Episode #5 – GTD and Daily Habits

Date: Thursday, June 18, 2015 by John Forrister

How do you create major impact using GTD? Join David Allen and Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, as they discuss the cumulative costs and benefits of our seemingly insignificant daily decisions. As David says in Ready For Anything, “In the end, it is attention to detail that makes all the difference.”

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Podcast Transcript

Note: This is the original transcript from the In Conversation with Charles Duhigg.

Hi, David Allen back with another addition of In Conversation, and in a moment, you’ll meet Charles Duhigg, a multiple award winning investigative journalist for The New York Times and a big GTD® advocate. Listen in, as he energetically shares with me the story of his new book, The Power of Habit, as well as how he gets his own stuff done, and forgive and Skype for a couple of instances of a little bit of static that will show up towards the end.

I met Charles because he sent me a book and he kept banging me on the head, so as you know I’ve had a huge pile of books that people would love endorsements for and I go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah—right.” And so it goes into my huge pile, some 30 or 40 of them, but it was a fascinating topic and at some point, my intuition just said, “Ya know?!” And maybe it was as much to get you off my back because you kept rattling my cage, but I sat down and I read The Power of Habit and I was blown away by it, a book still to come, though this interview will probably publish close to when you’re going to launch out there. But in any case, more of that to come as we get further into it, but Charles, why don’t you give all the GTD Connect folks out there listening, a bit of a—several paragraphs, or just bring us up to who are you, and why are talking about a little bit of your story?

CD: No absolutely! And thank you so much for having me on. I’m a huge fan of GTD, and more importantly a huge fan of people who use GTD. I found that when I got turned onto it, about five or six years ago by a friend of mine, who’s life had basically been transformed by Getting Things Done®, so it’s really a pleasure to be visiting with you.

I’m a reporter at The New York Times, where I’m an investigative business writer. And I have a book coming out in March, called The Power of Habit, from Random House. And I got interested in this topic. It’s about the science of habit formation in people’s lives and also within organizations, and communities, and about how habits unfold and why they unfold and also how they can be changed, whether it’s a habit that just involves one person or a habit that involves thousands of people. And I got interested in this topic about eight or nine years ago, because I was a reporter in Iraq and this is right—pretty soon after the US had moved into Iraq. And so Saddam Hussein had fallen but the country was kind of—things weren’t really in place yet. And some of the—there were riots that were starting in certain parts of the city and the cities around Baghdad. So I went down to this one little town named Kufah, about two hours south of Baghdad. And when I got there, you know, being in a war zone is fascinating and interesting and terrifying and I was trying to make sense of it and this Major at the base that I was at, had just arrived. So I went to go introduce myself to the Major and ask him sort of how things were going. And I said, “What are your biggest priorities right now?”

And he said, “Well, we’re doing this experiment in Kufah.” Kufah has a very important mosque in it and for about the previous six weeks, there had been these riots, riots that had killed dozens of people, really, really scary upheavals of anger. And so when the Major got to Kufah, one of the first things that he did was he went and he met with the Mayor of the town, and he had all these requests. If this is happening, please call us, and we’re looking for these bad guys. And then at the end of the meeting, he made one more request. He said, “What I’d love for you to do, is to take all of the Kebab sellers out of the plazas in Kufah.” And the Mayor was like, “Sure—this is the least among the things I need to worry about. If you want me to take all the Kebab sellers—the guys who sell meat off the grills, you want me to take them out of the plazas, I will be happy to do it.”

And so the Major was saying was that (he was telling me this) the reason why he had asked for this change was that he had been reviewing tapes from drones flying overhead of all of the recent riots. And what he noticed was that every riot followed
a kind of similar pattern. Ten or twelve people would show up in a plaza, and these were sort of troublemakers. They were angry. They were chanting and they would be holding signs and then over the next three or four hours, spectators would show up and they would stand at the periphery, and they weren’t chanting and they weren’t angry. They were just watching the troublemakers and seeing what’s going on. Time goes by. More and more spectators show up. Eventually you have a plaza with 200 people in it, but you still only have 15 or 20 troublemakers. And then something would happen, after about 4 or 4-1/2 hours, for some reason that crowd would tip over into a riot. One of the troublemakers would throw a bottle or a rock, someone else would get angry and the spectators got drawn in, and suddenly—a riot broke out.

So, I’m watching these video tapes of these riots with the Major and I, of course, can’t really make any sense of them, and he says, “Now watch these people on the periphery. They’ve been standing there for about two hours. We’ve got another 90 minutes until the riots start. Watch what they’re doing right now.” And it’s about 5:00 o’clock in the evening at this point, on the tape. And all of them start lining up to go get meat from the kebab sellers because it’s 5:00 o’clock and they’re hungry.

And then he puts in a new tape and he says, “Now this is the tape from once we asked the Mayor to remove the kebob sellers from the plazas.” Again, the crown looks exactly the same, it’s a couple weeks later. It’s about 5:00 o’clock. The spectators in the tape start looking around for the kebob sellers because it’s 5:00 o’clock and they’re hungry and they can’t find anyone to buy dinner from, so they leave, and within 30 minutes the entire plaza is empty except for the troublemakers who then go home because there’s no one else to draw into their militancy.

And the Major that I was talking to explained to me that the military, for about the previous five or six years, had become really focused on the science of habit formation, both within soldiers lives and in how the army itself operates, but also within communities, particularly communities they’re going into, as either in a combat perspective or in a nation building perspective. And so when I came back to the U.S., I thought this was just fascinating. So I came back from being a war correspondent and I started researching the science, and what I’ve discovered is that in about the last decade there’s been this huge explosion
in our understanding of the neurology and psychology and sociology of habits, and by understanding how habits work, which we can now do. We can break a habit down into components and even understand in someone’s brain why a certain habit has emerged. By learning to structure the mechanics of these habits, you can change them much, much more efficiently and much, much more dramatically. And so that became the book.

DA: Fascinating stuff. And you know, there’s probably 1400 different vectors that my brain is going through in talking about this in terms of my interests. Let’s back up a little bit more because I’m fascinated about your story. I mean, if any of you go do a Google search on Charles, you’ll see that he’s won more awards than he’s probably written anything. Your toxic waters stuff—I don’t know how many awards you got for that. So you are an investigative journalist, not just a war correspondent, so I’m curious, but I saw also that you were a Yale history major and then got an MBA. Interestingly, I had something of a strangely parallel of both interests and vectors in my life, but I’m curious if we go back a little further, what was the thread through your transition into what you were doing right now? I’m just curious about that.

