Smarter Faster Better author Charles Duhigg on how to build a productive team

The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of “The Power of Habit” delves into the science of productivity in a new book

Charles Duhigg speaks at the New York Times New Work Summit in March 2016

Charles Duhigg speaks at the New York Times New Work Summit in March 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty)

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Charles Duhigg for The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit delves into the science of productivity in his new book Smarter Faster Better. It answers questions that nearly all of us struggle with: goal setting, motivation and decision-making, as well as organizational mysteries such as what makes a successful team and what produces innovation. Here’s what he had to say about the science of getting productive, both individually and as a team.

What’s your biggest takeaway from writing a book about productivity?

We tend to think of productivity as an innate skill. You’re either born particularly productive or super smart, or your parents taught you great habits. That’s actually not true at all. What most of the science shows is that anyone can learn to become productive. It’s not about being particularly smart or having access to resources. In fact, some of the most productive people come from situations where there’s a little bit of hardship. Where they didn’t have the perfect job, or grew up with parent who were distracted and working all the time. These people became productive because they had to think a little bit more, be choosier about how they spend their time and what they focused on. And that’s really the big insight. The reason anyone can become more productive is because it’s a learned skill. It’s a way of teaching yourself to think about how we approach certain problems. Once you do that, you gain more control. You stop being reactive and start deciding what you actually want to get done.

You wrote a chapter on goal-setting. Tell us about stretch goal and SMART goal.

This really comes from the science of to-do list. Most people, myself included, write to-do lists in the wrong way. I would take a couple of big things I want to get done like run a marathon, lose 30 pounds, and put it at the bottom of the page. Then at the top of the page, I put a bunch of easy things that are simple to do because it felt so good to cross them off when I got to my desk. When I was talking to psychologists, they said that’s not using a to-do list for productivity, that’s using it to do what’s called “mood repair,” to make yourself feel good, rather than get things done.

What you want in a to-do list or when setting goals is two things. First, you want to remind yourself of what your top priority is. You want to use a to-do list not just as a list of tasks, but as a system for forcing you to think about what’s most important to you. Then, you want to put that at the top of your page. You want to engage in some kind of active dialogue with yourself about what is my overarching goal, what do I really want to get done this week, and how do I remind myself of that. So you put what’s known as a stretch goal at the top of the page.

However, the problem with a stretch goal is it’s so overwhelming that it can be hard to know where to start. If I want to run a marathon, I don’t know exactly how to start that, and starting is actually the hard part. So what psychologists recommend is underneath the stretch goal, you have a system to force you to break some component of it into a plan—to start thinking about the goal in a methodological way. SMART goal is a great way of doing this.

A SMART goal is just a series of steps you go through to figure out what you want to do. It’s called SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timeline) because you choose specifically what you want to do. Then you think about how you are going to measure it and whether it’s achievable. To make it achievable, you have to make it realistic. Do you set aside an hour every day to do it? And what’s the timeline for this first step? When you’re done, you basically have this piece of paper that tells you “Here’s your top priority for this week, and here’s how to get started on it.”

You also have advice on motivation. How can we generate self-motivation when we don’t feel motivated?

Here’s what we know about how motivation works. The neurology around motivation is tied to a part of our brain known as the striatum and the basal ganglia. They become active when we make choices—when we feel like we’re in control. So if you want to generate self-motivation, you need to find some choice that makes you feel like you’re in control. It could be something as simple as saying “I’m going to respond to the email at the middle of my inbox to start with,” or if you’re a teacher, “I’m choosing to grade these papers because grading these papers would help my university earn money, and that money helps me do cancer research.” Something that makes you feel you’re in control, and then tie whatever you’re doing to a bigger set of values and aspirations.

Many of us find it difficult to make big life decisions. How can decision making be made easier?

People who make decisions particularly well engage in what’s known as probabilistic thinking, which means recognizing that most choices don’t have binary outcomes. Most choices have outcomes that are along a curve of possibilities. Let’s take getting married for example. Most people look back on their decision to get married and say it was either a good decision or a bad decision, and it was somewhat inevitable that I was going to end up marrying this person. Well, we know that’s not really true. When you’re thinking about getting married, there are all types of possibilities. It could be you get married and it turns out great. Or you get married and it turns out okay, but not great. Or you get married and then divorced, or you get married, have kids and then get divorced. Or you marry someone else, or you never get married.

