Podcast

Productivity expert Chris Bailey on how to maintain hyper-focus at work

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Posted
January 20, 2020
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22 minutes

Do you know how many things your brain can actively concentrate on at one time? Or how your ‘biological prime time’ can help you be your best self? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘No’, then look no further than Chris Bailey for guidance.

In this episode, Chris, a productivity expert, best-selling author and TED speaker, shares his insights into how we can achieve more with our time, beat those distraction demons once and for all – and live happier lives as a result.

Chris Bailey

Paul Sephton: Welcome Chris, I thought a good place to start would be where many people start, which is when they’re leaving school or college and launching into some kind of career. So I’d love to jump back and see if you can take us to where your obsession, I think we can call it that, with productivity really really ingrained itself.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. It’s odd because some people have normal interests. Some people are into sports, some people are into reading, maybe, I guess. I don’t even know what normal people are into anymore because I’m just so deeply entrenched and ensconced in this world of productivity advice. It’s really been this curiosity that’s followed me for, by God, over the last decade or so.

I remember when I was a young teenager reading my parents’ collection of psychology textbooks just kind of pouring through, they’re both psychologists, pouring through them and trying to glean any insights into the way that our mind works.

And it’s been in the background, that interest in productivity. I think like it’s worth first of all defining what productivity means because people might hear the word and think, “Oh, it’s so cold and it’s so corporate and all about this mindless efficiency and becoming a robot and maybe at Jabra you face the same thing when you talk about productivity, but it’s really just some tactics so that we can accomplish everything we have to do in a smaller amount of time. So we have more time for what’s actually meaningful for us every single day. We have more time for our family, we have more time for our passion projects, we have more time for our friends, we have more time to learn the piano and develop our hobbies and skills and accomplish what we want to do.

And I think when you frame things in those terms, you think, who wouldn’t want more of that? I want more time, I want to accomplish more of what I want to do. I want to relax more. I want to get my work done in a smaller amount of time, how can I do that? And so that’s really been the driving force behind exploring this world.

And not to go too off on the story, but the Productivity Project, the first book it started after I graduated from university with a business degree. I thought, “Okay, if there is any time that I should step back and actually explore what I’m deeply curious about it was then. So I got a few full-time job offers from internships that I was working at the time, but I thought, “Okay, I’m going to decline these, devote a year of my life to exploring this weird curiosity, try to get to the bottom, take a bullet for the team and separate the advice that works from the stuff that doesn’t and just see what happens.”

Paul Sephton: And I love that it’s such an unusual way of getting to where you are today, Chris. Especially that first bit which you just spoke about, where right off to graduating, you took an entire year off to just sink your teeth into productivity and test out all of the different research you had done around what could make you more productive and how you could achieve the most with your days.

And from that you coined a funny term productivity porn, which you use to describe all of the hype around productivity, which you then sifted through to find out what actually has cut through. So I’d love to know in hindsight, what did you uncover from that year?

Chris Bailey: Here’s the thing about productivity advice. I’m happy you mentioned the word productivity porn because there’s a lot of that kind of advice out there. Advice that’s sort of fun to read about, but you don’t necessarily earn the time back that you spend reading about productivity. You know, people’s daily rituals and routines are a good example of this. Like it’s great to read about what Richard Branson and Melinda Gates do every single day and how they start their mornings with a cup of tea instead of a cup of coffee and how they wake up at 4:00 AM, but really who cares, right?

We’re all different. We all do different work and most of us don’t have $60 billion in the bank or $100 billion in the bank to be able to live our lives. And so I think that’s the golden rule, the benchmark against which we should be measuring productivity advice is… Okay, it’s fine to read about this or listen to a podcast like this about productivity, but for every minute you spend listening to Paul and I or reading a book, do you get that time back? And then some, because you’re investing in stuff that actually works.

And there’s still a lot of hacks out there. But I think one of the biggest shifts that I’ve seen over the last decade, decade and a half, is that we’ve gone from modifying the way that we work, kind of the hacks, the tactics that we do over the span of the day to modifying the environments in which we work so that environments can be more conducive to our focus and our productivity.

Essentially, all the things around me are conducive to focus. And so I think that’s a big shift that a lot of us have seen is we’re going from the actual hacks, the actual tactics to how can we modify the container in which we work so that we can work a bit better.

