The Big Idea
Meaning isn’t something that we create. It’s something we notice.
Questions I Answer
- How is mindfulness connected to productivity?
- How can I figure out what to prioritize?
- How can I be more focused?
- How do I decide where to focus?
Actions to Take
- Watch the newest episode of TanyaTV: 5 Ways to Avoid Distractions
Key Topics in the Show
Why mindfulness is so important for leading productive lives
How we create meaning for our lives through what we focus on
Recognizing the impact the information that we consume has on our happiness
Controlling our attention and eliminating distractions
Being intentional in taking timeouts to deliberately let our attention scatter
Resources and Links
- Connect with Chris
Welcome to season eight of Productivity Paradox with Tanya Dalton. A podcast focused on using productivity not just to do more, but to achieve what’s most important to you. Join Tanya this season as she focuses on planning for success using proven productivity strategies. To get her free checklist, Five Minutes To Peak Productivity, simply go to inkWELLpress.com/podcast.
To get her free checklist, Five Minutes To Peak Productivity, simply go to inkWELLpress.com/podcast.
And now here’s your host Tanya Dalton.
Hello hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, and this is episode 96. This season we’ve been talking about planning for success and that includes making sure we’re spending our time focusing on what’s most important. My guest today, Chris Bailey, is a productivity expert who has don’t just that. He speaks to organizations around the globe on how to become more productive without hating the process. Chris spent one year where he read everything he could about productivity, participated in experiments, and then wrote about it on his blog, which then became the focus of his first book, The Productivity Project. His newest book Hyper Focus, how to get more focused in a world of distraction, is out now. So let’s go ahead and get started talking with Chris.
Tanya: Well, Chris, I’m so happy to have you on the show today. Chris: Hey. It’s good to be here. How are you?
Tanya: I’m doing good. Doing good. I’m really excited to introduce my listeners to you because I really enjoyed your book and love the way that you talk about productivity. Mindfulness is one of my very favorite words. It’s one that use all the time on the show. Your perspective about mindfulness, and using it to think about the way that we focus, definitely shape the content of your newest book Hyper Focus. Why is it that you think mindfulness is so important?
Chris: Well this is a book about managing our attention and it’s impossible to manage our attention without also practicing mindfulness. This is something that I uncovered along the way. If you poured through the book, you probably realize there’s a big notes section at the end with all the research studies that I uncovered. That was really the place that I started. I think if you start with the science and work backwards to how we should be living our lives, and working frankly, it’s really productivity, I think it’s weird we put productivity in the names of our books. You have productivity in the name of your show and what people think of when they hear the word so often is this idea that’s so cold and
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things actually mean. It’s really just accomplishing what we set out to do.
Folks like you, like me, we’re on a mission to kind of change the thinking around the idea because we should produce what we intend to produce. Whether our intention is to relax on a beach for a day, or for a week. Let’s make it a nice little interlude fantasy in the podcast. You know you have some piña coladas. You have a couple of good productivity books. You’re with your family, your friends. If that’s your intention and you accomplish that thing, I would argue that you’re perfectly productive and the exact same is true if you intend to have this super accomplished day at work. You hire somebody new onto your team, you bring a new client on as well and then you intend to do that, then you knew I would argue you’re perfectly productive then too. But it does start with that intention and if we’re going to act towards our intentions we need that mindfulness because we need to be able to nudge our mind in order to focus on what’s actually important throughout the day.
I think that’s really where it starts. I’m happy you got that from the book cause looking at the cover, it’s a very intense shade of red that’s on the cover, but it’s really just a book about mindfulness that lets you become more productive but also live a better life I hope.
Tanya: Yeah I definitely agree with that and I like what you said there about being perfectly productive because we get so caught up in this idea of checking things off our list. Of doing so many things, cramming as much as we can to our day and that is what it means to be productive. I often tell people productivity is not about getting things done, it’s about doing what’s most important, and sometimes what’s most important is sitting on a beach.
Tanya: It is reading a book, it is sipping the piña coladas, which sounds really nice I’ll be honest.
Chris: It does yeah.
Tanya: So I like the way that you focus on that. The way that you talk about attention, the where and the how we focus our attention. That really aligns with how I talk about productivity. I feel like you shared a really good stat in the book where you say, on average we focus on one thing for just 40 seconds before switching to something else.
Tanya: We’re so ridiculously easily distracted. My question is, how does what we focus on help us create some meaning in our lives.
