How to Be More Productive

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When we asked Freakonomics Radio listeners what would they like to improve during our self-improvement month, productivity beat all the other options 3:1. So, why are we all so obsessed with productivity? (photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)

When we asked Freakonomics Radio listeners what they would most like to improve about themselves,  productivity was the runaway winner. Why is everyone so obsessed with getting more done in less time? (photo: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Be More Productive.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

It’s Self-Improvement Month at Freakonomics Radio. We begin with a topic that seems to be on everyone’s mind: how to get more done in less time. First, however, a warning: there’s a big difference between being busy and being productive. 

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Get Faster”

STEPHEN J. DUBNER: So, Levitt, I don’t know if you know, but it is Self-Improvement Month at Freakonomics Radio.

STEVE LEVITT: Yeah, I thought every month was Self-Improvement Month at Freakonomics Radio.

DUBNER: You seem to always be working on improving something about yourself. So what is it these days?

LEVITT: I’ve been working on two things. I am always working on golf and trying to be better at golf. And I’ve also been trying to learn German, which is a very different kind of endeavor for me.

MUSIC: The Bad Things, “The Longest Bar in the World” (from The Bad Things)

Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author; he’s an economist at the University of Chicago. Levitt is recently remarried and his wife is German, which explains his desire to learn the language.

DUBNER: Talk about how you learn. Are you self-taught or not?

LEVITT: I am primarily self-taught. But, you know that one thing I value very highly is enjoyment and happiness. And I’m definitely willing to sacrifice being a better German speaker in order to actually enjoy the German practice I do. So, in some ways, it’s probably the exact wrong message to send to the people who are listening to this podcast, but I still think there’s some truth to it. One of the things that’s overlooked about learning a new skill is that the only people who ever get good are the people who keep on doing it. And most people quit, probably rightly quit, because it looks enticing from the outside, and it isn’t that much fun when they actually start trying to learn a new skill. But for me, with German, I definitely have been of the mind that it has to be fun. And if it’s not fun, I won’t do it.

MUSIC: Wolfram Gruss “Busy Berlin”

So that’s what Levitt’s been working on. What are you working on? We recently asked Freakonomics Radio listeners to let us know, and we got lots of responses. Where do we start? Let’s start with … this guy.

CHARLES DUHIGG: OK. My name is Charles Duhigg.

Duhigg is a reporter and editor at The New York Times.

DUHIGG: And the author of The Power of Habit and, more recently, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

DUBNER: So, Charles, when we put a call-out to Freakonomics Radio listeners and told them that we were working on self-improvement in several realms — productivity with you, but also expert performance with Anders Ericsson; we’d be talking about grit with Angela Duckworth; and we’d be talking about how to beat your friends and family at any game on Earth; and we asked people to tell us what they were most wanting to improve in their lives — I think productivity probably outpaced the others maybe 3:1, combined.


DUBNER: So, plainly, the appetite for this is just off the charts, and it got me wondering about why that appetite is so large.

DUHIGG: I think it’s because our experience matches so poorly with our expectation. We’re living through this age where they keep on telling us, “Look, we have all these devices for you now.” We have e-mail, and we have a communications revolution, and we have computers in everything that you can possibly touch, and the idea should be that life gets easier. And instead, it’s just getting harder and harder. And that doesn’t seem like how things are supposed to go.

MUSIC: Russel L. Howard III “Get Busy”

When I told Steve Levitt that “productivity” was the most popular request, he was not at all surprised.

LEVITT: Productivity is the key to everything. If you can be 10 percent faster at getting the same thing done, then you’ve got 10 percent of your time to do something you’d rather do. When it comes to economics, if there’s a single measure we should care about it’s productivity of workers. I give a lot of credit to our listeners that they think like economists when it comes to productivity.

And how does Levitt rank himself on the productivity scale?

LEVITT: I’m actually a strangely productive person, and I’m not quite sure why. But, you give me a pile of stuff to do, I get it done quickly. Whether it’s something academic — or when I got a new apartment, for instance. I took my four kids with me, and we did all of the furniture shopping for the entire apartment, for a six-room apartment, in under two hours, including the checking out and buying everything, with four kids!