Paul Sephton: Exactly. And I think that one of the things you pointed out, which I found so interesting was that these days we’ll often look to incredibly successful people like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, and look at all of their styles of productivity or what they do in their daily routines to try and figure out this secret sauce to success. And that when you spent this year figuring out what worked for you, you realized exactly that, that it comes down to personal preference and that not everyone is the same when it comes to how they can achieve the most to optimize themselves.

So how do you go about distinguishing now when it comes to advising people what they should pick up and how quickly they can figure out if something is actually going to make them more productive or perhaps is worth just saying, “Well, this isn’t for me.”

Chris Bailey: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the best productivity strategies out there are self-reinforcing. So what I mean by that is when you invest in a strategy such as meditation is a really good example of this. I think for every minute we spend meditating we make five or 10 minutes back because we’re able to focus deeper, because our mind is clearer, because we say no to distraction, which can lead us to burn a lot of time just because of a myriad of benefits from the practice.

But the thing is we begin a practice such as meditation, “Oh, this is going pretty well. I feel like I can accomplish a little bit more.” But no, keep a journal of what you are able to accomplish and really, really notice the before and after picture how many projects you crank out on a daily basis, how do you feel throughout the day?

Constantly reflect upon the difference that these strategies make. Planning out our day is a really good example of another productivity strategy where for every minute we spend doing that, I think we make five, 10, 15 minutes back because we actually choose what to work on in the first place and we don’t work on autopilot mode in response to the work that comes our way.

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And so, it varies depending on the work that you do and how much you have on your plate, but usually the time that you spend planning out your day, up to a point, is time well spent. And it’s totally subjective, right? It’s hard. And we don’t do simple work for a living. It’s not like we can say, “Oh, I wrote a thousand lines of code instead of 500 lines of code today and so I was twice as productive.”

We can’t measure our productivity that way anymore just by sheer output, right? We need to look beyond that to how much we actually accomplish.

Chris Bailey

Paul Sephton: I think you hit the nail on the head because we used to be able to measure things like productivity so easily in a more unit-based quantifiable spectrum. And nowadays accomplishments are so much harder to measure on a daily basis, let alone over a bigger period of time.

We saw this year we did a study where it came out that 73%, almost three quarters of CEOs and C-Suites thought that measuring productivity was really important. But they actually said that at the same time they weren’t really sure on how to measure their workforces anymore. So how do you advise the companies who you speak to on what the future of work will look like and how businesses can help their employees with offices or work perks or different ways to be their best selves or their most productive selves?

Chris Bailey: The future of work has to be centered around how much we accomplish and not how much we produce. We tend to be stuck in this mindset that the output is what matters, but we can output a lot and not necessarily accomplish a lot. And the exact opposite is true as well.

Like, say you’re a writer for a living and you toil on a speech and you finish the day having written only 272 words, right? Which is bad because Stephen King cranks out a couple thousand words a day, but maybe your name is Abraham Lincoln and those 272 words are the Gettysburg address, which is one of the most impactful speeches that set the course of the American history.

We need to look beyond how much we produce to how much we actually accomplish every single day. And this is true when we’re measuring our own productivity, but it’s also true when we’re leading a team to accomplish more. Instead of asking employees, “Kay, what are you working on right now? How can I…” that sort of thing, ask them, “What three things do you want to accomplish this week? What are your three big accomplishments that you want for this quarter coming up?” Because we want something impactful to measure you on and to help you out on. And I think framing things in that context is quite help.

Paul Sephton: So let’s run with this idea of threes, because I think that so often people will start their days with the great intention of being really productive, but then forget to take a step back and figure out what it is they need to be productive with or perhaps be so overwhelmed with ticking things off that they don’t actually manage to prioritize correctly the most important things in their day. So how do we take this idea of threes and why is it that we’re attracted to things which come in threes? And then where do we apply that to our days in order to make sure we accomplish what we actually want to accomplish?

Chris Bailey: So we can’t hold that many things in our mind at one time. We used to think we could hold five, six, seven, eight unique chunks of information in our mind at once. But now as more time goes on, we’re realizing that the number is more like three. We can hold three unique chunks of information in our mind at one time.

And if you want proof of this idea, you can look no further than to the world around us. We have sayings like, Good things come in threes. Good things happen all the time, but we group them together into chunks of three. The third time is the charm. Even when we speak, we say the good, the bad, the ugly. Blood, sweat and tears. A story which is hundreds of things that happen one after another, we divide into three parts, right? The beginning, the middle and the end.

