What most of us consider advice isn’t actually advice at all. Not useful advice, at least. That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from my recent interview with bestselling author and productivity expert Charles Duhigg, host of Slate’s How To! podcast missioned to solve life’s problems one question at a time. Good advice — actionable, resonant, life-changing advice — has less to do with explicit guidance or instruction, and far more to do with stories. Stories, says Duhigg, are critical for anyone to understand and internalise life-improving advice in any meaningful way. I spoke with the author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better to commemorate the one-year anniversary of How To!.
Name: Charles Duhigg
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Current gig: Author, podcast host
Current computer: MacBook Air
Current mobile device: iPhone 11
Word or phrase that describes how you work: Just start.
I want to discuss productivity in contexts that aren’t already covered in depth in your books, but that’s going to be hard to avoid, right?
There is actually kind of an interesting thing that came out of the podcast since writing Smarter Faster Better. I felt like I knew a lot about productivity, and this book was out there and I’d probably get eight to nine thousand reader emails asking questions the books had answered. They’d ask something about procrastination, or something about focus, and the answer was there in the book, so I’d say to people, like “read chapter three“ or “we talked about this in chapter two.” And they would say like, “yeah I read that chapter but it’s not working for me.” And I was trying to figure out why this was. And what I think I eventually realised — and this is kind of the point of the How To! podcast — is that if you give someone advice, productivity or any other kind of advice, and it is not embedded in a story, then it’s not actually advice. Like, we think of it as advice — I read Lifehacker or the David Allen website — and I think “oh, I should totally do that.” But I think that there’s something where, if you don’t have a story, if you’re told what to do and can’t be shown what to do and see the process of discovering what to do, then the advice just doesn’t take root in most people’s brain. So the conclusion I’ve come to is that basically the right way to give advice is to figure out what the right answer is, and then figure out how to provide an answer in a story that will make it actually applicable for people’s lives. There’s something about watching someone change, or watching someone have a problem, learn from an expert, and then come up with a solution that makes the advice much, much more powerful and makes it actually usable.
Can you share an example?
We did this one episode called “How to Lose 70 kg Happily.” And there was this woman who had gotten gastric bypass surgery and she’d lost 70 kg. But she was still super unhappy. And so we paired her with Brittany, the woman from [the movie] Brittany Runs a Marathon, who’s also lost a lot of weight. And basically, Brittany told her story about like what had happened after she’d lost all that weight. And what Brittany said is not Earth-shatteringly new, right? But she told as a story in a way that totally landed. It was like, “oh, yeah, now I understand what it means when you say you have to love yourself.” It was a really powerful episode.
And we did this other episode, it was with Ryan Reynolds’ trainer and was called “How to Look Like a Superhero.” It was a good episode, but this dude did not have a bunch of stories, he basically had like, you know, you should do this much protein and this much fat, and like, here’s a couple of exercises to do. And the episode did really, really well, but absolutely nobody emailed me afterwards to say, “oh, that advice really helped me lose weight” or “that advice helps me get in better shape.” And I think it’s because he had great advice, but it was not embedded in the story. It was literally just advice. And so my big takeaway from this show is, if somebody wants to actually change their life it’s not enough to find the right advice, you have to find the right story that explains how the advice gets implemented.
Has this happened to you personally? Have you recently heard a story that made you understand advice in a way you hadn’t previously?
So here’s a here’s a great example. We did this episode called “How to Sleep.” I think probably everyone who reads your work, we know two things: Number one, we know we ought to sleep more — everyone has told us we should get at least seven hours sleep a night — and number two, we know how to fall asleep because we literally have been doing it our entire lives, right? There’s little nuances at the periphery: Don’t drink caffeine before bed, don’t have anything to eat, learn to quiet your mind, etc. But again, none of this is revolutionary, and this is stuff that I had heard for years. So there’s a listener who is this psychologist in San Francisco who says that he literally hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in nine years. He’s done everything: He does semiprofessional jujitsu so he works out all the time, he’s gone to therapists, he’s taken medicine. He’s done everything he can. And then our expert on the show was Andy Puddicombe, the guy who helped start [the meditation app] Headspace. And Andy’s story is a super interesting story, because he had serious psychological issues and went to India to try and figure it out. And that’s how he discovered meditation. And his approach to meditation is that meditation is a practice session to try to let things go. It’s work, it’s not relaxation. By the end of this episode he literally had not said any advice that I had not heard at least two dozen times before, but all of a sudden it really sunk in, hearing this story. I was like, “oh, no, I’ve been doing meditation all wrong.” I’d been trying to relax, and empty my brain, and focus on my breath, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s work. It’s practice. You have to be able to say “here’s a thought that’s bothering me, I’m going to like wrestle it into a corner where I can turn my back on it.” And it transformed how I fall asleep. And again, he didn’t tell me anything new; he just told me it in the context of a story about himself and suddenly I was able to hear it really for the first time.