CD: Into journalism? Yeah, so I actually—after I graduated from college, I started a company in New Mexico where I grew up, where we would go to universities and build medical campuses for them, in medically under-served areas. And I’d done that for a couple of years and I thought that was really interesting and then I went to Harvard Business School and HBS is a two year program and in the summer you’re supposed to intern at a place where hopefully, if you’re lucky, they give you a job after you graduate.

And so I went to intern with a private equity group and I spent the summer with a private equity group and it was really interesting and I was at HBS, and still to this day, I’m very interested in data and in patterns. Essentially, how do you find patterns that once you know how to look for them are obvious, but when you don’t know how to look for them are completely hidden, and yet, enormously powerful.

DA: The hidden in plain sight stuff.

CD: Exactly! Exactly! And so, I go into this job in private equity between my first and second year, and my whole job was to build financial models. So I’d sit down in front of my computer and make model after model after model. And it was almost the most deathly boring thing I’ve ever done in my entire life! And as a reward, I would let myself listen to a radio program,
a podcast, named on This American Life, which you and your listeners might be familiar with. It’s these stories from people’s lives.
And so I’m looking for patterns in the data to try to figure out what company should we buy and I’m listening to these stories during the day, and listening to the stories is the best part of my day, and I realize that if you listen to enough people’s stories, it’s kind of like working with data on companies. That all of a sudden, you start seeing these patterns emerge, which again, are hidden in plain sight, but until you know to look for them, you can’t find. And once you hear and you see that pattern again and again and again, you say to yourself, “Oh, wait a second! I know how to change this. This person who’s telling the story, they might not know how to change it, but I heard someone tell the same story in a slightly different way, three stories ago, and this is how they reworked their life.” And so I decided to become a journalist because I figured I wasn’t cut out for playing with data all day long.
DA: By the way, does Ira Glass know?

CD: Yes he does. Yeah, I’ve told Ira a couple times and I’ve offered to buy him at least two or three beers. Or maybe he should buy me the beers considering the financial—journalism doesn’t pay as well as private equity, as you might know. So—but—so, I decided to become a journalist and the type of journalism that I do—you mentioned, Toxic Waters, which was about taking a huge amount of data and figuring out that The Clean Water Act wasn’t working anymore. No one was enforcing it. And I worked on a series called The Reckoning, which looked at the causes of the 2008 financial crisis that we’re still sort of suffering from. And these small decisions that people would make without thinking about the huge consequences it could have. And as I’ve done all this work, particularly as an investigative reporter, I’ve become more and more convinced that a lot of self help and a lot of corporate strategy over the last 30 years, has focused on making one big choice—right? You choose one big goal and you spend the next three or four years trying to get to it. And in making that choice of that goal, the gurus would say, is really, really important, which I think is true. You need a goal. You need an end in mind. But I also think that people’s lives are immeasurably impacted by the small almost meaningless choices that they make every day. That your decision to have a hamburger rather than a salad every day for lunch—it doesn’t seem like a big choice every
day, but when you add up 300 days in a row, it has a huge impact. And the same is true for raising children or how much money you save. That somehow getting people refocused on the small choices that when you make that choice every single day that small pattern that’s really hard to ignore—that’s where I think my work as an investigative journalist has been most powerful. Because when we talk about why the financial crisis happened, it’s not because one banker at Goldman Sachs came up with an evil plan and made a decision. It’s because of thousands and thousands of mortgage brokers, all collectively somehow decided that risk was going to be okay—a new type of risk. And then once they make that decision, they sort of just stop thinking about it until everything blows up. And so my career has really been about trying to understand how to we understand the small choices as much as the big choices and how do we know the consequences of them when it’s so easy to ignore them?

DA: That’s so brilliant. You know, one of my things for many years has been—it’s the small things done consistently in strategic places that have major impact.

CD: Absolutely!

DA: And that’s not just positive, that’s also negative. Like the little things that you do that wind up being in a strategic area, are the ones that really make the biggest difference. And of course, as you know, from your GTD practice, it’s that little stuff. You start to just implement the two minute rule and it’s not just the two minute rule, it becomes one of those—well you talk about it and I loved it, we’ll spend some time later fleshing it out, but the whole idea of keystone habits, I think is just such a phenomenal idea, but much like the two minute rule—It’s not just the two minute rule, it’s if you started to implement that (like something I can do in two minutes let me do it right then), what it actually starts you to do is it starts to get you to make next action decisions. If you actually sat down and said, “I need to now make next action decisions, you wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.”
CD: Right!

DA: But it’s that little cool thing that starts to have the other stuff spin around it that then has the huge impact, which is—it’s phenomenal.

CD: And the two minute rule I think is a great example of this, right? Because it changes your whole outlook I think. When you sort of adopt that rule, when it becomes a habit, all of a sudden, all these things that used to weigh down my mind. They all disappear and you start thinking of yourself as the type of person who can get anything under two minutes done.

DA: Right.

CD: That’s an absolutely different mind-set. It’s a totally different self image. And it touches everything else in your life.

DA: Yeah, huge—that’s fabulous!

Okay, so let’s come back to—well first of all, as you know, people sort of love to hear, “What’s your GTD story?” And where did that intersect with both your interests and this vector of your exploration in terms of the journalism.

CD: So I’m a huge GTD fan, as I mentioned. I actually—I first learned about it, I guess it’s five or six years ago, this friend that I had mentioned, who is just a brilliant guy and was just chronically disorganized. He was a classmate of mine at Yale and a really, really good friend and was one of these guys that you’ll see and sort of say, “God! If only he could get more organized, this guy could change the world!” And so I hadn’t seen him in a couple years and I got together with him one summer, and a couple of other friends and it was like someone had flipped the switch, like all of a sudden everything in his life is organized.
I would send him emails and he would respond right away. We rented a house together and we got to the house and it was his job to make dinner and the dinner was done earlier than anyone else’s dinner. It was like—it was like this transformation! And so I asked him what was going on because I was not accustomed to his being quite on top of things. And he told me
he had discovered Getting Things Done and had read the book and had really taken the principals and completely embraced them. I think he had taken the list and the approach and the framework and had worked at it long enough that it was now automatic—a habit for him. And so from him I learned about it and it felt like such a great codification of things that made so much sense to me—like the two minute rule, or like writing everything down and just trying to give steps or an algorithm to the clutter and removing that clutter.

