Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-Price Winning Journalist, THE POWER OF HABIT

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-Price Winning Journalist, THE POWER OF HABIT

I’m here today with Charles Duhigg. Charles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning “New York Times” journalist. He’s the author of two “New York Times” Best Sellers, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. He went to Yale and Harvard Business School, both with me. He is a frequent contributor to NPR and This American Life and a fantastic speaker for hire. Welcome, Charles.

Charles Duhigg: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: No problem. Let’s start with The Power of Habit, which is a completely life-changing book. In the book you outline in great detail how habit formation works. First there’s a cue, then a routine, and then a reward. By the way, all the illustrations and example on this process throughout the book, and your website, and your speeches has now created a habit in me. I see the loop. I start taking notes, and then I feel smarter.

Charles: Excellent. That’s exactly what we had in mind.

Zibby: Can you explain to listeners the process by which habits are formed?

Charles Duhigg, THE POWER OF HABIT

Charles: Absolutely. The best way to explain it is to talk a little bit about where the science came from, which was a laboratory, initially at MIT. A woman named Ann Graybiel, who is an amazing scientist and neurologist who basically spent her entire career trying to figure out how to get little sensors into rat’s brains so she could measure neurological activity — after a while, she figured out how to do this. She would take each rat that had the surgery. She would put them in a maze that looked just like a T with chocolate at one end. It was the world’s simplest maze. What she would try and figure out is when you drop a rat in a maze like that, what does it do?

If you just observe that rat, it looks like rats are the laziest creatures on the face of the planet. It’ll take twenty minutes for a rat to find its way up a maze shaped like a T and find the chocolate at the end. It’s not even a maze. It will scratch the walls, and sniff the air, and wander around, and then double back, and then eventually find the chocolate. Now that she could look at the rat’s brain activity, what she would see is that the rat was actually thinking hard the entire time. When it would scratch the walls, the motor functions of its brain would light up with activity. When it would sniff the air, the olfactory sense would light up with activity. What we now know is that this is what is called unmediated learning. This is what children go through when they’re trying to learn something without any kind of hypothesis about what’s going on.

She would drop each rat in the maze again and again and again, about 150 times per animal. What she’d find is that over time the rat would get faster and faster and faster at finding the chocolate. It would almost become a habit. There was this partition that you would hear a click and the partition would move. The rat’s free to run through the maze. It would actually find the smallest number of steps it had to take to get to the chocolate. What was interesting is as that behavior became more and more automatic, the rat started thinking less and less and less. There was less and less brain activity as the rat got better and better at finding the chocolate. In fact, if you looked at a simplified neurological graph of its brain activity, what you would see is almost like the rat’s brain had fallen asleep.

What she figured out, Dr. Graybiel, is that this is what a habit looks like. When we are in the grip of a habit, it’s almost as if our brain turns off. This is enormously helpful from an evolutionary perspective because it means that we can take that brain activity and we can apply it to other things like inventing fire, or spears, or aircraft carriers. It also means that when we’re in the grip of a habit we’ve literally stopped thinking about it. As a result, we do things automatically without having the capacity to even reflect on what we’re doing or realize what we’re doing. That’s why habits are so powerful. We’ve literally stopped thinking when they take over.

Zibby: It’s like when I’m driving and I realize I’m two miles from where I last paid attention.

Charles: That’s exactly right, but you haven’t crashed the car. You managed to navigate the car. What’s important is that this question emerged. How do you do that? How do I that? Why does our brain know when to go into automatic mode and when to pay attention? You mentioned this habit loop which is at the core of this. Our brain has a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia — every animal has this — that exists basically just to create habits. It’s one of the oldest neurological structures in evolution. It looks for these cues, these triggers that tell the brain, “You can shut off now and go into automatic mode.” It pairs those cues with routines or behaviors, what we normally think of as the habit which you actually do. The way that the brain knows to remember that pattern for the future is that every single habit has a reward, even if you’re not aware of it.