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Chris: Well this was a surprising thing that I uncovered over the course of writing the book is that our attention matters more than just becoming more productive. It matters more than just that one idea. If there’s one sort of lesson that shined through the book over the course of writing it, piecing together all these ideas. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched one of those crime shows where somebody’s like solving a murder and so they have a big map with string attached to newspaper articles,
attached to clippings and photos. That was like the state of my office but regard to this intentional research. If there’s one thing that was apparent from that research, it’s really that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. If we’re distracted in each moment and so each moment we switch between things every 40 seconds because our mind has this fascinating novelty bias where it rewards us with anything that’s with a hit of dopamine when we focus on anything new and novel in the moment, which leads us to be so distracted, and feel overwhelmed.
We fill our lives with distraction and these moments accumulate. They don’t just exist in a vacuum and isolation, they build up day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year to create a job that feels like it’s beyond the grasp of our control. To create a life that feels like it’s beyond our control. To create a job and a life that feels overwhelming. But the opposite is true if you bring your deliberate attention to what’s actually meaningful and productive in the moment. You’re sitting by a campfire with your family and instead of looking at your phone, maybe you left it at home for that trip, God forbid.
Chris: And you’re actually focusing on what’s in front of you. The people in your life. One of the things I just mentioned off handedly in the book. It’s kind of outside of the boundaries of the book, but something I really, really believe is that love is really no different than sharing quality attention with somebody, so we need to be physically present, but also mentally present. We could tell when somebody’s there or not. The same is true at work. You know the meaningful conversations, the meaningful projects that we’re working on. The reports we’re writing. The budgets that we’re updating in excel. When we’re constantly switching between things, we’re going to feel like we’re out of control because of that idea that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. These moments, these little moments of mindfulness. Of deliberately managing our attention accumulate over time to create a job that feels like we’re more in control of it.
One study I encountered recently that I think really surprised me. You know even after looking at all this research is the team of researchers looked at two groups of people. The first group of people, it was conducted around the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The first group of people watched six or more hours of news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings and the second group of people were in the
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actual marathon. They found that the people who watched six or more hours of news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings were more likely to develop PTSD than somebody who was in the marathon and personally affected by it. The news we consume effects our
attention. The information we consume effects our attention and ultimately, it’s like you said, it goes back to this mindfulness, which is, in my eyes just a process which we deliberately notice what’s on our mind. We notice where our attention is at so that we can direct it towards something a lot more important.
Tanya: Yeah I completely agree. It becomes this lens through which that we view the world. When we’re paying attention to all this negativity, we will begin to feel like the world is maybe a negative place, and our job is negative, and our relationships are negative, and it kind of snow balls. I completely agree with you. I have not read that study and I am a sucker for studies and research. My podcast listeners know I’m always throwing out studies and stuff, so I love that you had such a beefy notes section in your book because I do, I love the science to back it up. I love the thinking about how our brains work, and I find that fascinating that we can be so effected by something that we’re not directly a part of, just because we’re giving it that attention.
Chris: Yeah and it reminds me of another study, and I’m going to get these numbers a bit wrong forewarned.
Tanya: We’ll give you a little grace, don’t worry.
Chris: Give me like a 5 or 10% grace in either direction.
Tanya: Okay we can do that.
Chris: I think it was Sean Achor that conducted this study with his wife Michelle or maybe it was Michelle. I’m blanking on her last name but it conducted by happiness researches where they exposed people to I believe three minutes of negative news in the morning. When they measured their levels of happiness, how happy the felt at the end of the day, those who were exposed to the negative news I believe felt about 25% less happy than those who weren’t exposed to any news
whatsoever. It’s fascinating. The single biggest predictor of fear and anxiety in our lives is how much time we spend watching TV talk shows. Like you said
Tanya: I can see that.
Chris: Oh yeah, the news, we think … if you find yourself thinking more negatively, look at the information that you consume. Because like you said, we see the world through the lens of all the information that we’ve accumulated and connected in the past. If you look out onto the ocean and you’re a painter. You might see the color of where the ocean meets the sky. If you’re a marine biologist, you might think of all the creatures
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that lurk beneath the surface. If you’re a climate change expert, you might notice how the level is higher than last year. We see the world through not only what we know, but also what we consume. I think that’s a lesson most of us need to take to heart. It’s definitely one that I took to heart over the course of reading the book. I now get the
physical newspaper. I consume no digital news whatsoever. I minimize the amount I spend on my phone to one hour every day, because it just effects my happiness that much. I think we need to be more defensive of our time and attention than we already are.
Tanya: Yes. Absolutely. To me, I mean really at the heart of productivity really is this idea of happiness. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for in our days. We’re not really looking for more time, we’re looking for happiness. We’re looking for some satisfaction in how we’re spending our time.
