I’m Charles Duhigg, And This Is How I Work

You might say Charles Duhigg is a man of habit, and he’d probably say that we all are. His book, The Power of Habit, examines why we’re prone to forming patterns of behaviour — both good and bad — and how we can use that process to take the reins on life and work. We caught up with the New York Times journalist to discuss some habits of his own.

Location: Brooklyn, New York
Current gig: Reporter for the New York Times; author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Current mobile devices: Droid Maxx (which is awesome because it never dies); iPad mini
Current computer: MacBook Air
One word that best describes how you work: Methodical

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

I spend all of my time on Google, Microsoft Word or in my email app. I also use Google Voice a lot, so that I can transform any phone into my primary communication device. I use Tripcase to travel (which is so-so) and Google Maps to navigate. My secret weapon is Google Scholar.

What’s your workspace setup like?

I have a desk in a shared workspace. I have a walking desk, but to be honest I never use it (I would like to, however!).

Pictured above: Charles’ workspace

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?

Here’s the basic philosophy of how I work: I sit at my desk for a very long time, no matter how happy or unhappy it makes me, and eventually, the work spools out. I’ll get so bored that I’ll turn to what I actually need to do. I don’t check blogs (except for Romenesko and The Awl, I don’t even really know which blogs I like.) I don’t have any art around my desk. I’m by a window because I like the sunlight, but I sit with my back to the outdoors. I wish that I used my walking desk (and I’m going to try!), but I’m a little worried the treadmill will make it easier to walk away from my desk. I am not particularly friendly to people who stop by (though I do give myself 30 minutes of social time each afternoon.) I eat lunch at my desk (I get it delivered, and it’s the same salad every day.) If I receive an email and it’s not obvious why I should respond, I hit delete. (My wife isn’t crazy about this last rule.) I go to the bathroom a lot, but besides that, it’s not unusual for me to sit at my desk for 8 to 10 hours straight. This is slowly destroying my body — but I would rather write good stuff than be in good shape.

I want everything in my day to be as boring as possible because it makes all the tasks I need to do the most stimulating options. (And, I should note, many of those are tasks that I genuinely enjoy — I chose to be a reporter because I like the activities themselves.) There are lots of things that might make me more productive (I had a virtual assistant for a while; I once used “The Email Game“), but those productivity aids, I think, pale in comparison to: Sit down. Don’t get up. Don’t do anything at work that doesn’t involve work. If you do that enough days in a row, it becomes second nature.

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?

I make to-do lists on yellow pads. I choose one task, and focus on it until it’s done. I try to cultivate my obsessive compulsive tendencies. I spend a lot of time organising my desk and papers.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

I really enjoy having an iPad because it makes it easier to read on the subway and in bed without keeping my wife awake. But the most important gadget is the phone. I am a strong believer in the axiom that when in doubt, pick up the phone. It is always faster to learn from a conversation than from reading: an expert knows what questions I should be asking. So if I’m ever uncertain what to do next, I start dialling.

Pictured at left: Charles’ to-do list

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

I’m really only good at one basic activity: reporting and writing. And I am obsessive about reporting and writing. Figuring out how to find a really great story – and then how to tell it — is the hardest, most interesting activity I’ve encountered. I decided to become a journalist midway through business school because that activity — figuring out how to find and tell really great stories — seemed like something that would keep me genuinely fascinated for 30 years. I really like working.

What do you listen to while you work?

There is a dude a few seats away from me who speaks very loudly. I listen to him. Not happily.

What are you currently reading?

I like longreads.com and longform.org.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?

I have no idea. When I was a kid, I would often feel shy at social gatherings, and (at that point in my life, for reasons I can’t remember), I thought I was going to become an actor. (Note: I don’t even like going to plays.) So, I would lecture myself that “if you want to become an actor, you should practice by talking to those people.” And then I would. It eventually became second nature. I have no idea if this is my natural inclination or something that I’ve forced myself to do so many times that it is who I am.

