I think of myself as a reasonably, but not extraordinarily, productive person. I produce articles for Slate at a fairly steady pace, meet most deadlines, and have never had a major bout of writer’s block. At the same time, I procrastinate daily, often fall behind on email exchanges, and almost never complete projects ahead of schedule. I usually feel more like I’m treading water than crushing it at work.
I’ve tried making daily to-do lists, keeping time logs, and using browser-blocking apps like StayFocusd to keep me from wasting time on the internet. Each has helped for a short period, then stopped helping when I got distracted or lost interest. The world is awash with productivity tips, tricks, and hacks intended to help people like me break our bad work habits. You can buy books, visit websites, and download apps devoted exclusively to the art of productivity. Personal productivity has become a large enough niche that the productivity site Lifehack can publish a list of “50+ Personal Productivity Blogs You’ve Never Heard of Before,” which is filled with shorthand like “GTD” (the method laid out in the 2001 productivity bible Getting Things Done) and “4-hour workweek” (the concept that helped self-help guru Tim Ferriss launch his empire). For people who find plain old to-do lists boring, apps like Habitica and Any.do promise to make task management more seamless and pleasurable. And to keep you motivated during your commute to and from work—a time traditionally immune to productivity—there are plenty of podcasts devoted to disseminating productivity advice.
I’ve long had vague intentions of trying out some of these productivity techniques in the hopes that one of them will end up changing my life. After all, the usual narrative around productivity is that making simple shifts to your routine can yield meaningful results. But a new book summing up decades of research on personal productivity convinced me that simple shifts aren’t enough—and that my problem goes deeper than laziness.
In Smarter Faster Better, which came out last month, Charles Duhigg takes a bird’s-eye view of the literature on how people get things done, stoke creativity, and find meaning in their work. Instead of offering life hacks, Duhigg weaves together seemingly unrelated stories to illustrate the importance of concepts like having an “internal locus of control,” strengthening our mental models, and setting both challenging big-picture goals and achievable subsidiary objectives. Duhigg, an editor at the New York Times, is adept at the tropes of the pop-psychology genre, drawing improbable connections between such disparate topics as the corporate structure of General Electric and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
He is also adept at making major attitude adjustments sound natural and enjoyable. In a chapter on motivation, Duhigg profiles a previously feckless 23-year-old man who joins the Marines and learns how to make his own choices and take pride in his ability to provide for his family. He writes,
When we start a new task, or confront an unpleasant chore, we should take a moment to ask ourselves “why.” … Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values. … [R]eplying to an email or helping a coworker, on its own, might be relatively unimportant. But it is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do.
This story illustrates the principle that Duhigg claims is the key to motivation, without which productivity is pretty much impossible. Motivation is the fuel for productivity in the face of apathy, and generating it is as simple as tying the task at hand back to a bigger, more important goal.
Does that sound good to you? It sounded good to me, too—until I looked at my workday and realized that it was often hard for me to find a meaningful “why” for most of the tasks that make up my job. Why should I edit this freelancer’s story, or answer that email, or write another blog post? My usual answers are some version of, “Because if I don’t, I’ll get fired and lose my only source of income”—a statement that is true but not particularly urgent. Sure, I enjoy many aspects of my job, like getting to express deeply held opinions and occasionally share stories that I think have the potential to change people’s lives. But, like many office workers, I do plenty of things on a daily basis that aren’t connected to any larger goal or principle, simply because they’re in my job description.
Reading Smarter Faster Better, I realized I lack something even more crucial than a compelling “why”: faith in my own ability to change. Yes, I felt excited when I read Duhigg’s description of “making meaningful choices.” But I’d felt excited when I’d started all my abandoned to-do lists and time logs, too. I was starting to suspect that trying to be productive was like going on a diet: The discipline feels good at first, and maybe you can commit for a few weeks or a few months. But the vast majority of dieters fail. Maintaining weight loss is difficult bordering on impossible. I wondered if productivity followed a similar paradigm, with a tiny minority, like the Marine, revolutionizing their lives and the rest of us doomed to keep sliding back into our unproductive ways.
I decided to call Duhigg to ask if he had any advice for a productivity pessimist like me. He was exceedingly optimistic when I suggested that some people have trouble locating a bigger “why” for their work. “There is actually always a why,” he said. “Otherwise people don’t get out of bed in the morning.” He told me about a cancer researcher he’d interviewed who hated grading students’ papers but found a way to motivate himself to do it. “Every time he sits down to grade a student’s paper,” Duhigg recalled, “he goes to his little mantra, and the mantra is, ‘If I grade this student’s paper then the university gets their tuition dollars, and if the university gets their tuition dollars then they can pay for my research, and if they pay for my research, then I’m going to find things out about cancer, and if I find the right things out about cancer, I’m going to save people’s lives. So by grading the students’ papers, I am saving people’s lives.’ ”
This sounded to me a lot like self-delusion. By this researcher’s logic, almost any task could be tied back to saving lives. Granted, it’s useful self-delusion: If you can convince yourself that the most boring and unpleasant parts of your job have the potential to change the world, they might seem a little less boring and unpleasant. But convincing yourself seems like the hard part for people who aren’t cancer researchers. I told Duhigg this, and he told me about research on hospital cleaners who saw their work as having an important role in healing patients. This act of “job crafting” transformed a menial job into a meaningful one. In his own reporting, Duhigg said, he talked to workers at a water processing plant who took pride in keeping public beaches clean and free of waste. But not every job connects to public health or another greater good. Janitors who don’t work in hospitals might have a harder time finding meaning in their work.
However, Duhigg did say something that helped me shift my thinking on the other obstacle standing between me and productivity: my cynicism about the possibility of lasting change. “We’re living through this golden age of actually understanding, not by any means perfectly, but at least having these glimmers of understanding of how the brain works and more importantly how we can influence how we think in ways that seem to have very real and tangible results and impacts on our lives,” he gushed. And he’s right. This is where the comparison between dieting and productivity breaks down: There are physiological reasons most people fail to keep weight off, but unlike the body, the brain is surprisingly plastic. Research consistently shows that habits are malleable—as Duhigg covered extensively in his first book—and beliefs can change. Feeling confident in your ability to become more productive at work isn’t a question of blind faith; it’s a question of looking at decades of research on how rethinking beliefs helps people modify their behaviors.
“At the core of making changes is being able to understand how to shift how you see yourself and you see the world,” said Duhigg. Shifting how you see yourself and the world is a tall order, but it’s not an impossible one. I’m trying to embrace the fact that everyone deludes themselves about some things. I, for instance, already delude myself about how great my hair looks, how funny my jokes are on Twitter, and how charmingly quirky it is that I wear slippers around the office. Why not try to delude myself about how important my work is, too?
So here are my revised answers to, “Why should I edit this freelancer’s story, or answer that email, or write another blog post?” Because doing so will let Slate publish stories that entertain readers and maybe even teach them something they didn’t know before. Because if I get these things off my to-do list, I can devote more time to finding other projects I’m really excited about working on. And because if I do these tasks now, they will afford me the time and money to do things I enjoy doing after work. It’s not saving lives, but it seems like a step in the right direction.