1. Continually Build Mental Models

All of us tell ourselves stories about how the world works, how our relationships are going, and who we are whether we realize we’re doing it or not. Some of us build more robust stories than others. Psychologists refer to these stories as cognitive mental models. These models shape what we think, how we react, and the connections and opportunities we see around us.

Duhigg draws the connection between mental models and our attention arguing, “by developing a habit of telling ourselves stories [developing mental models] about what’s going on around us, we learn to sharpen where our attention goes.”

I’ve found there are a limited amount of things I can devote my attention, energy, and focus to wholly. When we work to develop robust mental models about the different situations facing us in our work, relationships, and the world at large we are able to more easily simplify our complex world. Simplicity, in turn, can help us “sort out” what we spend our limited attention on and the things we should really be giving a $%*# about.

2. Find a Choice

Motivation is a complex and surprisingly guilt filled subject for many. When we feel unmotivated to do something the internal voice inside of us starts to whisper about how we’re being lazy, we’re procrastinating, or we’re not qualified to do the job. Motivation, for me, has been inherently tied to my self-worth. Entrepreneurs can experience this at extremes with no one to hold them accountable except themselves. When feeling particularly unmotivated, the only answer has seemed to come from Nike: “Just do it.”

Duhigg offers a different view framing motivation as a learnable skill, “motivation is more like a skill, akin to reading or writing, that can be learned and honed. This is a useful lesson for anyone hoping to motivate themselves or others because it suggests an easy method for triggering the will to act: Find a choice, almost any choice, that allows you to exert control.”

In this framing, finding and making a choice is the catalyst for motivation as a skill. The choice can be small or large, but exercising the freedom to choose is what allows us to turn motivation into a self-directed habit.

3. Understand the Difference Between Proximal Goals and Stretch Goals

One of the skills separating the highly impactful people I’ve come across from the rest is their ability to define outcomes. By outcome I mean the intended impact and result of successfully completing a task or series of tasks. Too often we limit our discussions to the what or how of a particular project rather than starting by asking WHY we’re taking on the project in the first place.

For example, if you’re thinking about a revamp to your Google Drive file structure, there are an almost infinite number of ways you might go about it: revamping the nomenclature of your actual files, reorganizing directories, creating read.me files for instructions, and on and on. The reasons WHY you might take a project like this on are finite. Likely the goal has something to do with increasing the productivity of your team. This is the outcome of the project.

To go one step further, optimal outcomes are measurable within a timeframe. To make decisions about what we work on, we must be able to hypothesize a measurable difference from the work we take on. In the case of GDrive, perhaps the target metric is 20%. Put simply, the outcome of the project is: improving team productivity by 20% within 3 months.

The benefit of succinctly defining the outcome of a project at the onset is the way it opens up the options of how we might achieve any given outcome. Is Google Drive the best tool for our productivity? What kinds of functionality do we need to be more productive? Why do we have so many files in the first place?

Duhigg frames the difference between outcomes and tasks using the terms proximal goals and stretch goals. Proximal goals are near-term, incremental tasks we need to do often on a regular basis. Stretch goals are almost audacious long-term outcomes we believe will have a strong impact.

“The problem with many to-do lists is that when we write down a series of short-term objectives, we are, in effect, allowing our brains to seize on the sense of satisfaction that each task will deliver. We are encouraging our need for closure and our tendency to freeze on a goal without asking if it’s the right aim. The result is that we spend hours answering unimportant emails instead of writing a big, thoughtful memo—because it feels so satisfying to clean out our in-box.”

4. Utilize Probabilistic Thinking

Humans, as a species, are empirically awful at predicting the future. Self-centered and unrealistic optimism makes people think bad things are less likely to happen to them than to others and paints a picture of the future void of the reality they live in. But Duhigg argues, “good decision making is contingent on a basic ability to envision what happens next.”

How can we reconcile the fact that we are empirically bad at predicting the future and good decision making is dependent on our ability to do so? The problem most of us face in predicting the future is we limit ourselves to only exploring one future – the future that benefits us personally the most. To reconcile future-prediction and decision making we must build the ability to imagine and explore multiple versions of the future and work to increase our accuracy in selecting which one is most likely.

Scientists, psychologists, and mathematicians call this probabilistic thinking. Probabilistic thinking is trying to estimate, using the available information, math, and logic, the likelihood of any specific outcome coming to pass.

To use probabilistic thinking as a tool for productivity Duhigg argues, “to [make better decisions], we must force ourselves to envision various futures—to hold contradictory scenarios in our minds simultaneously—and then expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of successes and failures to develop an intuition about which forecasts are more or less likely to come true.”


The Friday Four. Every Friday I publish four top of mind thoughts from the experiences of the previous week. Themes include growth, coaching, startups, innovation, family, fatherhood, travel, food, or any other top of mind topic.

The rules are simple:

  • Publish every Friday.
  • Four thoughts (as long or as short as necessary).
  • No content calendar. No SEO hacks. No marketing bullshit.