In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project. They discuss aspects of the book and Chris shares some of his personal experiences with productivity techniques both successful and unsuccessful.
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Rob [00:00]: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, I interview Chris Bailey, author of ‘The Productivity Project’. This is Startups for The Rest of Us Episode 280. Welcome to Startups for The Rest of Us the podcast helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs to be awesome at launching their software products, whether you’ve build your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Chris [00:26]: And I’m Chris.
Rob [00:27]: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Mr. Chris Bailey, thank you so much for joining me today on the show.
Chris [00:34]: I am honored. Thank you for having me.
Rob [00:36]: For folks who don’t know, you are the author of a book called ‘The Productivity Project’ as well as the man behind alifeofproductivity.com.
Chris [00:44]: That is me.
Rob [00:45]: I first heard about you on Unmistakable Creative Podcast that Srini Rao hosts. He raved so much about your book that I had to check it out. I’m really glad you have it up on Audible. That’s how I consume almost all of my material. To be honest, I’m really not a fan of productivity books in general. The reason I don’t like them is because I feel like they tell me the same thing over and over like don’t multitask and other stuff, get up early, exercise.
Chris [01:13]: That’s just bullshit. I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear but it’s such BS getting up in productivity.
Rob [01:18]: I know and I wanted to get into that in the interview. That’s what I liked about it, is that I bought it on a lock because Srini raved so much about it. I was probably a chapter in and already I realized, “Oh, man. This is the change in my game.” I started taking notes frantically. I have a Mosca Notebook that only when stuff is really that I want to take with me, I write in this notebook. I already had a bunch of notes scribbled. This was about two and a half weeks ago maybe three weeks ago I started listening. I have a bunch of things that I have adapted and adopted from it. That’s saying a lot because as much information as I consume, I don’t tend to necessarily move as much into my daily routine. Your book has already had an impact on me. I’ve talked about it on this podcast a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to have you on the show just to talk through a few of the things because I feel like you experimented on yourself and that’s the cool part of this, right?
Chris [02:07]: Yeah.
Rob [02:07]: You don’t come off as some expert who has this theory that everyone should follow. You basically say, “I tried this. I failed a bunch of times but some of it worked and here’s what I found.”
Chris [02:16]: I’m personally not too big a fan of those people. That was one of the things I found in this productivity project, is a lot of people call themselves gurus. That’s a good sign by the way. When somebody calls themselves a guru or my pet peeve is a thought leader. When somebody prescribes themselves as a ‘thought leader’, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re not. You hit on one of the things that I think is crucial about productivity tactics is that spending time reading about them is great. They’re entertaining. You can look at productivity porn as long as you want but if you don’t make all that time back and then some, you’re basically just wasting your time. The idea behind the productivity project was to spend a year and experiment with everything that I could find under the sun that had to do with my productivity to see if it helped me get more done or get less done and whether I actually earned that time back. So much of the stuff out there simply doesn’t.
It’s this productivity porn of becoming busier or just doing more instead of achieving more. It might sound corny but I have this idea that productivity isn’t about how much we produce. We can produce e-mail all day long and not accomplish a single thing. We could spend all day on Twitter and not accomplish a single thing. What we’re left with though, at the end of the day, the residue of our day is what we accomplish. That’s what productivity is all about, I think.
Rob [03:40]: Yeah, well said. I have some notes here and one of the points that you make in the book is you say, flat out, most productivity hacks didn’t work. Most of the things you tried didn’t work. Do you have a theory on why that is?
Chris [03:51]: I think because the idea of so many changes is way sexier than what you have to actually do to make the change happen. Waking up earlier is one of my go-to examples as something that just doesn’t work. It depends on your situation because if you have a family, kids, maybe waking up at 5:30 will help you in your productivity because it will give you this bubble of clarity and focus after you wake up. But it depends on what your life is like. The studies out there, at least, show that there is zero difference in socio-economic standing between somebody who wakes up early and somebody who wakes up late. It’s what you do with the hours of your day that matters. You think of the idea of being an early riser that wakes up at 5:30, waking up at 5:30 to meditate, get a cup of coffee and catch up on the news and social media and start a writing ritual maybe. A lot of people have a sepia tone fantasy of what they want to do and what they want their life to become.
