Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the bestselling author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business and Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He recently sat down with Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss how the best decision-makers stay so level-headed, and how to strategically achieve your next big goal.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
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Srini: Let’s talk about focus. Living in a world full of distractions, I’m curious about how you look at it.
Charles: The way that I think about focus is, “How do we tell a story that helps our brain figure out what to focus on, and what to ignore?” Qantas Flight 32 was one of the worst mid-air mechanical disasters in modern aviation, and the pilots landed the plane completely safely. When you’re in a cockpit and there’s an emergency, there are a thousand alarms going off all around you.
And the pilot has to figure out which alarms to pay attention to, and which ones to ignore. It’s really overwhelming, and the people that do that well, that figure out what to focus on and what they can safely ignore, are in the habit of telling themselves a story about what’s occurring. Psychologists refer to this as “building mental models.”
For instance, when the best firefighters walk into a burning building, they immediately start telling themselves a story about the room they’re in. They say things like, “Okay, I’m in this burning room, and I expect to see flames in the right-hand corner, and there’s a set of stairs in the left-hand corner. I expect the flames in the left-hand corner to be burning even higher than all the other flames, because staircases burn faster.”
As a result, when they walk into that room, they know exactly where to look—they know what to pay attention to. But most importantly, when the flames coming off of that staircase are much smaller than they expected, when it contradicts the story inside their head, something in their brain says, “Okay, pay attention—there is something wrong with that staircase. Don’t walk on it.”
The same thing happens when you’re in a cockpit. If you’ve told yourself a story about how to think about this plane, how you’re going to react to this emergency, then you know exactly what to pay attention to. Your brain, in split seconds, can decide, “Pay attention to this alarm. That alarm doesn’t matter quite as much.”
Or think about when you’re walking into your office in the morning, or you’re going into some important meeting. We don’t tend to think of those things as like the cockpit of an airplane during an emergency, but similarly, there’s all this information, all these stimuli. You walk into the office in the morning, and your phone is buzzing in your pocket because you’ve got 10 new text messages, and there are 100 emails waiting for you, and some colleague comes up to ask if you can step into this 10:00 meeting. Things are kind of overwhelming. The people who react best in those situations, the people who are able to focus on what matters most and avoid all the distractions, are the people who have visualized how they expect their day to unfold.
“The people who are able to focus on what matters most and avoid all the distractions, are the people who have visualized how they expect their day to unfold.”
Instead of simply saying, “I have a meeting from 10:00 to 11:00,” they think to themselves, “I have a meeting from 10:00 to 11:00, and I bet Pete is going to start the meeting with that stupid idea that he has. And then Susie is going to object, because she always objects to what Pete says. And then I can come in with my idea, and I’m going to look really smart by comparison.” It doesn’t take much to visualize your day, to build a mental model—it just takes getting into the habit of telling yourself a story about what’s occurring as it occurs, or trying to imagine what a conversation is going to be like, or what your day is going to be like. Because that gives your brain some framework, some mental model, to figure out what deserves attention and what can be safely ignored.
Srini: Where do people screw this up?
Charles: People screw this up because they simply don’t do it—they just become reactive. Air France Flight 447 was a flight that basically had nothing wrong with it, but it crashed into the sea. When an error light went on in the cockpit and an emergency started unfolding, the pilots had no story that they were telling themselves. So they overreacted to that alarm, because they had no context, no situational awareness. They weren’t thinking about how this one alarm fits into the bigger picture, the bigger story about the plane.
It’s called “falling into a cognitive tunnel,” and we’ve all experienced this. It’s like when you’re driving down the freeway and you’re going the speed limit, and you see a cop car, and your first instinct is to immediately hit the brakes. That’s because it catches us off guard—we overreact to that stimulus because we don’t have a story in our head of, “There are probably some cop cars on this road. If I see one, it’s not a big deal, because I’m already going the speed limit.”
When people make a mistake, it’s because they stop thinking. They just allow themselves to go into this reactive mindset where they wait for a stimulus, and then overreact to it, because they’re not telling themselves a story about how they expect the immediate future to unfold.
Srini: Let’s talk about goals. What do you think causes people to set goals and not accomplish them?
“Our brain’s instinct is to look for the easiest task, to prioritize things by what will give us a sense of accomplishment, rather than focusing on what’s most important.”
Charles: To-do lists are the device that most of us use to think about our goals, at least daily goals. We’ll write down a list of all the things that we need to get done, and the instinct to feel a sense of accomplishment is so strong that about 15% of people will actually write things at the top of the list that they’ve already done, because it feels so good to cross those off right away. You feel like you’ve gotten something done that day.