And so I use it all the time, in fact when I’m sitting about two long seats away, there’s a GTD flow chart is on the wall, and I think it’s inspired a number of other people to just take it up around this office. But yeah—I just find, and again, because I think it ties in so well with what we’re talking about—why I had written this book. It does give you a way to habitualize a series of actions that makes your life better and so you don’t have to think about them quite so much. That’s why GTD is so important to me is because it does have a flow chart. I don’t have to sit there and make a decision every single time an email comes in. I have a rule that I can apply to it. And that’s actually just what a habit is—right? It’s just a rule that we almost execute unthinkingly, and it just frees up your brain. We know from a neurological perspective that when you have those rules, you have so much more cognitive space to think about other things.

DA: I love that idea and that concept. I know, Tony Schwartz and I connected with each other and Tony also came out of a journalism background and started researching the restorative—the power of restoration in terms of just our thinking process, which I thought was great and I really picked that up from Tony. And his whole concept of ritualizing behaviors, so it becomes the ritual, so emptying your in-basket becomes the ritual. I hate making the decisions I have to make to get it empty, but the ritual is so cool.

CD: Right! Right!

DA: I can’t give up the ritual and then it becomes again one of those wonderful habits so that I don’t have to think about how to think, I just need to get myself into the context.

CD: Exactly! Well one of the things on researching the book that was fascinating to me was I went up and I talked to a number of researchers at MIT where they pioneered a lot of their research on the neurology habit formation. The experiments that they’ve done, most of them are with rats. What they do is they put a bunch of sensors in rat’s brains and then have them run a maze. And what they want to figure out is how does a rat’s thinking change as running through a maze becomes a habit. And what they found is as the behavior becomes a habit, almost every single part of the brain essentially stops working, except for this little bundle called the basoganglia, which is where patterns are stored. Everything else stops working and as a result when it feels like you don’t have to make decisions, it’s because you’re literally not making decisions. The decision making part of your brain isn’t engaged. You just rely on a habit that is stored in your basoganglia and I think that as a result that feels so much more rewarding because we know how hard it is to engage the decision making part of our brain and
we know how taxing it is, just the thinking about making a decision is tiring. And so, when you can ritualize these behaviors and you can say, “I’m going to give that part of my brain a break and let it sort of work up its energy and be preserved for really hard decisions, the things that I really should be thinking about”, it’s enormously powerful. And I think if you just look at religion and the role that ritual can play within religion. It’s just so comforting and to be able to bring that into people’s lives in whatever—the tasks that they choose, rather than ones that are chosen for us, I think is really, really meaningful.

DA: And it’s so powerful when you overlay John Tierney’s new book around willpower.

CD: Right!

DA: Where—he talks about decision fatigue, but I think you get down to—you’ve accumulated and mashed together a lot
 of fascinating information about why that stuff just—as you say, whether it’s psychic ram or whatever it is—it like frees that up. And if you have to keep rethinking about how you need to think—now by the way, I think that’s where GTD is going to go. People say, “Well what’s the next version of it?” GTD, the Getting Things Done book is pretty economical. Nobody is going to write another one of those and that is the truth. You’ve got to get stuff out of your head, make action and outcome decisions, decide meaning, organize based upon that, review and reflect. I mean, that’s as old as dirt and will be forever, but the next level of gain is once your head is clear what do you do with it? And how to you start to ritualize creative, innovative, strategic thinking? Because now you and I still have to think about what we have to think about.

CD: Right! Right!

DA: But how to then, when I was reading your book and said, “Wow! This is such a validation of a next chapter to get to!” Because golly! How many things could we all be thinking about and adding value to, but it’s just so hard to sit down and have to think about what I need to think about and then make a decision about it.

CD: Absolutely!

DA: I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

CD: I think that’s absolutely right. And you know, it’s interesting when I went to companies to talk about how habits work across organizations, that’s the number one thing that I heard, is that when I talked to CEOs, they would say, “My number one goal is to get routines in place so that creativity happens automatically. Because if I have to ask people to decide to be creative: a) 50% of them are going to say no. It’s just too hard a decision. I’ve got too much—I got email I’ve got to answer, so I’m not going to decide to be creative. But number two, a whole bunch of those people who even do decide to be creative, they’re using up that willpower muscle in the decision, rather than having these kind of reserves of innovation that they can bring to the question that they’re looking at. And so I think that—when I talked to Microsoft and I talked to some folks in Apple and Alcoa, the big aluminum company, it really almost doesn’t matter the sector—this is the number one thing that they say, is: How to I routinize leadership? How do I routinize creativity? How do I routinize making people make the right decisions, rather than wasting time making choices on things that are less important?

DA: Yeah! Well even as you know, getting through your in-basket, the more things you put in ‘huh?’ stacks, where you pick it up and go, “Huh?” and stick it to the left side of your desk, and then open an email and go, “Huh?” and close it back up again. Every time you’re sitting there it says, “Oh I still need to decide—oh I still need to decide—oh I still need to decide— oh I still need to decide”, as opposed to make the first decision the first time and don’t draw down your equity.

CD: Right!

DA: That’s a big ah ha to really realize how much unconscious effort—how much of the wind is just get sucked out of our sail
by stuff does not need to be set up that way. But—fascinating! I mean this is—I think it’s great stuff.
Just for everybody listening to this though Charles, I think if you would back up and give a quick overview. What’s the elevator—and let’s assume we have 50 floors, not two—

CD: Right!

DA: … the elevator, sort of, overview of the book and look at the power of habit and—I love your subtitle, “Why We Do What
We Do and How to Change It”. So give us a quick overview of the whole thing.

CD: Sure, sure! What we look at—the goal of the book is to true to explain to readers, I think three core things. The first of which is to explain why habits exist and what their structure is. So we know from researching the last decade or so that every habit is made up of three parts; there’s a queue and then a routine and then a reward. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about why someone eats doughnuts in the morning or why a company does research and development a certain way. You can break down these unthinking decisions, these patterns that emerge into a queue, a routine and a reward. And a habit is essentially a decision that someone made at some point and then stops making but the behavior continues. And the reason why I mention the queue, the routine and the reward, is because most of the time when we think about habits, we focus on the routine, right? “I want to run more.” Or, “I want to eat less”, or “I want my company to be more efficient”. And the routine is the most obvious part of the habit, but it turns out based on the research that’s been done, that the queue and the reward are just as important. The trigger, the queue that sets off a behavior and the reward that that behavior provides, if you understand these two things, then you gain a new lever for changing the behavior, the routine itself. And so that’s the first lesson that the book tries to explain, is: Let me explain to you how to identify the queues and rewards in your own life, how to identify your own habits and once I explain to you how to identify queues and rewards in your own life or your own organization, let me try to help you figure out why they’re so powerful.
So, why, for instance, when I see a doughnut, do I suddenly start craving doughnuts? I might not have been hungry ten minutes ago, but as soon as I see that doughnut box, that tickle starts in my brain that I really, really want a doughnut and until I go and I pick it up and I take a bite and sort of get that hit of sugar, I feel unsatisfied. Well in that case, the box of doughnuts is the queue and that hit of sugar is the reward and picking it up becomes a habit. And so by going into these laboratories where people have studied the neurology of habit formation, we can explain to you why that queue and that reward is so powerful and how to find a different behavior that plays off the same queue and delivers the same reward. And so the first part of the book really looks at individual habits and explains the neurology of habit formation and we use a couple of stories to do it, so that it’s not totally boring to read.

