[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode, we show you how to command your focus and attention. We discussed why many people have the wrong idea of what it means to be productive and how thinking that you need to bull your life down to spreadsheets and checklists is the wrong way to approach productivity. We share the secret ingredient for true productivity and look at exactly how you can implement it practically and realistically in your own life with our guest, Chris Bailey.
Do you need more time; time for work time, for thinking and reading, time for the people in your life, time to accomplish your goals? This was the number one problem our listeners outlined and we created a new video guide that you can get completely for free when you sign up and join our email list. It's called How You Can Create Time for the Things That Really Matter in Life. You can get it completely for free when you sign up and join the email list at successpodcast.com.
You're also going to get exclusive content that's only available to our email subscribers. We recently pre-released an episode in an interview to our email subscribers a week before it went live to our broader audience. That had tremendous implications, because there is a limited offer in there with only 50 available spots that got eaten up by the people who were on the e-mail list first. With that same interview, we also offered an exclusive opportunity for people on our e-mail list to engage one-on-one for over an hour with one of our guests in a live exclusive interview, just for e-mail subscribers.
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In our previous episode, we explored how to unleash and live in your genius. How do you discover what your genius is? How can you spend more and more of your time doing what you love? We discuss how you can unlock the incredible potential within yourself and avoid the traps that may stop you from getting there. We share the lessons learned from working with more than 20,000 people to help them on their own journeys to genius and gave you the exact strategies and tactics to create a positive upward spiral of genius for yourself with our previous guest, Dr. Gay Hendricks. If you want to spend more time doing what you love, check out our previous episode.
Now, for our interview with Chris.
Please note, this episode contains profanity.
[00:02:59] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Chris Bailey. Chris is a productivity expert, speaker and best-selling author. His career began by conducting a year-long experiment examining best practices for productivity, which is documented in his book; The Productivity Project. His latest book; Hyperfocus, aims to help readers stay focused and avoid distractions. His works has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, TED, FastCompany and much more.
Chris, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:03:25] CB: Good day to you sir. How are you doing?
[00:03:27] MB: Great. We’re super excited to have you on the show today and dig into a lot of the stuff you talk about and write about. I mean, I think it's so important and I really resonate with a lot of the things you share in both books. To start out, I’d love to kind of dig into this idea that many people have a wrong perception of what productivity is.
[00:03:46] CB: Yeah, they really do. I think this is evidence when you ask somebody, “Do you want to become more productive?” People usually say yes, but what comes to their mind is something that feels so cold and corporate in all about this becoming a drone in front of a spreadsheet and all about this efficiency and boiling your life down to the same spreadsheet. But I think if there's one thing that lies at the core of what it means to be productive, that’s intentionality. It's deliberateness with which we should be working at.
In my eyes, productivity is not about doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster because when the hell do you know when to stop it if that's your philosophy? How do you know when you've had enough money? How do you know when you've had enough success? How do you know when you’ve answered enough email over the course of the day? In my eyes, we’re perfectly productive when we accomplish the things that we set out to do.
Our intentions are what we should be measuring our productivity against. I think when you frame it in this way, first of all, it’s more human, because some days all we want to accomplish is to watch The Good Cop on Netflix, that wonderful new show that stars Josh Groban as the lead character alongside Tony Danza. It’s a wonderful show with maybe a bucket of Ben & Jerry's and extra-large pizza. Other days, we want to have the huge day at the office and hire somebody new on to our team and maybe ace a job interview for a promotion. If we do those things, I would argue that we’re perfectly productive, but it has to start with the intentions that we set.
[00:05:16] MB: This episode has been sponsored by The Good Cop. No, I’m just kidding.
[00:05:18] CB: It’s great. Have you seen The Good Cop on Netflix? I must ask you, Matt.
[00:05:21] MB: No. I have never heard of it.
[00:05:22] CB: Listen for one sec. Okay. Josh Groban is an all-around talented man. He's like a Steve Martin. Like Steve Martin, he’s an author. He has a Grammy for playing the banjo. Josh Groban is the new Steve Martin. You've heard it here first on this podcast.
[00:05:38] MB: That's right. I think you do bring up a really important idea too, which is when to stop. That's one of the challenges with a lot of the productivity approaches, is that there's no endpoint. If you double your efficiency and double it again and double it again, at what point – Tim Ferriss talked about that too in The 4-Hour Work Week, is if you keep getting more and more efficient, when does it stop and when you kind of cap yourself off? Sometimes you do just want to sit on the couch and watch The Good Cop.
[00:06:06] CB: Yeah. I think that hits the nail right on the head, and you need that intention, I think. Intention behind her actions in my eyes is kind of like the wood behind an arrow. We absolutely need it in order to move forward and get important stuff accomplished. I think I will go so far as to say that the percentage of the day with which you act with intention behind what you're doing is directly proportional to how productive you are, but also your quality of life.
If you look at where we have control of our attention, as an example, this is kind of the topic that I'm nerding out about the most right now. How much control we have of our attention has been correlated with things like overall life satisfaction? We feel more satisfied with our lives when we have control of our attention. It’s of course correlated with productivity and creativity as well. It's also correlated with happiness and just how satisfied we are with things overall.
