Let's start at the beginning—for the reader, anyway. The title sounds a bit like a self-help book. Is it meant to be?

I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to help folks—but at the end of the day, I think self-help has a very flimsy sound to it, and this book is based on a ton of reporting. Talking to researchers and neuroscientists, reporting in the field. I hope people will read this book and learn how to become more productive. Because at the core of productivity is this insight that you don't have to work harder, but you have to work smarter by essentially understanding how your brain works. And so, yes, it does have some self-help to it, but I hope in the best way.

The book, in a nutshell, is about productivity. Tell me about the most productive time in your life.

Actually, through the process of writing this book, I got much more productive. It helped me understand that there were changes I could make in my life that would really improve my productivity. A great example of this is to-do lists. The way I used to write them is kind of the way everyone does: I would write a couple of easy things on the top and at the bottom some of the big things I was hoping to get done. Sometimes at the very top, I'd even write something I'd already done because it felt good to sit down and cross something off right away. Until I talked to psychologists about it. They said, “You're using your to-do list for mood repair, not getting things done! You need to take those big, important goals and put them at the top of the page, constantly remind yourself that there is something bigger and more important that you're chasing after, so you don't get distracted by the smaller things.”

These are called stretch goals—put these at the top of the page and underneath put those you need a plan for. Say specifically what you want to get done and how you are going to measure it. What's your timeline? These are known as SMART goals. The acronym stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. What really matters there is that I have a plan when I sit down at my desk in the morning. But also, just because I get through some subgoal, it doesn't let me stop [there]—it reminds me that I need to keep on going, that there's something bigger that I'm chasing after.

Your CV reads like an impossible list of high-level accomplishments. Yale, Harvard, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Pulitzer, best-selling author. Have you ever been mediocre?

[Laughing] I'm mediocre all the time! The reason I'm laughing is that sometimes I will actually ask my wife, “If I'm so smart, why do I keep making all these stupid mistakes?” The truth is, I think all of us struggle all the time; doing good work always involves some struggle. One of the things very productive people do is they're much more comfortable with tension and willing to embrace it. Like in the chapter on Frozen, the creators were willing to say that there's a problem and that we don't have the answer yet—we're eventually going to find it, but it's going to be really hard until we do. Some people back away or shut down when it gets hard. Really productive people say, “This is hard, and that's okay. It means I'm on the right path.”

I was fascinated by the stories about airplane emergencies and how an increase in automation can lead to cognitive hiccups. What do you think of things like self-driving cars? Are you antiautomation?

We know that as we are becoming increasingly automated, the odds of having these lapses in attention become more and more real because people become less aware of what's around them. That's why building mental models is so useful [in practicing for potential outcomes]. On the subway in the morning, for instance, I used to use the time to read the newspaper. Now what I do is I look at my calendar and close my eyes and try to envision my day a little bit. I think through, “What do I expect to happen in that meeting or this one? What might go awry?” Engaging in this seven-minute exercise sharpens my focus so that when things happen that might have caught me off guard, I'm prepared for the unexpected because I've thought it through.

You write that people who are good at “mental modeling” make more money and get better grades and that part of that process is narrating your life, coming up with theories and making guesses. In that case, my four-year-old is going to be valedictorian and a billionaire—constant outer monologue! Can we learn about being productive and successful from children?

Our four-year-old does the same thing! My wife and I love it—he just kind of starts going. One of the things we know about most productive people is they tend to be much more conscious about what's happening in their head. They assert more control over their cognitive processes. For kids, this is just natural. They tend to tell us what they're thinking about and how they're thinking about it because it's all so new. At the end of the day, [increasing productivity] is really about appreciating how your brain works and taking advantage of what we've learned from neuroscience.

Back to the title. Sometimes when I see a “self-improvement” message, my initial reaction is to rebel. Do you feel a sense of pressure around our culture's quest for betterment? Or is it our higher purpose as humans to strive?

One of the big things to take away from this is that most of us are doing great. Right? When we talk about productivity, we're not talking about jamming more work or hours into the day; we're talking about letting people achieve their goals with less stress and less waste and less struggle. For some, it might mean making reading and sending e-mails easier. For others, it may be getting more time with your kids. Part of the critical choices that people need to make to become more productive is to ask themselves, “What does productivity actually mean to me? What do I want to get out of the day, the week or my life?” You don't want to be running toward the wrong finish line.