DUBNER: OK, how’d you do that? What are your tricks?

LEVITT: To tell the kids that everything looks great. “Let’s do it. Perfect. You got 15 more minutes and then we’re leaving. Let’s go.

On today’s show, Charles Duhigg will offer many more tricks — and deeper strategies — to help you become more productive, especially in a work environment but in your personal life as well. First, however, a warning:

DUHIGG: There’s actually a big tension and a difference between efficiency and productivity. There’s actually a big difference between being busy and being productive.

Duhigg’s new book Smarter Faster Better combines old-fashioned reporting and a survey of the academic literature to identify best productivity practices. His first book, The Power of Habit, did the same for habit formation. I had assumed the second book was sort of a continuation of the first; but Duhigg sees it as the opposite.

DUHIGG: Because The Power of Habit is all about these decisions that you stop making — choices that become automatic, that I simply stop thinking about. Whereas productivity is about re-grabbing control over the choices instead of simply reacting to what’s in my environment and all the cues around me; it’s about sitting down and deciding, “I’m in charge about what I do with my time and what my goals are and how I manage my focus and how I control my brain.”

DUBNER: I’m curious, when you talk about productivity, what are you talking about? Because I think when a lot of economists think about productivity, we think about them thinking about how to squeeze another widget out of that production line.

DUHIGG: Absolutely. And I think, for most people, that’s not productivity, right? I think what’s important to realize is that productivity means different things in different settings. And it’s not necessarily what economists mean when they say, “just getting more widgets out of each machine each hour” or more cars off the assembly line for every hour that someone works. Instead, what it means is: helping people figure out how to achieve their goals with less waste and less anxiety and less stress and more opportunity to actually enjoy what they want to enjoy. So, for some people, that might mean that I’m able to blow through 30 e-mails in 30 minutes and get to inbox zero. But, for other people, it means I get to take my kids to school without having to rush, and I still feel OK when I get to the office. But most importantly, what productivity really means, is: it means a different way of thinking.

MUSIC: j. cowit, “Lazy Susan” (from Metamorphosis World Peace)

This is the crux of Duhigg’s book — that the only way you’ll change your outcomes is to think differently about how you’ve been arriving at those outcomes. It’s one of those statements that is obvious in retrospect but weirdly non-obvious to a lot of us caught up in the thrum of daily life. For instance:

DUHIGG: When electricity was first popularized, there was this huge wave of factories that replaced their steam engines with electrical engines. And almost none of the productivity of those factories rose initially. This has been referred to in economics literature as the productivity paradox. And as researchers went back and they tried to figure out why, what they found is that all the factory managers had arrayed all of the machines, had lined them up on the factory floor, so that they could have these steam pipes that would run from machine to machine. And when they electrified the plants, they left all the machines in the same places; they just replaced the pipes with wires. It took like 20 or 25 years for plant managers to start saying, “Look, the strength of electricity isn’t simply a new power source. It’s that we can move these machines in ways that we can have workers work more efficiently or we can use less people or we can create an assembly line.” And that’s where the productivity increase really came from. And the same thing is happening today.

Meaning, it’s not enough to blithely accept the many new tools the digital revolution keeps shoving in our hands. We need to rethink how to best use them and toward what end.

DUHIGG: There’s this debate about whether the digital revolution is really increasing productivity. And when economists and people with common sense take a step back, what they say is, “Look, it’s not about all these gadgets and apps; it’s about learning new ways to think about possibilities, new ways to think about our capacity for work.” And when that really gets spread through the population, that’s when productivity really increases.

That debate — about how much, or even whether, the digital revolution is actually increasing productivity — has been playing out here on Freakonomics Radio. One episode we did was called “Yes, the American Economy Is in a Funk – But Not for the Reasons You Think.” Another was called “How Safe Is Your Job?” Those conversations dealt mostly with the macro view. But hey, we’re all self-interested animals, aren’t we? So you want to know what the digital revolution means for you.

DUHIGG: All of us only have 24 hours each day, but some people seem to get a lot more done within that 24 hours, and they seem less stressed and sort of worked up about it. And the reason why is not because they’re kind of hacking themselves or they’re pulling strings. They’re not really focused on efficiency. What they’re focused on is trying to figure out: what are the right goals that I should be chasing after?

