential organizational tool for me, but they actually were hurting my productivity. The problem: My lists were filled with easily achievable tasks (for example, buy groceries, weed the garden) that felt satisfying to check off but didn’t make for any real progress in my life. The to-do lists of highly productive people are different. For starters, they tend to include steps necessary to accomplish one or more large, ambitious tasks such as writing a novel, running a marathon or losing 40 pounds.

On a trip to Japan in 1993, legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch was so impressed by the country’s super-fast bullet trains that he required every division at GE to start setting a “stretch goal”—the kind of audacious goal that had resulted in the bullet trains.

Even if you’re not going to match the bullet train accomplishment, you should put at least one personal stretch goal at the top of your to-do list ­every day. Making the time for that goal forces you to think about what your deepest priorities are, not just about what chores need to be done.

Important: Welch realized that writing down grand aspirations didn’t assure they could be achieved. That’s why he always ran his stretch goals through a five-point analysis aimed at turning the goal into a concrete and realistic plan. The so-called SMART system that he used was created by a pair of psychologists in the 1970s. The acronym stands for…

Specific: Write down exactly what you want to achieve.

Measurable: How will you assess how you’re doing as you go along?

Achievable: How can you break this goal into a series of smaller actions that will move you in the right direction each day?

Realistic: What could go wrong as you carry out these small actions? How can you avoid and/or bounce back from the potential pitfalls?

Timeline: How long will working toward the goal take each day, week or month? What has to change in your life so that you can find the time to do it?

Avoid Information Blindness

It makes sense that the more information and choices you have, the more effective your decision-making and the greater your productivity should be. But in the last decade, the amount of information at our fingertips has soared while the ability to learn and benefit from this information hasn’t kept pace. The result is that we often feel ­overwhelmed by information and therefore stop moving ahead on a particular matter as we should. When you feel overwhelmed by information…

Break data into binary choices. Humans are much more likely to engage and make effective decisions when they evaluate just two or three options at a time. Example: When someone hands you a huge wine list at a restaurant, don’t peruse the whole thing. Instead, make a decision efficiently by winnowing your options in quick stages. First, Do I want red or white? Next, Expensive, moderate or cheap? Then, A $30 bottle of Chardonnay or a $35 Sauvignon Blanc?

Grapple with the information in front of you—don’t just look at the information. Example: I was trying to lose weight. I got a bathroom scale that wirelessly transmitted my weight each morning to an app on my phone that recorded it. The technology made the procedure so effortless that I soon stopped paying attention.

I didn’t lose weight until I began transcribing my daily weight manually and plotting the measurements on graph paper. Having to write the number down every day had much more of an impact. The more we interact with information, the more we tend to ­absorb it.

Make Your Bed

What I’m about to tell you, I mean quite literally—make your bed. Only about 40% of people make their beds every day. But extensive research suggests that this simple action, which takes just a few minutes, has a high correlation with increased ­productivity.

It may be that inherently highly productive people are more apt to make their beds because they are so productive. But I think it works in the other direction as well—making one’s bed helps start a chain reaction each day that spurs better motivation and decision-making. It creates an immediate and visual sense of accomplishment and momentum at the start of the day that enhances your ability to achieve other goals. And it’s too easy not to try.