I think done right, we tend to look at productivity in a work context, but when you view it as being about intentionality, it transcends the word context. It works if you're retired. It works if you're starting out in your career. It works if you're on vacation. It works when you're at home. I think that's the way it should be.
[00:07:19] MB: We often fall into this same kind of trap with the title of the show; The Science of Success. So many people have a warped definition of what success is and we try to broaden it out and say that it's so much more than just money, or fame, or achievement. It’s living life on your own terms and doing what you want to do.
[00:07:37] CB: Is that the definition that you use? Living life on your own terms?
[00:07:41] MB: I think that's right. I mean, we don't have a set definition of it, but to me it's much more broad and encompassing than a lot of the traditional definitions of it.
[00:07:49] CB: Yeah. I think that's evidence in the fact that the people who achieve the traditional definitions of it, they don't feel successful, because they chased that and so they have that same mindset where they just want more. I think that's a fascinating thing, is if you look at the people that feel successful, they’re often not the people who make millions of dollars, or have millions of followers online. The people who feel successful are the ones that do what they set out to do.
[00:08:16] MB: So I think that answers this question, but just for listeners who might be wondering what is intentionality, what does that mean when you say that?
[00:08:24] CB: It's choosing what you do before you do it. So there's that pre-decision. This is the definition that I [inaudible 00:08:30] there are alternate definitions for intention. If you look at the science behind intentionality, where intentions come from, so much of it depends on our environments and things like that. I think it's that pre-decision. It's having chosen, maybe not in the moment, because we set an intention and then we start focusing on something and that becomes our object of attention and kind of leads us through to completion.
If you decide to watch The Good Cop on Netflix, there's that choice that preceded that action when you're in the middle of watching that show on Netflix. But you’ve kind of lost control until the episode is done. But I would say that's working or living with intention.
[00:09:10] MB: You bring up another really good point, which I thought was one of the most insightful things you said, and I think it was productivity project. This idea that a lot of –
[00:09:18] CB: You dug deep. You did. You like properly read the books.
[00:09:21] MB: We do our homework on the show.
[00:09:22] CB: That’s good, yeah. I noticed that when you're reading the bio, because I don't know if you've ever watched one of those shows where somebody is like mouthing along to when somebody else says something that they're very familiar with. I can pretty much do that with my bio, because we have like the stock one that we just send everybody. I think I have a text expander snippet on my computer, because it just comes up a lot. I know and original bio when I hear it. So I'm going to have to subscribe to the show after. You could really tell when somebody cares. So it's refreshing.
[00:09:47] MB: You’re very kind. Thank you. But anyway, what I was saying is this idea that I think was one of the most insightful ways that you – The phrasing you use on this I thought was a great way to kind of break apart the dynamic that a lot of traditional productivity falls into, which is this idea of most things, most people focus on this notion of managing your time, when really the battle is much more about managing your attention.
[00:10:10] CB: Yeah, and most of us, frankly, can manage our time pretty well. The two of us showed up to the show on time, so was Austin, the producer. Hey, Austin. We’re here. We’ll be here for about an hour, then we’ll go on to the next thing on our calendar. We manage our time pretty well, and most people are like that. But where we fall short so often today is with our attention. You can look at the very beginning of the day for a pretty good example of us losing control.
So we wake up and maybe our phone wakes us up. So we see that an email came in overnight. So we check that email. It’s just from Amazon. We check the news, and then we get a hit of dopamine, because each time we focus on something new and novel, the novelty bias that's embedded within our brain's prefrontal cortex gives us a hit of dopamine. Then we go over to Facebook and we get ahead of dopamine. Then we swipe on Tiner and we get a hit of dopamine. Then we focus on whatever else, and we keep getting these hits of dopamine.
I think it speaks to this idea that we don't always have control of our attention. So if you look at the moments of the day where there isn't a modicum of attention, intention behind what you're doing, I would wager a guess. I don't have data to back this up. It’s just a prognostication of mine. But I would wager a guess that when we don't have control of our focus and what we’re doing in that moment, it's more often than not because we've fallen victim to a distraction, because we go from focusing on one thing to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next, which is another big part of focus, is strategically un-focusing so that we can let our mind wander a little bit wherever the hell it wants to go.
One fascinating thing that this mode of deliberate mind wandering, I think it's as important as how we focus. So this mode of un-focusing, this is what allows us to set intentions for what we want to be focusing on in the first place. One study, I think it was conducted by Jonathan Smallwood and Jonathan Schooler, they found that when they sampled people's thoughts when their mind was wandering, that they were thinking about their goals and the future 14 times as often as when they were focused on something. Isn’t that kind of remarkable? It's like the space between the things that we’re doing, between the things that we’re focusing on that allows us to focus better on the right things in the first place and live and act with this intentionality.
Yeah, so I think this kind of just speaks especially when the biggest distractions on our environment are so often hijacking our attention away from what we really want to accomplish. Just the power of managing our attention well, but also how much room there is to gain when we don't manage our attention to the best of our ability.
[00:13:01] MB: I've heard a similar phrase in the research around what are called contemplative routines, which encompasses things like meditation, but even goes beyond that, to journaling, and thinking, and that time to pull back and question, “What am I doing and why am I spending my time on certain things, and where do I really want to be spending my time?”