DUBNER: Now, before we get into the specifics of what leads to a more productive life, whether in work or in the personal sphere, persuade us that the examples you’ll be using and the data that you’ll be presenting aren’t cherry-picked. In other words, persuade us that you’re not just telling success stories and then reverse-engineering them to present seemingly causal factors that might in fact be nothing more than correlation and perhaps even just coincidence.

DUHIGG: I talked to, I don’t know, four or five hundred people for this book. And I had this basic rule, which was that when someone told me something that they felt made them more productive, that I wouldn’t include it in the book unless it seemed to be universal. And so if I talked to four or five hundred people, I probably heard 300 different ideas about how to increase productivity. But what I would find is that one set of ideas would work for a group and then another group would say exactly the opposite. So a good example of this is, like, the fanatical devotion on one goal at all costs. When I talked to people in Silicon Valley, they would say, “Here’s the most important thing on being productive, is that you choose, like, one outcome and you just remain persistent.” And then I would talk to people in big companies and they’d say, “Here’s the thing about being productive. You have to be flexible. You can’t commit yourself to one goal.” And this happened again and again and again, except that I did notice that there was this small handful of consistent ideas that kept on coming up. As I boiled through all of these stories and all of these papers that I was reading and all of these experts, there were really only eight things that came up again and again and again.

MUSIC: All Good Funk Alliance, “Slingshot Boogie” (from Slingshot Boogie)

So, according to Charles Duhigg and his band of productivity freaks, there are eight key tools or skills. And they are? Number one, motivation:

DUHIGG: We trigger self-motivation by making choices that make us feel in control. The act of asserting ourselves and taking control helps trigger the parts of our neurology where self-motivation resides.

DUBNER: Focus.

DUHIGG: We train ourselves how to pay attention to the right things and ignore distractions by building mental models, which means that we essentially narrate to ourselves what’s going on as it goes on around us.

DUBNER: Goal-setting.

DUHIGG: Everyone actually needs two different kinds of goals. You need a stretch goal, which is like this big ambition, but then you have to pair that with a specific plan on how to get started tomorrow morning.

DUBNER: Decision making.

DUHIGG: People who make the best decisions tend to think probabilistically. They envision multiple, often contradictory, futures and then try and figure out which one is more likely to occur.

DUBNER: Innovation.

DUHIGG: The most creative environments are ones that allow people to take clichés and mix them together in new ways. And the people who are best at this are known as innovation brokers. They’re people who have their feet in many different worlds and, as a result, they know which ideas can click together in a novel combination. 

DUBNER: Absorbing data.

DUHIGG: Sometimes the best way to learn is to make information harder to absorb. This is known in psychology as “disfluency.” The harder we have to work to understand an idea or to process a piece of data, the stickier it becomes in our brain.

DUBNER: Managing others.

DUHIGG: The best managers put responsibility for solving a problem with the person who’s closest to that problem, because that’s how you tap into everyone’s unique expertise.

DUBNER: Teams.

DUHIGG: Who is on a team matters much, much less than how a team interacts.

OK, got that? Motivation, focus, goal-setting, decision-making, innovation, absorbing data, managing others, and teams. Some of these are obviously more geared toward workplace productivity, but we’ll see if we can’t smuggle them over the border into the personal realm.

DUBNER: So, I was really taken with your first chapter about motivation, and I wonder if you could talk for a minute about how control plays into motivation. In other words, if I’m a parent wanting to motivate what I think is a lackadaisical teenager in school, what works, what doesn’t work and so on?

DUHIGG: So, in many ways, the foundation of motivation is what’s known as the “locus of control” in psychology. And everyone either has an internal locus of control, which means that they believe that they control their own fate or an external locus of control, which means that they think things just happen to them and they’re powerless.

DUBNER: Now, wait a minute, when you say that everyone has one or the other, it can’t be that black and white, plainly, right? The world is not divided into the external and internal.