DA: Oh your case studies are great!

CD: Well thanks.

DA: And what a—there’s such a range of them too. There’s such a variety. It truly is a fun read.

CD: Oh, that’s really kind of you to say. And for instance, one of the stories, as I’m sure you remember is the Fabreze story, where Proctor and Gamble had developed this brand new product named Fabreze, that they spent millions and millions of dollars on, and it was a total flop. And then they just realized Fabreze is this spray that you can spray on any fabric and it makes smells disappear. They realized the key to selling Fabreze was to tie it into a habit that already exists in consumer’s lives. They had originally sold Fabreze to people who had bad smells in their lives. People who had too many cats, or who were smokers, and it was just a total flop. Eventually they realized that the reason why is because, if you own a whole bunch of cats, or if you smoke, you stop smelling the cats and the smoke; right? Everyone knows this. If there’s a bad smell in your life, you become desensitized to it very quickly. So they needed to target consumers who had bad smells in their lives, but only every so often, not consistently enough that they became desensitized to them, which means that they needed to figure out a new reward to give people when they use Fabreze. And so they studied a whole bunch of housewives that were cleaning and they saw that in all these videotapes that at the end of the cleaning routine, a lot of them would take a satisfied breath or would take a moment to smile, to look at the good work they just did and kind of compliment themselves and they realized, that’s a good reward. We need to tie Fabreze into that reward. And so they started re-advertising Fabreze as the final step in a cleaning routine to make something smell as good as it looks. And once they did that, literally within three months, Fabreze’s sales doubled and it’s now a billion dollar a year product.
And so through these case studies, we try and explain this queue, routine, reward habit loop and why it’s so important.
And the second idea that the book tries to share is that once you understand how habits work, it’s not just in people’s lives or in individuals lives, it’s across whole companies. So the second third of the book looks at companies and how they shape the habits of their employees. And the best example is Paul O’Neil, who became treasury secretary. But before that, was the CEO of Alcoa, the largest aluminum company in the world. And when Paul O’Neal took over Alcoa, it was kind of this stodgy old company that was stumbling. And Paul O’Neal got named to head Alcoa, and Wall Street kind of freaked out, because they had no idea who this guy was. So they had a meeting to sort of introduce Paul O’Neal to most of the analysts and Paul O’Neal comes into the room. It’s in Manhattan. Everyone’s dressed very seriously and most of the analysts expect Paul O’Neal to say, “We’re going to raise profits. We’re going to increase efficiency. We’re going to turn this company around.” But instead what Paul O’Neal does is he gets up on stage and he says, “My number one goal is worker safety. I want to get to zero injuries.” Now keep in mind, Alcoa is a company that deals with molten aluminum; right? They’re literally pouring these huge pots of 2,000 degree metals. People got hurt all the time in Alcoa factories. They had factories all over the world. And Paul O’Neal gets up on stage and says, “I want to get to zero injuries. I’m going to change the worker safety habits of Alcoa so that no one ever gets hurt.” Well the stock analysts in the room kind of freak out. In fact, one of them told me that he literally ran out of the room, picked up the phone, called all of his clients and told them to sell their Alcoa stock immediately. But what’s amazing is what Paul O’Neal knew that he was doing was he knew that his predecessor had tried to change the efficiency and the profitability of Alcoa and had totally failed. In fact, workers had gone on strike. His managers had gotten really upset. So Paul O’Neal said, “I need one habit that I can change and if I can change the right habit, I think it’s going to unlock all the other habits in this organization.” So the habit he decided to focus on was worker safety habits. And this is, as he had mentioned before, this concept of keystone habits. That some habits seem to have more power than others, because once you change them, like a chain reaction, they set off all these other changes. And when Paul O’Neal decided, “I’m going to focus on worker safety habits,” what he did is he found something that everyone at Alcoa could agree on. There was no one who was going to say, “No, I think it’s good for us to have an unsafe work place.” And the way he changed worker safety habits, was by focusing in on why accidents were happening. And it turns out if you focus in on why accidents are happening, you have to look at the efficiency and the productivity of a plant, because very often an accident happens because you’re not doing something the best way. And once you start focusing on the efficiency and productivity of a plant, you can go to the workers and you can say, “Here’s a better way to make aluminum. Are you guys willing to do this? Will you join me in this because it’s going to reduce injuries?” And within one year of Paul O’Neal taking over, Alcoa was the top performing stock in the Dow Jones industrial average. Literally, he turns the company around—on its head. And the reason why he ended up becoming treasury secretary was because he was so revered in the business community for his ability to transform one of the largest company’s on earth, and the way he did it was by focusing on this one habit because he knew it was a keystone habit and that by unlocking people’s ability to change worker’s safety patterns, he would give them tools to change behaviors on the assembly line, selling, management communication and that’s exactly what happened.
DA: That’s brilliant stuff. The idea of thinking about habits, again, back to my background and intellectual history, I know that was yours too, thinking about cultures and paradigms and what are the belief systems that sort of drive people’s decision making behaviors and not even aware of it, and how to find the levers for those. I mean, that to me is totally fascinating in terms of how we try to get to culture change, how we try to get to any of these. As you said, the last ten years—actually since Maslow—come on!

CD: Right!

DA: Grow yourself movement! I mean adult education is the one growth industry, without fail, from the early 60s on, whether that’s lose 40 lbs with no money down, or find God, truth and the universe—or whatever, some versions of that. But I think why your stuff is hitting such a nerve and also, I think there’s probably been an equivalent vector out there in terms of grow your organization and success and leadership and all of that. But at some point, both the personal growth people and the corporate change people have hit a wall.

CD: Yeah!

DA: To your point—called how come we keep doing all the stuff that should be done to make that happen, but same old, same old?

CD: And I mentioned—I’d be curious your thoughts on this, because I imagine when you talk to people—I mean there’s been such a devotion to Getting Things Done and the GTD framework, when you talk to people do you find them saying, “I’ve tried other methods and it’s just not working for me.” It seems to be a frustration out there. Have you found that to be true?