Tanya: This sense of mindfulness is not just about what is a part of your life, but also what isn’t. Wouldn’t you agree with that?
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think a big part of it. What do you mean by what isn’t a part of it?
Tanya: Yeah not consuming so much information. I know in the book you write the point is let yourself step back from the information you do consume, so you can determine with more intentionality what to take it. That really resonated with me. So it’s really this idea of do you what to take it in? We have so many pieces of information available that we need to be more intentional about this and maybe choose what we don’t want to take in.
Chris: Yeah. I think a good place to start with that is how do different things make you feel? My fiancé and I were hanging out the other day and she was poking around on her phone, and she looked really sad for some reason. I asked her what are you doing? You look miserable. No offense but you look a bit miserable. And she said, oh I’m on Facebook. I thought, oh. Then she reflected a bit on how it was making her feel and she thought oh, lucky I. This really isn’t making me happy in the
slightest. I think, if you just look at the images of apps on your phone, the app icons, just seeing a picture might get you excited. It might make you feel warm if you’re maybe looking at the Instagram icon, but then you go over to look at the Twitter icon and you notice your shoulders tensing up a little bit. You notice yourself feeling a bit more negative. I think noticing how these things make you feel is such a huge part of things. Do you feel good when you’re consuming the news?
I live in Canada, so it’s easy for me to disconnect from the state of affairs in many different parts of the world
Tanya: Lucky you.
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Chris: Any political dimension.
Tanya: Thank you.
Chris: But so I’m kind of fortunate in this regard, so sometimes you do have to strike that balance between you want to be active, and you want to be involved and engaged, but also don’t want to be freaking miserable for every hour of the day. So there is that balance. I think that so much of it is slowing down. Here’s the thing, becoming less stimulated by our environments. If you’re switching between things every 40 seconds, because of that novelty bias that I spoke about briefly, how our brain releases a hit of dopamine for each new and novel thing we focus on. So we go to Instagram, we get a hit of Dopamine. We check the news, we get a hit of Dopamine. We check our email, we get a hit and we keep doing this every 40 seconds and what this does is this makes our minds so stimulated that when we try to read a book, we find we might have the time to read a book.
You know if you ask people do you have time to go on YouTube for 20 minutes. They’ll say, yeah of course, I do that every day. But you ask them do you have time to read a book for 20 minutes and they’ll say, oh no I don’t. I definitely don’t. Do you have time to med … no I don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes. But it’s really just because we have the time for these things, but we just don’t have the attention for them, because we’re so stimulate by our environment by default. I think this is one of, this kind of cuts to the heart of our attention in a way, where the purpose of managing our attention better is to regain control over the state of our attention because that’s so powerful. At the same time.
This lower level of stimulation, the lower your mind is stimulate by default, up to a point of course, you know you don’t want to be
comatose in the slightest but you’ll find that you become more
thoughtful. You’ll become more patient. You might pick up a poem instead of rushing through it and reading the next article in the New Yorker. You might really dive and think about what somebody’s saying and the meaning behind their words, instead of rushing through each moment to get to the next because you’ve trained your brain to think of something else every 40 seconds. If you look at somebody who
manages their attention in that way where they’re constantly switching between things, they might use words to describe the state of their attention like frazzled or I feel so overwhelmed and distracted, or like things are out of my control. Not everything will be in our control 100% of the time, we live in reality, but I think we have more control over our attention that we might think, and there’s more power in regaining control of our attention than we might think.
Tanya: Absolutely, it really is actively choosing where we put our focus and our attention and our energy, I think, because when actively choose … and like you said, when we pay attention to how are you feeling when you’re scrolling through your Instagram or your Facebook feed. How are you
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feeling when you’re watching the news and really start paying attention to that, we can start to see these patterns emerging. I think a lot of this play into this idea of autopilot, which you talk about in the book. People
spend a lot of their days in autopilot and being on autopilot means it’s really hard to focus on what’s important. So we need that awareness of how we really want to manage our attention.
Tanya: I really like how you talk about intentional time outs because I think it is so easy to get caught up in things and we forget to take that time out. Not just for what matters, but for ourselves as well.
Tanya: So what are some ways that you found people can be more intentional with taking time out, or taking time for themselves, or really focusing their attention?
Chris: Yeah that autopilot mode is such a critical thing to think about I think. If you look at any one moment of the day, in any moment either we have control of our attention, or our environment has control of our attention. If you kind of break down your day into these two different categories, the more intentional control we have, the research shows we become more productive of course. We become more creative which are kind of natural findings, but we also are more satisfied with our lives over all. We have greater levels of happiness. Which, you know I’m with you in thinking that this is the reason to strive to become more productive.