DUHIGG: But people exist along this continuum, right? And we’ve all met people who are one way or the other; we’ve all met people who sort of believe, “If I decide to climb that mountain, I can do anything.” And others who complain all the time, “You know, I wanted to get a better job, but my boss is mean to me, and I’m never lucky, and it doesn’t work out.” And what’s interesting is that the influences of internal versus external locus of control are kind of surprising. Like, for instance, there’s been experiments that show that when teachers tell kids that they’re really smart, that they did well on a test because they must be really smart — that actually triggers our external locus of control because most people don’t believe that they have any influence over how smart they are. It’s either something you’re born with or it’s not. Whereas when teachers tell kids, “You did great on this exam, you must have worked really hard” — that reinforces an internal locus of control because we all know, “I choose how hard I work.” And what we’ve found is that self-motivation and motivation in general seems to rely on believing like we’re in control.

DUBNER: OK, so the implication is that there’s a certain kind of compliment or praise that is more powerful or that leads to higher productivity, yes?

DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. What we know is that you can train people to believe that they’re in control of their own life, and more importantly, to get them addicted to that kind of pleasant sensation that kind of comes from being in control. One of my favorite examples of this is something that Mauricio Delgado, a neurologist, mentioned to me, is driving down the freeway. You know when you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway and you see an exit, and you know that it would take just as long to get home by taking that exit, but your brain wants you to turn the wheel and take the exit even though it won’t get you home any faster. That’s because we learn this kind of almost emotional pleasure that comes from taking control.

You can see how you can practice this as an individual. But institutions are trying to improve as well. Duhigg writes about the U.S. Marine Corps overhauling their basic training a while back.

DUHIGG: Because they were getting all these recruits who were kind of, like, wet socks. They didn’t know how to self-motivate. And so the guy who was in charge of the Marine Corps, Charles Krulak, who’s a general, said, “We need to start teaching people to have this internal locus of control. We need to teach them how good it feels to take control, to assert themselves, because then they’ll learn how to self-motivate.” And so he instituted a couple of rules, and one of them was that you can only compliment people on things that are unexpected. So this drill sergeant told me that he never tells someone who’s a natural athlete that they just ran a good race. He only tells, like, the small, kind of, wimpy kids that they just did a great job running. The Corps, as a whole, never tells anyone that there’s such a thing as natural-born leaders. Because that implies that you don’t have any control over whether you’re a leader or not. Instead what they do is they compliment shy people who take a leadership role. And they say to them, “Look, I know it was hard for you to do that, but you did a great job.”

MUSIC: Aubrey Agard, “Mister Sunshine” (from Mister Sunshine)

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As I was reading Charles Duhigg’s book about productivity, I had a rather unsettling realization, which I told Duhigg about:

MUSIC: Quel Bordel, “Aller En Soirees” (from Qui Ne Chanti Pass)

DUBNER: In the chapter on teams, you write at some length about the qualities of a good team but particularly the qualities of a leader of that good team. You write, “Teams need to believe that their work is important. Teams need to feel that their work is personally meaningful. [Teams] need to clear goals and defined roles. Team members need to know they can depend on one another. But, most important, teams need psychological safety.” So, I have to say, when I read that list, I realized that I am the world’s worst leader imaginable, that I don’t do any of that. I don’t think about it.

DUHIGG: Well, I would actually guess that you’re better than you’re letting on.

DUBNER: You would guess wrong, I’m going to tell you. And you should speak with the other people on my team, and they’ll back me up.

DUHIGG: But I think you hit on something really, really powerful, which is that, that list of things that you just read, they are not efficient. So, one of the things that’s really important about creating the right group norms that make a team productive is that everyone has a chance to kind of socialize with each other a little bit, right? Because you want to create this “high-average social sensitivity,” and the only way you do that is to get people to talk about their lives a little bit. Now, we’ve all had the experience where you go into a meeting and, like, for the first five minutes people just, like, talk about their weekend and their kids and who’s sick, and they gossip and you think to yourself, “God, can we please just start this meeting? We’ve got business to get done.” And I have that same instinct, which is to say, I want to prioritize efficiency. But study after study shows that if we spend a couple of meetings with that five minutes of getting to know each other, over time, our group will actually be much, much more productive. So sometimes it’s about sacrificing the short-term efficiency for the long-term productivity.