There was a woman named Wendy Wood at Duke University, who’s at USC now, who followed around about a thousand people for a year trying to figure out how much of what they did was decisions and how much of what they did were habits. What she found out is that about forty to forty-five percent of what we do every day is a habit. Almost half of what you do every day is a habit. If we could somehow look at that, like you driving to work, or backing your car out of the driveway, or reacting automatically when you see your kid with a screen and saying, “I told you not to use that screen,” or your kid with the screen, what we would find is that every single one of those behaviors has some reward associated with it, even if you’re not certain what that is yourself.

Zibby: That makes sense. Let’s take an example. Let’s see there’s a tired mom who always has a glass of wine, maybe a bowl of popcorn, maybe with some chocolate chips poured on top every night when her kids go to sleep — no one I know — let’s just say that this happens. Let’s say now her jeans are not fitting so well. How would you cure her of this habit knowing the steps of this process?

Charles: Knowing the habit loop?

Zibby: Knowing the habit loop.

Charles: The first thing I would say is it is totally okay to have that habit. I have many, many bad habits. Sometimes people ask me, “How do I get rid of bad habits?” The truth of the matter is your brain does not distinguish between a good habit and a bad habit. It just creates habits. It’s up to us to decide which ones we like and which ones we don’t like. By the way, having a glass of wine at night, if you enjoy that, that’s totally fine.

Zibby: This is now becoming therapy.

Charles: There’s nothing wrong with it. Let’s say you do say, “I want to cut down on that.” The first thing to realize is what’s known as the golden rule of habit change. Once a habit is inscribed in your brain, once a neural pathway is associated with that cue, that routine, that reward, it’s basically impossible to extinguish it. We know this from experiments. If you take rats, and you build a habit in that rat, and then you move that rat to a new environment, and then two years later put them back in the habit environment, the habit will remerge immediately. That neural pathway is still there.

Now, through willpower you can try and muscle through that habit, try and ignore it. That works for a long time for most people, but it’s hard. The much better way, instead of thinking of breaking a habit or killing a habit is to think of it in terms of changing a habit. If you can identify the cue, and identify the reward, and then find some new behavior that corresponds to that old cue, corresponds to that old reward, then it’s much, much easier and you’re going to be much more successful at changing that habit. Let’s take this habit for instance. What would you say the cue is when, let’s pretend it’s you who —

Zibby: — Let’s just pretend.

Charles: When you get that urge, that craving to have a glass of wine and start popping the popcorn, what’s going on? What’s the trigger for that?

Zibby: Maybe when all the kids are finally asleep and no one’s bothering me anymore.

Charles: It’s the end of the day.

Zibby: The end of the day. Success. It’s over. I’ve made it through.

Charles: Most cues fall into one of five categories. It’s usually a time of day, a particular place, the presence of a certain person, a particular emotion, or a preceding behavior that’s become ritualized. It sounds like for you, it’s probably two of those. It’s probably that it’s evening. It’s relaxation time. Number two, that you’ve gone through this ritualized behavior. The kids are down. You get to think about yourself. Do you find that you’re doing the same thing when you do this? You go and watch TV, or you read? What do you do when you have the glass of wine and the popcorn? Is it different from day to day?

Zibby: It’s different. Mostly, I have to deal with my emails.

Charles: It’s probably just these two things, time of day, putting the kids down. We’ve figured out the cue. Now we have to figure out the reward. What do you think the reward is?

Zibby: Feeling great?

Zibby: Feeling more relaxed, an escape, something different from the whole day.

Charles: This is a really interesting thing about rewards, particularly neurological rewards. They’re oftentimes very hard to figure out exactly what the reward is, in part because, again, our brain turns off when we’re in that habit. We’re not really paying attention to ourselves. Secondarily, most of the things that we think of as rewards are actually a bundle of many different rewards. You mentioned that you put chocolate chips on the popcorn. Some people might say the reward is that burst of chocolate. It tastes good to eat chocolate. Or maybe it’s a glass of wine. It’s alcohol. It’s a muscle relaxant. It helps us relax very, very quickly. It could be both of those things, either of those things. It could also be other things. It could be that you’ve got into this habit where when you have that glass of wine, you’re signaling to yourself, “My job is done. I get to allow myself to relax at this point.” It could be that maybe when you’re having that glass of wine, you and your husband have a glass of wine together —

Zibby: — I’m often not alone. Now it sounds even worse.

