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Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg
Photograph by Matt Furman for Money

The Money Interview
Charles Duhigg
AGE 41

WROTE Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (2016);
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012)

WON a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 as part of a team reporting on Apple for the New York Times

IN 2012 reporter Charles Duhigg not only published a bestselling book, The Power of Habit, but also collaborated on a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of New York Times stories about the dark side of the business practices of Apple and other technology companies. So you might reasonably conclude that it's safe to call Duhigg a productive person. Afterward, however, Duhigg found himself suffering a common malady: The harder he worked, the more he felt he was falling behind. Technology that was supposed to help, didn't. Setting out to learn why he didn't feel productive—and what he could do about it—Duhigg wrote his new book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. Real productivity, it turns out, isn't about using apps to get more stuff done. It's about understanding your brain, learning to control your focus, and picking the right goals.

Is it really possible to transform someone into a more productive person?
There is this cultural bias that there are some people who are particularly productive and other people who aren't. And that those people who are productive are uniquely smart or they have great genes.

All the research shows that's not right. Anyone can learn to become more productive. Anyone can learn to make better financial decisions. Anyone can learn to focus better. The key is that you have to learn how your brain works.

So how does it work?
For one thing, your brain craves control. And feeling like you're in control turns out to be critical for triggering self-motivation—initiative—which, in turn, is critical for productivity. If you don't have this sense of control, you're simply reacting to things in your environment. But if you do have it, you're proactively deciding what to focus on and what to be motivated for. Teach people to emotionally crave that control, and they will develop this bias toward action.

How do you get someone to develop this craving for control?
You give people experiences where they can take control and learn how good it feels. Many parents put restrictions on how their kids use their allowance. That's understandable—we want to teach our kids the right things to do—but it's the wrong instinct. Instead, give them the chance to feel like they're in charge. Will they make the best choice every time? No. But it's important that they learn what it feels like to make decisions, even if they're sometimes bad ones.

What can I do to motivate myself?
Sometimes you need to make a choice—almost any choice—that lets you exert control. I'm sure you've had the experience of opening your in-box and seeing a million emails you need to reply to. How do you trigger the self-motivation to deal with it? Studies show that the best way is to just hit "reply," "reply," "reply." Fill up your screen with a bunch of replies. Go into each one and make some kind of choice. Type half a sentence in all those emails and then go back and decide if those choices are good. The point is, once you've asserted control, it's a lot easier to fill in the rest of those emails. Getting over that hump is the important first step.

Charles Duhigg
Photograph by Matt Furman for Money

You write that it's also important to attach meaning to your choices.
That's right. Simply asserting control, that's a convenient way to trick your brain into feeling self-motivated. It works in the short term. But if you're doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, over time you're not going to care. So you need to figure out why that task matters. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking a few seconds and asking yourself, "Why am I doing what I'm doing?"—and answering the question.

You mean literally talk to yourself?
It may feel silly, but these inner dialogues work on a biochemical level by creating new neural pathways in your brain. You're trying to create pathways that are useful, instead of pathways that just sort of happen in reaction to the world.

Can this technique work with personal finance?
Absolutely. Every small forgone purchase seems like a sacrifice—unless you recast it in your mind as, say, paying for your kid's college. By bringing lunch to work and not spending $10 on fast food, you're proving to yourself that you are providing for your family. That's so much more powerful.

How do you overcome distractions?
One of the things we know about our neurology is that when you become very accustomed to reacting—because, for example, your phone is buzzing with emails or texts—you lose control of your focus and latch onto the most obvious stimuli to the exclusion of what's important to you.

How do you stop that?
Imagine before you do something what you expect to see. It makes it much easier for your brain to focus on the things that matter and to ignore distractions. This is another inner dialogue. You're telling yourself a story about what you expect to occur. It takes only a couple of minutes. But when you do that, you prime your brain to pay attention to things that you think are important and to ignore distractions much more easily.

Say I'm at the supermarket, and I see something that's designed to manipulate me into making a splurchase. If I have a visualization of why I went to the grocery store, maybe to buy stuff for lasagna, then when I see a pack of cookies, my brain automatically ignores the cookies. They don't fit the picture in my brain. We can train ourselves to ignore distractions by spending half a second more visualizing what we want to occur.

I suspect it can help you be more productive at work too.
I can tell you from personal experience. On my morning commute I used to read articles for work. Then I started using that time to picture what was going to happen during the day. Now, if I have a meeting, I anticipate how that meeting will go and think about my goal for it. It takes me 10 minutes to think about my whole day, to create an inner dialogue about what I expect to happen. It has become a habit, and it has made me so much more productive.

Data overload often hampers productivity. How do you get around it?
When you're confronted with too much information, it's easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything [see chart below]. You can fight that with what's known as disfluency: Slow the information down, make it stickier.

One way to internalize information is to tell someone about it. A lot of executives told me that whenever they read a new book they would call up their colleagues and describe all the important ideas from the book to them. This wasn't to educate their colleagues. What they wanted to do was lock in those ideas.

You might send an email to someone explaining the idea, or tell your kid about it. You want to interact with the idea. That's what makes it real and usable.

Any suggestions for applying these ideas to your financial life?
Force yourself to interact with data, even if it seems inefficient.

People who make the best financial decisions sit down regularly and say, "What was my bank balance a week ago or a month ago, and what's my balance today?" They write out on a piece of paper how much their account went up or down since they last checked. And then they start thinking about why that happened: "Did I eat out too often? Is that why my bank account has less than I expected?"

Writing that down takes a little bit more time. It's less efficient. But it teaches you to understand patterns in ways that you can use to make better decisions.

This interview, conducted by editor Scott Medintz, has been edited.