When building productivity, is a support system a nice-to-have or a need-to-have?
Oh, need-to-have, absolutely. We know this. And I think this actually gets back to why stories are so important. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a want-to-have: Getting positive feedback from your friends is really important, having someone to hold you accountable is really helpful. And so there are reasons why having social support in that context would be a want-to-have, because it makes it easier to change. But here’s what I think it’s a need-to-have, which is different from what I just mentioned: unless you can place your change in the context of a narrative — like you started in one place, and you tried something and it didn’t work, and then you tried something else and it started to work, and now you’re changing and you’re a new person — unless you can see that change yourself it’s a very hard to continue down any path that requires the self-discipline that the change demands. And the only that way you can see that narrative is reflected in someone else’s eyes. This is the interesting thing about storytelling: we cannot tell a story without imagining some kind of audience. Even if that audience is ourselves five years from now, or ourselves a week from now when we’re journaling, the act of storytelling requires an audience psychologically. So that’s where the social becomes an absolute need-to-have, because in order to create your story about yourself, we can only do that in conversation with someone else. And unless we have a story about ourselves we will not be able to change.
What’s your workspace like?
I have an office in a co-working space, and then I have a studio at home for doing my podcast. But, you know, honestly, I don’t have anything very special. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the space I work in. Basically I just need a desk and a computer.
And I love reading things like “How I Work,” right? I love to see when other people are like, “I have my computer setup like this” and “I have three screens that help me do X, Y, and Z,” and “I need special background light.” I love reading that stuff, but I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think that those are the determinants of productivity. I understand that people will believe that is the determinant of their own productivity. And it’s obviously good to be in a space that we feel comfortable. But I do not actually believe that someone is more or less productive because of what their office looks like. I think what matters much more is have they figured out what helps make them feel in control. And if that’s having a nice office setup then that’s a thing to focus on, but for me it really doesn’t matter. My office never looks that nice. It never looks special.
What’s a main determinant for your productivity?
I think the goal here is to find things that make you feel in control of the decisions you’re making and that help you think more deeply. Which is kind of the point of Smarter Faster Better, that real productivity is about thinking more deeply at the choices you’re making so you choose to focus on the right things instead of just being reactive.
And so for me, the things that make me feel in control and that allow me to think more deeply are, number one, I have to have a space that is away from my children and other people. It doesn’t matter what that space looks like, but like, I do not want to be in the same house with my kids because they like to make noise and drive me crazy.
Number two, I like to be able to take walks. That’s why we moved to Santa Cruz; not just taking walks, but believing that I have the ability to easily take walks. It is really, really helpful.
And then third thing is to have technology working. For example, we lived in Costa Rica for a little bit last year, and the thing that would throw me off was when the internet would go out. Not just because the Internet was out, but because it felt out of control. When technology doesn’t work it totally throws me off.
What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?
There’s two. So the new book I’m going to write is about communication and understanding why why we have trouble communicating sometimes. And then the other thing I’m trying to solve is, how can you tell really great stories without the telling time being so intensely time consuming.
There’s all these great podcasts out there that are like 10 episodes a year. Our podcast comes out weekly, and one of the reasons we do it weekly is because there is a lot of problems and we want to solve as many of them as we can. So what I want to try and figure out is what are the elements of storytelling and entertainment and having an impact on someone’s life — which elements matter more than others? How do we do that faster?
Who else would you want to hear answer these questions?
Michael Lewis. I would definitely love to hear how Michael Lewis organises his time and work for a couple of reasons. A, he’s just obviously very talented, but B, he seems to have very strong opinions about how much time something deserves. Like, once he’s reached that time limit, he just stops.
Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell. I’d be really curious how Malcolm arranges his time, he would be really interesting.
The other person can be Jennifer Egan, the novelist, who I think does just incredibly beautiful work, and I wonder how much time she needs to spend working versus resting in order to be as creative and spectacular as she is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.