Duhigg’s view of productive teamwork comes largely from a massive research project at Google.

DUHIGG: We are lucky beneficiaries of the fact that Google decided to spend millions of dollars in four years trying to figure out how to build the perfect team.

Google is consistently named among the best American companies to work for.

DUHIGG: And they spent a lot of that time thinking that, like, the question was: who do you put together? Do you put introverts and extroverts? Do you want people who are friends away from the conference table or do you want a flat leadership system or a really strong leader?

DUBNER: You write a little bit further, having to do with Google — and I believe it was Laszlo Bock who runs their — what’s that division called — the People …

DUHIGG: … People Operations.

BOCK: Hi, this is Laszlo.

MUSIC: The Harmed Brothers, “Carolina” (from Better Days)

Yes: Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations at Google.

BOCK: I’m basically in charge of the care and feeding of our Googlers, our employees, and making sure they get here, they’re happy, they’re productive and they stay a long time.

Under Bock, Google ran two productivity studies.

BOCK: Years ago we did something called Project Oxygen and the underlying question behind Oxygen was, “Do managers matter?” And if they do, what can we do to make managers more effective? What can we do to create a place where management is essential and it’s as helpful as oxygen?

Bock says Project Oxygen was useful, but as important as a manager may or may not be, there’s the rest of the team as well.

BOCK: So we decided to look at teams as a unit of analysis. And Project Aristotle is all about figuring out how to make groups of people happier and more effective.

And Google, being Google, looked at a lot of data:

BOCK: We looked at 200 different teams across every part of Google — every geography, all around the world, in sales, in marketing, in finance, and in engineering, everything we were doing. And the outcome metrics we looked at were not just performance ratings but measures of what kind of innovation came out of the team? How quickly were they moving? Did people stay on the team? Did they not? Were people happy? Were they not? What did other people outside the team think of that team’s performance? And then we spent a lot of time kind of crunching all those numbers and teasing through the qualitative interview data to try to isolate what actually was making a difference in team performance.

Google’s findings did not jibe with a lot of earlier academic research, or other conventional wisdoms.

BOCK: So, for example, in the academic research it says consensus-driven decision-making is often better than, sort of, top-down direction. And academic research says workload matters a lot. Having teams in the same location. We actually found none of those things were in the top five of what mattered in terms of effectiveness for teams.

Here’s how Charles Duhigg puts it:

DUHIGG: What matters isn’t who is on the team. What matters is how the team interacts.

BOCK: So, we were surprised that these things that everybody kind of says matter ended up not mattering. For example, the most important attribute of a high-performing team is not who leads it or who’s on it or how many people or where it is. It’s psychological safety.

DUHIGG: Which means that everyone at the table feels like they have the opportunity to speak up, and they all feel like each other is actually listening to them, as demonstrated by the fact that their teammates are sensitive to nonverbal cues.

BOCK: We ask if the team members feel that they can fail openly or do they feel that they are going to be shunned by failing? We ask, do they feel as if other team members are supporting or undermining them?

Bock and his team identified five norms that the best Google teams had in common, beginning with psychological safety.

BOCK: That unlocks all kinds of goodness. Another one of our norms is dependability. Dependability is the notion that you tell me to do something, I’m going to get it done, and you can rely on me to get work done. Structure and clarity, actually two things but they sort of relate. Basically the idea is: people should know what everyone’s job is and that should be a shared understanding across the team. Another norm is meaning — that the work should be personally meaningful to every person in the room. And the last thing is impact — that team members need to think and believe that their work matters and actually creates change.

Bock admits that most of these norms are pretty obvious. But that doesn’t mean everybody uses them. And there are other tricks a good manager should think about. For instance:

BOCK: Are you having regular one-on-ones? — which is obvious, like you should have one-on-ones with your team members. Turns out most people don’t ‘cause they are not that fun, they’re kind of boring, they take time. But when you do them, your team performs better.

