James Clear is an author and productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help nearly half a million newsletter subscribers optimize their habits. Nir Eyal is a tech entrepreneur, Stanford University educator and the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The two recently sat down to discuss how to put technology in its place, build a better work culture and supercharge your daily productivity.
This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on habits.
For more on habits, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.
Nir: You’ve done a lot of work on how to change behaviors within a workplace environment. How do we prioritize properly, and how do you change productivity by developing good habits?
James: So there’s a story. It’s 1918 or so, and the CEO of Bethlehem Steel, one of the biggest U.S. steel companies at the time, brings in this consultant named Ivy Lee. Ivy Lee says, “Just give me 15 minutes with each of your top execs, and you don’t have to pay me. I’ll come back three months from now, and you can pay me whatever you think it’s worth.”
He meets with each of the executives and says, “I want you to sit down at the end of your day and write the six things that are most important for you to do tomorrow. Then rank those six things based on their true importance. You don’t get to decide what feels good or what’s easiest to do, but actually the most important things. Order those six, and then the next day, you have to work on the first task. But you work on task one until it’s completed. You don’t get to work on any other task until then. Then you work your way down the list. At the end of the day, if there’s anything left on that list of six, it makes its way over to the list for tomorrow, and you do the same process again.” That was the Ivy Lee method.
Over the next three months, the executives actually followed through on this. Bethlehem Steel did so well that when Ivy Lee comes back in, the CEO writes him a check for $25,000, which in today’s dollars, was like $400,000. Just for 15 minutes with each exec.
What I love about this story is that it’s very simple. Everybody understands the idea that you should have a to-do list, but how often do you actually do the most important thing first each day? If you do that, you will literally never have a unproductive day.
Often the worst distractions are not things that are a waste of our time. Most productive people know they shouldn’t watch TV or twiddle away on social media for hours on end. That’s not the problem. It’s that they’re working on number six or seven or ten on their to-do list, when they should be working on number one. There are things that we can rationalize spending time on because they’re good uses of time, but they’re not great uses of time. And I think that story provides a little nudge in that direction.
Nir: There’s an interesting psychology behind why we do that. Email is this time-wasting vortex because it feels productive, [but] it’s pseudo-productivity. It feels so good to check emails off the list, even if they’re not actually moving the ball forward.
It’s this reactive work as opposed to the reflective kind of work that’s so important in our knowledge-based economy. It’s not just about cranking out widgets. It’s also about taking time to reflect and think and process, and provide the mental horsepower required to come up with new strategies. You need that cognitive space, as opposed to just zipping through your email box.
James: I like to call this the difference between motion and action. Motion is when you’re preparing to get something done, but motion by itself will never lead to a result, whereas action will. For example, you want to get in shape. Motion is you go and talk to a personal trainer. Action is you do a workout. Motion is reading ten books as research for the book that you’re writing, whereas action is writing a chapter.
Nir: And having a meeting for the sake of having a meeting.
James: Exactly. If all you did was have meetings, you would go out of business.
People are very resistant to that because they say, “Well, we need to have meetings. Everybody needs to be on the same schedule.” Yes, planning can be useful, but in many cases, planning becomes a form of procrastination. Like you said, it’s pseudo-productivity. It feels good to read another book and to outline the chapter, and it feels good to have a meeting and feel like we were productive because we checked off everything on the agenda. But you’re not actually taking an action that will deliver a result. The Ivy Lee method helps us prioritize the things that lead to action, not the things that lead to motion.
You have to have some bias towards action, especially in an economy where we have access to more knowledge than ever before. We can just consume and consume and consume, [and] there’s a good evolutionary reason why we’re biased towards consuming. Knowing more about where predators would be, or where a waterhole was, or where a food source was, was good for us. It led to greater survival. So we are evolutionarily primed to consume information and feel like we’re making progress. When we live in an economy where information is prevalent, it’s easy to just do that all time. But we have to counteract that evolutionary tendency and focus more on action.
Nir: We’re so drowning in information and possibilities to distract and entertain yourself that it’s the people who figure out how to put technology in its place, how to actually focus and get reflective work done, that are going to excel.
James: Tell me a little bit more about how you manage distraction.
Nir: My wife and I found that every night, we would go to bed later and later because I was still checking email or finishing a blog post. So we went to the hardware store and bought a $10 outlet timer. Every night, this outlet timer turns off whatever’s plugged into it. So we plugged in our internet router. Every evening at 10 o’clock, the router shuts off, and we have no internet in the house. Now we stop using our technology and get to bed.