It’s so easy to focus on that fantasy instead of what you have to actually do to make that change happen. Everybody on the planet wants to become a billionaire and get a six pack but in the moment, you want nothing more than to play hooky and grab a cheeseburger. It’s the idea of these changes that is so much more attractive than what you have to actually do to make them. That’s another thing. You got to make that time back but you also invest energy and willpower into investing in your productivity. There’re big costs to investing in your productivity which is why it’s so crucial to figure out whether a change is worth making in the first place.
Rob [05:33]: You conjecture in the book, you say, “I believe that I’ve made a 10 X improvement from any of these productivity acts because it takes time and will power to manage and implement.”
Chris [05:42]: Oh, yeah. It’s so easy to look at the idea instead of the cost or something.
Rob [05:46]: In the book, you talk about how you, yourself, tried to become an early riser and didn’t really work for you. I’m a night owl like yourself. My wife is an early riser and I have this phrase, when she gets up at 5:30 and does all these stuff and I say, “The smug superiority of the early riser.” It didn’t work out for you. Why was that? Is it body clock thing? What do you think?
Chris [06:10]: I think it is. We all have different chronotypes, which is how our energy naturally fluctuates over the course of the day. One of the things I did for this project was I conducted research with all the books and academic journals I could get my hands on. I talked to the biggest productivity experts out there, big in reputation not in physical size and I also conducted these productivity experiments on myself where I used myself as a test tube to experiment with things like working 90-hour weeks, watching 300 Ted Talks in a week, becoming a total slob for a week and gaining 10 pounds of muscle mass living in isolation. Getting up at 5:30 was one of the first experiments I conducted. I struggled with shoehorning this habit into my life for three months. After that, I learnt a lot about habit formation along the way if that one. After I had finally done it, I had this routine that productivity dreams were made of or at least I had imagined they were made of.
But then I realized that I absolutely hated the ritual. I had to go bed at 9:30 in order to get a full night sleep, which I absolutely hated. It was either that or struggle through the next day on a low tank of energy. One of the crucial findings I made from this experiment is that just as not all tasks in our work are created equal. We accomplish a lot more doing certain things like engineering a new product or working on a report for whatever it is that the highest return [?] the new job are than we do checking e-mail, social media or attending a meandering meeting of some sort. Just as not all tasks in our work are created equal, not all hours of the day are created equal. Depending on our chronotype, which is when we’re naturally wired to have the most energy, we have varying amounts of energy depending on the hour of the day. The go-to example that a lot of people use for this is if you’re a morning bird, you’re going to have a crazy amount of energy so your wife has a crazy amount of energy at 5:30 in the morning or at least more than what I consider clinically sane in humans.
People like myself and yourself, we have more energy late at night and so we bring more energy to what’s in front of us later on in the day. A change like waking up at 5:30 might not necessarily work as well for people like us. But we can take advantage of this idea, though, that our energy fluctuates over the course of the day. One of the main findings from the productivity project was that everything I researched, throughout the year of productivity, fell into better management of one of three categories; managing my time, attention or energy. The better we manage all three of these ingredients, the more productive we can become. It’s so easy to look at time and this is what we’ve done for hundreds of years. When we work in an office-type environment, it’s simply not as important as it once was. When one person brings twice the amount of attention to their work and they shut off distractions and they can focus deep around their work, they’re going to become more productive, than somebody who is constantly distracted and can’t focus, and accomplish more in the same amount of time.
Energy is the same way. If you don’t burnout at one in the afternoon and instead you cultivate having a lasting energy level throughout the day, likewise you’re going to be able to bring more of yourself to your work so you don’t burnout. When you rejuvenate your energy levels by taking more frequent breaks and doing tactics along those lines, you bring more energy to your work which allows you to accomplish more in less time. Managing your energy is a crucial thing. That goes to when you’re naturally wired as well. Another one of the experiments I did shortly after waking up at 5:30 every morning was charting how much energy I had every hour on the hour for three weeks. Every hour I had an alert on my phone telling me, “Chart how much energy, focus and motivation you have right now.” I charted those and I found that between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon and 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. in the evening and onwards, I had more energy than any other hour of the day.
That was when I brought the most energy to what was in front of me. The more important tasks I worked on during that time, as an example writing for my website, doing tedious research or after that writing this book, the more I accomplished in the same amount of time. This is a central idea I think it’s crucial to think about when it comes to your productivity is that productivity isn’t just time anymore. If you don’t cultivate your energy properly, you’re going to burnout. Your productivity will be short. The same is true with our attention. You probably know this better than anyone. Attention is the rarest commodity that we have but it’s not the most limited commodity that we have. Time is. Because it’s so rare, when we cultivate more attention to bring to what’s in front of us and spend it intelligently, we can get that much more done. Man, that was a long answer. I’m so sorry.