Another example:

BOCK: Are you making sure everyone in your team feels included? Obvious, kind of logical, we should do that, but not everyone does. If you think about meetings that you may have been in, there is often somebody sitting off to the side that sits quietly for the whole meeting and never says anything. Rarely does the person leading the meeting say, “Hey you know, we haven’t heard from Frank during this entire meeting. Frank, what do you have to say?” Or “Gail, you’ve been silent this entire conversation, do you have a perspective?” And so having a checklist that says, “Are you checking on these things, are you calling out the quiet people?” goes a long way to making teams more effective.

But again, “effective,” like “productive,” isn’t necessarily the same as efficient.

BOCK: One of the hardest things about looking at team performance is that it’s really hard to figure out what outcomes you care about. We want teams in every way to be more productive and efficient but also happier and stick around longer.

Because continuity, in the end, can be extremely productive for any institution. But let’s say you work largely on your own, that you’re not a member of any work team, much less a leader; maybe you don’t even have a job per se; maybe you’re a craftsperson or a freelance consultant, or maybe an athlete or musician or a chef. In other words, you are on an island. When you don’t have a team leader to keep their eye on you, how do you think about productivity?

MUSIC: Israel Nash Gripka, “Let Me Down” (from Israel Nash Gripka)

DUHIGG: I think that in general people know when they’re actually productive. If you sat down with someone and you said to them, “Are you productive?” they would give some anodyne answer, right? Like, “Yeah, I’m pretty productive” or “No, I’m not that productive.” And then you would say, like, “Tell me what you did yesterday. Did you spend your time wisely?” I think that people could go through their day, and they would tell you, “Look, I spent a couple of hours watching soccer with my kid and that might not seem productive, but honestly, that’s really important time that me and my son have together. And then I spent another couple of hours working on e-mails and that might seem productive from the outside, but actually, what I should have done was I should have just deleted a bunch more of them or ignored them because they really won’t matter a week from now whether I sent that response or not.” That people are very good at actually analyzing whether they’re productive or not. The problem is that very frequently, we don’t stop to analyze. We don’t reflect on what’s actually happened. And that part of this idea of managing your own brain — learning how your brain works so that you can take control of your focus and your motivation and how you manage yourself and others — is that it forces us to really sit back and analyze: am I spending my time the way that is really meaningful to me, or am I simply reacting to other people’s priorities and the busyness of life?

DUBNER: One thing that I, and I think a lot of people wonder, especially if they are makers, you know, they’re responsible for their own projects, their own income, their own schedules and so on, but even if they are purely managers, even if they’re working within a firm, I think a big question is: how many projects or ideas seem to be the optimal number? You know, too few and we may not get much done; too many and we may never complete any. So what does the science have to say about that?

DUHIGG: There’s actually a really interesting study that was done, where a couple of MIT academics got access to hundreds of thousands of e-mails that this one firm had sent. People were corresponding to each other and they could correlate it with data on how many projects people were working on and how much profits they were bringing in. And what they found is that there are some people who don’t work on enough projects. So, they might work on two or three things at the same time, and they’re just not maximizing their opportunities. But there are also some people who work on 10 or 12 projects at once, and they’re stretched too thin, and as a result, they can’t spend enough time actually devoting attention to each project. So what was optimal was the people who were somewhere in the middle. But what was really interesting was that the kinds of projects that they chose were critical to how productive they were. Now you would think that what people would want to do is they would want to find a bunch of similar projects so they’re doing the same thing over and over, faster and faster and faster. It’s exactly the opposite. The people who were most productive were the ones who were seeking out new and different kinds of projects, because it taught them something new with each iteration. That’s why they would only work on a handful of projects, you know, four or five at any given time, is because working on something new, it takes a lot of time. To learn takes more time than simply to execute. And yet it turns out that over time, the more you learn, the more value you add, and, as a result, the more productive you are.

DUBNER: Talk for a minute about writing the perfect to-do list, and I’m curious to know whether you’ve been able to follow your own advice.

DUHIGG: I have, actually. So, it used to be that I wrote to-do lists, I think, like most people did. I would start by writing at the top of the page a couple of easy tasks because I want something that’s going to kind of like —

DUBNER: Brush teeth.