DA: Well, a lot of people are attracted to GTD who—it’s a strange paradox; the people who need it the least are the people who most take to it, because they’re the people that are most aware of drag on their system.

CD: Yeah.

DA: So people that are starting to experience drag because they’re trying to get somewhere and almost all of them I’d say, just anecdotally, I’d say probably 80–90% have tried a system and it didn’t work. In other words, probably the people who aren’t taking to GTD are people who never had a system to begin with and didn’t realize the value of a system. So I think there was a necessity for people to realize they’ve got systems but their systems are just falling apart. At least just FYI, the people that probably—the vast majority of professionals who have taken on the GTD, is because they are on some sort of a fast track or they’re involved in a major change, either in their personal or probably in their job or their company, where they’ve taken on huge new levels of responsibility and their system, tenuous to begin with, just fell apart.

CD: Oh, that’s really interesting. So it’s sort of that inflection point that they turn and they say, “I need something else.” That’s interesting.

DA: But you know, you only change out of pain and the pain is either the negative pain called, “Ouch! Get me back to some level of calmness and control and focus”, which is probably the vast majority of people who take to GTD and then there’s positive pain. You know, the positive pain called, “Wow! That’s a new car and I really want it!” And so, not having it is too painful, so it’s the pain of inspiration. And you know, I would love to think that we could inspire people what Mind Like Water® would be like and that Getting Things Done is not about getting things done, it’s about the freedom in your psyche that it produces and then what you can do with that. But that’s a set to your slicker sell.

CD: Right!

DA: I don’t know that I’m really good at that.

CD: And I think everything we know about how people change, it is that they have to have these small initial—they have
to have something small that gives them a sense of success. There’s this guy who wrote a paper called The Science of Small Wins, and in the book we talk a little bit about Michael Phelps and how he won the Olympics. His coach buys into this philosophy that you have to have a series of small wins to convince yourself that you can actually have a big win. And I think that that’s one of the things that I found GTD does in my life, is that it does give you these very immediate goals that you can succeed at, and even if intellectually people say, “I believe in myself. I believe that I can be successful.” You sometimes need some proof; right? You need something where you can say, “Okay, I had three goals today and I got all three of them done, and my inbox is empty and I’ve Mind Like Water. I believe that I can do the next thing.” It’s nice to have that affirmation.

DA: Well what you did was you made it much more—much like GTD takes implicit truths and made them explicit, so you can do them more elegantly, you know—like stuff out of your head makes it easier to focus and be in control, but reading your book I realize there were a lot of implicit things about GTD that I had not made explicit yet, that you did, or at least as I started to put those two things together to your point. For instance, I don’t think we’ve hardly ever used the word empowerment, but GTD is one of the most empowering things you could ever do, and for what you just talked about. As soon as you go from the ‘Huh’ stack, instead of sticking it over there—you go, “Wait a minute, what’s the next action on this?” You move yourself from victim mode into the driver’s seat, in terms of actually taking control of managing stuff coming at you, as opposed to being at effect of it, as opposed to—okay, go empower yourself!

CD: Right!

DA: Go improve yourself so you can perform better. It’s really true, that there’s a lot that implicitly happens when people start to apply the GTD processes. That’s why it’s always been so strangely challenging—how do you describe GTD to other people? You know, people come back glassy eyed and their life having transformed and they’re glowing and people say, “What did you do?”
And they say, “I got a labeler!” That’s it? But see the implicit of what a labeler does, where it actually—you begin to actually identify meaning to things and therefore are able to feel like I am in control of it, instead of it controls me because it’s unknown but still meaningful—is huge, huge stuff.

CD: I completely agree. And I think that’s why it’s so—one of the reason why I like books so much and it’s not surprising
to me that GTD found its audience first as a book and then moved beyond a book is because there’s something about just understanding. Saying to someone, “Let me explain how a habit works.” And we actually have graphics in the book. Or in GTD, let me show you the flow charts. Just understanding the structure of something gives you a sense that you can control it and it feels so much better to be in control. I have a three year-old and a seven month-old and I got to say, the hardest part of everyday is when the baby is crying and my three year-old is running through the house and everything is a mess, that’s when I feel like I have no control and it feels awful—right? And then you get everyone put in a bed and you feel a sense of mastery and that’s really where happiness,
I think, starts stemming from. So agree completely with what you were saying—just buying a labeler can make a big difference.

DA: I’m curious, just on a personal level, how challenging was it for you to write a book about changing habits, because now you have no excuse?

CD: Well it’s true! And the nice thing is that actually I was able to apply a lot of what I was learning, which was really, really meaningful. Like this concept of keystone habit. Using sort of the lesson in the book and the science of it, I figured out that for me a big keystone habit is exercising every day. That if I exercise in the morning that it gives me a sense of small win. It helps strengthen my willpower muscle. It gives me these things that a keystone habit gives me and so the rest of my day is much more productive and I’m much happier. And what was really interesting is, it turns out that it doesn’t matter how long the exercise was, it mattered that it became a habit. So I try and run three miles three times a week and then a longer run on the weekends. But the other days of the week, I might get up and run four blocks, or I might just put on my exercise clothes and then stretch in the living room. There’s something about making it a habit where I do it every morning, the same way, in a routine, that matters a lot more than how long I go running. And I think this is contrary to how most people think about exercise, for instance; right? You think about exercise as the type of thing—well, if I put on my exercise clothes, I should actually go and exercise. I should push myself until I sweat. But what the science tells us and what I found in my life from reading this stuff to be true is, it’s not about the activity, as much as it is about the habit. So now, every morning when I wake up, I have the same queue. My shoes are always in the same place and at exactly the same time my alarm goes off and I put on my running clothes and three and four times a week I actually go out the door and go running, but the other two to three days a week, I just stay home and stretch or I run three blocks and that matters as much. So it’s been pretty powerful to kind of learn this stuff and to be able to run these experiments in my life to see how powerful it is. But you’re right!

DA: Yeah, I mean, we’re very parallel. I started doing the same thing exactly for the same reason and my wife and I joined the athletic club where we live and the cool thing about it is there are all kinds of very interesting things you can do—not all the same. So, the habit is just go and find something you feel like doing when you’re there—and lots of choices for it.

CD: And suddenly you think about yourself as the protective person that doesn’t like lifting weights and two months later you find yourself lifting weights.

DA: Yeah, yeah—no.