Rob [11:02]: No, that was a good one.
Chris [11:03]: You got me going. That was like a trigger question.
Rob [11:06]: You touched on two things that I was going to bring up. This is really good.
Chris [11:09]: This is good.
Rob [11:10]: Probably my favorite concept from the book, one of my strongest takeaways was your framework of time, attention and energy because most books are more about managing time. I’ve always seen, in my work career, there were two things is what I’d imagine it had. There was time and energy. I would strategically use caffeine and other things to help me have the most energy when I needed. But I was missing an element and that’s what I liked about your book. Everything you said lined up with my experience and then added to it and gave it deeper understanding of topics I didn’t quite have my hand on. Adding that third element of attention made me realize why, when I get a bunch of e-mails, if someone’s saying, “Hey, I just need five minutes of your time,” that doesn’t sound like a lot. It’s not the time that’s the hard part. It’s the switching the attention.
Chris [11:54]: I find this way. One of the things I do more and more is speaking around the book, around productivity, around whatever the hell people want me to speak about. It’s weird that people want me to talk at all. I find that if I give a half hour talk somewhere, that’s a half hour of time and that’s a half hour of energy. But I’ll worry about that talk for days leading up to it. It takes days of attention to just do that one talk. It’s an idea like switching to e-mail. E-mail is the pain-point that so many people have. We might not spend a ton of time on e-mail over the course of the day but when we switch between e-mail and every other context of our work 30 or 40 times, which is the average for most people according to Rescue Time, I believe the number is 41 times a day, that’s 41 times than when we have to perform a conceptual shift from one element of our work to another. We never perform that shift productively because it takes energy, willpower, so many things for our minds to switch from one context to another. That’s why you have some days where you repeatedly check your e-mail where you don’t have much to do and you’re exhausted by the end of it. It’s because you burn so much mental juice switching between these different contexts.
Rob [13:09]: Touching on that, during your answer, you mentioned but didn’t name the Biological Prime Time which is your concept of where you stopped consuming caffeine and alcohol for three weeks and you tracked which hours of the day were your, what you call your BPT. Now I’m assuming you must structure your work schedule to do your high energy high attention work around those times. Is that the idea?
Chris [13:35]: For sure. We’re talking, right now, in the middle of my Biological Prime Time. I’m having some [?] to boost. It allows me to bring more of myself to the elements of my work that are more important, like talking to you right now is more important than a lot of the things I’m going to do later on in the day. Why not schedule your day around when you have the most energy? Productivity, at the same time, is so often a process of understanding our constraints. If you work for the men or any one of these things, you might have more constraints than someone like you or I would. But still when you do have that flexibility, it’s crucial to not squander it. Biological Prime Time, by the way, I don’t want to take credit for that term. It was coined by Sam Carpenter who wrote a book called ‘Work the System’ I believe. This was the golden nugget I took away from that book is this idea of thinking about it in those terms.
Rob [14:31]: I’ve read that book but I didn’t remember that term so I’m [?]
Chris [14:35]: Credit where credit is due.
Rob [14:36]: Indeed. Right within, I think it’s the first chapter of your book. You do challenges during the book. It’s not every chapter but where it’s appropriate where you say, “Look, put the book down, grab a pen and paper, spend 10 minutes and do this.” Your first challenge is called The Values Challenge. You ask the question, “If you had two extra hours in everyday, in every work day or in everyday period because you’re more productive, what would you do with that time? Sit down, think about that and write it out.” What’ the importance of answering that question?
Chris [15:08]: It’s thinking about what you want productivity to do for you. Everybody has a different purpose for productivity. Some people see it as a way of doing more and more and cramming more into the day. But I see it as a way of making more times for the things that are actually meaningful to me. In a typical day, I like to think I’m pretty productive. It would be a surprise if I wasn’t productive after dedicating a year of my life to improving that side of myself. On a typical day, I do my work in six or eight hours; before investing in my productivity, that would have been 16 hours worth of work. I see it as a way of doing everything I have to do in less time so I have more time for the things that are actually meaningful to me like spending time with loved ones outside of that. I’m a pretty big nerd like I would imagine you are and a lot of the audience is. I like soaking in cosmology lectures. I’m learning to program. I totally suck at it right now but I’m putting my [feelings?] out for that.