The more that people push themselves to think about all the possibilities that could happen, and particularly to visualize and think a little bit on possibilities that might contradict with each other, the more they become attuned to understanding what’s really likely and what’s less likely. What are the things I should be paying attention to and what can I safely ignore. A lot of making decisions in life is about training ourselves to think through various possibilities. But our brain’s instinct is to think of things as binary choices. In fact, it prefers it. So we have to push ourselves to break out of that binary frame of mind. How do I frame this question in ways that aren’t obvious at first to help me learn other possibilities and ways of looking at this. By considering all the possible outcomes, our intuition can then push us towards a wise decision.

Moving beyond individual productivity to organizational productivity: in the book you say great teams have two characteristics. What are those, and how can leaders foster these types of teams?

Google took four years and millions of dollars trying to figure out how to build the perfect team. They originally approached that question by asking “how do we put the right people together?” That turned out to be the wrong question, because putting the right people together tends to have relatively little impact on whether that team succeeds or not. What matters much more is whether the team culture encourages two things. First, it encourages people to roughly speak in equal proportion over time. Second, does the group have high social sensitivity? Can people pick up on each other’s non-verbal cues and be attuned to understanding what people are really saying? If you have a group where people roughly speak equally and demonstrate to each other that they’re listening, then you have what’s known as psychological safety. It’s shown that groups that have psychological safety tend to outperform other groups significantly.

Successful groups tend to have someone who says at the end of the meeting “let’s all just go around and share their takeaway from this meeting.” Or if someone hasn’t spoken in a while, they’ll stop and say “hey Jim, I haven’t heard from you in a while, what are you thinking about?” Or, they tend to have leaders who pay attention to people’s body language and say “Susan, you look really excited about this idea, do you want to take a lead on it?” They show that they’re really paying attention.

Google came up with a checklist that people can do to increase psychological safety. One of the things says when you come into the meeting, close your computer, because that way you can make eye contact with each other. Most of us keep our computer open because we think it’s more efficient to keep one eye on the computer and don’t think it’s important to look at each other during a meeting. But actually, if you close the computer, it forces people to show that they’re listening to each other. It increases social sensitivity, and as a result, makes that team better. These are all acquired skills. Anyone can learn to become a good team member.

How does a company’s culture play into its success?

There was a Stanford research project that looked at startups in Silicon Valley and found that there were these five business models that most of the companies fell into. The commitment model was the one that most people disdained. A lot of CEOs would say that’s an old way of running a company, where the CEO says “I hope people never leave.” But the researchers found that it was actually the most successful model.

When a company is committed to its employees, those employees tend to work harder, work longer and achieve innovations faster. And most importantly, the best employees don’t leave and take their clients and insights to competitors. So the question for companies isn’t how do I get rid of the worst workers, it’s also how do I keep the best ones. And it’s not just money and stock that keep the best ones. Studies show that best employees stay if they feel like that company is genuinely committed to their success, and there’s a culture of commitment between the company and the workers and the workers to each other.

If you look at the most successful companies—Google, Facebook, Amazon, places that started as engineering culture or star culture have moved towards commitment culture. Facebook is a great example of this. It has an incredibly generous maternity leave and paternity leave program. Netflix allows you to take as much time as you want for vacation. Those are commitment companies that say your happiness is more important to us than trying to wring all the productivity we can out of you. That turns out to pay off. Most of the companies that become successful tend to become commitment companies over time because the CEOs and managers realize this commitment model is much more successful.

What lessons did you learn about innovation when you interviewed the people at Disney Animation regarding the creation of the hit animated film Frozen?

Disney has this core belief that innovation is really about a process and not about creative people. They’ve discovered that anyone can be creative, and that the most creative people are in a process that encourages creativity. At the core of that is this insistence that you should look into your core experiences as the roots of finding something new.

At Disney, they were making the movie Frozen. Most people think of Frozen as this huge blockbuster. But what they don’t know is that it was on the brink of catastrophe to literally months before it was in the theatres. So Disney sat down and said “look, let’s go back to what we know.” Disney knows princesses, and it turns out on the filmmaking team, there’s an unusually large number of women. So the group said the other things we know pretty well is sisters. We know that sisters actually have complicated relationships—usually it’s not that there’s one good sister and one evil sister. There’s usually two sisters who are kind of equally messed up and are friends and then enemies and then friends again. So what if we took these things that we knew—princesses and sisters—and put them together? Instead of the prince saving the princess, what if two princesses saved each other? And if you did that, the prince could actually be the villain, but you don’t have to reveal that until the end of the movie.

That’s Frozen. And it feels fresh and new, but it’s actually just these old ideas—things that people already knew put together in new ways. It’s the process that encourages people to look at what they already know and try and put things in a new way that creates innovation.