Want to be more productive? Start acting like an unproductive person. That's one of the counterintuitive insights found in Charles Duhigg's new book, Smarter Faster Better. The author of the 2012 bestseller The Power of Habit spent four years diving into the science of how high-performing people manage to accomplish so much. He combed through research and interviewed some of the most creative and successful people of all backgrounds — CEOs, poker champions, entertainers. What he discovered was that the truly productive often seem to be engaged in time-wasting activities. But it's exactly those habits that lay the groundwork for high-quality, efficient work. Here's some of what he learned.
"Imagine, say, how a work meeting will go. Then think, 'What could stop what I want from happening?' This is how poker player Annie Duke became a world champion. Annie forces herself to think about situations where she will win or lose with the same hands — then figures out how to make the first more likely. It's called probabilistic thinking. So back to that meeting. Imagine you bring up an idea and someone says it's bad. What would you do? Thinking this way is hugely powerful: Neurological studies show it makes it more likely you'll influence what actually occurs."
2. Spend More Time on To-Do Lists
"I make to-do lists for everything, and I used to write down easy things so I could check them off quickly. It felt great. But a psychologist told me that's all wrong — I was using my list for mood repair, not productivity.
"A to-do list should be more than a list of things you want to do; it should be a system for getting that stuff done. Now, at the top of a list, I write a 'stretch goal' — something distinct, with ambition. Today it's 'Get caught up on all emails.' Underneath I write sub-goals that help achieve that stretch goal, for instance, 'Clear an hour to get inbox down to 100.' Writing this takes 30 seconds and makes it so easy to get stuff done. It gives you a plan on a subconscious level."
3. Embrace Your Busywork
"Studies show this is key to motivation, and it starts by making a simple decision. For example, an academic I spoke to said that grading student papers is the bane of his existence. To motivate himself to start, he decides to grade the work in a certain way: Today he'll do only the essays, or he'll grade the papers backward. Consciously choosing how you'll complete a task reminds you that you're in control of the situation — and that belief propels you forward."
4. Force Creativity
"If you can't figure out a problem, try a little bit of disturbance. For example, I was stuck on how to creatively write a section of my book. So I told myself I could spend only five minutes on each page — I basically had to vomit ideas out as fast as I could. But this false tension forced me to think differently and figure out what I wanted to say."
5. Encourage Chaos
"Messy meetings — where everyone's talking and people are bringing up their personal lives — can seem like a waste of time. But they create psychological safety. Everyone feels like they can speak up, and if someone is left out or pissed off, other people pick up on that and bring that person back into the conversation. Teams that do this succeed — Lorne Michaels says it's exactly what the original Saturday Night Live cast was like — because people feel comfortable enough to throw out crazy ideas instead of self-censoring. Great ideas can come of it."