CD: It’s easy, once it’s a habit, you slide into the behavior. A lot of the original science came out of animal training because they figured out pretty early on that one of the golden rules of habit change that the book explains is that the wrong way to change a habit, a way that’s almost guaranteed to fail, is to say, “I eat a cookie every afternoon—and I’m going to stop eating a cookie. I’m just going to not do it anymore.” Or, “I don’t exercise at all, but from now on, every single morning, I’m going to make myself exercise.” Chances are—that’s not going to work out for you, as we all know. So the golden rule with habit change is that you want to find something where you keep the same queue and you have the same reward, but you’re bringing in a new behavior that links the two of them. And a lot of that originally came out of training animals. Because animal trainers knew, if I just try and teach this animal a completely new behavior, it’s just not going to stick, so I have to find some type of behavior that already exists in their life. Some type of trigger and some type of reward that they already like and teach them a new routine around it. What’s interesting when you get into people though and this is really what’s new—what neurology has brought to it, is that people have the ability to kind of talk themselves in or out of almost anything and what drives the habit loop, this queue, routine, reward loop, what drives it is a sense of craving. Now with animals, the craving is something that we can see in neurological scans, and with humans. We can see—there’s a certain neurological signature associated with craving, but humans can also talk themselves into craving things that they’ve never had before, or that they might not even really like; right? This is how a lot of advertising works. I’ve never driven a Ferrari before. I’ve never even thought of myself as a Ferrari driver, but if I see enough commercials of a really good looking guy driving a Ferrari and getting the esteem of everyone he drives past, I might start craving a Ferrari, even though there’s nothing in my life, that would create that craving organically. And so that’s really what the neurology has told us. Why does the human brain and how does the human brain take craving that exists and puts it onto something else that we’ve maybe never experienced. And once you understand how that works, it actually becomes this huge tool that we can use in our own life.
So when I want to create an exercise habit—when I created this exercise habit, one of the first things that I did was that I identified what craving was going to drive the habit and then I cultivated it. And I encouraged that craving and in my case, it was: I want to get more done at work. I want to be able to eat lunch without feeling guilty about it. I want to feel healthier. These are all cravings that I didn’t necessarily have previously and that maybe didn’t even really occur to me, but once you understand how cravings work, you can begin cultivating them and that drives the habit. So the work that you had mentioned by Ms. Pryor, it’s incredibly important and it’s fascinating when we get to the level of: what is different about being human and how can we take advantage of that to get more control over our lives?

DA: Yes, fascinating. I mean, in my early research and my own personal experience with it from my interest in that, just testing out the power of visualization, where visualizing something, since the nervous system, in a way, can’t tell the difference between a well imagined thought and reality, the more I began to imagine that reality and then I’m starting to feel more and more uncomfortable not having it.

CD: Right!

DA: So looking at a picture of doing a yoga pose, even if some part of me doesn’t feel like going and doing it, if I give myself at least ten seconds to imagine doing it and what that feels like and how cool it would be and just keep popping that into the psyche, at some point, some part of me starts to feel like going and doing something to get that end result. So I’m assuming that that’s the same neurological patterns that you’re talking about.

CD: And it’s kind of crazy that you might crave a yoga pose—right? You’ve never done that pose before. You know intellectually that it’s going to hurt. So why on earth would you crave, and yet, exactly what you just said, by visualizing it—and this is actually one of the things that Michael Phelps does that has been so important for winning all the Olympic swimming events, just visualizing it. You’re exactly right! It makes it real to visualize it and you start engaging all of these neurological structures that have to do with craving and once you crave a yoga pose or going running or eating a salad, it’s so much easier to give in. You don’t have to force yourself to do it, you’re giving in to this craving. It’s astounding.

DA: One of my common stories is the whole idea of the weekly review, or getting your in box to zero. It’s like I do that for the same reason that I take showers and brush teeth. If I don’t the skuzz factor gets too high.

CD: Right!

DA: You know, and I tell people—they say, “Well what’s the biggest—what is the biggest challenging to implementing GTD?”
And my answer is, “Basically people’s addiction to stress”, which is not like I need to go shoot it up. It’s just you’re willing to tolerate the negative feeling of not having done that. How do you change that? How do you shift it? How do you raise the bar internally I guess, emotionally is really what we’re talking about.

CD: Yeah!

DA: And I suppose that’s all the same factors here.

CD: I think so. I think you’re exactly right. Because that feeling of stress, the addiction of it, it’s such a useful standby—right? If I’m trying to figure out how to get up in the morning and motivate myself to go to work, all I’ve got to do is look for that tiny finger of stress that gets me out of bed. But it’s so much better if you’re saying to yourself, “No, I’m craving being at my desk. I don’t need to feel stressed about it. I want to be there because it’s going to give me this reward.”

DA: Well I’m curious, Charles, because I was fascinated by the whole idea of social and organizational habits and what you were beginning to come across there. Have you now been able to interact with people that you could give them some good keys about that? In other words, what if I wanted my team to now be a GTD team? Or what if my organization really needs to have better morale, or to your earlier point, my people need to be thinking more strategically or innovatively about that. So as you come across this material, have you come across some good tips and tricks or cases of people now hearing this model and going, “Okay, therefore, here’s what I’m going to go do.” In other words, how would discover a keystone habit and begin to install it?