The world around us is wired around this attentional limit. The fact that we can hold around three, maximum four, chunks of information in our mind at once. The idea is that because this is the way that we think, we can set priorities for ourselves and for our teams on a daily, on a weekly, on a quarterly, on a general basis.

You probably have more than three things to do over the span of a day, but the rule of three goes like this, at the start of the day, you fast forward to the end of the day in your head and you ask yourself, “By the time that this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” That’s it. That’s all you have to do. The idea is these three things are the most important. And you do the same at the beginning of every week as well.

And it works with teams as well. And so if you’re a manager listening to this podcast or you lead a team and indirectly perhaps, ask the folks on your team, what three things do you want to accomplish this week? What about this quarter? Set a goal with the folks on your team to come up with three things. And the fact that you can only pick three is the most beautiful, beautiful constraint in the world because you can’t pick the 10 or 12 things. You can only pick three. That’s all you can do. And because of that you really, really, really have to think about what’s important.

Paul Sephton: That’s a great toolkit for anyone to have really and be able to apply, whether it’s over a day, or a week, or a year. The only thing which I was thinking of when you were saying it was that these days we get so distracted so easily. And even if we have clear objectives, it doesn’t stop us from procrastinating or getting sidetracked or caught up in something else. How do you recommend that we stay focused? Because I know that it’s something you’ve also got a huge passion for.

Chris Bailey: That’s a challenge, isn’t it? We can plan our day to hell and back and yet not accomplish anything if we can’t then focus on what we want to accomplish, on what we intend to accomplish. I never find statistics that motivating, but what when I came across that one I thought, “This can’t be true.” And the statistic was that when we work in front of a computer, we focus on one thing for just 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else.

This study was conducted by researchers at Microsoft and when I encountered it, honestly I didn’t believe it. I thought, “There’s no way. How are they measuring that?” So I flew out over the span of writing Hyperfocus to meet with researchers at Microsoft three times to see how they worked and to interview them, to see how they ran this study and the others that they conduct.

They don’t just ask people, “Okay, how often do you switch between things?” They train a camera on somebody’s computer to observe how often they pick up their phone and switch between different project constructs on their computer. And it is every 40 seconds. And it lowers to 35 seconds when you have applications like Skype and Slack open as you work.

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And I started to notice this behavior in myself in ways that I didn’t before. And this is an uncomfortable truth about how Hyperfocus came to be is the first book came out, The Productivity Project. And I noticed curiously after that book came out and I was coming down off of the press cycle surrounding that launch and I was relaxing a little bit. I found that I was quite distracted. Even though I gave a few bits of advice in that book that we should tame the distractions that surround us.

So I thought, “Okay, what’s up here? I’m supposed to be this productivity expert when I’m falling victim to the same things.” So maybe there’s a part of the story that I’m missing. This level of distraction is not our fault. It’s simply the way that our mind is wired. We’re wired to pay attention to three things. It’s wired at such a basic neuro-biological level where we naturally gravitate. Our attention naturally gravitates to anything that is novel, to anything that is pleasurable and to anything that is threatening.

And so usually the things that call for our attention throughout the day or some combination of those three things. But the novelty, that’s the, especially the problem in terms of this trifecta. We even have, not to geek out too much, but I feel folks listening to this are akin to this, fellow productivity nerds like you and I, Paul. But we have a mechanism embedded within our brain’s prefrontal cortex called the novelty bias. And what happens with this novelty bias is for every new and novel thing we direct our attention at, our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine one of the main pleasure chemicals of our mind.

And so, we wake up and then we open Instagram and we get a hit of dopamine. 40 seconds after that perhaps, we open up Slack, we get another hit of dopamine. Then we bounce over 40 seconds after that to email and we get another hit. We bounce to Twitter, we get another. We go to Facebook, we get another hit. We play a quick game, we get another hit.

There are two solutions to taming distraction. There’s the internal solution which involves lowering how stimulated our mind is so that we don’t seek out those hits of dopamine through novel distraction in the first place. But then there’s the external factor modifying… as we were chatting about the environment surrounding us so that we can focus with more depth and clarity.

Paul Sephton: And I think what’s great is that in consumer technology we’re actually seeing now a change where there’s a much more responsible focus being made in terms of how much we’re using our devices and how much they might be distracting us because there are just so many platforms we can communicate on. It becomes a little bit trickier at work though because we need to collaborate with people.