[00:13:22] CB: There’s that great quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, where he says that, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Looking at the research on this topic, I kind of settled upon three benefits of deliberately letting our mind wander. You can do this however the heck you want. I'm personally an avid knitter. So I love knitting to let my mind wander. If I take a work break, I’ll pull up the knitting needles. I'm working on a nice scarf right now. But whether it's knitting, whether it's taking a long shower, whether it's just sipping on your morning coffee without your phone there, there is a beautiful example in traffic flow, so how traffic flows down a highway.
If you look at what allows cars to move forward, what allows them to move forward isn't how fast individual cars are moving as you might expect, but what allows traffic to move forward at a good rate is how much space exists between the cars on the highway. I think our work is the exact same way, because this allows us to choose what we’re going to focus on in the first place, but it also allows us to unearth ideas that are buried in the depths of our mind.
Our mind wanders to three main places when we just kind of let it be for a little bit. It wanders to the future about 48% of the time. Now, depending on the life that you live, these numbers might be a bit different. In fact if you meditate, like you mentioned, your mind actually wanders to the future a bit more. It wanders to the present 28% of the time.
In the past, less than we might think, about 12% of the time, and the rest of the time our mind is dull, or blank, or thinking about ideas. But what happens when we connect these three temporal destinations, we connect what ideas we've consumed in the past to how we’re going to live in the future, to what we’re doing in the present, to the future and how we’re going to run a meeting later on. Then we think about the past again. We connect these three places to unearth these beautiful, brilliant ideas that we would never arrive at otherwise.
So this is another wonderful benefit of the mode. We think about the future, first of all. We plan. So if you're walking to a meeting room, it could be this simple. If you’re walking to a meeting room at the office, instead of tapping around on your phone and checking Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever your app of choice is, let your mind wander, because it'll naturally wander to what you're going to do. It'll wander to the conversations you want to have. What you want to get out of the meeting? You'll probably save time overall, because in that minute, you'll approach that project more strategically, that commitment.
The third thing that letting our mind wander does is lets us rest. So we expend mental energy when we have to regulate our attention to focus on something or focus on a decision that we’re making. So decisions deplete our mental reserves of energy too. So what happens when we let our mind wander wherever the hell it wants to wander, is we don't have to regulate our attention to focus on anything, and so it gets to unwind. We get to recharge while we connect ideas, while we think about our future.
I would argue that attention without intention is just wasted energy. We’re focusing on stuff on autopilot mode whatever's latest and loudest in our environment. Technology also has a way of tricking us into thinking something is more important that it is, because whatever it throws at us in the moment, that feels like the most salient thing on which we can direct our very limited attention. But all of these just makes it so much more critical that we take control of our attention, because so often we don't have that intention behind what we’re doing and our environment is what has control of our attention instead.
[00:17:10] MB: What a great way to phrase it. We focus on autopilot mode whatever's latest and loudest in our environment.
[00:17:17] CB: I would go further than that, and this is one of the things that surprised me in writing Hyperfocus, was I expected to write a book about productivity, which leads to success and stuff like that. But I ended up following some ideas that suggested that this idea of attention is so much bigger than that of just becoming more productive.
One of my favorite studies that I encountered over the course of writing the book looked at two groups of people. The first group of people watched six or more hours of news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings, the events. I think that happened in 2013. The second group of people were in the actual marathon. They ran the marathon. What the researchers found was that those people who watched six or more hours of news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings were more likely to develop PTSD than someone who was at the bombing running the marathon and personally affected by it.
If that doesn’t suggest how the state of our attention determines the state of our lives even, I really don't know what is. The single biggest predictor of fear and anxiety in our lives is how much time we spend watching TV talk shows. I think it speaks to the idea that a moment of attention never exists in isolation. These moments accumulate day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year, so that if we’re distracted in each moment, those moments build up to make a life that feels distracted and like we don't have a clear direction, because we haven't chosen what we’re focusing on in the first place.
But the opposite is true, and this is the beauty of this idea, of managing your attention instead of managing your time, is that when you make an effort to focus on what's productive in the moment while finding ways to deal with distraction ahead of time, some of which are obvious, some of which are counterintuitive. Your work, your life becomes more productive and it becomes more meaningful as a result too when you make an active effort to bring your full focus to what's meaningful in the moment, whether it's a conversation with a loved one, whether it's a show on Netflix. Regardless of what it is, no burger will be as delicious as the burger you focus on with 100% of your attention. No conversation will be as meaningful as the one you focus on with 100% of your attention. The meaning is all around us. We just have to notice it. The things that make us more productive are sometimes right in front of us, but we need to make an active effort to focus on that too.
[00:19:51] MB: So many people today are pinging around are stuck in a reactive mode where they're spending a ton of time watching the news, Facebook, deluge of emails. For somebody who's that deep and mired in that completely reactive state, how do they begin to emerge from the darkness?
[00:20:11] CB: Emerge from the darkness. Oh, boy! From the cave of distraction. There are – I think the biggest problem is not that we’re distracted, but that we’re overstimulated, because another remarkable study I encountered found that when we’re working in front of a computer, we focus and we switch our focus between things. We get distracted or interrupted every 40 seconds. So we don't really focus on something for even a minute before we switch to doing something else. It's not necessarily completely our fault. There’s this novelty bias that I mentioned where we get rewarded for switching our attention around so often.