On that same theme, when I was in high school, I participated in debate. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it’s accurate to say that winning high school debate tournaments was the single most important thing in my life. Sometimes I worried that I wouldn’t be mentally ready to win, so I started a ritual, every morning, where I looked in the mirror and said “if you don’t win the debate tournament this weekend, you are worthless.” As you might imagine, this wasn’t super great mental health-wise. I wouldn’t want my kids to do it. But it meant that there was a constant pressure on me to be as prepared as possible. And here’s the thing: I won a lot of debate rounds.

And that contains the seeds of how I work: a lot of my responses above seem like something a jerk would write. (I’m unfriendly! I embrace obsessions!) They don’t seem empathetic or akin to the joyfulness of discovery that I try to infuse into my work. But that joyfulness exists in my writing because I try to channel it away from other parts of my life. I don’t mean to suggest that I endorse competitiveness or standoffishness, or that I think they are necessary for success or productivity.

Rather, it’s that I have chosen a goal: finding and writing great stories that (hopefully) are important enough to change the world. Things that don’t conform to that goal seems less exciting to me, and so I try to avoid distractions. I think often of Chuck Close explaining why he makes portraits by painting small boxes: because the intense constraints on what he can do forces him to become more creative within each box. That’s what I want in my working life: intense constraints that force me to be as creative and original as possible within my work. I don’t want to lessen that pressure.

I should also note that outside of the 8 to 10 hours a day I work, my goals are very different: to be a great father and husband and friend and person. To be, in other words, deeply good in a manner that is thoughtful and real. And so I work hard to be friendly and supportive and caring and to enjoy life. Also, I rely upon empathy (and anger and self-righteousness and a sense of joy) to find and write stories. I relax outside of work, and I watch TV and have a cocktail with my wife and play with my kids. We have dinner parties. We have fun. Not hard fun. Easy fun.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.

Michael Lewis.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I received wasn’t really advice, but the example of other people’s decisions. I’m inspired by people who continue working — hard and painfully, on things that are important to them, but not necessarily the fastest paths to glory — when they don’t need to, or when fame or leisure are plausible alternatives. Michael Lewis could hang up his reporter’s notebook and, for the rest of his life, be lauded as one of the greatest living writers. But he continues doing important work.

In college, I took a course from David Brion Davis, who by the time I encountered him had already won the Pulitzer Prize and had, in important ways, redefined our sense of both historical research and slavery. He taught every class as if something depended upon him being as good and clear as possible. He was in his late 60’s, but I saw him once on the street and he blew past us, walking fast and hard, with no time to waste. That is the example I hope to emulate, and the best advice I’ve received.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Productivity, I think, isn’t about the apps you use or the way you create a to-do list or some new gadget. (Though, that said, I read interviews like this all the time, hopeful they will reveal some new app or to-do list or gadget that will change my life.)

Problems regarding organising tasks or lives are relatively easy to solve — and, if you’re working hard and smart, I think, the solutions change depending on your project or stage of life or how you feel that day. Productivity isn’t one shift, any more than love is one emotion or meaningfulness one moment.

Rather, I think productivity is about the story you tell yourself about yourself and the world. To-do lists work when they reinforce — and mature — the mental models we carry around that make it easier to, say, think about a paragraph on the subway and see some deep structural problem; or become fully immersed in a task because you know you’ll have a way to recover once the task is done.

Productivity is, ultimately, about thinking more deeply. And the best productivity aids, in my experience, are things that push me to critique ideas until they become more true and real. Sometimes that’s an editor or a friend. Sometimes it’s a walk or a run. At other periods it’s simply hard, good, frustrating and mind-numbing self-criticism, in front of a screen or manuscript, reading the same paragraphs over and over (or avoiding reading them) until the deep truths or logical fallacies or opportunities for creativity become clear.

I’ve been really lucky in life — luckier, frankly, than I deserve. When I labour to deserve that good fortune it seems to create more productivity in my life. And so I try to honour that luck and prove that I’m worthy in how I behave and think, and I’m grateful for the productivity that occurs.

We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.

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