Charles: If you’re drinking by yourself —

Zibby: — I have a bottle of tequila on the desk. I go to town.

Charles: Then you start emailing.

Zibby: That’s when I get all my work done.

Charles: It could also be that this has become a ritualized behavior where the wine actually doesn’t matter. It’s that you’re having these conversations. There’s a social reward. The thing that is really useful is to figure out what reward is actually driving this habit. The way that you do that is you simply start identifying rewards and trying to isolate them. Let’s say our initial hypothesis for day one was it’s the alcohol that’s the reward, the relaxation from the alcohol. Maybe tonight you would have a shot of tequila instead of a glass of wine and see if it gives you that same sense of satisfaction. My guess is no. My guess is that the alcohol plays some role but not the predominant role. You’re drinking wine. You’re not doing shots. You’re not drinking a whole bottle.

Zibby: Just a little, not even a whole glass.

Charles: Tomorrow night, what you might do is not have a glass of wine. Just have a glass of water. Sit down with your husband and have the same conversation that you would normally have. See if you feel as satisfied as you would normally.

Zibby: Do I get the popcorn?

Charles: You can still have the popcorn because we’re changing one element at a time. It’s basically a hypothesis. My hypothesis for today is the reward is social companionship. I’m going to try and get rid of the other stuff and just really accent social companionship. Maybe it’s that you’re hungry. The popcorn is satisfying hunger. Maybe the next night you have an apple instead of having popcorn to try and figure out does that satisfy this craving you have, the craving that’s driving this habit. The truth of the matter is, you’re probably not going to figure out with a hundred percent precision what’s going on.

That process of doing experiments, what’s really interesting is it will essentially wake up your brain. If a habit exists and it has power because our brain turns off, when you start playing with the variables, what you’re doing is you’re essentially forcing yourself to start paying attention to what’s going on when you’re in the grip of this habit. This is known in simplified habit reversal therapy as cue and reward awareness. What we find is that our brain has this magical ability on its own to figure out what’s actually going on. In four or five days you’ll basically work your way into a new behavior that you like more that will correspond to that old cue and deliver something similar to that old reward.

Habits are very strong but incredibly fragile. Once you wake up your brain in the process of a habit, you’re able to fiddle with its gears very easily. Your brain actually knows how to do this better than you do. We have a part of our brains that’s devoted to this. The key is to wake up your brain by going in and trying to play with the pieces of the habit and giving yourself a chance to really understand what’s going on instead of going along mindlessly.

Zibby: As I sit here tonight with my glass of water and an apple, I will email you and let you know how it’s workin’.

Charles: You can try the tequila one first.

Zibby: In both your books, which are so well written obviously — they’ve gotten so many accolades. You don’t need mine. They were amazing. What I liked so much is that you use all these really relatable stories, one person’s story after another so it’s not so scientific. Everything is made clear through the stories. Where do you find all these studies? How do you even get the details of the man who’s walking around the neighborhood and can’t draw a map of his house and yet he goes outside with no memory and can find his way back to the couch, or the son of drug addicts who now takes over being a manager of Starbucks?

These stories have such granularity and detail. They’re so relatable. Where do you find them all? How do you compile them?

Charles: It’s a huge amount of reporting. The story you mentioned about Travis, the kid at Starbucks who his parents were drug addicts, I think I was talking to one person, an academic, I said, “What company is great at teaching its employees?” They said Starbucks. I started randomly calling managers of Starbucks stores and asking them, “Who is someone who Starbucks has changed their life?” Pretty early in the process someone mentioned this kid Travis out in California. There was probably four or five days of making phone calls before I found Travis. Every chapter in each of my books has three or four stories in it. I probably evaluate fifteen to eighteen stories to find those three or four.

It’s really a process of calling people and doing interviews with academics and then saying some version of “What’s your favorite story to tell at a bar over beers?” or “When you’re teaching this material in class, what’s the anecdote that you find yourself coming back to again and again and again?” It’s the most frustrating process on earth because if an interview’s going really well, it should feel awful in the middle of it because you’re basically asking someone else to think on your behalf, think for you and to give you something where you don’t even know what you want. If you spend enough time making phone calls, it works.

Eventually someone says, “That reminds me of this story involving this one airplane of Qantas Flight 32.” Then you’re like, “That sounds interesting.” “They almost crash, but then they didn’t.” That’s something that as a reporter I hear and I’m like, “I can absolutely tell that story.” Anytime a plane almost crashes, there’s all these documents associated with it. In this case, no one died so I can actually call up the captain. It turns out he even wrote a book about it. It’s this process of constantly asking other people for advice and suggestions on anecdotes, and then once they’ve given them, trying to get all the reporting that I can about them.

Zibby: Now that you have all the stories, how do you outline the books? How do you take the fifteen stories — do you have sticky notes all over your desk? What’s it like? What does it look like for you?

Charles: For my two books so far, I write them chapter by chapter. I’ll write one chapter. I’ll send it to my editor. Then I’ll start on the next chapter. I don’t have to deal with an overarching arc as much as thinking about ten thousand words. I go through and I figure out the idea I want to explain. What is the central idea that I want to convey? What are the three or four stories that allow me to do that, to segment it into interesting aspects of that, an evolution of that idea? Then what I’ll do — this changes from chapter to chapter — usually I’ll write my editor, this guy named Andy Ward, a long letter that’s totally messy but says, “Here’s all the things that I learned. Here’s how I’m thinking about it.” I don’t use any notes. I’m literally writing from memory. The act of doing that helps me figure out what the basic structure is. Me and Andy will talk about it and figure out this part doesn’t work, or this part is actually saying the same thing as this part, so you don’t really need it.

Once I have that, I usually use notecards. I’ll go through all of my reporting materials. I’ll write each detail on its own notecard. Then I arrange the notecards into piles based on what belongs with what. That allows me to sequence details and facts. Now I have a sense of how things start, and where they’re going, and when they get interrupted by other stories, and why they get interrupted that way. From that, I oftentimes start writing the actual thing. I have to figure out what the lead is, what the opening is before I can really start leaning into it. That process works. When I write those notecards, I might have 150 or 200 per chapter. Thirty or forty of them appear in the chapter. I don’t know which thirty or forty are going to appear in the chapter. It’s that once you start writing you begin figuring out, “Oh, this whole block of notecards that I spent a day and half writing and three weeks reporting, I don’t even need.”

Ultimately if a piece of writing works, it works because of the structure, because somebody has thought about a beginning, a middle, and an end. They’ve created something compelling that drags you through the chapter. Otherwise at any point there is something more important than reading to do. Very often, that’s suspense. You could say, “Little did he know that he would be dead twelve hours later.” You want to find out how he’s going to die. Some of the best writing actually doesn’t have suspense at all. There is a hinted-at forward motion that compels you to continue reading. I’m reading this book right now, Rachel Kushner’s new book called The Mars Room. It’s a woman who’s in prison. All you know about her is she’s in prison. She starts telling her life story. Her life story is so sad and tragic and depressing. The fact that she’s in prison, it’s not enough suspense to keep you going. It’s clear that the author has thought about the forward momentum. She’s thought about rewarding you for sticking with the book.

That’s what you want to convey in a chapter or in a book. I have thought about this structure well enough that you believe me when I make you a promise. If you think what you’re reading is kind of interesting, if you keep on reading, it’s going to get better. It’s going to come to some resolution. As humans, we always want that forward narrative momentum. As long as you can signal that you’re providing it, the person will continue reading.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. That’s so cool.

Charles: That’s my theory on it. There’s probably other theories.

Zibby: You’re theory’s workin’. I didn’t like that you were struggling, but I liked reading that you admitted you were struggling to finish your first book, and deal with your kids, and deal with your life, and stay up late, and not get everything done, and not take the vacations you wanted. You had said that in the context of trying to find an expert, which eventually led to your next book.

How do you get it all done? How have you used the tips from your productivity book in your own life?

Charles: The biggest insight from Smarter Faster Better is that there is this real difference between busyness and productivity. That wasn’t always true. In fact, until about the 1970s, it wasn’t true at all. In 1956, to use a random word, if you were busy, odds are pretty good that you were also productive. That’s not necessarily true for all professions. For most of America, if you worked in a factory — a lot of people did — or if you were a delivery person, then every hour in which you were busy was also an hour in which you were productive. They were somewhat synonymous. Society was built to make them synonymous. That’s what the industrial revolution is.

The knowledge revolution comes along, the world that we live in now, where you could spend an entire day replying to emails and get nothing important done. In fact, you’ve done anti-important stuff. The next day you’re going to have even more emails to deal with because they become self-perpetuating. What’s really important is to recognize that there’s this difference between busyness and productivity. Then the question becomes how do we figure out how to be productive and not just be busy? The answer is that throughout history it has usually come down to thinking more deeply, thinking more deeply about what is actually important to get done right now. What are your actual goals? Are you prioritizing things correctly? Are you setting aside and ignoring the things that are distractions, that are simply busyness, and instead focusing on the things that are going to move the needle for you? Which means knowing what the needle is, knowing what makes you happy, or what makes you satisfied, or what you really, actually want to get done. One of the things that I do is I try to be much more deliberate about that now.

I was a reporter at “The New York Times” for about eleven years and then decided to leave “The Times” as a staff writer and become a magazine writer, in part because I really wanted to write magazine pieces. I wanted to write long-form pieces. The busyness of “The New York Times” was so overwhelming that it was really hard for me to find the space to do that. Similarly, I give a ton of speeches right now. I need to figure out what is my mental model for the time I spend giving speeches? It lets me talk to new people. It introduces ideas to new people. It’s an important financial source of income that supports the writing that I do. I’m very deliberate in sitting down and saying, “What are the things that are important to me? How do I prioritize those? How do I get rid of everything else?” Most people who email me, they don’t get an email back. If I send more than twenty emails in a day, that’s a failure. I want to send less and less and less emails unless it’s something that’s important to me. Otherwise it’s just other people putting stuff on my to-do list. I think very deliberately about that stuff, and in doing so, hopefully become more productive.

Zibby: I feel like I need you to come in my life and go through every area. I need to apply the Duhigg model to everything.

Charles: Kids are a good example of this. There is this very easy busy thing that you can get into where you’re simply spending time with your children but not actually interacting with your children. There’s an interesting question that I don’t know the answer to, which is, is it more important just to hang out with your kids for large quantities of time, or spend small quantities of time with them but have these deep conversations? I actually don’t know the answer. Up ‘till now, basically what I’ve done is small quantities of time and try and interact with them a lot. My wife is going on sabbatical. We’re going to leave for country for six months. I’m basically going to do the opposite which is be with my children all the time, which seems a little terrifying to be honest. I’m curious to find out which one actually matters more. My guess is that quantity of time instead of quality of time is more important.

Zibby: Quantity, just being around?

Charles: I think so. I think that there’s a satisfaction and a reward that comes from that. The point is that it’s very infrequent that we get the chance to think that way. Usually we just accident into what our relationship is with time and our kids. People who are the most successful are the ones who spend time asking themselves those questions.

Zibby: In Smarter Faster Better you say that giving team members more control empowers them, makes the whole team function better. Do you think this can apply to your kids, or should you not give them the power?

Charles: Absolutely. In fact, what we know is the best form of parenting is, frankly, giving kids more and more control. A friend of mine has a book coming out called — I just blurbed it. I can’t remember the name now — Being A Happier Parent or Happier Parenting. I’ll figure out what it is.

Zibby: Who’s the author?

Charles: It’s KJ who writes for “The New York Times,” whose last name of course I can’t actually pronounce.

Zibby: We’ll Google it.

Charles: We’ll put it on your website. Her whole theory on siblings who fight with each other is “Just let them fight.” They’re not fighting with you. They’re fighting with each other. Let them work it out. Just ignore your children when they’re arguing with each other, which I think is pretty good advice. It’s hard for the parent. Me and my wife were doing it in car yesterday. It makes you crazy because you want to be like, “Stop doing that!” There’s no situation in which people in the real world are fighting with each other and having a referee comes in makes it less likely that they’re not going to not fight the next time. The whole point of kids is to develop this internal locus of control, this concept that they control the world around them as opposed to the world controlling them.

We know that an internal locus of control is associated with much greater success in life. That’s one of the reasons why when your child does well you don’t tell them, “You’re so smart.” You tell them, “You worked so hard.” You want to reinforce this belief that they control the outcomes that influence them. Similarly when you’re parenting, it’s about trying to teach your children that they actually have control over all the things that they might not suspect they have control over. Everything about life when you’re a kid, you’re powerless. It’s super frustrating. Oftentimes the reason you’re powerless is because no one’s taught you how to seize that power. No one’s taught you that you can go up and you can get the adults to trust you to do whatever you want if you are polite and you seem mature. If you teach them how to do that, you’re teaching them how to succeed.

Zibby: I like how you are so methodical in how you approach your parenting. In the book, after you went on vacation with your kids and they got used to having dessert on vacation — that was the best part — how you came back and you’re like, “Now, we have to mix up the reward. We’re going to give them a treat, but it’s going to be at two in the afternoon.” They’re like these little lab rats or something.

Charles: It is fifty percent methodical and then fifty percent “I’m distracted. All I want to do is watch TV.” I’m like, “Okay. You can do whatever you want. You’re driving me crazy right now.”

Zibby: In Smarter Faster Better you have a goal-setting flowchart which starts with stretch goals like writing a book, or potty training your kid, or something. Can you give a quick example of one of your flowcharts and how that can make ?

Charles: There’s this basic idea in goal setting which is there are two opposing tensions in setting goals. Setting goals is really, really important because people tend to do one of two things that’s wrong. The first is that they tend to set these very, very practical goals that they can definitely get accomplished. Oftentimes that’s because of this thing called a need for cognitive closure. It feels good to get things done. That’s also why we do emails. You’re like, “Oh, man. I got all my emails done,” without stepping back to think, “Was that worth the time I spent on it?”

The second mistake that people oftentimes make — not a mistake, but certainly can led you awry — is that they might have a to-do list that has thirty things on it. They basically use a to-do list as a memory aid rather than a prioritization device. It’s good to have a memory aid. You should not try and keep everything in your head because it will make you crazy. If you have a list of thirty things, that shouldn’t be your to-do list. That should be your memory aid, the place where you list everything so you don’t have to remember it. What the research shows is that you want to take these two instincts, to try and do everything and to try and be really practical, and you want to marry them together. You should be really deliberate about it.

The first thing you should do is you should figure out what is your stretch goal? What is this big thing that you actually want to get done? If you only have a month left to live, what’s the one thing that you really want to get done within the next month? For that matter, what’s the one thing that you really want to get done this week, the thing that maybe you’ve been putting off, or the thing that if you get it done, you’ll feel so much better? It could be transformative. What is your stretch goal, this big ambition? The problem with a big ambition is that it’s overwhelming. We don’t actually know where to start. We’ll waste a lot of time.

In addition to having a stretch goal and identifying what that is and writing that down, what researchers recommend is that you then write down a to-do list that’s just made up of three things: the most important thing to get done today, the second most important thing to get done today, and if you happen to do those two things, what you would get done tomorrow. Just three things are on your to-do list. You can pull that off of that list of thirty, but just identify three things. How do we make that into a plan? How do we take those three things and make them into something tangible?

What researchers talked about is using a process. One of the most popular is this thing called SMART goals. SMART is an acronym. It means specifically what do you want to accomplish? How are you going to measure success? Is it achievable? Do you have the resources you need? Are you going to be able to close your door for an hour so you can actually work on it? What’s the timeline? When are you going to start this? When are you going to stop it? It takes thirty seconds to go through SMART for those three things on your list. Once you do that, you pretty much have a concrete plan. When you wake up the next morning, you know exactly what to do. It’s much easier to start because you know what to do.

