“I Wrote This Book on a Computer Keyboard that Used to Belong to Malcolm Gladwell.”


Interview: Daniel McGinn.

Dan McGinn is an editor at Harvard Business Review, and he’s written for publication such as Wired, Inc., the Boston Globe Magazine, and Newsweek.

He also has a book that just hit the shelves this week: Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. This is a question that fascinates many of us — how can we “psych ourselves up” to achieve our aims better?

As Dan explains, many strategies have been proven to boost performance. Some are widely practiced, some are dismissed as superstition, some are counter-intuitive — but what really works?

This book is crammed both with research and with practical, real-life examples of how people put these principles to work. Dan gives great suggestions for many strategies that can work in our own day-to-day lives, and he explains why they’re effective.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Dan: I’ve spent two years reporting on how people prepare to perform while writing Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. From this work, I’ve concluded that people in many professions can benefit from having the kind of pre-game routine or habits that we usually associate with Olympic or professional athletes. This routine can include rituals or superstitious behaviors, or listening to a particular kind of music or playlist, or relying on different techniques to boost confidence and reduce anxiety. Depending on the activity, it may even include drugs like beta blockers to lessen the nervous-making effects of adrenaline. Whether your work is done in isolation (like writing or coding) or in front of other people (like making sales calls or pitching venture capitalists), my research suggests you’ll do better if you find the mix of tool that get you in the optimal mindset in the final few minutes before you perform.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

I have a long commute. Listening to audio books (purchased on Audible, or from my public library on Overdrive) has turned a big annoyance into something I look forward to. This habit consistently boosts my mood, and since I’m a writer myself, listening to good writing helps prime me to do my own work.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

In my work as a writer, I’ve tried to increase my creativity and productivity by using a set of habits before I write. I try to spend a couple of minutes reading something I’ve written previously of which I’m especially proud; focusing on past success boosts my confidence. (After reading research on visual priming, I also keep some framed examples of my past work on my office walls to subconsciously prime me to perform.) I used to try to find the perfect music to listen to while I write, but after reading the research on music and productivity, I’ve realized that as an introvert, I work better in silence, so now I often use noise-cancelling headphones; when I want to be really productive, I write in a library. I also rely on superstition. Specifically, there’s research on “social contagion” that suggests using an implement (like a golf club) once used by someone you admire can help you perform better. I have a computer keyboard that used to belong to Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote this book on it, and while I don’t use it every day, I will use it for especially important or challenging work. It’s just one more way to feel more confident as I get to work.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I’ve always been a sporadic exerciser. But in the last six months I’ve started going to spin class several times a week. I started using my gym’s app to reserve a spot in class, and then I began paying an extra $20 a month to be able to reserve classes up to 7 days in advance. (Otherwise, you can only reserve 12 hours in advance.) I do cancel sometimes, but knowing that I’ve saved a spot (potentially taking it from someone else, as the class is often full) makes it more of a commitment, and that appeals to the Obliger in me. So far, it’s making a big difference.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Obliger. If I make plans to go for a solo run at 6 am, odds are 50-50 it will happen. If I agree to meet you on the first tee for a 6am golf round, I’ll be there every single time. I’d never heard of the Upholder/Questioner/Rebel/Obliger framework until I read your book, and understanding this tendency has been really powerful in helping me understand why I keep some commitments more than others. For instance, at work I now realize that setting a deadline for myself isn’t nearly as effective as telling someone else about a deadline (“I’ll get this to you by the end of business on Tuesday”), even if they haven’t asked when I’ll deliver.