Charles Duhigg: 6 Keys to Being a More Productive Advisor

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks to ThinkAdvisor about how advisors can harness the science of productivity

Productivity is a skill that can be learned, Duhigg says. Productivity is a skill that can be learned, Duhigg says.

The New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his series on Apple, “The iEconomy,” knows more than a thing or two about being sharply focused and super-productive.  He shares these in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

The business writer, several of whose recent articles examine the Trump White House, spent years culling productivity insights from neuroscience and behavioral economics research, and CEOs’ personal experiences to pen his 2016 bestseller, “Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity” (Random House), just out in paperback.

Author of the earlier bestselling “The Power of Habit,” Duhigg, who worked in private equity before becoming a journalist, argues that greater productivity is a skill that can be learned, and he identifies eight key drivers for that, ranging from motivation to decision-making.

In the interview, he discusses six of these concepts and how they can help financial advisors and their clients plan better and invest more wisely; one example is to break up a long-term retirement goal into smaller, shorter-term goals.

Duhigg maintains that people who are most successful at learning use a process that “transform[s] what life throws at them rather than just taking it as it comes.”

In writing “Smarter Faster Better,” the business reporter drew on research and interviews with neurologists, business executives, psychologists, FBI agents and expert poker players (that’s right!).

ThinkAdvisor recently chatted with Duhigg, a New Mexico native, who was phoning from his home in Brooklyn, New York. Here are excerpts from our look at how FAs, in particular, can benefit from his in-depth analysis of the science of productivity:

THINKADVISOR: One key driver of increased productivity is improved decision-making, you write. Please discuss.

CHARLES DUHIGG: For financial advisors, this is probably a natural because they’re accustomed to thinking probabilistically, particularly as related to a risk-reward relationship and the potential outcomes that could occur. The key is to teach your clients to think probabilistically because, since we measure risk in terms of volatility, there’s a tendency to just focus on either: My portfolio is going to go up or go down and either it will lose money or it won’t. But that’s not how life works. Things happen along a probability curve.

How do advisors help clients look at their investments that way?

The primary objective is to get them to think in terms of potential outcomes and then discuss which are more or less likely to occur and why.

That means coming up with a spectrum of possible outcomes?

Yes. Relating to retirement, for example, one outcome is that you’ll work till you’re 65, and your pension will do great. Another is that you’ll get to 63, have a stroke and all the funds you were counting on start getting consumed by long-term care. Another is that you’ll live to 95, and your retirement savings will have to last another 30 years. So you need to think of a bunch of different potentials. Which do I need to plan for? Which do I need to protect myself against? Once you have a sense of the probabilities of different outcomes, it’s: How does that inform your choices, or what information do you need before you can make those choices?

It’s critical to envision potential failures too, you write.

We tend to disproportionately focus on success. So thinking about and exposing ourselves to people who have failed is really important. If you want to train your instinct to predict the future more accurately, you have to expose yourself to both the good and the bad. Our instincts get trained by sampling data. So if you’re only sampling positive data, you’re creating a bias.

Another key driver of productivity that you identify is goal-setting. Please elaborate.

One of the hardest things for people to do is to link a short-term goal to a longer-term goal. This is particularly important with regard to delayed gratification, or a delayed reward like savings: Unless they think, “This is how I’m going to put my kids through college,” people say, “Why should I save $5 today?” But if you get in the habit of finding [a] connection, you can habitually generate motivation much more easily than others.

How can advisors be helped by applying the concepts of SMART goals — timely and achievable — and Stretch goals — long-term and ambitious?

Retirement is a Stretch goal: “I want to retire some day, and I don’t want to work.” Getting clients to break that [big] goal down into a manageable plan of SMART goals can be really helpful. It tells you the questions you need to have answered to start on that Stretch goal.

General Electric, which originated the concept of SMART goals, created the acronym SMART. What are the components?

“S” stands for specific: What exactly do you want to accomplish short-term? “M” is for measurable: amount of income, for instance. “A” stands for achievable. If you say you’d like to have $1 million a year starting when you’re 65 and retired but right now you’re making $200,000 a year, that goal probably isn’t achievable. “R” is for realistic. What are the resources you need to make that Stretch goal realistic? “T” stands for timeline. How many years are you talking about?

Motivation is of course essential to greater productivity, as you stress. How can advisors motivate clients to do what’s best financially?

The key there is the sense of control. This certainly applies to financial advisors helping clients because one of the biggest issues is to save money or to stop doing things like checking their portfolios constantly, trading too frequently or trading because they’re bored. One of the ways to help is to give clients a sense of control over their saving and try to reinforce that they’re making an active decision to save. This also involves linking saving to a deeply held goal or value.

Another key and essential driver you point out is focus. Please explain.

People who are successful tend to do a good job of deciding what’s worth focusing on and what’s a distraction. Critical to that is developing mental models: telling yourself stories about your life as you experience it. If you go without mental models, your brain very often doesn’t know where to place its attention. But having narratives in your head helps you structure what you ought to be paying attention to and what you can safely ignore. So the process of visualization — identifying what you hope to have happen — plays an important role in how our brain allocates focus.

How can folks boost their ability to absorb data, one more productivity driver?

The brain basically isn’t equipped to absorb unstructured data because it evolved when there was much, much less information that could be easily gleaned. Now, largely because of computerization, you can access information and data quickly and easily. But simply being able to have access to information doesn’t mean you can absorb and understand it. To make data easier to absorb, we often need to create disfluency — deliberately manipulating it in some way to make it harder to process — and then use that data, such as repeating what we just learned by explaining it to someone. This makes what we learned easier to remember and to process it into knowledge.

Innovation is another of your main concepts, along with teaming and managing others. Please talk about innovation.

Combining existing material to create something new is at the core of much of what we know as innovation. If you come up with something that’s completely new, people tend not to have the ability to absorb it. If you ask them to evaluate creativity, the things they identify as most creative are things that draw on old clichés but combine them in new ways.

Is this where “intellectual middlemen,” or “innovation brokers,” as you describe them, come in?

Yes. People who tend to be judged by their peers as being the most innovative are not necessarily creative artist types — they’re usually people who expose themselves to all different kinds of information. So they talk to their accountant, to marketers, [a range] business executives and others. That ability to broker between different groups and different ideas gives them the advantage of seeing something new and interesting. And that’s what the genesis of creativity is.

You write about folks requiring cognitive closure: the need for “any confident judgment on an issue as compared to confusion and ambiguity … Some people have a high emotional need for cognitive closure” and are “more likely to be self-disciplined” and seen as leaders. Is there any risk associated with the extreme need for cognitive closure?

Yes. Some people have such a strong impulse toward cognitive closure that they settle on a solution or answer, and then refuse to see new evidence as an opportunity to change their mind. They make up their mind and never reconsider. It’s important that we don’t fall into that trap.

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