DUHIGG: Yeah, brush teeth or like, you know, read all of my e-mails or turn on my computer. Sometimes I would actually write at the top of my list things that I had already done, because it felt so good to start the day by crossing it off and feeling accomplished. And this is actually — within psychology — this is known as using a to-do list for mood-repair. And it’s the exact opposite of productive. Because what happens is that I cross a couple of the easy things off and then I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and then I give myself permission to go check Facebook and then 45 minutes later I pay attention to what’s going on again.

DUBNER: OK, fair enough. But, let’s say, there must be some people who react in exactly the opposite direction, no? Some people who kind of feel like the pump is primed, and I’ve turned on my computer, and I’ve brushed my teeth and I’ve remembered to, you know, breathe, let’s say. Having accomplished all that, now I can, you know, buy that new insurance plan that I need to for my firm, which is the thing that I’ve been dreading.

DUHIGG: Sure, and the question then becomes how do you remind yourself of the bigger task? And so what psychologists recommend is that on your to-do list you have two types of goals. At the top of the page you write a stretch goal. And the stretch goal should be that big ambition. And then underneath that, you should write something that makes that stretch goal tangible and into a plan. And one of the systems for doing this is this thing called SMART goals, right?

SMART – that stands for “specific,” “measurable,” “achievable,” “realistic,” and based on a “timeline.” The SMART-goal system was developed years ago within General Electric. Unlike the big, stretch goal, with a SMART goal …

DUHIGG: You take a component of this big ambition and you say specifically what you want to get done and how you’re going to measure it and is that achievable? Like if you want to do something, do you have to clear your schedule in the morning? Is it realistic? If you’re going to clear your schedule, does that mean that you don’t turn on your e-mail at all because you know it’s going to distract you? And what’s the timeline for getting the sub goal done? And it’s very easy to do this with a to-do list. I do it every single morning, and it takes me 45 seconds to figure out what my stretch goal for the day is, what my SMART goal for when I get to my desk, what exactly I’m going to do right away. It’s almost a habit, but it transforms how much I get done. Because if you sit down and at the top of your list it says, “Go buy the insurance plan for my entire company,” and then underneath you have this, like, very distinct plan, like, specifically what you’re going to do when you first sit down — how you’re going to measure it, what you need to do to make it achievable and realistic, how much time it’s going to take — it’s really easy to start. You’ve basically gotten over the hump.

DUBNER: That’s such a good example. So, Charles, it’s a little after 5:30pm in the east where you and I are talking. And I’m just curious about your goal for the evening, maybe even your stretch goal for the evening. Some people look at 5:30 and they think “cocktail hour,” some people look at 5:30 and they think, “Let me get a little more work done.” What’s your stretch goal for the night?

DUHIGG: My stretch goal is to make it home for family dinner. I have to say, my wife and I have established a family stretch goal of having family dinner at least twice a week during the weekdays, and we’ve worked backwards to reorganize our days so that we can do that.

DUBNER: Way to go. Bon appétit.

DUHIGG: Thanks.

MUSIC: Eric Hastings, “Dollar in My Pocket”

And thanks to Charles Duhigg for trying to make all of us a bit more productive. Will it work? I hope so – for me, and for you. Let us know if this episode indeed feeds your productivity beast in any meaningful way. You can send your feedback via Twitter or Facebook or the iTunes podcast store. You can also send an e-mail to

I can’t promise to reply. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance I won’t. Because one way I stay productive is by saying “no” to just about everything I possibly can, and that includes replying to about 99 percent of my e-mail. But I do read all of them, so please do let us know if you are getting more productive.

And next week on Freakonomics Radio, Self-Improvement Month continues. We talk to the pioneering research psychologist Anders Ericsson about deliberate practice, the 10,000-hour rule, and how to get really, really good at just about anything:

ANDERS ERICSSON: We find that with the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.

We also try to sort out a little disagreement between Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell over the 10,000-hour rule:

MALCOLM GLADWELL: I come from a very talented musical family. I know what musical talent looks like. I know that I don’t have it.

Ten thousand hours, Malcolm Gladwell, a singing psychotherapist from Denmark, and more. That’s next week on Freakonomics Radio.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Arwa Gunja. The rest of our staff includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.


Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode: