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Failing to Achieve Your Goals Can Mean You’re on the Right Track

Creativity Habits & Productivity
Failing to Achieve Your Goals Can Mean You’re on the Right Track

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real ProductivityScott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. The two recently sat down on The Psychology Podcast to discuss how to hack productivity, why unmet goals are a good sign, and what universities can learn from improv comedy.

Scott: Smarter Faster Better is a great book. Who doesn’t want to be smarter, faster, and better? Who doesn’t want to be more productive?

Charles: In today’s world, there’s so much stuff going on. There are so many tasks to be done, so many emails, so many phone calls to be returned, that you can be busy all the time and never get anything important done. The most productive people recognize that sometimes you have to be smarter, and sometimes you have to be faster, and sometimes you have to be better, but usually not all three at the same time. The way that you distinguish between those is that you create habits that push you to think more deeply [about] what you really ought to be doing.

Scott: How do you define smarter?

Charles: Smarter, much like productivity, is kind of in the eye of the beholder. Productivity on a Wednesday morning might mean that you drop your kid off at school, and you plow through a bunch of emails. But a productive Friday morning might be one where you walk your kid to school, and talk to them about their week, and find out what’s going on in their life. When we try and jam things into these one-size-fits-all definitions, we’re not paying attention to people’s inborn instincts to figure out what productivity, or smartness, is for them.

Scott: You talk about a concept called “internal locus of control.” Could you explain what that is, and how that relates to the Marines?

Charles: Internal locus of control is the belief that we have control over our destiny. The choices that we make have impacts on what happens in our life. Researchers looked [at] how people generate self-motivation, why some people are so much better at motivating and getting things done quickly with less stress and effort. They found that the people who trigger their self-motivation have the ability to perceive choices, to convince themselves that those decisions will have a real, material impact on what happens next.

In Smarter Faster Better, we explain this concept by talking about how the Marines transformed basic training. About fifteen years ago, the head of the Marines started changing basic training in order to teach recruits to develop an internal locus of control. They wanted to teach Marines to have a bias towards action, to take the initiative to charge up that hill, even if your commander isn’t around to tell you what to do.

“We should have some goals that we’re failing in. If we accomplish every goal that we set, we’re not being particularly ambitious, we’re not trying to stretch ourselves.”

What they did is they redesigned basic training to force recruits to make choice after choice after choice. It’s not uncommon in your first week or two that you go into the mess hall and have a big meal, and all of your colleagues do, too. And then most of the mess hall will empty out except for your unit, and your drill instructor will tell you, “Okay, now go clean the mess hall.” Someone will turn to the instructor and say, “Okay, where are the brooms?” And he says, “Figure it out.” They say, “Should we throw away the extra hamburgers? Should we put them in the fridge?” And he says, “Figure it out. That’s up to you.” They’re training these Marines to make choice, after choice, after choice, so that making a choice becomes instinctual. When people look at chores and turn them into choices, when they see some type of agency that they can assert, it makes it much easier for them to self-motivate and get things done.

Scott: I love that. External locus of control is very high in people who are depressed, [and] you see a link between an internal locus of control and being more motivated. You implicated the striatum, a major projection point for dopamine, in this.

Charles: Mauricio Delgado at Rutgers has done some really interesting studies to figure out which parts of our neurology become most active when we feel like we can make a choice. What he found is that the striatum tends to become more active, even if what we’re doing is a meaningless task or we know our choice has no impact. Simply feeling like we can make a decision has an inherent reward sensation. We have this inborn instinct to motivate around a choice, to seek out something that makes us feel in control. [And] it’s also a way for us to trick ourselves into self-motivating when we’re having trouble doing so.

Scott: Absolutely, and if you look at other animals, they don’t have that agency at all. Maybe [that’s] what it means to feel human, in a sense.


There’s this phrase called “safe spaces” that they use in academic institutions. A lot of students today want to be in this space where they can’t be challenged. They want to make sure that what they say is protected. [But] what you talk about in terms of psychological safety is actually the reverse of safe spaces. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Charles: I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re exactly right. Google spent about four years and tens of millions of dollars trying to figure out how to build the perfect team. Initially their thought was that the perfect team was one where you mix exactly the right kinds of people. Maybe everyone on the team is friends, so they all get along really well. Or maybe they’re people who all like the same type of leadership structure, or maybe it’s a mixture of introverts and extroverts.

Google found that none of these hypotheses seem to be true. Who was on a team seemed to not have much correlation with whether that team was effective. The thing that mattered was how the people on the team interacted. Basically the group norms, the culture that emerged among those teammates. There were two behaviors that seemed to have a huge impact on making a group work well. The first was equality and conversational turn-taking. In an average meeting, does everyone speak up to an equal degree? Maybe there are some meetings when some people are a bit more long-winded than others, but over a month, is everyone speaking in roughly equal proportion?

The second behavioral norm was, does everyone show each other that they’re listening? Are they picking up on each other’s non-verbal cues? When someone looks upset are they saying, “Hey Suzy, why do you look so upset?” If you have these two behaviors, this listening and talking, what you get is psychological safety. Psychological safety is this environment where everyone feels safe to speak their mind. Everyone feels like they’re being listened to, but at the same time, you also feel like you can take risks.

If I bring up an idea, and it’s kind of a crazy idea, no one’s going to hold it against me. If I ask a question that’s offensive or not smart, other people will understand it’s coming from a good place. What we really want on university campuses, or anywhere else for that matter, is a place where I can be myself. Where I can turn to someone and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be you.” Where I feel safe enough to ask a dumb question, and they feel safe enough to answer it.

Scott: I got this idea is from Second City, in Chicago, the improv group. The safe spaces they talk about in academia are the exact opposite of what they try to nurture within the improv group. What you’re saying shouldn’t offend others, but you should still be safe to have a different opinion, and to take those risks. It seems like that culture of comedy and improv is more along the lines of what we should be promoting, even in academia.


Let’s talk about setting goals, because to be human is to have setbacks in your goals.

Charles: We should have some goals that we’re failing in. If we accomplish every goal that we set, we’re not being particularly ambitious, we’re not trying to stretch ourselves. [And] it would mean that we’re not thinking very hard about our goals. Three days after you write something on your to-do list, that might be not the right thing to be chasing anymore. Prioritization should be an ongoing process. A researcher looked at how people wrote to-do lists, and he found that most people use to-do lists as an external memory aid. They’ll come up with a list of things that they want to get done, and they’ll jot them down so they don’t have to remember all of them.

About 15% of them would write at the top of that list a task that they had already completed, because it feels good when you sit down at your desk to cross something off right away. [But] that’s using a to-do list for mood repair, instead of using it as a prioritization device. The right way to write a to-do list, the way most correlated with its success, is to write your most important goal at the top of your to-do list. Write the most important thing you want to get done this week, or this month, or today. Then under that, come up with a plan.

As a result, every time you look at your to-do list, it’s going to force you to ask yourself, “Does what I’m doing right now align with my top priorities?” If I just spent the last 45 minutes answering emails, and the top of my to-do list says, “Write that memo you’ve been putting off for three weeks,” I probably ought to close my computer and write that memo. To-do lists are most effective when they remind us of our most important goals, when they cause us to think about our priorities, rather than just trying to get the next thing on the list done.

Scott: You talk about intense time pressure in your innovation chapter. Could you tell me a little bit how that interacts with coming up with new ideas?

“Habits are about not having to think about the dumb things in life… Productivity is about using that new mental free space to productively think about the things that really matter.”

Charles: There’s a healthy strain of research that shows that time pressures can push people to be more creative because it removes the ability to seek perfectionism, and it forces people to be more pragmatic, to rely on what they already know rather than coming up with something completely new. All of those can be really powerful.

Scott: Constraints are good for creativity. [They] narrow the problem space so we [aren’t] overwhelmed, but it still gives you freedom to be creative in how you overcome barriers.

Charles: I think you could make that argument. Chuck Close painted portraits by painting all these little boxes. He focused really intensely on each box. The constraint wasn’t actually a constraint, it was actually a freeing mechanism. Rather than having to think about the whole picture, [he could] think about that picture square inch by square inch.

Scott: The fun thing for me is seeing the big picture. When you take all these different aspects and you look at it as a global puzzle, does it all fit nicely together?

Charles: Throughout history, the killer app for productivity and success has always been thinking more deeply. The people who seem to succeed are the ones who think a little bit more deeply about, “What do I really want to get done? What’s going to move the needle? How do I stay focused on that? How, instead of just being busy, do I become productive?”

We don’t accidentally trip over thoughtfulness. We need to create habits that allow us to think more. When I say something like that, most people think, “That means I need to take long walks in the woods, and let my mind wander,” but for many people that’s not actually how they engage in thoughtful behavior. That’s not how they have contemplative routines. For many people, a contemplative routine is, for instance, being in the habit of working with your friends, because it forces you to think more deeply about the choices. Or maybe writing long emails to your parents, or describing your entire day to your wife, or experimenting with a bunch of different routines and figuring out which ones push you to think.

Scott: Right, because at the end of the day, our goals aren’t to create habits. Our goal is to automatize the things that are taking us away from our growth.

Charles: That’s exactly right. So I don’t have to think about brushing my teeth, or I don’t have to think about exercising. Habits are about not having to think about the dumb things in life, just having them happen automatically. Productivity is about using that new mental free space to productively think about the things that really matter.


This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

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