If anybody knows any good resources, I don’t want to get flooded with stuff. If you want to e-mail me on or two places to learn that, just anything that takes my curiosity throughout the rest of the day. I see it as a way of carving out more time for the things that are actually meaningful. Those challenges, by the way, I’m not a fan of challenges after chapters of a book. I decided to put these in there because they prime your mind to think about ways of implementing the tactics in the book. They’re very simple and they reduce what I talk about in the individual chapters down to something that you can action at the end of them. What do you think about challenges at the end of chapters? What are your thoughts?
Rob [16:51]: I tend to ignore them and skim over them. In your book, I did maybe two or three of them, which is saying a lot because I tend to do zero of them.
Chris [17:01]: Me too. I wrote the challenges for people like you and me who don’t do challenges.
Rob [17:09]: The way I’ve been summarizing your book to people and you can correct me if this is an incorrect summary. What I basically say, “Look, this guy took like 100 productivity hacks and approaches and tried them out on himself over the course of a year and then he basically wrote a book about the 20 or so that worked for him.”
Chris [17:28]: Yeah. That’s a good way of framing it. What I really did is I looked at all the productivity books, the research, the neurological books out there, books about the brain and workplace performance. I also conducted these weird experiments on myself to tell some stories along the way so it’s not boring as hell. I looked at all of that stuff and thought how did these – I think they were more than 100. I’ve never actually counted with everything I experimented with. There were a few hundred things, there must have been, that I tried out; keeping sticky notes everywhere from finishing stuff I had to get done, all these different organizational systems for managing my work and my life and compartmentalizing everything. This is about the 25 things out of those hundreds that actually work and most importantly that actually stuck with me because change the idea of something can be so powerful. But, again, you have to actually do it for it to work. I like that idea.
Rob [18:29]: That summary of it?
Chris [18:30]: Yeah. It’s a good summary.
Rob [18:31]: Cool, even though it’s hundreds instead of a 100 but for some reason I had remembered the number 100.
Chris [18:35]: You just got to put the number u a little bit, make it sound a little bit more impressive. He experimented with tens of thousands experiments.
Rob [18:44]: One of the things you experimented with that I really liked because this is something I’ve long held, it’s like a value, is you tried working 20 hours a week and then your tried working 90-hour weeks and you compared your productivity and you found …
Chris [18:58]: It was about the same.
Rob [18:59]: About the same but you said it was a nominal increase in productivity in your 90-hour weeks. Why is that?
Chris [19:07]: The thing was I felt so much more productive and I think it was because –
Rob [19:14]: Working the 90-hour weeks you did?
Chris [19:15]: Yeah and it was because there was no guilt that sipped into my work. I think so often the less guilty we feel about our work, the more productive we feel. Guilt works hand in hand with busyness. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking a lot about. When you have more work to do than you have time to do it in, the natural incline is almost to dedicate more time to your work instead of more focus and energy and leave those by the wayside, burnout, multitask and try to take on too much stuff. It doesn’t work in practice. Working 20 hours a week, when I looked at how productive I felt, I felt four times more productive in the 90-hour weeks. I felt like I had accomplished that much more. But when I looked at how much I actually accomplished in those weeks; that was the most surprising lesson I discovered from the project by far. I only accomplished a bit more working 90 hours a week. I think it was because of two reasons.
The first is because of Parkinson’s Law, which says that our work tends to expand to fit how much time we have available for it. This is why you feel like you’re living at capacity in your home life but then the new season of House of Cards or orange is the New Black comes out and you suddenly, this magical 10 or 15 hour window opens up over the course of a few days and you find time to watch the entire season. It’s because what we do tends to expand to fit how much time we have. Our work is no exception. I did the same amount of work, it’s just that I expanded and wasted so much more time in the 90-hour weeks. I also didn’t manage my energy properly. A deadline is one of the most powerful things on the planet. Everybody on the planet knows this. Let’s say it’s Monday and somebody tells you, “Dude, you just won an all expenses paid trip to Australia but it leaves tomorrow evening.”