Chris: If that’s your purpose, then kind of regaining this control is critical. I think mindfulness is one way to get there for sure, but I think that taking breaks is another way. We don’t take breaks the right way. I would make the argument.
Tanya: I would agree with that.
Chris: Yeah I found this myself over the course of writing the book. Because I would take a break and then, because I was hyper-focused on writing something
Tanya: It’s good to be hyper-focused when you’re writing a book called Hyper Focus. So that’s good.
Chris: Yeah if you’re not, you’ll really feel like you’re an imposter. Get a case of that, but I really think we don’t take breaks the right way. I noticed this in writing the book because I would take a break. I’d think, okay my one hour timer to focus on just this one thing is running up. I’m gonna go check Twitter. I’m gonna hop around on my phone a bit. I might play a
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game of hearts on my iPad cause I’m an old man, so I would do it this way
Tanya: Well playing it on the iPad helps with the old man…
Chris: Yeah it’s like you have one step in the future. One step in the past. It’s funny because cards, just speaking off the cuff, I haven’t really thought about this idea so it might not make sense but no matter how
stimulated we are by default, somehow we can always engage with a game of cards with older relatives or our family. Like hearts is big in my family. I think it’s because it consumes our full attention, so even though we’re not … you know we have things to focus on every 40 seconds so we can kind of keep up that rhythm but at the same time, it’s a way of transitioning into kind of a lower stimulation.
Tanya: Yeah it’s kind of the best of both worlds. The attention and the connection together right?
Chris: Yeah it really it is. You’re engaged with people. Like alongside people. But the brick idea, you know one analogy that I love is related to traffic flow. So how cars move down a highway. If you look at what allows traffic to move forward, what allows them to move forward isn’t how fast that individual cars are moving, like you might think, but rather it’s how much space between the cars that allows them to move forward. I would argue that our work is the exact same way. That our life is the exact same way. There’s this amazing quote from J. R. R. Tolkien where it said that not all those who wander are lost. I would argue that this is the case with our attention too. When we do something fun, that lets our mind wander, that’s the key. We need to let our mind wander more often than we do. Sometimes the only time throughout the day that our mind wanders is when we’re trying to do work and when we’re taking a shower. But when we get towards these days, these like moments throughout the day, we get these marvelous benefits. Of this mind wandering mode. We don’t get that when we take a break and check Instagram and Twitter.
You know one of my favorite things to do when I take a work break is knitting so if I’m at the airport, you’ll probably find me knitting. If I’m kind of stepping back from my work throughout the day
Tanya: This is not helping with your old man comment from earlier. I’m just gonna point that out.
Chris: Yeah you know knitting is one. I like taking baths if I’m traveling a lot. Again, kind of supporting the old man card.
Tanya: You know it’s funny cause all the things you’re mentioning I also enjoy so
Chris: You’re a big knitter?
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Tanya: I kind of do a little bit of knitting, I play a lot of cards though, I enjoy a nice long bath. I’m kind of an old lady myself so don’t worry.
Chris: We’re living these parallel lives, you know?
Tanya: That’s right.
Chris: North and south of the border. We’re both old ladies at heart. But whatever it is that let’s our mind wander. Just a little bit you know. Sometimes our attention is rhythmic when we’re knitting for an example so we go from focusing on a pattern, maybe getting frustrated by it when we drop a stitch somewhere but we kind of let our mind wander at the same time. But it might just simply be walking to the coffee shop without your phone or waking up without your phone so waking up with your smart speaker if you have one in the room. Waking up with a traditional alarm clock. Probably the best $10 to $20 you’ll ever spend in your life is
Chris: Buying a traditional alarm clock. Leaving your phone in another room and connecting to it later so you can ease into the day instead of getting overwhelmed by it and starting the day off on that note. You know the benefits of letting our mind wander, go beyond just resting though. If you think back to when your best, most brilliant ideas come to you, you’re probably not focused on anything. You might be taking a shower, you might be gardening, you might be knitting, you might be taking a bath, and then your mind has a chance to connect a few of the constellations of ideas that are swirling around in your mind.
This is also when we think about the future. So we actually think about our goals 14 times as much when our mind is wandering versus when we’re focused on something. Which is incredible. So when we’re
focused, we rarely think about our future. We rarely think about the goals that we have, and like you said, this leads us into working on this autopilot mode because we never step back. When we step back we think about what we need to focus on and when we focus, we actually move our work and our life forward in the ways that we want. It’s three fold. It’s planning for the future cause we think about our goals, and the future. We unearth ideas and we also get to rest. It’s beautiful this mode and we don’t enter it deliberately. It becomes significantly easier to enter into it when our mind is less stimulate by default but it’s so, so worthwhile.