I think if you were to ask somebody who's in a state of high stimulation to describe the state of their attention, which they have less control over, and there’s more dopamine coursing through their mind and so they’re more stimulated because of that. I would wager a guess as somebody who's in the state of high stimulation would use words like, “I feel frazzled.” “I feel overwhelmed.” “I feel like my mind is kind of numb.” “I feel like there's just so much noise.”
Whereas if you ask somebody who has a lower level of stimulation, not somebody in like a comatose state, but somebody who's likely properly stimulated throughout the day, they might use words like, “Oh, I feel like I am thoughtful, like I'm deliberate. I feel like insights come to me.” I think that's the power of making yourself less stimulated by default.
So a great place to start with this in my eyes is switching from the digital to the physical. So one big shift that I made over the course over in the book was subscribing to the physical newspaper. So instead of going to newyorktimes.com or the cnn.com throughout the day, I get two newspapers at my door every morning. I get the New York Times and I get The Globe and Mail, because I'm up in Canada. I find that this alone, because of course a news website refreshes umpteen times every day, which leads us to revisit and revisit and revisit and give them more and more and more ad impressions, but the newspaper, the physical newspaper refreshes once every day and it comes right to you. You don't have to go for it. You just open your door and there it is, and it's a bit more money, but you reclaim so much more of your attention and you get to ease into the day instead of mindlessly distracting yourselves.
But there are other ways. I think a big mistake that some people make when they’re so stimulated, when they're bouncing around between things all day, when they're constantly, constantly multitasking and they have this attentional residue that occupies their attention throughout the day. Is they go from being so distracted and they realize, “Oh, shit! I have to do something to really save myself here. I'm not getting enough work done,” blah-blah-blah. So they’d get rid of their phone, for example. They leave their phone at home. I think that's too much, personally. But there are ways that we can make our devices less stimulating.
So grayscale mode is another credible way to do this. So what this mode is, if you go into the settings app on your phone and you search for the word grayscale, G-R-A-Y scale, it's usually an accessibility feature in most phones. but it makes your phone screen black-and-white. So it instantly becomes a less novel object of attention. It’s less pleasurable. It's less threatening in the moment. So we pay less attention to it.
Most people that I've sampled who do this, they find that when grayscale mode is enabled, that they spend about half of the time that they usually do on their phone, because Instagram becomes boring, Facebook and other apps take advantage of our color psychology to target us in different ways by A-B testing 30 different shades of a color of red to get the one that hooks us the most. I don't think they do it really maliciously. It's not like Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in a laboratory tinkering with different shades with a maniacal look on his face, but I think these are just the patterns that these apps settle into, which makes it so critical to get out ahead of them with grayscale mode, with I think consuming more physical things is a big one. As well as taming distractions in the first place. It’s so critical.
[00:24:15] MB: How do you go about taming those distractions? I know that’s a big question.
[00:24:19] CB: That's a big one. Yeah. I think it starts with identifying where the distractions come from. One way that I really recommend is I don't think we’re connected enough with how different things make us feel. We all have kind of a different reaction to different apps, but I remember my fiancé and I, we’re just hanging out in the living room the other day and she was looking kind of sad when she was on her phone fiddling around with it. I asked her, “What are you doing? You look bummed out.” She said, “Oh, I'm on Tinder.” No, I’m just kidding. She wasn’t on Tinder. She was on Facebook. It got us both reflecting like, “Okay. This is supposed to be a way to connect with people.” I personally haven't had an account in years, but I figured this is why folks have it.
But it really does hijack us. It really does make us sad. So I think this is a great place to start, is how do you feel after you visit a news website? How do you feel after you go to Facebook? How do you feel after you go on Instagram? You might find that some of these apps are worth your attention, because they make you happy. They let you connect. But you might find that other ones appeal to you because they’re stimulating in addition to anything that's new and novel. Our mind naturally gravitates to anything that's two other things. We naturally focus on anything that's pleasurable, and we naturally focus on anything that's threatening. This, of course, allowed us to survive through today, because instead of hyper-focusing on building a fire for our village, we noticed the sabertooth tiger encroaching in on our environment. We dealt with the threat and we survived to live another day and build another fire. We noticed the pleasures in our environment too, the potential mates, the foodstuff that was hanging from the tree.
Of course, today, so many of these novel pleasurable threatening things come from our phone, the nearest tigers are at the zoo. I think really starting with how these different things make you feel, because in the moment, the matter-of-fact truth is that we crave anything that’s stimulating. We can't really overcome that inherent bias in our mind, unless we have a deadline, in which case our work is more novel and threatening than anything on our phone could be, the prospect of losing our job, or dealing with the consequences of not shipping something on time.
But I think that's a great place to start. How did these different things make you feel? I think when you analyze the devices in your life relative to what else you could be doing in the moment, logically, they’re a lot less productive, but we’re were drawn to them in the moment. So when you find that there are apps left that do make you happy taming those ahead of time after you adjust downward into a state of lower stimulation by dealing with the ones that really charge you up. It’s something that's worth doing.