Chances are you would find a way to do most of the week’s work in those one or two days so you could accomplish as much as you need to in order to get on with the imposed deadline. Our work hours are the same way. The 20-hour weeks were the exact same way because I shrank how long I worked for in general, I forced myself to expend more energy over that shorter distance of time so can get it done and it filters down to the individual tasks in our work too; if you have a big project to write, code or whatever it might be. If you, instead of scheduling an entire afternoon to do that and burning some time and attention on Twitter, e-mail and all these different things, you schedule a one and a half hour block of time and you force yourself to stop at the end of that. You’ll force yourself to expend more energy over that shorter distance of time so you can get everything you need to do done. Managing and shrinking how long we’ll work on something for is also a gateway to managing our energy in that way too.
Rob [22:14]: Nice. My most recent blog post I published is called ‘How to Force Yourself to Ship (Even Though it’s Hard)’ and it’s all about how at Drip, the company I run, we don’t set many deadlines but we did have to set one for a recent feature we launched and it just kicked us all into high gear. I’m definitely a believer in that.
Chris [22:35]: Shrinking how long you do something for, it’s a way of imposing a deadline on yourself, whether it’s for a task or your work in general. This is why; I think it’s in Sweden that they’re going to a 30 or 35-hour week. If you have people who are motivated, that’s going to work because they care enough about their work to expend more energy to get it all done. They’ll waste less time. If you have people who aren’t that motivated, chances are they will just slack off for 30 hours.
Rob [23:03]: You mentioned that research suggests that the ideal work week is between 35 and 40 hours?
Chris [23:09]: Yeah. That’s what the research seems to suggest. This is not to say that crunch time doesn’t work because it absolutely does. When you work consistently long hours, your productivity after a few weeks begins to fall off a cliff and become obliterated. It’s not that one 90-hour week is terrible for your productivity because if it’s once a year, it’s really not. Sometimes projects have to ship; sometimes you have to work insane deadlines. But most of the time if you work consistently longer than 35 hours a week, your productivity is going to begin to plummet. That’s a side note, a little Ted debate on working hours. As a rule, people usually work fewer hours than they think they do. You can get this insight when you track your time. One study, I have it here in front of me because I’m weird like that. People who claim to work between 60 and 64 hours a week actually work an average of 44.2 hours; from 60 down to 44.2. People who claim to work 75 or more hours, they actually average 54.9. There’s often a huge gap and it’s because when we think we work longer hours, it’s as if the world needs us twice as much. So often we work fewer hours than we think we do.
Rob [24:32]: Yeah, that makes sense. One of the other things that I took away from your book and I actually started and put my name right away was this rule of three daily tasks or three daily accomplishments. Earlier on with your research, you said on your website that you have this stats page where you tracking how many words you had written that day or how many – you’re trying to quantify it and you realize that was focusing on efficiency and that was a mistake. You started asking yourself, “Did I get done what I intended to do today?” That was your new measure or productivity. I feel like the three daily tasks ties heavily into that. You want to talk a little bit about that?
Chris [25:09]: Yeah. Intention lies at the heart of productivity. This deliberateness, I would equate productivity on so many levels with deliberateness. Being more deliberate about what we spend our time on in general, everyday or every hour in the case of working more mindfully in the moment because it’s in the moment, like we were chatting about earlier, that we want to have a six pack and we also want to grab a cheeseburger. If we can bring the idea of deliberateness down to the moment, that’s where the magic is made as far as productivity is concerned. The idea of managing everything you want to spend time on, it’s something so many people talk about. But so many of the systems out there won’t make you care about what you have to do. The best rule I found for that is, as you’re probably well aware of, it’s almost stupidly simple how easy this idea is. That’s where its power lies; is in inserting these intentions each day.
The idea of the rule of three is this; at the beginning of the day, you fast-forward to the end of the day in your head and then you ask yourself, “By the time the day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” Those become your primary focus throughout the day. The idea behind it is that it only takes a few minutes, first of all, which makes it so powerful. You don’t have to spend hours organizing everything on your plate. It allows you to insert this intention because it’s hard to remember what’s important throughout the day. When everything hits the fan over the course of the day, these serve as the guiding light for what you want to accomplish over the course of the day. My three, as an example today, I am writing six articles for my website. I am putting together a list of all the places I’m speaking at to coordinate them in one place. My goal is to finish making two talks. It’s a lot of work. It doesn’t include everything, like it doesn’t include our chat right now, the other miscellaneous [poparia?] of the day.