What researchers say is identity those stretch goals. Know what your big goal is. Take a stretch goal that maybe is something that’s going to take you a month or a year and break it down into three smart goals for today. Eventually, you’re going to get there. We waste a lot of time doing stuff we don’t have to do, we shouldn’t be doing, because it feels good to get it done. We waste a lot of time waiting to start doing the things that are important. If you can collapse those two things, you’re going to get to that stretch goal much faster.

Zibby: You say motivation becomes easier when we transform a chore into a choice and doing so gives us a sense of control. That’s great, but what about all these things we have to get done like paying the bills or filling out school forms? Some of the emails we can’t just ignore. What do you do?

Charles: Let’s say today for you, what’s something —

Zibby: — I don’t mean to make this about me. I’m using me as an example to help everybody everywhere.

Charles: What’s something that you feel like you have to do today that, all things being equal, you would rather not do?

Zibby: I can’t even think what I have to do today.

Charles: Or this week.

Zibby: I have to order camp supplies for my son’s sleepaway camp.

Charles: Do you enjoy doing that?

Zibby: No.

Charles: How do you take that chore and make it into a choice? There’s a couple ways to do it. First of all, you can decide when to schedule it. You could be like, “After I have my glass of wine and my —

Zibby: — My apple.

Charles: Or maybe you’re going to reward yourself tonight with the glass of wine, and the popcorn, and the chocolate chips after you order the camp supplies. That way you’re choosing, “I actually deserve that popcorn, and chocolate chips, and a glass of wine because I’m getting these stupid camp supplies out of the way.” The other thing you can do is you can decide — in those camp supplies, there’s probably some part of it that’s a little bit fun and some part of it that’s not. For my kids, I like ordering all technical stuff like which knife should they get? Maybe you enjoy ordering the clothes. Decide whether you’re going to do that first or last. That’s the part of the chore that’s your favorite part of the chore, are you going to do it first or are you going to do it last? Are you going to use it as a reward or not? You’re finding these little choices that you can make. It’s so much easier to start.

Once you’ve asserted your control over it, then it’s not as hard to start. I’m not saying it’s going to be your favorite part of the day, but you have to do it. The question is how do you make it as painless as possible? How do you make it as fast as possible? We know that by making these little choices it’s actually going to be faster and less unpleasant than you think it would be. Email’s another great example. The way that I do email is I go through my inbox. If there’s five response I have to write, I’ll hit reply to all of them. They’re all on my desktop. I’ll go into each one, and I’ll just write half a sentence. It’s always a choice. They’ll be like, “Can you have lunch?” I’ll be like, “Sure, but I like to eat Indian food.” “Can you do this thing for me?” I’ll say, “No, I can’t do that thing for you.” I’ll make some choice. Once I’ve got the choice in a half-sentence in the email, I can write the rest of the email around it. It’s really easy to do that. “Hey, Jim. Thanks so much for your note.” It’s the choice that’s the hard part. Once the choice is on the screen, the rest of it zips through. You can try it and tell me what you think.

Zibby: I’ll give it a shot. Can we talk for just a minute about what it was like working for “The New York Times” all those years? Paint a picture for us of what it was like, and how you dealt with the office and the deadlines and the reporting, and what you loved the most.

Charles: Most of the stuff that I worked on was long, investigative projects. I would spend months working on something before it appeared in print, which was great. It was actually a weirdly unique skill within a newsroom because most people love writing stuff on a regular basis. There is something super satisfying about having a story — they’re called dailies — when you need to write a story that appears the next day in the paper. That’s very satisfying because it can’t be that great, right? You’re better than anyone who’s faster than you. You’re faster than anyone that’s better than you. It feels very, very good to get a story out into the world. I don’t know how much else there is to say. It’s a newspaper that everyone reads. As a result, you have to be very, very careful about getting everything right. At the same time, surprisingly few people read most articles. Oftentimes you’d be surprised how frequent, like on the most emailed list, how few people have actually emailed those articles to get them on there. I liked it. It was a good place to be.