We switch between things every 40 seconds, and the research also shows, one study conducted by Gloria Mark and Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft of all places, they found that when we’re interrupted or distracted from something completely, and so sometimes – Most of the time we switch right back, but one we’re distracted or interrupted completely, we burn as much as 25, 26 minutes tending to that one distraction, so about a half an hour of our life. If this stat is hard to believe, look at what often happens when you wake up first thing in the morning. Maybe your phone wakes you up, and so you’d think, “Okay, here's an email.” You go to your email, you bounce around between a bunch of different apps every 40 seconds before you know it, 25, 26 minutes have gone by.
So taming anything, any notification on your phone that you don't want to lose 25 minutes of productivity over is one of the best five minutes you'll ever spend combing through all the notification settings and taming those ones so that they don't interrupt you. Because this is the thing about smart phone notifications and interruptions and vibrations, is in the moment they feel more important than what actually is important. Having a conversation with a loved one, and we get something on our phone and something is vibrating in our pocket. It could be anything. So we tend to it. But when we tend to it, it’s usually not important, but in the moment it's more pleasurable, or threatening, or novel than a potential conversation.
If we’re at a pub with a loved one, our attention will almost always gravitate to the TV that's playing on the bar above their head even if we don't even care about the game that's going on, because in our environment, it's more pleasurable, it's more novel and sometimes it's more threatening. So taming those ahead of time, combing through the notification settings on your phone, and for God sake, delete the email app off of your phone. It'll take about a week to adjust just as it takes us about eight days to wind down on a vacation and things like that. But you'll make all that attention back and then some and just how much more clearly you’re able to focus.
Sometimes we think the world needs us so much, and sometimes, frankly, it does. Sometimes we do need to be connected. But we need to be connected a lot less than we think we do. If you do need to be connected all day, it would even be worth the effort to delete your email app between the hours of 8 PM and 8 AM every single day. It'll take three minutes, but man, that's so much more attention to devote to what's meaningful in your life and what's productive in your life.
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[00:31:55] MB: I've been searching for some kind of app that lets me turn off certain apps for certain amounts of time. I don't know if it exists or not, but if any listeners know about it, definitely email me and let me know, or if you know, Chris, I'd be very curious.
[00:32:09] CB: Screen Time is a feature on iOS 12 that lets you do that. I know Google has some digital health features that are brand-new, but it takes forever for those features to filter out through the android ecosystem. But check out Screen Time at iOS 12, because you can set different categories of apps and you could also have some downtime. I like to enable downtime between the hours of 8 PM and 8 AM, and what it does is it grays out all of your apps so that you have to ask the phone for permission before you access something. Yeah, check it out, because if you're on iOS, it's worth doing. I personally go a step further and I put my phone on – All my devices on airplane mode between the hours of 8 PM and 8 AM, just because I want that attention. For selfish reason, I care about the people in my life. I want to focus on making dinner with my fiancé. I want to focus on the show I'm watching, whatever it happens to be. I want to bring myself to that thing. Yeah, you don’t want stuff like technology to get in the way.
[00:33:07] MB: We can move off of the cell phone topic in a second, but one of the thing I wanted to mention that was really interesting, we had an interview, which we’ll throw into the show notes, with Adam Alter, where he talked about this study that people spend three times more time on the apps that make them the least happy versus the apps that make them the happiest. So Facebook, the news, that kind of stuff, the stuff that makes you the least happy, you spent a lot more time on it on your phone.
[00:33:29] CB: Wow! That's incredible. I haven’t encounter that, but it makes total sense.
[00:33:34] MB: Well, we’ll put that in the show notes for listeners who want to do a little bit more homework on it.
[00:33:37] CB: And for podcast guests that need want to do a bit of homework on it.
[00:33:41] MB: I’ll throw it in the chat so you can have a copy as well. I want to kind of pivot the conversation and come to another topic that's very interrelated with everything we've been discussing, but I think is really important to share and kind of dig into with the listeners, which is this idea that if you think about being really productive, and we talked about daydream, we talked about the importance of these sort of contemplative routines. If you think about being really productive, a lot of people see something like meditation and they think that's the least possible productive thing you could be doing if you're sitting there doing literally nothing. You have a very interesting perspective on this, and I'd love to hear your experiments with this and your story around how meditation and productivity interrelate.
[00:34:28] CB: Yeah. Honestly, just speaking the truth, I would've stopped meditating long, long ago if it didn't make me more focused and productive, because I'm not in it for spiritual reasons. I'm not in it to say that I meditate. I'm in it because it lets me focus that much more deeply on what I want to do.
I find, for my own data, this is n of 1 of course, but I find that with my own life that I'm able to write about 40% more words when I have an active meditation practice in my life. I meditate for about half an hour each day and go through waves like a lot of people that I can observe where some periods I fall off the wagon and then I noticed that, “I'm a lot busier, but I'm not getting more done. Oh! I haven’t meditated in a little while.”
So that got me curious like to look at the research around this topic that I think we don't connect enough to how we should live our lives. So often we encounter some studies about an idea and we say, “Oh, that's fascinating.” Then we go back to acting the same way. But our attention is fascinating as it relates to meditation. What it shows, there're a lot of brain training apps out there, apps where you solve a bunch of word problems and it promises you more attention and more focus. The research shows and suggests that these apps don't really hold water. Their claims work when you're in the app and actively doing it. But once you stop, they stop working. But meditation is the one rare thing along with mindfulness that actually give us more attention to bring to whatever we’re doing in the moment.