Tanya: I think that’s so true. We under value the allowing our minds to wander and giving ourselves that space. One of the things I love about your book, you call that scatter focus and the second half of the book is about this idea of yes, you need to be hyper-focused but you know, not all the time. You need to allow for this scatter focus because that’s what enables your creativity. It allows you to think more about your goals. I
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think because people feel like it’s a “waste of time” or their not actively doing something, they feel like, oh that’s a luxury that I can’t afford. Right?
Chris: They do, but this is kind of the idea that I come to it with. The best productivity tactics for every minute you invest into them, you have to make that time back and then some. Or else they’re kind of a waste of time. I would think that this strategy falls squarely into that camp. For every minute that you deliberately scatter your attention and let your mind wander, you’ll make that time back tenfold. Because you’ll actually think about what you want to work on in the first place and the
conversations you want to have. It can be as simple as walking to a meeting room in your office. So, you stand up from your desk to walk over to the meeting room that’s kind of a floor up or something. There are two ways to go about doing that. There’s just looking at your phone and kind of keeping your mind stimulated or there’s letting your mind rest and wander.
When you do so, you’ll find that without any nudging whatsoever, your mind will immediately begin thinking about the meeting. You’ll begin thinking about who’s there. You’ll begin thinking about what you want to say, what you want to get out of the meeting. How you might save everybody a bit of time including yourself to make things a bit more efficient. You might think about what you were just working on and when your mind wanders, you might connect a few of the ideas in your mind much as you do in the shower so you have a brilliant idea that strikes you that you want to capture. You get to actually rest and so you don’t enter in to the meeting out of breath and think, “Okay. On to this thing now when I was just on that last thing.”
Your mind has a chance to rest because you don’t have to regulate your attention on anything in particular. You let your mind wander. For that one minute that it takes you to get from the one floor to the other, you’ll make at least 10 minutes back if you’ll be more efficient in the meeting. You’ll think about what you want to say. You’ll deepen your relationships which will help you out in the future. You’ll get to rest and so you’ll have more energy to bring to it. You’ll think about actually the future and what you want to get out of not only that meeting, but the value that it can create. That’s just one meeting. We need these gaps between the cars on our mental highway throughout the day.
Not just between meetings, but if you’re having coffee with somebody or you’re having lunch with somebody and they get up to go to the bathroom as often happens. Don’t pick up your phone. Set an intention and a challenge to yourself to just let your mind wander. You’ll wander naturally to the things you want to talk about. You’ll think about what you want to get out of that lunch date. You’ll think about how
meaningful that person is to you in your life. I really, really believe this. Meaning isn’t something that we create. It’s something we notice. It’s all around us. It’s in our relationships. It’s in our work. We just need to see
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- We need to make the space to see it. I think this wandering mode is the way to do that.
Tanya: You’re speaking my language. This is exactly the type of things I love to talk about. This idea of white space and giving ourselves breathing room. So, I really feel like my listeners will love the book because it really is so well done. I love the research and the effort and the intentionality behind it. Obviously intentionality, mindfulness, those are big keywords for me. It really does shine through in your book. Where can people find more of your work? So, obviously your book is out but where else can they find you?
Chris: Yeah the book is in any bookstore. I’m online at alifeofproductivity.com where I write a somewhat regular column. I’m taking a bit of a break right now to recharge after the book launch, but we’ll be back there soon. There’s a huge backlog of articles there as well. Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate it. The book is called Hyper Focus. How To Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. If you’re into mindfulness, don’t let the red cover throw you off.
Tanya: I loved having Chris on the show. I felt like he gave so many great ideas and thoughts on how to really focus. If you’re interested in his book, you can pick up Hyper Focus at any bookseller. Now on Tanya TV this week, I’m going to go a little step further where we’re talking about
distractions and I’m going to be sharing five ways to avoid distractions. I’ll have a free download. It’s one of my very favorite tools to battle distraction. So, go to inkWELLpress.com/youtube to watch. Now, if you’re on my email list you already got a copy of that download. We sent it automatically to your inbox.
If you’re not signed up for my email list, it’s really easy to do and I don’t send spam. So, just go to inkWELLpress.com/podcastemail. Next week, we’ll continue talking about planning for success and we will be talking about don’t delay happiness. The someday syndrome. So, I’m really excited to talk to you about that. All right. Until next time, have a beautiful and productive week.
Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox. To get free access to Tanya’s valuable checklist, Five Minutes To Peak Productivity, simply go to inkWELLpress.com/podcast.