Transcript of Increase Your Focus and Combat Distractions
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John Jantsch: Productivity. That’s the name of the game today, right? Get as much done in the day as you can. But let’s not confuse productivity with focus because focus is what it takes to actually get the important work done. And that’s what we talk about on this episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. We’re going to visit with Chris Bailey. He’s the author of Hyperfocus.
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Chris Bailey. He’s a productivity expert and an international best-selling author of the book called The Productivity Project. But today we’re going to talk about a new book called Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction.
So, Chris, thanks for joining me.
Chris Bailey: Hey, thanks for having me, man.
John Jantsch: So there are two words in this title that I want us to spend some time on. Focus and productivity. Are those the same thing? Are they interchangeable? How are they linked together?
Chris Bailey: I think the more focused we are and the better we manage our attention, the more productive we become. But I don’t really have a cut and dry way by which I look at productivity because when you zoom out from the idea of productivity, you realize that so much effects how much you’re able to accomplish throughout the course of the day. How much energy we have affects it, whether we spend our time on the best possible things in the first place. And so focus is one of those things that contributes to it but, at the same time, I would argue that in the environments that we work inside of today, it’s the ingredient that’s in the most demand and it’s the one that we so often have the least control over. You know, the world decides for us what we focus on instead of us choosing what we focus on ahead of time.
John Jantsch: In fact, you could make a case for, and some people do, that hyper focus can actually be a detriment. You know, there’s a lot of people in ADHD world that treat hyperfocusness, if that’s a word.
Chris Bailey: Sure, why not.
John Jantsch: And so while you’re talking about it as the killer thing, it also has its limitations … Or has to be managed in order to create productivity. Would you agree with that?
Chris Bailey: Oh yeah. The way that I choose to define hyper focus … I kind of borrow, like you said, the term from ADHD literature. I use it as a definition for when we bring our complete attention to something but our deliberate attention to something. And so that kind of cuts to the core of it.
If I’ve found one thing in researching productivity and nerding out about these ideas for so long, it’s that what lies at the center of what it means to be productive isn’t working harder, harder, harder, faster, faster, faster. It’s working with greater intention and deliberateness. And so I think that’s something we need to do with our focus, too. The term hyperfocus, and if you look at the cover of the book, I have a copy here, it’s very red. It’s very vivid and bright. And it kind of implies some intensity. But I think it’s a bit slower than that. It’s just about choosing what we focus on before we focus. Which is way easier said than done which is why there’s been a few books on the topic. But we have to bring that deliberate attention to something.
John Jantsch: Hang on a second, I’m making a stock trade right now.
Chris Bailey: Okay. What … please come back, John.
John Jantsch: No, I’m kidding right now. I’m really just trying-
Chris Bailey: John, come back.
John Jantsch: -to get into this idea of multitasking. Can’t we get more done if we’re multitasking?
Chris Bailey: No, John, no. How many times do I have to tell you? No, I think multitask is a poorly understood phenomenon. I thought I understood it going into writing this book but it turns out that I didn’t really have an understanding of it.
We can multitask but only with habits. And so who’s to say that we can’t walk down the sidewalk while we listen to a podcast like this one, while we avoid the cracks in the sidewalk, while we chew bubblegum? You know, we can do most of those things because most of those are habits. Once we initiate the habit sequence in our mind, we can go through the rest of it on autopilot mode.
But where we run into trouble is when we have to bring our full attention to more than one thing at one time that the more complex things in our work. And, frankly, we could multitask if we could seamlessly switch from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next. But we experience a sort of residue in our attention that exists from the previous thing that we were just doing.
So if we were having a conversation prior to this one, that might prevent us from becoming immersed in the conversation that we’re having right now because a part of us is always thinking about what we were doing before. And so we can’t really focus on more than one thing at one time so what we think of as multitask is really just this rapid switching between things. Which, we can rapidly switch between things but because of this residue that exists as we move from one thing to the next to the next, things take on average about 50 percent longer.
