Journalist Charles Duhigg felt like he kept meeting people who seemed like they had more time than him—more time to get things done, more time to spend with their kids and more time to relax.
“They just seemed to have better lives than I did,” he says. “I started to wonder, ‘What are they doing? What is their secret?’”
So Duhigg began studying highly productive people and companies. He looked at how the teams from Google, the crew at Saturday Night Live and the writers of Disney’s Frozen worked. He spoke with all sorts of professionals—neurologists, psychologists, Marines, pilots, professional poker players and more—all in hopes of understanding what factors make some people more productive than others. He wrote about his findings in Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.
“What I found out is that these uniquely productive people literally governed their minds in a different way than I did,” he says. “Whereas I had just been reacting to things going on around me, they control how they think through problems and how they set goals.”
Here, Duhigg shares three strategies from his book for becoming your smartest, fastest, best self.
1. Ask yourself why you’re doing something
The people who are best at staying motivated tend to link tasks to a long-term goal or something that’s deeply meaningful to them, says Duhigg.
For example, Duhigg interviewed one professor who said he hated grading students’ papers. But instead of simply dragging his feet, he would think through why he was doing it: Because he loved educating students and because he wanted to help his university, which funds the cancer research he does. As a result of this exercise, he was able to reframe the act of grading papers so it felt like a choice—one that allowed him to reaffirm his commitment to his deepest goals and aspirations.
Read more: 5 Morning Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs
2. Think big picture
Many people make to-do lists by literally writing down every little thing they have to do—but there’s a much more strategic way to approach your tasks for the day.
Start by thinking about your biggest goal (say, saving money to buy a house or creating a personal website), and write it at the top of a paper. Then, below that, structure that goal into smaller steps. This will be your blueprint for making your goal a reality.
One popular way to map out a plan is by using the acronym SMART:
Specific: Write down exactly what you want to achieve.
Measurable: How are you going to assess when you’re done? Make sure you define it.
Achievable: Is this doable? What do you need in place to get this done?
Realistic: Be pragmatic. How can you actually make this happen? What might stand in your way? How can you avoid and/or bounce back from potential pitfalls?
Timeline: Will this task take an hour or a month? Set aside the time you’ll need, and protect it.
Read more: 10 Life Lessons to Excel in Your 30s
3. Take control of one aspect of the situation—no matter how small
“It’s very hard to be enthusiastic about a task that you feel is being forced on you,” says Duhigg. “In order to feel motivated to do something, we have to feel like we’re in control.”
Asserting your control over a situation—even in seemingly unimportant ways—can help you feel better about it. Say you’ve been putting off filing your expense reports, for example. You might want to listen to a new album that you’re excited to hear while you do it. The key is to find some choice, however small, that makes you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat.
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