4 Ways the Most Productive People Succeed

Expert tips to help you prioritize what matters and produce results.

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You may know Charles Duhigg as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times. Or as the guy who taught you to actually change your habits with The Power of Habit. But in his new book, Smarter, Faster, Better, Duhigg spoke with everyone from Drill Instructors to the creative team behind Frozen to figure out how they get sh*t done.

If Sisyphus is your model for productivity (“Hey man, he got that boulder up the hill, every single day!”) you might need a few productivity tips. Duhigg explored the science behind how the most productive people in the world prioritize, focus, make decisions, and motivate while the rest of us struggle to find a matching sock in the morning.

“The most successful people are the ones who don’t let themselves become purely reactive,” he says. “We’re reactive nonstop, but they use these contemplation devices to make a decision.”

So how do you put these proactive systems in place to make your family smarter, faster, and better (or at least two out of three)? Speed read below:

Define Productivity Correctly

“It’s the ability to get things done that are important to you with less stress, struggle, and waste,” says Duhigg. You probably thought stress, struggle, and waste was called Tuesday, but as it turns out, some people (even ones with kids!) can cut through the BS and focus on the goal. “You choose what really matters to you, and get those things done without making sacrifices. For me, it’s about getting my kids dressed in the morning and talking to them on the way to school.”

The Five (or Six, or Seven…) Whys

Duhigg saw that one of the pillars of Kaizen, the Japanese business practice, could help get his family’s collective butts out the door faster. “The Five Whys” was developed by Sakichi Toyoda for Toyota Motor Corp., and the gist is that, like a toddler, if you keep asking “why,” you’ll get to the root of the problem. It works like this:

“My wife and I always wanted to have family dinner, but we’d get home too late,” says Duhigg. “What do we need to change? We’re getting home too late. Why are we getting home too late? I mean to leave the office early, but when I sit down at 5 p.m., I have emails and two or three other things to do. Why is there all this work at the end of the day? I get to work right before the first meeting. Why am I getting to work late? Because we are leaving at 8:30 a.m. Why is it taking so long to get dressed? Because you have to choose clothes. Once you go through root cause analysis, I found there was a link between my mornings and family dinner, so we came up with a new plan. Now, the boys lay out their clothes [the night before] and they put them on right away.”

Make Mindless Chores Meaningful

“Productive people have figured out that if you make a chore into a choice, it’s a way to feel like you’re in control, and it’s much easier to motivate,” says Duhigg. “If you can link [a chore] to a more meaningful goal, it’s much easier to start.”

For instance, you hate mowing the lawn. But if the result of mowing the lawn was to provide your kid somewhere to practice for their eventual soccer career (and thanking you for doing all that mowing during an emotional post-game press conference), then it’s easier to push through all that crabgrass.

The Right Way to Write to-Do Lists

“I used to write it this way: bottom of my list would be long term goals; big things I wanted to get done. On the top, there are some easy things. Or I’d write things that I’d already done. When I talked to psychologists, they said it’s the wrong way. That’s more for mood repair than for productivity.”

For productivity, put those big, important goals at the top, followed by the easier wins. For each goal on the list, employ something called SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) criteria. If you’re a Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist, the top of your list has something like finishing your next book.

Duhigg explains how he applied SMART: “What do I need to do? I need to set aside an hour and a half. Am I going to call three experts or five experts? I’m going to call five experts and find one that’s going to give me a great story. How can I turn off my email? I’ll close my computer. You’re finding the right goal to focus on instead of a bunch of things.”

Here’s a quick example of how SMART could work for you if you want to get home before your kid’s bath time:

  • Specific: You’re going to be around more this week than Mr. Bubble.
  • Measurable: You’re going to pull this off at least three times this week.
  • Achievable: You’re not getting home because you won’t say no to a 4:30 p.m. meeting. You can: a) move the meeting, b) Call from the car, or c) Quit and torch your office to ground.
  • Relevant: Is this the correct thing to do? Do you enjoy PowerPoint presentations or watching your kid giggle?
  • Time-bound: When is a good time? Immediately? Yeah, immediately sounds right.

Visualize Your Day Before You Start

Just like an Olympic skier, picturing yourself winning (instead of tumbling down a mountain like a human snowball) makes a goal easier to achieve. “I build mental models,” says Duhigg. “This is about telling ourselves stories about what we expect to occur. I spend 10 minutes visualizing what my day is going to be like. It helps sharpen your focus. You’re teaching your near subconscious what to focus on and what to ignore.”

He also says the practice has let him be a better focus gatekeeper during the day. That means if a coworker has a business-related question, they may approach. Want to talk about how good David Schwimmer is in on The People vs. O.J. Simpson? Tell them to wait by the coffee machine until you’re done kicking a**.

This article was originally published on Fatherly. If you enjoyed this article, check out these other stories:

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