John Jantsch: Yeah, I mean, that … Everybody’s been focused on something and got interrupted and then it took you about five minutes to get back into it. I think that’s what you’re describing, right?
Chris Bailey: Yeah. Well, it depends actually. This is the fascinating thing and one of the best parts about nerding out about the topic for writing the book is that it depends on whether the distraction or interaction is external or internal. And so when we’re interrupted completely, it takes us about 22 minutes to get back on track and resume doing the original task. But when we seek out something to interrupt ourselves with, it takes us about 29 minutes to resume working on that original thing and, here’s the thing, is we don’t just go to doing that thing then go back. We do 2.26 other tasks before resuming. So we distract ourselves a second time before we get back on track.
But luckily there is a saving grace with regard to this and it’s that this distraction isn’t our fault. Our mind is wired, in fact, to pay attention to anything that’s one of three things. We’re wired to naturally pay attention to anything that’s pleasurable, anything that is threatening, and anything that is new and novel. So we even have a novelty bias embedded within our brain. Like, “Oh, we should trade some stocks while we’re having this conversation” because that’s a pleasurable, novel, maybe threatening thing that we could focus on instead of a more meaningful conversation that we could be having in front of us.
So it’s not necessarily our fault because the world is wired in such a pleasurable, threatening, novel way. But we do, I argue in the book, need to get out ahead of this impulse.
John Jantsch: You know, one thing that happens in my brain, and sometimes it’s procrastination, it’s … I don’t really want to be doing the thing I’m doing so I’m more easily distracted. But sometimes, when I’m doing something … I write a lot and I open up the tab and I start writing and I’m focused and I’ve got a lot to … And about 40 seconds in, I’m like, “I think I’m going to do something else.” You know? But I think it’s just my brain pulls me away and I think that’s a really common thing, isn’t it?
Chris Bailey: Yeah. I don’t know if you pulled 40 seconds out of the ether but the research shows that 40 seconds is the average amount of time that we only focus on one thing for. Whether we’re writing a report, whether we’re updating a budget in excel, whether we’re typing up an email. So this is kind of this novelty bias in action where we’re constantly seeking out something that’s more stimulating than what we could be doing so we have more dopamine coursing through our mind. And this lowers down from 40 seconds to 35 seconds that we switch between things when we have apps like Slack and Skype and other instant messaging things open as we’re working.
And, you know, what we see as a distraction … You know, I talked about the three magnets for our attention, anything that’s pleasurable, threatening, or novel. What we see as a distraction, I think you hit the nail on the head, is anything that in the moment is more pleasurable, threatening, or novel than what we truly ought and want to be doing. And so I think it’s so critical to tame these things ahead of time.
One of my favorite apps for writing is called Cold Turkey Writer. Have you used that app before?
John Jantsch: I haven’t but I have heard of it.
Chris Bailey: Aww man, yeah. So you fire it up, it essentially takes over your computer. It says either set a limit, how minutes do you want to write for? Or how many minimum words do you want to write? And it hijacks your computer and so you can’t switch to doing anything else until you hit that word count or that time minimum.
And so these are ways, apps like that, distractions blockers. Because we can’t resist Twitter in the moment, taming these things ahead of time is so critical.
John Jantsch: So have our brains, over the last 10 years, gotten this new conditioning or have we just … it’s just been easier to find this stuff? I mean, has this always been the case or are we more so today?
Chris Bailey: Yeah, we always resist things, right? Like the most important tasks in our work, they’re always less pleasurable, less threatening, less novel than a conversation with a coworker, some water cooler chitchat. But the internal distractions have definitely gone up by which we interrupt ourselves with. And it’s because the world is wired to be more pleasurable and threatening and novel that we switch between things more quickly.
And what this does is … I make a case that’s bigger than productivity in the book is that I set out to write out a productivity book but what I realized very quickly was that the state of our attention is what determines the state of our lives. If we’re distracted in each moment, that makes us feel overwhelmed. Those moments don’t exist in isolation. They accumulate day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year to build up to create a life that’s overwhelming and like we don’t have a clear purpose for where we wanna go.