Zibby: What was it like winning a Pulitzer Prize? Tell me the whole thing, where you were. Did you find out by phone, by email?

Charles: I was in a taxi driving back from the airport to my house on a Friday. They always announce the prizes on a Monday. They let the papers know on a Friday who’s won. I got a call from my editor. I wasn’t certain that I had heard him right. I almost called him back and I was like, “Wait. I want to make sure. You said that I won, right?” This sounds like a cheesy thing to say. It is great. I’m so appreciative to have won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a nice thing. It’s a nice accolade. Compared to everything else, it’s one small part of a life.

Compared to actually writing those stories, and feeling like those stories are working, and feeling like those stories make change in the world, the prize is a nice recognition of that. The stories are more satisfying in some respect. I won five years ago now. It is really nice because it’s a shorthand you can use with people so that they know that you’re a good writer. The truth of the matter is that within most of the world of media everyone’s like, “What have you done in the last six months?” I’ve got these two stories I’m working on right now that are stressing me all the time. If those stories turn out well, then I’ll probably feel as satisfied as when I won.

Zibby: Can you share what they’re about?

Charles: One of them is about Silicon Valley and this character within Silicon Valley. Another one is about trying to understand why the nation is so angry right now. What do we know about how anger functions?

Zibby: That’s fascinating.

Charles: Hopefully they’ll be good.

Zibby: Are you thinking about another book?

Charles: I am. I’m supposed to talk to my book editor later today actually about the next book, which I will hopefully figure out.

Zibby: Keep me posted. To close, do you have any advice to aspiring authors or journalists?

Charles: Read as much as you can. Read people who think about the structure of writing. John McPhee’s latest book, Draft No. 9, is amazing in that respect. He thinks a lot about how writing works. Reading good writers, Jennifer Egan once said, “An important thing that writers can do is to protect what you read,” so that you’re reading other good writers, which I don’t adhere to all the time. Sometimes I read trash because I love it, but that is helpful. The most important thing is to figure out why do you like the things you like? Something you read that you like, there is some secret code about how they did it that made you like it. If it’s really good, it’s not obvious.

The best writers obsess about structure. By the time you read what they’ve written, the structure is not obvious at all. In fact, it’s very hard to understand the structure because they’ve gotten so deep into that structure that it almost occurs at a meta-structural level. That does not mean, though, that there isn’t a structure there and that they haven’t thought about structure. For someone like me, structure is the most important thing, or one of the most important things. That’s how I get people addicted to the writing. That’s also why I love the writing that I love to read. There are people who think about structure, take care of the reader, who want to entertain me. Other people love different kinds of writings for different reasons. Oftentimes we read and we absorb without actually looking too closely or paying attention to what all the wires and the tricks are that the person are using. Those wires and tricks, that’s how you learn to do that thing.

If you love Gretchen Rubin, who writes in a very, very different way than I do, studying how she actually does it — sometimes I go through a book and I’ll create an outline of what I think the structure was for the writer. Only infrequently have I done this. I’ll take an article. I’ll actually write the words of that article out on a piece of paper just to try and figure out why they made the choices they did about how those words fit together. I read what writers write about writing all the time and think about it a lot.

At the end of the day, writing is all about an act of making choices. There’s a lot of creativity. You hope and pray that you have some clever way of getting into something. Most of what makes it up is making choices, making very deliberate choices. If you understand the choices that your favorite writers are making, then it tells you what library of choices are available to you. Most people go through the world reading things and not understanding that there were a thousand other ways to write that. There are. When you can identify those thousand other choices, that’s when suddenly you can start making them too. That and I would say, the more reporting you do, always the better.

Zibby: Wow. Thank you. That was amazing. I learned so much. I have a whole new plan for my own life. I hope the listeners out there feel like they can apply it to their lives or else it’s just been a self-serving interview. Thank you for coming on.

Charles: Thanks for having me.

Charles Duhigg, THE POWER OF HABIT

Amazon Block
Search for an Amazon product to display.

Learn more