 We also need time to work on our own and we’re often working in open offices with a whole host of communications platforms, unified communications, email, you name it. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that might change. Do you think that there’s a way that we can control these distractions which we face at work every day so that we can still collaborate and communicate effectively with our colleagues when we need to, but actually curve out the right amount of time where we can concentrate on this deep work?

Chris Bailey: Here’s the challenge and I think this cuts to the core of what the problem is and what the challenge is with an open office. Is that interruption is a necessary byproduct of doing work that’s collaborative. It’s a necessary cost of collaborative work because we need information from other people, other people need information from us and so because of that fact we’re going to need to be interrupted and we’re going to interrupt other people in order to get information from them.

 Team productivity often lowers when somebody is taken from an open office into a regular office, especially with teams that are very collaborative or hyper collaborative.

 Yeah. You know, hyper-collaboration is very much a thing in situations like the situation room at the White House, right? If everybody had noise canceling headphones on and nobody could talk to one another and nothing would get done. It’s the process of constant interruption and collaboration that something gets accomplished in a room such as that.

Paul Sephton: So in your second book, Hyperfocus, you talk about these two main concepts, Hyperfocus and then scatter focus. Can you unpack a little bit more about how you define scatter focus and how you define Hyperfocus?

Chris Bailey: So we have two main attentional modes that we see-saw between and this is kind of a surprise when somebody picks up the book Hyperfocus because it has that bright red cover and it’s very like, “Oh, this is an intense book.” But then the second, entire latter half of the book is devoted to the power of mind wandering and not focusing on anything in particular. And when you look at the way our attention works…

First of all, the science behind our attention is absolutely fascinating and it shows that we have these two modes that we see saw between. We spend about 53 on average, about 53% of our day in a focused state where we’re perceptually coupled to a task that’s in front of us. So, all our senses are and our thinking are in line with something that we’re doing.

And then the other 47% of the day is a mode that I call scatter focus where we’re not focused on anything in particular. So in other words, our mind is wandering. It’s the combination of these two modes that make up our attention. And so we can’t both focus and reflect on something at the same time.

And so we focus on something, but then we let our mind wander, we reflect on it, and then we go back to focusing on it. And we have a beautiful, beautiful rhythm where we oscillate between these two attentional modes throughout the day. But they both have their unique benefits that we need to be able to take advantage of.

So Hyperfocus where we bring task positive focus, where we’re just focused on something that’s in front of us. But this is our most productive mode of our mind. Focused is the best state for productivity, but being unfocused is the best state for creativity.

So if you think back to when your best, most brilliant ideas have struck you, you probably weren’t focused on anything. You probably weren’t hunkered down in front of your email client or on your phone or writing something in a word document, you were probably, I don’t know, taking a shower, for an example. This is the fascinating thing about the science of our attention is we have these two attentional modes, but we don’t deploy either of them deliberately.

But when we’re able to thoughtfully enter into Hyperfocus mode and scatter focus mode where we bring our full attention to one thing with Hyperfocus and we bring our full attention to nothing but the thoughts in our head we scatter focus. There are ways to enter into each mode thoughtfully and deliberately, but when we do and when we learn to develop that intuition and that strategizing at the beginning of each week to determine how much of each that will need, we level up just so much higher because we’re able to manage our attention so much better.

And this is, you know, you touched on the ingredients that contribute to our productivity. I think there are three main ones. There’s our time. We’ve always had to manage our time around the schedules of other people. But I would argue that when we do knowledge work for a living, there are other ingredients that are just as, if not more, important than how we manage our time.

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The first is our energy, right? The kind of fuel that we burn in order to be productive. But the third is our attention. This beautiful, beautiful ingredient that frankly, not many of us know how to manage it deliberately. I didn’t know how to do so before writing this second book. But the more deliberately we manage it, right, it doesn’t matter how well we’re able to manage our time if we can’t then focus on what we intend to accomplish. And so that’s the next step and being able to strike a deliberate and thoughtful balance between these two attentional states is critical.

Paul Sephton: So if we look at these three main ingredients, which are going into productivity, and we call that some kind of productivity equation, we’ve got time and we’ve got energy and we’ve got our attention management. Where are our potential blind spots which we can work on, do you think, in order to really fine-tune the mechanism and make sure that every day we’re not fooling ourselves and we’re actually maxing out our own potential.