It includes the three main things you want to accomplish. It aligns what you work on over the course of the day, not to what you have to do, like a task list does, but what you want to accomplish when the day is done. That’s really what you’re left with. It works because it’s in that deliberateness that you decide not only what you do and not only what is the most important to spend your time on but also what you don’t spend your time on. You take the time to separate what’s important from what isn’t. I mentioned earlier that productivity is so often the process of understanding the constraints that we have. Some days they’re stocked with meetings. You’ll have less freedom and flexibility to determine what you actually need to accomplish or want to accomplish. By taking the time to understand those constraints, you can become more deliberate about your work over time. At first when I implemented this rule, I learned about it from J.D Meier, who’s Microsoft’s Director of Business Programs.
A lot of people have talked about it before. It was his book ‘Getting Results the Agile Way’ that turned me on to this idea. At first I way overshot the three things and so I would say, “I’m going to write 1500 words today,” and I would write 3000 or 4000 or I would undershoot them. The next day I would say, “Okay, I’m going to write 5000 words,” and I’d write 2000, just as a very simple example. Over time, you begin to settle into this place of understanding the constraints that you have. How much time, flexibility, energy, focus and attention you’ll have, how often you’ll have to switch between these different contexts so that you can get a grip of not only what you’re going to accomplish but how much potential you actually have to do that.
Rob [29:06]: As I said, this is one of the things that I’ve adopted and it’s helped me focus on something I should have been doing anyway. When you say, in the book, it is such a simple thing, thinking of the three things you want to get done in each day. I think you said to do it for the entire week as well.
Chris [29:22]: Yeah, I forget that point. That’s a pretty big point.
Rob [29:26]: Yeah I know.
Chris [29:26]: I do it and I should have been cued because I have the three weekly things I intended to accomplish right above that on the big ass whiteboard in my office. The idea is every Sunday I usually do this. I set the three main intentions for the week. The three daily ones won’t always fit into the three weekly ones but often times they do. It reminds you of what’s important throughout the week when you’re carving out those daily intentions too because that’s the process. You figure out what’s important in general but it’s on a weekly basis that you set these very short-term milestones that fit into those ideas. It’s on a daily basis that you execute on them. It’s on a moment by moment basis that these challenges come up with actually working on them which is why ideas like single-tasking, stop multitasking and shutting off distractions can be so powerful.
Rob [30:23]: It seems to me that the idea of this rule of three on a daily basis rule, rule of three on a weekly basis and shutting off the multitasking and all the alerts and stuff. It’s not that they take time to do but it requires deliberate discipline and it’s almost like a certain level of attention and energy that you have to devote, which is step back, clear your mind and say, “What three things do I want to accomplish today and this week?” That’s the hard thing to do, I found. I find that it takes energy and attention to do that. My mind tends to want to resist that and wants to flip into my e-mail inbox because as you called it, that’s the Netflix of the work world, right?
Chris [31:02]: Yeah. That’s why it’s crucial to do it at the start of each day. You only have so much willpower throughout the day and once that’s depleted, your productivity, your focus is toast and you’re going to be working on autopilot. It’s important right at the start of the day, before you jump in to do these things because that’s when your energy is the greatest. That’s when you have the most cognitive juice because you haven’t burned too much glucose in your brain from working on other stuff too.
Rob [31:29]: I think that’s one of the points that I took away from your book; is that these things, like the low return tasks you call them, which are the checking your e-mail, checking Twitter or Facebook or all that stuff that beckons to you that feels productive, that fires with [?] your brain, it’s quite unproductive in general.
Chris [31:51]: I would challenge people if they want to try out the tactics that we’re talking about. Let’s be honest, most people aren’t going to buy the book so let’s make this conversation as valuable as we can. Try these things out but observe how much they allow you to accomplish compared to how you were working before. That’s where the money is mad because these tactics become self-reinforcing once you realize how much more they let you get done over the course of the day. The rule of three is great gateway one to start with. If you start by defining the three daily intentions that you have and then observe whether you actually accomplish them, how you’re working differently, how your working towards those three things, it will become self reinforcing. You can make the connection between getting more done in less time and the tactics that you’re experimenting with. One of the worst things you can do, and this is what I found in the productivity project, is blindly accepting blanket productivity advice because you’ll fall into so many traps, pitfalls and so much stuff that frankly doesn’t work.
I would say that more things don’t work than the things that do. I tried to pick the best ones but maybe not all of these will work for you too. Maybe you’ll resist them more than you’ll feel comfortable with and so you don’t end up doing it. That’s cool too. But when you look at the difference in how much you accomplish when you do the tactics and whether or not you get the time back that you spend reading about these things because that’s where productivity becomes crucial. I think that’s so important.
