Your email inbox and Facebook feed are probably jammed with stories about becoming more productive. But how many of them actually work? Who is vetting this stuff?
Chris Bailey, that’s who. You can call him the productivity pilgrim, journeying through the wilderness of studies, books and articles to discover the truth.
When Chris graduated from business school, he had job offers, but heard a calling instead. That calling was to take a year to research and discover what it truly means to be a productive person. Perhaps it was fate, because how many other people do you know who have been productivity nerds since high school?
From his home base in Ottawa, Canada, Chris documented his fact-finding, research and discoveries on his blog. It became so popular that he received an offer to publish a book.
He found through trial and error what didn’t work and happened on a discovery that seemed to contradict conventional wisdom. In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Chris takes us on the journey and shares his treasure.
FELDMAN: What was the Productivity Project?
BAILEY: It was a yearlong series of experiments that I conducted to try to become as productive as I possibly could.
I interviewed the greats, some of my favorite productivity heroes out there. I dug deep into the prevailing research that exists on the topic, all the studies and journal articles and other books that I could get my hands on.
I also got my hands dirty with conducting a few productivity experiments on myself. I used myself as a guinea pig to explore what it to do as much as we possibly can every day.
I did things like meditating for 35 hours over the course of a week to experiment with focus. Our smartphones are attached at our hip throughout the day, so I used my smartphone for just an hour a day for three months. I worked 90-hour weeks, woke up at 5:30 every morning, watched 300 TED talks in a week.
All of these were designed to put the research into practice, in the grand purpose of separating the productivity advice that works from the stuff that doesn’t.
Because that’s the thing about reading productivity advice. Whether you’re reading an article in a magazine or a book about the topic, you have to make up all that time and then some, or else you’re basically just looking at productivity porn. And there’s a lot of productivity porn out there that’s fun to read, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to how much you accomplish every day.
FELDMAN: I love that term, “productivity porn.”
BAILEY: And there’s a lot, like, “Oh, here’s how Elon Musk spends a day of his life,” or “Here’s what Abraham Lincoln did every day. He woke up and he fried a single egg and then he …”
But that doesn’t impact your life in any measurable way. It’s just fun to read about. There’s a lot of fluff out there.
My book is about 300 pages long, but there’s a 600-page book that I didn’t write that has all the stuff that doesn’t work.
FELDMAN: So after all this research you’ve conducted, what do you think everyone should know about productivity?
BAILEY: People often look to how busy they are as a proxy for how productive they are. Because when we do work with our brains rather than with our bodies, measuring productivity is more an art than a science.
But busyness is really no different from laziness when it doesn’t lead us to accomplish anything. We could be busy answering email all day long and not accomplish anything of importance.
And I think that’s the key. Productivity is not about how much we produce, it’s about how much we accomplish. That involves turning off the autopilot mode. We so often fall into that mode when we open up our email and then suddenly the email inbox becomes our to-do list, instead of taking a step back and thinking about what’s actually important on a daily basis.
This is something that I find with the highest performers I interviewed. They work deliberately and with intention on a daily basis. They don’t work on everything on their to-do list, but instead, they work on the right things. They don’t necessarily become busier for the sake of becoming busier.
They, instead, become less busy and eliminate what’s not important in their work so that they can focus on what actually produces the most value.
If we are on autopilot, we’re going to be working on whatever feels the most important. We’re going to become a firefighter just putting out any flames that happen to erupt instead of taking a step back and asking, “OK, what’s actually important here? What is my intention? What do I need to accomplish?”
FELDMAN: How do people get started analyzing their lives and becoming more productive?
BAILEY: Take a step back and make a list of all the activities you do in your work over the course of a typical week or month, whatever the right time horizon is for you. It’s kind of a pain to do, to be honest, but I can’t think of many activities that will provide a greater return than this.
Once you get all that out of your head — which is liberating in and of itself — ask yourself, “If I could only do one thing on here, all day, day in, day out, every day, which one contributes the most value?”
Do the same for a second task that allows you to contribute the second- greatest amount of value. And then the third task.
You’ll probably find that after two or three tasks, your productivity per task will drop off a cliff. Usually your work, at its core, involves doing maybe three things day in and day out. Everything else on that list that supports your work can be delegated or eliminated, or you can shrink how much time you spend on it.
My favorite way of bringing this level of intentionality on a daily basis is the rule of three. At the start of the day, fast- forward to the end of the day and ask yourself, “By the time this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?”
Three sounds like a small number, but it’s wired with the way we think. We can look at the stories that we grew up immersed in — the three bears, the three blind mice, the three little pigs, the three musketeers. We award three Olympic medals — gold, silver and bronze. We even divide stories into three parts — the beginning, the middle and the end.