One study that compared meditation to, I believe, yoga as well as doing nothing, found that when we have an active meditation practice, our working memory increases by about 30%. So in other words, we’re able to take on tasks that are 30% more complex. We’re able to process 30% more information in the moment. We’re able to switch more cleanly between different tasks. So it makes it so, so worth – I think the benchmark to any good productivity tactic out there is that for every minute you spend on it, you make the time back and then some in how much more productive you were. Because what's the point of listening to an interview like this? What’s the point of reading a book like a Hyperfocus or The Productivity Project if you're not going to make that time back and then some?
Meditation has the greatest per minute return of almost any productivity tactic under the sun, because it gives you so much more attention in the moment. If you can process in the moment 30% more than a colleague, you're going to get 30% more accomplished. It's not doubling your productivity, because tactics like that, there are very few and far between, but you can take on work that’s so much more complex that it will totally change your game when you have an active meditation practice. There's a lot of science to back that idea up. Plus, you'll just feel amazing. That's the reason in and of itself to meditate more. You'll notice that you've gotten distracted more. Your mood will elevate. Your mind, when it wanders, will actually wander more often to think about the future. It's a beautiful, beautiful practice that you'll make back for every minute you spend meditating. I think you'll make back 10 at the very least.
[00:37:48] MB: Meditation highlights a bigger issue, which is that people often get caught up in thinking that daydreaming, or meditation, or journaling, all these activities are wasted time when they could be working or they could be getting stuff done.
[00:38:02] CB: Yeah.
[00:38:02] MB: But it's really the opposite.
[00:38:04] CB: Yeah. It speaks to an idea that I'm sure comes up a lot in the show, which is busyness. It's kind of a badge of honor. When busyness doesn't lead us to accomplish anything of importance, then what's the point of being busy? It's really no different from an active form of laziness. Productivity, it's not about how much we produce, it's not about how busy we are, but it's about how much we accomplish. More than that, whether we accomplish what we set out to do in the first place.
Busy, it's tough though, at the same time. That's easy to say, but we tend to look at how busy we are, and our level of busyness as a sort of proxy measure for how productive we are, because when we do knowledge work for a living, it's pretty hard to measure our productivity. You can have two programmers. Let's say me and you Matt, we’re both programmers. I'm able to crank out 800 lines of code in a day when you only crank out 400. Shame on you, Matt. But maybe your code has five features, where mine has three. Maybe your code has one bug, where mine has seven. Maybe you wrote your code in like two hours, where it took me slogging behind the computer – Or maybe, more reasonably, you got home at a reasonable hour and I'm still at work at 10 PM, still busy and not really getting as far as you. If we were to rate our productivity at the end of the day, you would probably say you're less productive than me, because you look at how busy you are and I would look at how busy I am and think and feel more productive than you. But the opposite, I think, is – There're fascinating studies with regard to sleep deficits. Whenever we’re working on a sleep deficit, we rank our productivity as being higher than it actually is.
So often we just work on tasks that are less consequential, because we have less of an attentional space to give to what’s – Just as meditation increases our working memory by about 30%. Working on a sleep deficit can shrink how much attentional space we have to give to whatever we’re doing in the moment by about 60%. So we’re still doing work. We’re still switching between things, but because we have less attention, we take on things that are less challenging, and I would say busyness is the same, where it's kind of we trick ourselves into thinking we’re productive, when really we’re not really accomplishing much of importance.
[00:40:26] MB: Sleep is another great example and underscores the bigger picture here, which is that rest is a huge part of being productive. Downtime is a huge part of being productive, and it's not about working 100 hours or putting in more raw hours. It's about stepping back and realizing that if your focused on the right things, you can create 10X, 20X more results in the same or less time if you apply these routines in this rest, in this downtime and these contemplative activities.
00:40:56CB: Yeah. If you never think about what you're going to work on, how are you going to become more productive? Because like most of us have more to do than we have time to do it in, right? So when that's the case in any situation, it becomes critical to take a step back and think about what's important, what we want to accomplish and intend to accomplish over the course of the day. Yeah, it's such a vital, vital idea.
I think the tough part sometimes is there's a lot of guilt that comes in when we’re taking a break. We all know that breaks are very critical, but we act throughout the day not in a way that allows us to accomplish more, but in a way through which we’re able to minimize how much guilt we feel with regard to our work. So instead taking off for an hour at lunch time and going to the gym, we continue to check her email while we mindlessly eat our lunch in front of the computer and we never really feel rested. We minimize the guilt, but we also minimize our productivity.
I think this is a key – And it's very difficult to do this. I run my own business. I work for myself, and I know this guilt coming up quite often. But what works for me and what might work for any listeners who are struggling with the same thing as I do is make a list of all that you accomplish over the course of the day and then review all these things at the end of every week. I coach a lot of folks in becoming more productive, and they find that this helps them work through the guilt and as do I, because you get to see why you're investing in your productivity in the first place and this gets you thinking, “Okay, I only have so much time today. What do I really want to accomplish? Which way can I minimize the guilt when I'm making this accomplishments list at the end of the day rather than just not taking a break in the moment?”
