Charles Duhigg Charles Duhigg. Elizabeth Alter

When New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg started reporting the book that became "Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business," he had one question in mind: What do the most productive individuals and organizations have in common? 

After interviewing neuroscientists, Saturday Night Live performers, executives, and marines, he discovered that unlocking productivity is a matter of "giving people the tools to recognize the choices that are around them," he tells Tech Insider. 

"There are choices that surround you, about how you focus your attention, how you self-motivate, how you set goals, how you encourage innovation, that if you make those choices, then you gain more control over being able to live the life that you want," he says. 

In the below interview, Duhigg unpacks some of those key choices. 

us marine recruit training A Marine Corps recruit discovers "internal locus of control." Scott Olson / Getty

TECH INSIDER: The book starts out exploring "locus of control," a concept from psychology that highlights how self-regard influences performance. How would you define it? 

CHARLES DUHIGG: Locus of control is whether someone believes they have power over their destiny. What psychologists have found is that there's two types of locus of control: there's an external locus of control, which is when I believe that the world has influence on what happens to me and the choices that I make, and then there's an internal locus of control, which is when I believe that I'm in control of what happens to me, and that I have full authority and control over the choices that I make.

People who have an internal locus of control believe they have the freedom and the ability to make their own choices and to determine what happens to them, and those people are significantly more successful in life.

Which makes a ton of sense, because if you're the type of person who believes you have agency, that you have free will and that you have the resources to make choices, then you end up being more motivated, you end up making better decisions. You are not simply reactive to what life throws with you, you are proactive, and that's highly correlated with success.

TI: There are these great scenes in the book of Marine recruits having to figure out how to clean up dining halls and make it through obstacle courses without much instruction. What's happening there? 

CD: In the research, there's this question of, how do people learn that they have power over themselves and their surroundings? How do they learn to strengthen the locus of control? One of the best ways to do that is to force people into the habit of making choices, particularly to teach them how to find and make choices that make them feel in control. 

TI: In the Innovation chapter, you stress the importance of "psychological safety." What's that? 

CD: Psychological safety seems to be the most important group behavior or group norm in helping a team become effective. I'll quote Amy Edmondson, who developed the idea: "It's a shared belief held by members of a team that a group is a safe place for taking risks, a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves."

The question becomes, how does it emerge?

The studies have found two qualities. Number one, equality in conversational turn-taking: Basically, does everyone on the team believe that they have the ability to speak when they want to speak, and do they actually end up speaking? The second characteristic is high average social sensitivity, which is a fancy way of saying, are people on that team good at picking up how their teammates are feeling based on what their teammates do? Do teammates pick up on subtle cues? Do they act on them? It's not enough to know if my teammate is pissed off — I need to try and solve that problem.

TI: You share these amazing stories of the team Lorne Michaels assembled for the start of "Saturday Night Live," and all the arguments and creative breakthroughs the team had. It shows that tension is a huge part of psychological safety — 

CD: What psychological safety does not mean is that everyone feels really copacetic and safe. ‘Safety' might be misnomer. People have to feel safe that they can speak their mind without unfair recrimination. What it doesn't mean is bottling up what's bothering you or letting things go because you don't want to upset someone else — in fact, it's exactly the opposite. It's an environment where I can be fully honest and I can bring my full self and my opinions and my ideas to the team, and I can share them with everyone else without fearing that it's going to have unfair repercussions for me.

That tension is incredibly important: some of the most psychologically safe teams are teams where people have no problem disagreeing with each other and telling each other why they disagree, but they know in doing so, just because I disagree with a teammate, that teammate isn't going to come and torpedo my career.

It asks people to assume the best of each other and of themselves. It asks them to act on their best instincts — that you can I can disagree about something and it won't cause a personal rift between us.  

annie duke poker Annie Duke, a poker player who Duhigg profiles. Steve Marcus / Reuters

TI: What do poker players understand about making decisions that the rest of us don't? 

CD: Poker players know the importance of thinking probabilistically. What it means is you have this ability to envision multiple futures that sometimes contradict each other, and to force yourself to figure out which ones are more likely to happen and why. This is kind of an alien instinct, since we only experience the present one way.

I know intellectually that five things could happen to me this afternoon. Once I know which possibilities are more likely, I can influence [them], I can see more deeply how the choices I'm making right now influence the future that comes true.

Over time, I can make better choices, because instead of focusing just on this afternoon or just one what's going to happen in the next ten minutes, I can make choices around my afternoons for the next six months. And that's what poker players do — they commit to living probabilistically. They might not win this hand of cards that's right in front of them, but if they make the best probabilistic choices, then over time, they'll win more often than they lose.

Deterministic thinking would say there's one outcome, probabilistic thinking would say there's multiple outcomes.

TI: How would that relate to more everyday decisions, like choosing between job offers?

CD: A probabilistic thinker would say, I have four job offers. Let me sit down and really imagine what those four offers would be like.  Here's what it would be like to take job offer 1, here's the best case scenario where I am a year from now, and here's the worst case scenario. Now I've got eight possible futures. Now I'm going to try and figure out, which is the most likely. If I take job number one, do I think the best case scenario is 90% likely? Job two, is it 40%?

I'm not going to figure out exact numbers. I'm not going to be able to find numbers that make sense, but forcing myself to think about those things is going to make me aware of the nuances of what might happen.