CD: Absolutely, yeah—and the one thing—the hard thing about it is that it’s different for every setting and every type of habit, that what works for me, might not work for you, and what works for my company might not work for your company. But there are these things that everything has in common. So I went and I talked to one company, for instance, it was a metal welding company. So they do extrusion here in the United States. A small company; it’s got about 3,000 people, so good size, but not a huge company. And they exactly had this exact question you just asked, “How do I make innovation more of an automatic part of my company’s existence, because 30 years ago, we were able to be successful just by being more efficient? We were the best extruded on earth and that’s where we got our profit margin.” Well, since then, basically extrusion has become a commodity. You can go to almost any place in Asia and they can do it cheaper there. So this company says, “The way that we’re going to survive now is not be being the most efficient company, it’s going to be by being the most innovative company. But how do we take employees that have never had to be innovative and train them to become innovative?” So what they did is exactly the model that we’ve been talking about. They sat down and they said, “Okay, rather than making innovation a chore, how do we find some type of reward in this activity that people will crave?” Now there’s macro rewards— right? I’m going to get a raise at the end of the year. My company is going is make more money, but those are too far off. For a queue and a reward to drive a habitual behavior there has to be some immediacy to it. So they sat down and they came up with [garbled here—recording error] “…here’s the reward: Every time someone has an idea, whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea, what they’re going to do is they’re going to put it either on a white board or on a piece of paper and they’re going to go over and they’re going to ring a bell.” And they installed bells all over the factory. They said to workers, “Any time you want, you just write an idea, put your name on it, go over and ring the bell.” And when anyone else hears the bell, they have to applaud.” So this was the rule. So they instituted this rule and I visited the factory a couple of weeks later and they’d installed all these bells and sure enough, some worker would come up with some way of doing something a little bit better and he’d write the idea down and put it on a piece of paper and he’d ring this bell. It was like a cowbell on the wall. There were hundreds of them all over the factory. And anyone who could hear that bell started clapping right away, like hollering for the guy. So they came up with this reward where they reward idea creation. But that’s not really enough—right? Because a lot of those ideas aren’t going to be great and what this company wants is they want people to be innovative, not just for the sake of innovation, but innovative in ways that actually move the needle. So then they started thinking about queues. They started saying, “Okay, we have a reward in place—it’s an immediate reward, but we need queues for innovation that cause people to habitually ask the right questions, not be solving the wrong problems. So they sat down and they came up with a list of all the times during the day, and for different jobs within the company, when people are confronted with a decision where they can either automatically sort of do the things the way that things have always been done, or they can ask themselves, “Is there a better way to do this?” They actually were drawing on some military research to do this, because one of the big issues during the prolonged presence in Iraq, was: how does the military train soldiers to ask unobvious questions? The military knows how to go into almost any battleground and win that battle. But the problem with an insurgency is—usually it’s a battleground that you haven’t seen before and you might not even recognize that it’s new and different. So, how do we train people to basically say, “What do I not know? What question am I not asking?” Inside this company what did, is they came up with what they called inflection points—these triggers. So one of them, for instance, for accounting was, “Every single time you get a receivable, an invoice from a company, go ahead, process the invoice, but on a sheet of paper write down two reasons why we should never be buying that product again.” Now most of the time, it’s pointless; right? If you’re an extrusion company for instance, you need to buy raw materials, but before you pay for the raw materials, just write down on a piece of paper, two reasons why we could not buy raw materials and then take those answers, go put them in the idea box, ring the cow bell and have everyone clap for you.
And what they found was, they trained the organization to start habitually questioning everything that they were doing.
And once you question the standard way of doing things, you begin to see all these new ways, these new innovations for redesigning your process. So the company went through this process of coming up with these new habits. Everyone has to write down two reasons why they should never pay this bill again, or two reasons why they should redo how the assembly line is constructed and they would ring the bells and they would get applauded. Within six months, they had more ideas, more innovative ideas than they could execute and the company’s profits have just exploded and that’s how they unlocked the habitual creativity of their employees. It was by thinking really deliberately about: How do you create a habit of innovation and how do we make that part of life at work? And when I talked to employees, they love it. It’s as if someone had given them the keys to the factory and said, “You get to go be the boss now.” It’s totally revolutionized the place.

DA: How cool. I mean that’s real food for thought—for all of us who may be involved in dealing with and working with other people and so forth—just to think: Okay, how would I do that? And correct me if I’m wrong, this is not that hard!

CD: Right!

DA: What’s challenging is to ask yourself, and probably to think appropriately about what are the things that will really work and what are we trying to really accomplish? Those answers are not automatic in and of themselves.

CD: Right.

DA: But it’s fascinating! Anyway, I’m inspired to just take that example and unpack that one and see, okay, how would I now apply that to places of interest for myself?

CD: Hopefully, this stuff will have a huge impact on people’s lives. Because I think you’re right. It’s the type of thing where when you say it, when you see it happening, it isn’t that hard, but it’s coming up with the framework, understanding that you have these tools that maybe you’re blind to before someone calls your attention to them. That is a hard thing—for all of us. People who find, in GTD, feel the same way. It doesn’t seem that revolutionary to say, “One of the first things you should do is write down all the stuff you need to get done.” But it is revolutionary when you hear it, because even if it’s sitting right in front of you, the hard work is coming up with a framework to think through a problem and then solving the problem becomes easy, if the framework is a good one.

DA: I have to ask you, did the change in New York City and Giuliani and all of that in terms of crime, did that show up on your radar when you were doing this research?

CD: Yeah, absolutely! In fact, one of the chapters is about how social habits change and it looks in on the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King and Rick Warren, who’s the pastor of Saddleback Church, who created Saddleback Church, which is the largest church in the U.S., using a lot of the same tactics that Martin Luther King has used to get people to commit to the Montgomery bus boycott, obviously many years earlier. And what’s interesting is if you look at, for instance, Giuliani and the fall in crime, it’s very, very similar. This targeting small little behavioral changes and watching them ripple through an entire city in this case. You’re exactly right. What Giuliani did was not, in and of itself, find one solution for criminal activity, it was to find a new way to look at what police were doing every single day. So one of the things that didn’t end up making it into the book unfortunately that someday I’ll hopefully write about, is CompStat, the statistic system that Giuliani implemented for his community policing initiatives. It essentially trained police officers to measure themselves in a different way and once they were able to see their own habits, it completely upended how they were behaving every day. And that’s in some respects, I think, the most exciting part of this, is to understand that it’s not just an organization, it’s not just a life. You can talk about whole communities.

DA: Okay, shifting gears a bit, because I can’t have an In Conversation without saying, “Okay Charles, how do you implement GTD? What’s cool for you?” Walk somebody into your office or your system and, of course, being a journalist that puts particular pressures on how do you manage information, how do you manage your stuff, how do you keep things under control, how do you stay focused on what you need to stay focused on? So I would be curious to hear your spin on that.

CD: I spend a huge amount of time—I would say, one of the things I didn’t realize about being an investigative journalist, in particular, is that you spend half your time collecting information and half your time organizing the information that you’ve already collected. Because very often I find some piece of information and it’s only three months later that I recognize the usefulness of it, but I’ve got to be reminded that it exists in the first place. So my system is actually very similar, it draws a lot on GTD. I have a series of lists, so every single time I get a new piece of information for a project that I’m working on, it goes on one of my lists and some of them are ticklers, exactly very much like the GTD folders. Instead of having a folder for each day, I have folders for each day, but I also have folders that are thematic. That say, for instance when I was working on Toxic Waters, I would have a whole folder about sewers. I didn’t really know if I was going to be writing about sewers. I didn’t know if sewers were important, but I wanted to have a tickler file that everything about sewers was in, so that if it ever turned out that it was important, I could remind myself what I had already learned really, really quickly. So everything is listed and then I break down each list into an action, for investigative reporting when I’m finding a certain type of work, or a certain type of knowledge. My big question is: How am I going to translate that into something that matters for the reader? And that’s really the action step—right? Take an idea and translate it into something that matters for the reader. So, as I’m writing down my list of information that I found, next to it, what I try and write down is, if I’m using this in a story, this is how I’m going to use it. Either it’s going to be explained through a scene like this, or I’m going to use it to ask three questions of a source, or it’s going to launch me on this different avenue. And then the other part of it is, sort of the organizational principles of GTD is the two-minute rule has been a life saver for me, because I get, like you and much of your audience, hundreds of emails every day and I can worry and fret about getting back to everyone at the end of the day, or I can say: as soon as it comes in, if I can answer it in two minutes, I just send something back and then I don’t have to think about it anymore. And so that’s been my practice, is trying to get to a place where I don’t have to think about the information that I have. I know that all of it is on a list somewhere and I can still and cleanse my mind, because a big part of being an investigative reporter is making connections that no one has ever made before, but my mind has to be emptied to make those connections.

