It turns out there’s a science to productivity, and it can be boiled down to three key attributes — innovative thinking, focus, and motivation — that we can master, according to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author Charles Duhigg, by forming habits that make us feel in control.

Duhigg dedicated the majority of his closing keynote address at Telstra Vantage 2017 to explaining and illustrating this idea.

He pointed out that we are in the midst of a technological and economic revolution as profound as the agrarian and industrial revolutions. The world is changing quickly and fundamentally, and it’s easy to feel powerless against this wave of change — the rise of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, machine learning, big data, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and more, all occurring at the same time, reshaping every facet of society and business.

But Duhigg said that if you look at the most productive people throughout history — people who changed the world like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and so on — you’ll see that they were anxious all the time. Many of the greatest innovators, Duhigg explained, were anxious that they didn’t understand the change coming.

The difference with these great innovators, however, is that they found habits to keep them in control, which in turn kept them motivated, while they openly questioned everything and they went to great lengths to find the connections between seemingly disparate ideas or things.

Innovation as a way of thinking

Duhigg told the story of how West Side Story was created by three ambitious young men who wanted to transform theatre, but who nearly missed the mark. Their script was too radical with its street gangs uttering made-up words like “cracko jacko”, at least until choreographer Jerome Robbins made it more relatable at the last minute by incorporating classical dance clichés and familiar ballet routines into the performance of these teenage street thugs — thereby grounding it with a careful blend of the old and new, the familiar and the unexpected.

Duhigg also offered a more tech-driven example: a design firm spent two years in the 1980s trying and failing to create a new kind of helmet that could protect kids on bicycles, then a boat builder hired as a favour made a suggestion. Boats start with ribs and everything goes off those so that when the boat hits a rock it remains stable. The same principle birthed the modern bike helmet.

The key to thinking differently like these innovators, Duhigg explained, is to form habits that force your brain to make the connections. Innovative thinking comes from this mental labour.

Focus comes from visualising what ought to happen

Duhigg also considers habits critical to focus. The modern office is nothing but distractions that push you into a cognitive tunnel, he said. When you are in a cognitive tunnel, you don’t think; you react.

When a pilot safely landed the plane with a hole in one of the wings, uncontained engine failure, and 12 key systems down, he did it by recognising that he was losing control of the situation and he told himself a story that made it feel like he was in control. He changed his mental model of the situation and pretended he was flying a Cessna rather than an Airbus A380 because then he could focus on what needed to be done. Then he could make decisions.

The takeaway here, Duhigg argued, is that you need to both visualise what ought to happen and also find ways to constantly challenge those stories inside your head.

Productivity is about staying in control through the chaos

The most productive people — innovators like Jobs and Ford and Jerome Robbins, and other people like the pilot — find ways to be in control in a world where everything is constantly changing, Duhigg said.

“This conference is a testament to how quickly everything is changing around us,” he concluded. “And it’s easy to feel terrified and anxious, and all of us do… But we also know now how to build the patterns, the cognitive routines, the habits of our lives, that put us back into control.”

And that, he argued, boils down to telling ourselves the stories that matter so that we can focus on innovating and “making the world an amazing place.”