Rob [33:26]: I would agree. If you’re listening to this, the way I’m approaching the book is not to take all 25 of these and try to integrate them into my work life or my personal life for that matter. I read through it and I took away things that I felt like would work for me, given what I do on a daily basis, my personality, what I know about myself. The notes that I took instead of all 25, it looks like I have 9 or 10 that I feel like are really going to jive with me. I’m not trying to adopt all of them at once. I’m tackling two of them to start with. It’s the five minute meditation in the morning and embarrassingly pretend to do that in my car in the parking lot once I get to work and I just sit there.
Chris [34:05]: That’s cool. At least you’re now driving then.
Rob [34:06]: Yeah I’m now driving. I clear my mind. The fact that it’s only five minutes has made it an easy one or me.
Chris [34:13]: This is a good tip to give people. When you want to make a change, find how resistant you are to the ritual. If you say, “Okay, I’m going to really try and meditate,” and then you meditate, I’m going to say, “Okay, I’m going to mediate for half an hour each day.” Eventually you’re not going to have half an hour or you’re not going to feel like doing it for half an hour and the habit is going to just collapse in on itself. You can combat this though by shrinking how long you’ll do something for until you don’t fell that resistance anymore. You say to yourself, it works for going to the gym, meditation, going of a walk around the neighborhood, for pretty much anything. You say, “Okay. I don’t feel like meditating for half an hour today. Could I do 25 minutes?” The thought of it still puts me off, “What about 20 minutes?” It’s getting better but, “What about 15 minutes?” Getting better, “10?” Yeah, I can meditate for 10 minutes. You meditate for 10 minutes.
When you get to that 10 minute mark, because you’ve overcome that initial resistance because things are never as intimidating in practice as they are in ideas, chances are you’ll want to keep going. The same is true for the gym, going for a run, for pretty much anything; doing your taxes, cleaning up the basement. By overcoming that initial resistance, you can keep going after that. So many other things are intimidating that we want to do. When we shrink and be kind to ourselves in the process and we’re not a total hard ass on ourself for trying to make our life better, we can do that much more and make them stick.
Rob [35:45]: Indeed. I like the way you couch the meditation. I’ve never been a meditator, never really been done it. Your instructions were just be aware of your breath. That’s it. Nothing more complicated than that. You can set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes. All you want to do is think about your breathing and you’re trying to clear you mind. As thoughts come in, like distractions and such, which they will, don’t judge them. Watch them pass through you like you’re on a freeway overpass, I think, is what you said. Watch them just float away and let them go to the next thing.
Chris [36:15]: Because that’s what you realize when you start to mediate, is that no thought is permanent. No sensation in your body is permanent. No emotion is permanent. That’s what I find entertaining while meditating. You find the weirdest things entertaining after a while. It obviously doesn’t take much to entertain me. I find these emotions that come up in meditation to be so informative in a weird way because I’ll go through a period of boredom and then I’ll go through a period of restlessness and then I’ll be really worrying about something or other that I have to do or a big talk that I have to give, whatever the hell it might be. Then I’ll go through a period of happiness. You experience so many emotions but every time you do, you simply refocus on your breath. It sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Meditation is so stupid in practice because of how simple it is. You’re focusing on your breath. What could be the benefit of that?
The research out there is conclusive around how helpful meditation can be for us. I don’t want to come off like I’m a hippy like, “I have a business degree and I’m more into productivity than anything and so meditation should be the furthest thing from my interest.” The research that’s been conducted around how we manage our attention shows that in an average moment, we dedicate 53% of our attention to whatever is in front of us. We basically leave half of our attention on the table. I don’t really have to talk about this because it’s obvious and everybody’s experienced this. We’re trying to work but then we remember that we forgot to close the garage door when we left in the morning or we begin to worry about what we have to do next or we begin to think, “Oh, crap, I have to focus on this now,” or we begin to worry or we get distracted. Because of all these things, most of which are internal, we only bring about half of our attention to what’s in front of us.
What the neurological research and the attention research around meditation shows is that we can up that number. Instead of brining 53% of our attention to what’s in front of us, we can bring 63% and then 73, 83, 93. I don’t like the word ‘efficiency’ especially as far as productivity is concerned. It reduces the idea down to something’s that really cold and corporate and it’s all about a spreadsheet. There’s no better word to use. If you have two people, let’s say the average person who brings 53% of their attention to what’s in front of them and then you have somebody who brings 93% of their attention to what’s in front of them. The second person is going to accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time. They’re going to get eight hours of work done in four hours because they manage their focus that much more intelligently. This goes to the idea that our work benefits from all the attention and all the energy we can possibly bring to it.