James: Technically you could unplug it from the outlet timer and plug it back in, but you’re creating enough space between that decision and the action that you’re like, “Okay, I don’t want to do this. I need to go to bed.”
James: I love social media, but it takes a lot of time out of my work week. So every Monday, my assistant will reset all the passwords on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I don’t know them.
I’m logged out every Monday, and then on Friday, she sends me the passwords. I get access from Friday to Sunday evening, and then Monday morning, she changes them again, and I can’t get in. So I get to use social media every weekend, but throughout the week, I have no access. I’m locking in my future behavior and making sure that I’m only presented with the options and interfaces that I want to be presented with on a weekly basis.
It’s wonderful to have access to the wealth of human knowledge. It’s wonderful to have reach for your writing and to share your articles with an audience. But I don’t want to have access to all of humanity’s knowledge at every moment of the day. I want to have it when I need to get research done and produce something useful. Other times it can be a distraction.
Nir: There’s so much we can do with products that change our habits, helping us exercise more, eat better, connect with family and friends, be more productive. I love that you’re using the science of habits to break these unwanted habits in your life.
We’re living in an age where products are becoming more addictive. If you are looking for some kind of escape, there are more opportunities than ever to find that distraction in our pockets. The simplest thing you can do is to manage those triggers. Two-thirds of Americans never change the notification settings on their phone.
In the workplace it’s more difficult [to control], because people feel crushed with all the things they need to respond to from the work environment, emails and texts and Slack notifications. There’s just so much going on. Work time feels like all the time, nine-to-five has become 24/7. [But] it’s really not the technology so much as how the culture within the company uses this technology. Leadership sets the tone, the culture, and the habit of how technology is to be used.
James: I’m curious if you think there is one stage that’s best to try to break or change a habit. Ignoring the trigger or making the action harder—is one of those more effective than the other?
Nir: It’s contextually specific to the behavior you’re trying to change. Removing the trigger is super easy. When I wanted to eat less sugar, I removed those triggers, chocolate bars, from my house. I can still go eat a chocolate bar if I want to, but I have to do it outside the home. Making the action more difficult is the easiest place to start.
One thing that a lot of people don’t think about is the investment. For example, when you watch a movie online through a streaming service like Amazon Prime or Netflix, the company knows your preferences, and then autoplays the next episode. We’ve got to be careful about these services that are built to keep us watching with these cliffhangers. Remember 24 with Kiefer Sutherland? The makers knew the psychology of the cliffhanger, and I couldn’t stop. I watched the next one and the next one and the next one. So I don’t watch any more series. I love movies because there’s a finite end, but I don’t invest emotionally in these series that keep me coming back again and again.
Tell me more about habits within the enterprise. How do you we build a better culture?
James: As a leader, people will imitate your behavior, so good role modeling is probably one of the best things that leaders can do in the workplace. Whether it’s an individual employee or a leader, the way to change the world is in concentric circles. Start with yourself, and then work your way out from there. How can each leader bring their best self to work each day? How can we manage technology so that our mental space is fully aligned and attentive to the task at hand? If each person focuses on their circle, then all of a sudden the concentric circle [of] our culture changes in a very drastic way. Individual habits end up being the group’s habits. A group is just a collection of individuals.
Nir: When it comes to cultural habits around technology, one thing that drives me nuts is when in the middle of a meeting, somebody thinks it’s a good time to take out their phone and finish an email or to-do. Typically, by the way, this is the highest paid person in the room.
It’s a behavior that really needs to change. We’ve adopted technology wholesale because it does so many wonderful things for us, but I don’t think we’ve stopped to ask ourselves, “Where does this technology serve us and where do we serve it?” What I’d like to see is what I call a digital hat rack. Back in the 1940’s, during the days of Mad Men, when you walked into a building, you would take off your hat and put it on the hat rack, because it showed the demarcation between the public and private spaces.
It was a sign of respect. This is the cultural norm that I think we should adopt when it comes to business meetings. If we’re going to take the time to be physically present, we also have to be mentally present. It’s not good enough that we’re a warm body in a chair if we’re mentally somewhere else. When the boss is using their device, it sends a message to everybody in the room that their time is less important than what’s on [the boss’s] phone. And it stresses everybody out because they’re thinking, “What’s the boss sending me? What work item is coming down the pipe?” So they can’t focus on the meeting at hand.
We can bring back this digital hat rack idea by having a charging station in every conference room in America. When you walk into a conference room, you plug in your phone. Let’s bring back a pen and paper if you need to take notes, so that we’re not distracted with these devices when we’re physically meeting.