DA: How much is paper based and how much is digital in your world? Have you flipped back and forth?

CD: You know, I’m actually entirely paper based and the reason why—I’m not certain that that’s a good thing. I actually don’t think that it’s necessarily the right answer, but it helps me keep track of all of these little data points. So when I make a list,
I actually write out my list. And when I have information I talk about in my folders, they are literally physical folders that are sitting here next to my desk that are all labeled. Because I want to be able to pick it up and I want to be able to write in the margins, because I find that that reminds me three months from now—just writing a little note reminds me three months from now kind of where I was when I wrote it. But to your point, I actually think going digital—I need to but I haven’t found the tools that allow me to replicate what I can do on paper as well.

DA: Fascinating because a lot of high tech people are going back to paper, or taking up paper in ways they never did before, just because it does map to the way your brain likes to integrate information or relate information to other information better than anything digitally yet. But I’m like you—“Yeah … but …” There could be a way to even enhance it more if we could get there.

CD: Have you found a digital—do you use a digital solution that kind of helps you?

DA: Well the closest thing would be Personal Brain, which you can free associate lots of things across an infinite number of paths. That would be a way to do that. And Mind Manager—just in Mind Maps, is more thematic or topic specific in terms
of just free floating ideas. But again, I haven’t been in a situation like you yet, where I have that much to do. My buddy Jim Fallows over the Atlantic, Jim probably has 18 different software programs he uses for different reasons. When he’s writing certain kinds of things he likes outlines, some other kinds of things he likes mind maps, some other kind of things he’s writing handwritten notes. No—so I don’t have an answer to that yet, still a world to explore.

CD: Yeah, and I feel like there’s opportunity there for exactly what you just said, that the paper is so intuitive that it seems to just correspond so well with—but I wonder if that’s just because we’ve learned on paper. I wonder for my kids because they’ll grow up using computers from the first second they’re doing anything. I wonder if electronic solutions will be more intuitive to them than they are to me. We’ll see.

DA: Yeah, we’ll see. I am fascinated by it. How many articles would you be working on at any one point in time? How does your career work that way?

CD: So I only work on one article at a time and it oftentimes takes months. So we’ll sit down and we’ll choose a topic after much discussion that I’m going to spend some time looking at. And usually I’ll end up spending a year or two in that topic and maybe only produces few as five or seven articles.
So the goal is to find a topic that’s interesting without actually necessarily knowing what’s interesting about it. Because if I can tell you what’s interesting about a topic, it means that someone else has probably written all the good articles about it. So what we do is, for instance, with water, or with the financial crisis, we say, “Look, it looks like there’s activity in this space, in the water space. We should see what’s going on.” And so what I’ll do is I’ll spend two or three months (and this is a real luxury for a journalist to be able to spend this much time), but I’ll spend two or three months calling up experts, five or six a day, and my goal is to have these very frustrating conversations with them, because what I want to do is I want to convince them to think for me. So I’ll often call up and I’ll say things like, “I don’t actually know what question I’m supposed to be asking you, so what question do you think I should be asking you about what’s a problem in water right now?” Now for the guy on the other end of the line, this is super frustrating, because people like to answer questions. They don’t like to be asked to come up with questions for themselves. And they’re also thinking: There’s a guy from the New York Times calling me and apparently he’s so dumb he doesn’t even know what he wants to ask me about. But what happens is, each of these conversations for the first 20 or 30 minutes they’re super duper frustrating for both of
us because I keep on asking these very vague questions and the person on the other end of the line who’s an expert says,
“I don’t even know what you’re asking me, I don’t know how to answer that, but eventually some type of switch flips and the person on the other end of the line starts saying, “Look you haven’t asked me about this, but the really important thing is that The Clean Water Act isn’t working anymore.” And I hear that from enough people and I start saying, “That’s the story!” We’ve got an entire series looking at how and why The Clean Water Act isn’t working anymore. Now if I called people up and I said, I don’t even know—I couldn’t possibly know enough to go to the first expert and say, “Is The Clean Water Act working?”, or “Why isn’t it working?” I didn’t even know that I should be asking about The Clean Water Act. I was just asking questions about water and the environment, but having these super frustrating conversations, it places the burden of thinking on the other person. They become proactive instead of reactive and they start telling you these things that you wouldn’t imagine even asking about otherwise. And that’s how we figure out the question we want to go after. And once we have that, and that takes two or three months, once we have that, we know that we have enough for a series and then I start doing the really heavy reporting, finding confidential sources who will give me documents or tell me secrets that the government or some company doesn’t want me to have. And I build all of that together and then find a narrative so that it seems compelling to readers.

DA: Wow! That’s a great inside look Charles. Thank you.

CD: It’s really fun. It’s a great job.

DA: That’s so cool and I love the idea that perhaps GTD has facilitated you doing some really good work. It helped a lot of folks out there, so thanks for sharing all that.

CD: I could say, The New York Times, at least my part of it, what’s good about it owes an enormous amount to GTD.

DA: I could go on and on and on. I won’t because people will probably say, “This is fascinating!” and they could go on and on but we do need to bring it to a close. Charles, thanks a ton. This is really fun.

CD: Thank you David. It’s such an honor to visit with you.

DA: Boy, there was so much here that we touched on that had big ramifications for how we get stuff done. For me, I think the key, big idea that Charles voices, the one that validates my perception that it’s the small things done consistently in strategic places that creates maximum impact, for Charles has taken that to a new level of awareness for me. Basically, just pick one of those small things that as a habit would take you to a new level. As always, thanks for joining us, exploring ways to win the game of work and the business of life.

 



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