Because it maps with the way we think, it actually allows us to remember what’s important over the course of the day. We take the time to separate what we should do from what we shouldn’t, and it only takes a minute to set those intentions.
FELDMAN: What have you found is the biggest killer of productivity?
BAILEY: Besides not working more deliberately, another killer is the inability to focus. We fall victim to the distractions that surround us.
We spend 47 percent of our time on the internet procrastinating. It’s just a mind-boggling statistic. That means we focus deeper when we’re connected to the internet and when we’re on our phones. Things quite literally take twice as long when we’re working inside those contexts.
If you think about your most productive day, you probably weren’t doing 1,000 things at once. You might not even have been connected to the internet. Maybe you were at a coffee shop or a location that’s different from your office, and focusing on one thing at one time. This is a mode that we’re getting into less and less frequently.
This is the mode where we slow down enough so that we can work more intentionally in the moment and not veer off course.
It doesn’t matter how well you can schedule your time if you don’t also focus on what you’ve scheduled.
This is another attribute that I’ve found in the most productive people. They not only manage their time well, but they also focus deeply on their work. And the best way to get there is to eliminate as many distractions as you possibly can ahead of time.
FELDMAN: On the internet it is easy to go down rabbit holes and have distractions, alerts and pop-up windows. I try to shut everything down when I’m trying to focus. In doing this interview, my phone is on airplane mode, my computer monitor is off and my phone is set to Do Not Disturb.
BAILEY: The reason you have to do that when it comes to our most important work is that the internet is usually more attractive. If we get a message on Facebook or somebody tweets at us, that’s going to feel more important and a lot more interesting than what we ought to be doing in the moment.
We gravitate to news websites when we know they are just a couple of button taps away from the Excel sheet we’re inside of. So the best way that we can possibly deal with these distractions and these interruptions is realizing that we have to cut ourselves off, because in the moment, they’re more attractive than our work.
It’s one thing to set these grand intentions and know what our goals are, but it’s on a moment-by-moment basis that we actually act toward these goals and these intentions that we set.
FELDMAN: Is multitasking actually counterproductive?
BAILEY: We can multitask, but only with tasks that are habitual. We can walk, breathe and chew bubblegum while we step over the cracks in the sidewalk all at the same time. But when it comes to actively focusing on more than one thing at one time, we cannot multitask on a neurological level.
People multitask with the wrong things. Instead of multitasking with walking and chewing bubble gum, they multitask with answering email while they listen to a podcast while they’re on a conference call. The most important work, the intentions that we set at the start of the day, require active focus.
We can’t do this habitually, because anything we can do habitually, we can delegate to somebody else. It’s not where we contribute our unique value.
FELDMAN: How do you build your attention muscle?
BAILEY: Research shows that in any given moment, we dedicate only 53 percent of our attention to what’s in front of us. We leave half of our attention on the table. Our mind is wandering, thinking about what we did earlier in the day or what we’re going to do after we complete the current task or when we get home.
Research also shows that the more often we rein our focus back to what’s in front of us, the more we build our capacity to focus.
That’s all our work ever is. Our work is never in the future. It’s never in the past. We might have to connect the dots between the future, the past and the present, but our work is in front of us. That’s where we’re the most productive on a moment-by-moment basis.
By upping the quality of our attention, we can increase that percentage from 53 to 63 to 73 to 83. With each increase, we become so much more productive.
FELDMAN: Can you describe that as mindfulness?
BAILEY: People have one of several reactions when they hear the word mindfulness. Some people are kind of open to the idea. Other people are excited by it. And other people shut down.
But mindfulness is only being aware of what we’re thinking, feeling and perceiving in any given moment. That’s all it is.
If we want to increase how much attention we give to the world in front of us, a conversation we’re having or a report we’re writing, there’s no better practice than mindfulness or even meditation.
Meditation is the process of returning our attention back to a single object after we notice that our attention has wandered. With every return of our attention back to our breath or to whatever our object of attention is, we perform one repetition of our attention muscle. We build up our capacity and how much control we have over our attention.
Mindfulness and meditation are integral to doing good work. On a certain level — and it might sound kind of hippy-dippy — the most productive work that we do is kind of meditative.
It requires focusing on one thing and becoming completely immersed inside the work we’re doing. It doesn’t involve a stressed-out attitude, but a calm, cool, connected attitude with that one thing we’re doing.
The most important experiment I conducted in the course of my project was meditating for 35 hours during a week. I did as much productive work as I possibly could in the remaining 20, 25 or so hours that I had left.
When I looked over the logs of this experiment, I was stunned by exactly how much I accomplished over the course of that week. I was as productive in that week as I was when I worked 50 straight hours and felt infinitely busier. This speaks to how meditation provides us with more mental clarity.
Meditation might seem like a weird productivity tactic because it requires time. But if you meditate for 10, 15, 20 minutes every day, I would make the argument that you’ll earn that time back and then some with this increased level of focus.