And the same is true, though, if we make a concerted effort to focus on what’s meaningful in each moment, on what’s productive. And it allows us to accomplish a lot in each moment. Conversations with loved ones, the run that we’re going on, the song that we’re listening to, the cup of coffee that we’re drinking. It seems so luxurious but it really allows us to accomplish more and get more meaning out of our lives.
A lot of that involves ratcheting down how stimulated we are by default because I think you got it right. We’ve never been busier while accomplishing as little as we do today and I would argue that it’s because we’re so stimulated. So by lowering that level of stimulation we can think more deeply, we can focus on things for more than 40 seconds, we can notice that we have veered off track and refocus before 22 minutes or 29 minutes, depending on where a distraction or an interruption comes from.
So I think this idea that we need to choose what we pay attention to, and so much of that is taking control of our environments, that idea has never been more important because we’re surrounded by more stimulating things than we ever have been.
John Jantsch: Well and now we just moved over into the spiritual aspect of the podcast today because, really, what you’re describing in a lot of ways and what you describe in part of the book, not the entire book but part of the book, is covered in a lot of eastern texts that talk about mindfulness.
Chris Bailey: Yeah.
John Jantsch: And I think that’s often associated with lower blood pressure and more peace and happiness and it’s not just productivity, is it?
Chris Bailey: It really is, yeah. I think it is impossible to become more productive without also becoming more deliberate. And it’s so difficult to become more deliberate without becoming mindful of what you’re doing in the first place. You know, all mindfulness is a process of noticing. You notice what you’re doing. You notice what you’re thinking. You notice the intentions of other people. You notice the impulses that you have so you can say, “Oh, man. I have an impulse to eat this bag of chips in front of me. Maybe I should get out in front of this impulse. I feel like I’m going to distract myself, maybe I should get out in front of this.”
And you’re right. The research does bear this out. The more control we have over our attention, the more control we have over our life. My favorite study’s on this. The less control we have over our attention the less autonomous we feel with our life, the less we accept ourselves, the less happy we are, and the less satisfied we are with our lives overall.
Control a kid has over their attention. The more text messages a kid sends, in fact, the less they feel that they have control over their life and accept themselves as well. So these truths are universal that the quality of our attention matters. I think it’s the most important ingredient for our productivity today.
John Jantsch: So let’s just get it out there. Email is killing us.
Chris Bailey: Oh geez, man, yeah it’s terrible. The average knowledge worker, so somebody who works in front of a computer, checks their email 88 times over the course of the day, so 11 times every hour. And email often doesn’t take a ton of time of our day but it takes up a lot of attention. So these are 88 times when we’re not totally immersed in email, we’re kind of thinking about it as we switch to doing something else.
And so a good, tactical thing that somebody can walk away with is bring some of this awareness, some of this deliberateness, to email. Maybe only check for new messages if you have the time, the attention, and the energy to deal with whatever might have come in since the last time you checked. It’s a simple tactic but it’s a way of ratcheting down how often you check. Or keeping a tally of how many times you check throughout the day because if you’re close to 88 times, you might want to lower that a little bit.
John Jantsch: Is there an app? There’s gotta be an app for that because I probably check it 200 times a day. And I think-
Chris Bailey: Aww, man, we could have a contest.
John Jantsch: And I think that, as you were describing earlier, email offers. There might be something different in there, there might be something cool, something terrifying, something stimulating. I might have got some more business and I think that’s always the allure, isn’t it?
Chris Bailey: Yeah. Well, what is more pleasurable, threatening, or novel that you could receive on the computer than a little notification that pops into the corner of your screen? Or the sound that we’re conditioned to almost salivate to when we hear that a new email has come in? But this just makes it more critical that we get out ahead of this impulse. If you feel like you have to be connected all day, which frankly a lot of us do. This is the thing about productivity advice is you gotta take the advice that works for you and leave the rest.
