3 ways to reach Elon Musk’s level of productivity by breaking old habits
  • Habits allow us to automate many actions to avoid endless decision making.
  • But they can also keep us stuck, so leaders like Elon Musk learn to welcome the unknown.
  • Stay open-minded by arguing like you’re right, listening like you’re wrong, and thinking backward from the solution.

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We are, as they say, creatures of habit

Elon Musk may seem to be a different sort of creature compared to us ordinary humans, but even he thinks and behaves habitually from time to time. What makes him truly unique, though, are the times he chooses to rely on habit — and most importantly, the times he chooses not to

Habits are good, but only to a point.

On the surface, habits are an amazing thing. They allow us to automate many of our actions so that we don’t have to allocate precious cognitive resources to thinking, deliberating, and planning every single decision of our lives. 

The so-called “System 1,” à la psychologist Daniel Kahneman, allows us to get more done with less mental effort. But habits on their own don’t produce remarkable leaders like Elon Musk. Habits are only useful in situations that are mostly known and predictable — where our routinized behaviors will produce routinized results. Musk’s world, safe to say, is anything but predictable. 

The best leaders, like Musk, intentionally design their life to make room for the unknown and to ensure that the important thinking, strategizing, designing, and creating are done outside of habit mode. Genius thinking is all about producing novel insights. Rarely do novel insights come out of the humdrum habitual thinking. Because insights, as my business partner Marc Whitehead likes to say, are what we get when we look at the same thing and uncover different patterns.

So what does this mean for you? How can you avoid the safe and explore the unknown without necessarily throwing out the habit baby with the bathwater?

1. Argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong

Leaders must have conviction if they wish to build a movement and influence the people around them. But conviction is best built from understanding all points of view and building a compelling case that respects them all. 

Taking a defensive stance when introducing a new idea will only serve to confirm your prior opinions. Listening to arguments against a new idea not only serves to strengthen it but nurtures buy-in from the very people who typically seek to object. As Adam Grant talks about in his new book, go into a conversation with your biggest critics asking, “What evidence would you need to change your mind?”

2. Think backward from the solution to find a better path forward

Oftentimes, when setting up at the starting line, all you can see are the obstacles in front of you. They often can feel insurmountable and become the focus of your energy. In these moments, we tend to rely on habit to do much of the heavy lifting.

Instead of this, embrace the water logic of flow. Start, in your mind, at the final end-point, working your way back to the start. Then watch the obstacles disappear.

3. Seek the counsel of dissenters to find common ground for all

If you think you have a brilliant new idea but it has yet to be confirmed through evidence, don’t seek the opinions of those who will build the case for it. Instead, seek the counsel of those whom you instinctively believe will object. Some call this a “challenge counsel”.

They will be the ones to find holes for you to patch. The problems that are better resolved at the outset rather than once they are uncovered in the market. Don’t move quickly to build a quorum around “yes,” rather search out the “nos” then refine towards the better yes down the line.

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