FELDMAN: How did you bring meditation in as one of your experiments?
BAILEY: At the start of my project, I’d been meditating for six or seven years. I’d been into productivity for about a decade.
So the two interests had been snowballing in tandem up to then. But at the start of the project, I stopped meditating entirely because I thought these two ideas directly conflicted.
Meditation is about doing as little as possible for an extended period of time, just focusing on your breath. So it doesn’t look like you’re accomplishing much. Whereas productivity, I thought at the time, was about doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster.
That might be why so few people connect the two ideas. But when you look at the research, the two are incredibly connected.
After I stopped meditating, I noticed that a few curious things began to happen. I worked more often on autopilot mode and I set fewer intentions over the course of the day.
I became stressed out because I declined a few jobs to experiment with this productivity project for a year. I didn’t have health insurance. I didn’t have money coming in. I was spending all my savings doing this thing. So the stress came flooding in.
My mental health took a decline — in an admittedly small way, but it still declined. I couldn’t focus. I was distracted more often. And that led me to conduct this experiment to meditate for 35 hours over the course of a week.
I’d been doing meditation retreats leading up to the productivity project, so I was no stranger to doing longer stretches of meditation. But despite these two interests snowballing in tandem with one another, I’d never really connected the two ideas.
I started poring over the research to consider the idea that, even though meditation is about slowing down and about doing almost nothing for a small period of time, it can really hold these profound benefits.
Now when I have a huge talk coming up — TED or Google or someplace else — or I have a huge project that I’m working on, I’ll meditate more, because I know I need that extra resiliency to focus on those big projects.
FELDMAN: Just as the mind is so powerful, so is the body when it comes to productivity. In your book, you talked about diet and sleep. These are two other things that most people probably don’t even think about when they think about productivity.
BAILEY: All of the lessons that worked in my productivity project fell into one of three categories.
The first was managing my time. The second was managing my attention. And the third was managing how much energy I had over the course of the day. That relates to how we take care of ourselves.
When you zoom out, it’s remarkable how many things influence our productivity over the course of a day. It’s some of the simplest advice: exercise, eat better and drink more water. I always feel like such a mother giving this advice — you know, eat your vegetables and eat less processed garbage.
But, take sleep as an example. I’ve come to view sleep as a process through which we exchange our time for energy, and the exchange rate is pretty good.
Food is another good example. Food provides us with the fuel that we burn over the course of the day in order to get stuff done. So it provides our body and brain with glucose to burn off as energy.
So much about managing our energy is about doing the basics, which is why I think it was one of the smaller parts of my book. There’s only so much you can say about doing the basics like exercising and eating better.
FELDMAN: Self-talk can also destroy your productivity. In your book, you say studies show that 77 percent of self-talk is negative. Would you tell us more about that?
BAILEY: We evolved to perceive threats in our environment. Moreover, our parents evolved to perceive threats, which is why they want to protect us. But they say things like, “Put that down” or “That’s not good for you, don’t do that.” It’s meant constructively, but of course, it has a negative flavor to it, which translates to the way we speak to ourselves.
This can set us back when we’re striving to become more productive. When we procrastinate, our self-talk goes through the roof. I’ve also found that as I’ve experienced more success, I’ve experienced more self-talk.
This phenomenon is better now that I’m aware of it. But at first, when all this attention started coming after my book was published, my self-talk went through the roof, because I thought I wasn’t worthy of the success I was having.
Different people experience this phenomenon in different ways. Maybe some will experience it around food. Maybe we experience it when we’re in a meeting with our boss and they’re so much smarter than we are.
We can realize that it’s human to do this and we can consider whether the self-talk is actually true. It usually isn’t true and knowing that we have the capacity to question it usually turns the tide.
FELDMAN: Getting myself more focused is definitely my big takeaway from your book. It helped me recognize what my brain was doing and why.
BAILEY: Knowing why we’re not wired to be perfectly productive every day is important. So many of the challenges we face when we invest in our productivity are because of our evolution.
We evolved to perceive threats in our environment, which leads us to have a lot of negative self-talk that sets us back throughout the day. That leads us to multitask because we get rewarded more often when we multitask than when we focus on one thing. Focusing on one thing, despite how productive it might make us, is boring in practice because it’s a less stimulating way of working.
We evolved to conserve energy for when we needed it, when we had to go long stretches without food. So our bodies evolved to crave salt, sugar and fat because those were the most energy-dense forms of foods that we could possibly consume. And we evolved to walk 5 to 9 miles every single day, which is why we have so little energy these days when we’re so sedentary.
All these different things that influence our energy either set us back or propel us forward because of our evolution.
Find out more about Chris Bailey and his productivity experiments at www.alifeofproductivity.com.