But the problem with writing down a list of tasks is that our brain’s instinct is to look for the easiest task, to prioritize things by what will give us a sense of accomplishment, rather than focusing on what’s most important. So the question becomes how to use a to-do list not as a memory aid, but as a prioritization tool, something that pushes us to think about the most important task for right now, or for today, or for this week.
The research says that the best way to do this is to write at the top of your to-do list what’s known as a “stretch goal,” your most important goal for today, for this week, for this month, or for this year. Write down the most important thing that you want to get done, and think big—come up with in a best-case scenario.
The reason why that’s so useful is because if you have it at the top of your list, then every time you look at your list, you’re reminded of what your most important goal is. So if I just spent the last 40 minutes answering emails, and I look at my to-do list, and it says at the top of the page, “Write the memo you’ve been putting off for three weeks,” then I know I should stop doing emails. I’m just doing that to avoid writing that memo, and I should finally get to work on it.
But when you have a big stretch goal, it can seem intimidating. The reason I’ve been avoiding writing that memo for the last three weeks is because it’s a hard memo to write—I don’t really know where to start. So researchers say that underneath that stretch goal, that big ambition, you should have some system that helps you break it into little pieces, that tells you exactly where to start. And one of the most popular systems of this is known as “SMART Goals,” where for your big stretch goal, you write down Specifically what you want to get done.
How are you going to Measure success? Is it going to be, “The memo is done,” or “I have an outline”? Is it Achievable? Have I chosen a goal that I can actually get done? Is it Realistic? To make it realistic, do I need to set aside three hours, turn off my email, or close my door? And then, what’s the Timeline? How long is it going to take?
S-M-A-R-T. It only takes about 45 seconds to take a big goal and break it into these five components, but once you do, it basically tells you your plan for getting started on that goal. That’s the secret—combining this big ambition with some method for breaking it into small pieces, so that it seems approachable.
Srini: We live in a world where we are consuming copious amounts of information. How do you parse the signal from the noise?
Charles: It’s really important to involve “disfluency,” this insight that sometimes the best way to learn from large amounts of data is to slow down how quickly it’s passing us by, and do something with it. There was a big study where researchers exposed students to a lecture, and they asked half of them to take notes on their laptop, and half of them to take notes by hand. They found that the students who took notes by laptop collected much more data, because you can type faster than you can write. They collected about three times as many ideas on the laptop as the handwriting students.
But then they asked all the students to come back two weeks later, and they gave them a test as to what the lecture had been about. And the students who had taken notes by hand blew everyone else away. The reason is that the students who had taken notes by hand had to work harder to collect that information. Think about it—you can’t write as quickly as your professor is speaking, so oftentimes you have to process what the professor is saying, and then put it in your own words. You’re actually transforming that information, and that makes it much easier to remember, and much easier to learn from.
“If you want to change information into knowledge, you need to do something with it.”
Similarly, if you’re reading a great book, or you’re listening to a great podcast, and you want to really learn the ideas, you should turn to someone else and explain the idea that you just learned—not because you’re trying to educate your friend, but because the act of restating that lesson in your own words actually encodes it into your brain much, much more deeply.
So if you want to change information into knowledge, you need to do something with it. For instance, I bought this scale that connects wirelessly to my computer. Every morning I would weigh myself, and it would send my weight to my computer, and this app would draw this graph of how my weight had changed from day to day. Every Sunday I would look at the graph and be like, “Oh, that’s what happened to my weight”—and it had no impact on my behavior whatsoever.
So when I was reporting for this chapter about disfluency, one of the researchers I was talking to [said], “This is what you should do: On Sundays, sit down and recreate that graph by hand.”
It’s a seemingly pointless activity, because the graph is already on my computer screen, but he said, “Just sit down with a piece of paper and recreate that graph by hand.”
I started doing that, and what happened was that I would draw that my weight went up two pounds on Wednesday, and it went down on Thursday. And I’d [think], “Wow, so what happened on Wednesday?” And I’d remember, “Oh, Wednesday was the day I was supposed to go for a jog, but I didn’t because I woke up late, and then I ate a hamburger at lunch because I was kind of tired and didn’t have enough willpower to have a salad.”
I started learning how to make connections between the data and my lifestyle, and that’s how I processed the information and turned it into knowledge. You need to do something with the information in order to learn from it—otherwise, it’s just a bunch of numbers that slide by.
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This article first appeared on Heleo.com .
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