Chris Bailey: I think it is like you said, it’s the fact that our energy is not consistent. We have a period of the day, I affectionately like to call this time of the day our biological prime time because it’s when we’re wired to do our best work to have our deepest periods of focus.

And so, the idea behind this is that our energy per hour is not consistent. We have certain periods of the day that we naturally have more energy than any other time of the day. If you consider yourself to be a morning bird, this period might be in the early morning for you. If you’re a night owl, it might be later on in the day, late afternoon. The evening is when you might do your best work.

Because our energy per hour is not consistent. Neither is our productivity per hour. When you consider the fact that energy is an important ingredient in how much we accomplish over the span of the day. And so, learning how much energy you have, bringing some awareness in addition to when you invest in these kinds of strategies for productivity, bringing some awareness to how your energy fluctuates, when you have the most energy so that you can work on the most important things of your day, the focused tasks, not the collaborative tasks. If you have some flexibility with when you do those things so that you can align those to the periods when you have the most energy.

Here’s the fascinating thing, right? When we have the most energy, we’re the most productive, but when we have the least amount of energy, we’re the most creative, right? So if you have some creative work to do, maybe wait to have your morning coffee, wait till 10:00 AM. And so when you get into the office at 8:00, 8:30, 9:00 you have a solid chunk of time where your mind is going to be a bit tired, which is good for your creativity so that it doesn’t hold back on the ideas that it generates.

Paul Sephton:  Strategic caffeine intake. So, that’s an interesting concept.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. This upsets a lot of people, this bit of advice. What does your caffeine schedule look like?

Paul Sephton: Well, right now I’m adjusting to a little bit of jet lag, but let’s see, the standard would be about three double espressos, usually two at breakfast, one after lunch, and then I kind of cap myself so that that caffeine half-life can do its thing and give me enough time to be able to get to bed at night.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. Yeah, it takes eight to 14, everybody’s different, right? It takes eight to 14 hours for most people to get to a state where they can feel tired after drinking caffeine.

Paul Sephton: So Chris, you speak about this 53% of our days and the attention spans which we have for that. But there’s also, based on the type of career we’re in or the type of week we’re having or project we’re working on, times when we can perhaps need to move through a sprint of a much higher attention span and other times when we might not actually need to be as wired in as in our most intense work days.

So would you say that there are some metrics or key ways in which we can almost doctor and manipulate our attention spans in order to move to that ebb and flow?

Chris Bailey: One of the most important measures when it comes to our focus and our productivity in general is our level of attentional control and the quality of our attention. And so, you might start off at that 42nd point in time where you switch between things every 40 seconds or so, you don’t have a lot of control of your attention.

In the book, I go through kind of three main measures that we can use to measure the quality of our attention. The first is how long we can focus on something for, the second is how long our mind wanders for before we can catch it, which is a measure of, the first one is a measure of something called vigilance. The second one is a measure of something called metacognition, so just reflecting up on what our mind is at.

And the third is how much of our time we spend intentionally. And so with thoughtfulness behind what we’re focusing on in the first place, which is a measure of deliberateness. What percentage of the day we work and act with intention, which I think is one of the most critical measures of our productivity in a knowledge economy.

But as we heighten that level of attentional control, that 53% statistic that you mentioned goes up. It goes from 53% to 63 to 73, we always have to let our mind wander, right? We’re never going to escape that reality. And we shouldn’t because of the profound benefits of letting our mind wander, right? We need moments like that. But the more control you have of your attention, and the key there is in a less stimulated mind, the less stimulated your mind is. The more control you have of your attention, the greater proportion of the day you’ll be able to focus and the more productive and creative and happy you’ll become.

Chris Bailey: If there’s one thing that I’ve found to be true over the span of researching this second book with regard to our focus is it’s that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. If we don’t have much control of our attention, we’ll feel like we don’t have much control over the lives that we lead. But the other thing is true, the opposite is true. If we’re able to focus thoughtfully and deliberately on what’s actually important every single day, man, that will make all the difference in the world. We don’t need to hustle, we just need to focus. If we can focus, everything will take care of itself.

Paul Sephton: Well, Chris, I think that about brings us to the end of the conversation. From my side, absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us on The Soundbar today.

Chris Bailey: Thank you so much for having me. That was fun.

Read Chris’s blog A Life Of Productivity, or find his books here

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