We used to work in factories doing simple and repetitive work that didn’t take much brain power. But when we moved from the factory to the office, suddenly instead of making widgets all day, we could show up hangover if we really wanted to, we could be distracted all day long, we could chat with people all day long and still crank out those widgets. When we went from the factory to the office, suddenly our work benefits from all the focus, attention and energy we can possibly bring to it. This idea – and you can tell that I get a bit excited by it. Excited might be not even a generous term. The idea that building up how much attention we can bring to the moment is something that belongs in a cave in India with some skinny iyogi meditating all day long. It’s bullshit frankly because our work benefits from that focus. One of the things that turns people off about meditation is that that the process is so simple it seems like you’re wasting time. It does take time to meditate but you get those five minutes back 10 times over throughout the day because of how it allows you, not only de-stress, which allows you to bring more calmness, more focus to your work. It also allows you to bring more of yourself to your work, which is a crucial.
Rob [40:33]: That’s a good way to say it. A lot of us focus on time management, blocking out our time and making sure that we’re being fairly efficient with things so that it doesn’t expand. That’s one of the three aspects. The second is energy. I always think about that as maybe turning on some music loudly or using caffeine strategically, which I’ve done for years. The third piece that I hadn’t really sunk home with me until I read your book is that there’s this third element and it’s this attention/focus. That is what you’re talking about here. If you’re able to clear your mind and get a harness, get a hold on all the threads going on, you can improve that third element. With all three of those in check, that’s when you’re absolutely your most productive and when you’re going to get the most done in a day.
Chris [41:16]: Exactly. It seems so simple, right? You just sit. It doesn’t matter where you sit. You don’t need a fancy meditation. You can do it on a chair if you really want to; just observe your breath. That’s it. Observe its [?], its flows. I like to focus on the sensations in my nose. The thing about meditation is that you attention always wonders off. That’s what it does. That’s the way your brain is wired. We’re wired to perceive threats in our environment. We’re wired to think of any mental threat that might come up and be distracted and derailed by that. But we don’t have many sabre-toothed tigers walking around us anymore. Instead, we stresses of the office. We have to bring more focus to the work that’s in front of us. The idea is that every time your mind wanders off to thinking about something else often times like any fantasy. It will wander to any and every fantasy, threat whatever you can think of. It will go there.
The idea is that whenever it does, you gently bring it back to your breath. I like to laugh a little bit at myself at how much my mind wanders off. You can’t be hard on yourself when it does. Gently bring it back and see it as the natural tendency of your mind. Every time you bring that attention back, the neuro signs behind meditation show that it heightens your executive functioning. It heightens the amount of control your brain has over itself. You might think like, “Doesn’t my brain already have a ton of control over itself?” But it doesn’t. You’ve probably experienced that feeling where you’re trying to fall asleep and your mind won’t shut off. There is the mind that’s always churning and always working away and won’t shut up and shut down for the night. But then there is the part of the mind that looks at the brain – maybe I’m sounding like a total hippy now – your mind observes your brain doing all these stuff. You can step back from your thoughts, de-clutter them a little bit, make them a bit calmer and allow them to not get the better of you. I fall asleep very quickly these days, often times within minutes. I’m usually not all that tired when I go to bed. My mind is calmer than it used to be.
Rob [43:36]: Mr. Chris Bailey, your book is ‘The Productivity Project’. Your website is alifeofproductivity.com. You have any other ways you’d like folks to keep in touch with you?
Chris [43:46]: Those are the two main ones. I always hate being selly about these stuff that I do.
Rob [43:51]: No, don’t sweat it.
Chris [43:52]: On Twitter.
Rob [43:53]: All right, what’s your handle?
Chris [43:54]: @wigglechicken.
Rob [43:56]: That’s nice.
Chris [43:58]: The business one is at @aloproductivity.
Rob [44:01]: Your book is available of Amazon and obviously it’s an audio book on Audible, which is how I’ve consumed it.
Chris [44:06]: Yeah, anywhere fine books are sold.
Rob [44:08]: Indeed. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show, Chris.
Chris [44:12]: Thanks for having me.
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