When you focus on what you accomplish through techniques like that, I personally keep a yearly accomplishments lists too that I review every month. I'm sorry, review all the accomplishments from the last few years since I started making the list, it kind of reinforces the power of these tactics while allowing you to overcome the guilt.
Another way is to really be intentional about your breaks, because so often guilt and feelings like doubt and uncertainty, they fill the vacuum that working with a lack of intentionality leaves. So we’re working on autopilot mode, we feel really, really guilty when we’re not really, really busy, but when we take a break with intention – I am a big fan, as you can hear, of binge watching shows on Netflix. I don't do it often. Honestly, I kid about it more than I actually do it. But when I do it, I freaking do it. I decide how many shows I’m going to watch. I decide what I'm going to order and eat while I'm watching the show. I do it with deliberateness, and that minimizes any amount of guilt that I would relate to that experience, because I've chosen how I'm going to spend my time and attention, and guilt doesn't really have a place. Guilt isn't welcome when there is intention.
[00:43:54] MB: Another strategy that I found to be really effective at combating the same guilt, because it’s something I deal with as well, is –
[00:44:01] CB: It's a universal feeling, isn’t it? You talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and people that work for themselves, people who work for other people also. I don't know really many people who don't have it. Maybe somebody with $100 million in the bank and they have all that FU money where they could take off at any moment. But do you know many people who don't? It's a conversation I've had with quite a few people, but everybody seems to have this phenomenon.
[00:44:27] MB: Honestly, no. But I haven't done a lot of sort of surveys or research around it. One of the strategies that's been really effective for me and a proactive approach to trying to mitigate the guilt before it arises, and I know this is something that aligns with a lot of the work you've done and talked about and written about, is setting – Every week, I basically do an audit of my previous week and then plan the next week, and I look at my long-term goals and basically say, “What am I going to do this week to make progress on each of these goals?” and I set a most important task or one or two of those each day. I always execute that first thing in the morning. If I execute that task, the day’s a win. I don't care was 9:30 in the morning and I finish that task. If I do nothing for the rest of the day, that day is a victory.
[00:45:11] CB: Yeah. One of my favorite strategies is related to that. So every day I set three intentions. So things that I want to accomplish by the time the day is done. So this gets you thinking about the future. It gets you stepping into the shoes of your future self. But I also set three weekly intentions and three yearly intentions as well. I don't really set monthly or quarterly intentions, because I find – That's one of those pieces of advice that sounds good, but doesn't necessarily work, at least for me, in practice.
There's something marvelous about this number three, where we chunk things together in threes. I personally think it's because it's kind of the minimum amount of things that most people – Or the maximum number, and most people can fit three things into their working memory at one time. We used to think we could chunk together six or seven pieces of information in our memory at one time. But now people are kind of coming to terms with the fact that it's about three or four.
You see that we group the world in threes. We have sayings like, “Good things come in threes,” and Celebrities dye in threes,” and “The third times is the charm,” and “The good, the bad, the ugly,” “Blood, sweat and tears.” We grow up immersed in things like the three little bears, the three blind mice, the three little pigs, the three musketeers. The list goes on and on and on, and it kind of fits with the way that we think. So we remember the things throughout the day where we set three maximum things.
At the same time, we have that deliberateness. I think it's for the same reason that your strategy works so well, is that you have that pre-decision which creates intention behind whatever you happen to be doing throughout the day. It's a beautiful thing when you're working with intention, because you know that whatever you're doing in that moment, like you feel the first thing in the morning, or throughout the day, that whatever you're doing, that's exactly where you need to be. That's exactly what you need to be doing in that moment. There’s that in the moment confidence that I think is it's one of the most wonderful feelings as it relates to our productivity in the moment. We get it when we’re working on a deadline, when we can feel the deadline approaching, and we know that that's the most important thing to be doing in that precise moment. It's quite a wonderful feeling, but again, like it goes back to this this idea of intentionality that I think has to precede most of the things that we do. It can't precede everything we do. We can't work with intention 100% of the day, or else we’d be a monk in a cave somewhere and it would take us forever to do anything. I think we need to get that number up and up and up and up and we’ll see some wonderful things happen as we do.
[00:47:44] MB: Another idea that you write about in Hyperfocus that we’ve touched on some of the themes around that I think is important to dig into, is this idea of recharging our attention. How do we go about recharging it?
[00:47:56] CB: There are actually better ways to recharge. I think the key, again, is to un-focus, because it's in those moments that we don't have to regulate our attention in one way or another. The research shows that we when we do something habitual that doesn't occupy our full attention, something simple and habitual, whether it’s taking a shower, it’s swimming laps at the pool or having a coffee, whatever it is without our phone nearby, habitual tasks kind of weight our attention down so that we continue to let our mind wander and let her attention rest as we follow that task through to completion.
For running five miles, we won’t stop until we’ve ran the end of the 5th mile. Maybe we’re listening to music at the same time, but our mind still has a bit of attention to spare, and I think that is the key here. So often we go from focusing on our work and we think, “Okay, I need a break now.” Then we check Twitter and then we focus on things that aren't work related but still occupy some attention, which still means that they take some mental energy. But habits have actually been shown to lead us to a greater number of creative insights than doing something that requires focus, like Twitter. Plus, they make this mode fun while we scatter our attention for a bit longer. I call this mental mode scatter focus, when we deliberately let our mind wander. I think doing something habitual, whatever that is for you, whatever your favorite way is to let your mind wander, whatever you do should be effortlessly habitual and you'll find that you have a chance to replenish the tank a little bit.
[00:49:39] MB: It's almost that same idea that the structure of that habitual task creates the freedom and the flexibility to let the mind wander.
[00:49:48] CB: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It's this wonderful idea where we kind of – We don't necessarily lose control of our attention, because we have less control of our attention than we might think throughout the day. There is an upper limit to how much intention we can have. So say you're watching a movie, for example, you chose to watch the movie, but in the moment you kind of lose control of your focus, of your attention, which makes it quite possible easy to recharge, because Steven Spielberg or whomever the director is, is the one who guides your thoughts forward. They tell you what to think by presenting you with visual stimuli.
So we have about the same amount of control when we let our attention roam free, because we don't have to regulate it in one way or another. So it's like watching a movie. Where does your mind go when you weight it down to the present moment. For listeners who want to concretely implement some things we’ve talked about it, and we’ve talked about a lot of different strategies and tactics. What would be sort of a starting point for them? A beginning action step they could execute to begin to put these ideas in place?
[00:50:58] CB: This is I think the tough part about writing and speaking about personal productivity, is that it's personal. So what works for you might not be what works for me, which might not be what works for somebody else. This is actually a personal pet peeve that I have with a lot of productivity books, even ones that are science-based that presents some framework of living or thinking or working is we’re different. We do different work. We’re all wired differently as well. We really have to do what it takes for us to leave the rest.
That's what I would encourage you to do for maybe this conversation, is what's one or two things that worked for you, resonated for you? Can you make your phone screen black and white? Do you have the budget to subscribe to the physical paper while cutting yourself off from digital news sources? You'll be so refreshed when you do. Trust me. I'm in Canada and I even get a lot of news that comes from the U.S. So if it's refreshing up here, it must be refreshing down there. It's a way of staying informed while not staying overwhelmed.
Know how different apps make you feel. Maybe schedule some time for tomorrow, 20 minutes to do a spring cleaning for your phone. Research the screen time feature of your iPhone to really look at how –Like your natural patterns for how you use the devices. Mind the gaps in your schedule. So kind of make some space between the cars on the proverbial highway in which you live and work. Maybe make a mindless folder on your computer or on your smartphone so that you put all these social media apps in the mindless folder and that present you a queue that you're about to distract yourself. Delete the email app off of your phone. Do a phone swap when you're with your partner when you're out for dinner, for example.
One of my favorite rituals that my partner and I have is when we’re out for dinner, we swap phones, so that we have a phone to take a picture of whatever we need to with, but we don't have a personalized world of distraction at our fingertips. Start a nightly shut off ritual. I’m trying to close the loop on every tactic that I mentioned today and then a couple, but I think that covers most of them. I think the bottom line is that there are all things that – There are things that all of us can do in order to increase the quality of our attention, but pick one or two to start with and reflect on how much more they allow you to accomplish and how they affect the state of your attention, because the state of our attention determines the state of our lives, and it's so critical, I think, to defend it.
[00:53:26] MB: What a great quote, the state of your attention determines the state of your life.
[00:53:30] CB: It's so true, yeah. It's the one thing. I don't if you’ve ever watched one of those crime shows where somebody's solving a murder.
[00:53:36] MB: Good cop? I’m just kidding.
[00:53:38] CB: I don’t know. There's one of these. There's one of these, and it's always Sunny in Philadelphia. It's like a joke, I think. But there's like – Somebody has the map and they've got string attached to places, attached to pictures of memos and newspaper articles. This was like the state of my office over the course of writing this book. That was actually the one thing that really came out in connecting all the bits and pieces of the research. The state of our attention determines the state of our lives, and it's more important than we think it is. We should all watch The Good Cop, because it's a great show.
[00:54:14] MB: For listeners who want to find you and your work online, what is the best place for them to do that?
[00:54:19] CB: Yeah, on the Internet. I am at alifeofproductivity.com, is my site, and I think I'm on – Yeah, I’m on Twitter, Chris_Bailey is my thing there. The book is called Hyperfocus. I forgot, the main thing I'm here like promoting, but yeah, Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. It’s wherever books are sold, you could pick up a copy.
[00:54:41] MB: We’ll make sure to throw a link to the book, a link to your site and the other resources and things we’ve mentioned in this episode in the show notes including link to Good Cop.
[00:54:49] CB: Maybe most important – Yeah, I think if there's one thing to take away from this episode, it's that we should all be appreciating Josh Groban's immense vessel of talent. He's making TV show. He’s singing songs. He's got a great new album out, a great song called Granted that you should check out immediately following this episode. I wish it could like lead us out, but then there's a whole host of copyright issues. But Josh Grogan should be leading us all out in one way or another.
[00:55:18] MB: Josh, if you or your people are listening to this, give us a call about sponsoring this episode. No, I’m just kidding. But maybe not. But Chris, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these insights. So many important tactics, strategies and revelations about how to really think about productivity in the right way.
[00:55:34] CB: Thanks so much, Matt. That was fun.
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