But email sprints are something that I coach a lot of people through. The tactic is simple. At the start of every hour, you set the timer for 15 or 20 minutes and you blow through as many email messages as you possibly can during that time. So, essentially, you hyper focus on email then you get 45 minutes or so for the rest of the hour to focus on things that are more important. So there are ways that we can compartmentalize these ideas while we still stay on top of everything.
John Jantsch: Well and he blurbed your book, the modern godfather of productivity, David Allen. I remember reading “Getting Things Done” and that was … You know, he’s like, “Touch it once. Deal with it or don’t go there.” And I think that that’s a version of what you’re saying.
We’ve been beating up what’s wrong with our world for quite a while here so let’s move to what are some steps you can take to actually get focused?
Chris Bailey: Yeah. Well a couple ideas for email … checking only if you have the time, the attention, the energy, keeping a tally, doing some sprints. Your smartphone is probably one of the most pleasurable, threatening, novel things that are in your environment.
One tactic that I love for the smartphone, and once I turned it on to this mode I found that my usage basically halved, is the gray scale mode. Have you heard of this mode on the smartphone?
John Jantsch: I have not.
Chris Bailey: You essentially go to the settings app and you search for gray scale, G-R-A-Y scale, and it turns your phone screen black and white so it’s like you’re reading a newspaper.
John Jantsch: Well that makes sense so you don’t have all the colorful, jazzy things on the [crosstalk] stuff, yeah.
Chris Bailey: The color, yeah. Yeah, it’s just so much more stimulating in the moment. And once that’s not there you’re just like, “Oh. This is kind of boring. I’d rather do something more colorful.”
And so another tactic is to mind the gaps of your day. And this is something that I’m also a big advocate for. Another thing I’m a big nerd about in addition to productivity is traffic flow, so how traffic flows down a highway. And if you look at what allows traffic to continue moving forward, it’s not how fast that individual cars are moving, but rather it’s how much space exists between the cars that allows traffic to continue moving forward. And I think our work is the exact same way.
We can’t focus and reflect on something at the same time. And in fact, when our mind is wandering … So when we’re walking on the way to a meeting or we’re just kind of letting our mind rest and wander in one way or another, we actually think about our goals 14 times as often as when we’re focused on something. And so this is when we can set a direction for our focus and then we can focus to actually move our work forward. But it’s kind of that intention behind our actions that comes from these gaps in our day. And so yeah, those are a few ideas.
One more. This is my favorite productivity ritual of all time and I’ve been talking about this for years so if you’ve heard me talk about this, I apologize. But if you’re new to this rule, it’s one of my favorite productivity rituals. It’s called the rule of three and it goes like this.
At the start of the day, you fast forward to the end of the day in your mind and you ask yourself, “By the time that this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” And it’s simple but it allows you to prioritize so that when you notice your mind is wandering throughout the day, when you notice that you’re in a pit of distraction and you’re looking for something to do, you can revisit what you deemed to be important at the start of the day and then you have a benchmark to measure your productivity against as opposed to just sort of busy-ness.
And this fits with the way that we think. You can look around us and we have sayings like, “Good things come in threes” and “Celebrities die in threes” and “The third time’s the charm.” And we divide stories into three parts. A sequence of dozens of events, we divide them into the beginning, the middle, and the end. Phone numbers are another good example of this, which are essentially … If you ask me what my phone number is, I won’t tell you it’s one billion, six hundred thirteen million, eight hundred ninety … I say it’s 1-613 da da da, da da da da. You know, in chunks of three and four. So it fits with the way that we think but it’s also a way that we can focus on what’s actually important throughout the day.
John Jantsch: Now, I’m no productivity expert but I will give you my tip. I discovered a few years ago that if I actually worked shorter days, I got more done.
Chris Bailey: Oh yeah. You know it’s kind of the effect of a deadline where you shrink how much time you do something over and you force yourself to expend more focus over that period instead.
John Jantsch: Yeah, I mean the reality is I get every important thing … That’s the other thing I love about this rule of three is, a lot of days, I can get all three of those things done in 45 minutes and most of what I would spend the rest of the day doing is not really that valuable.
Chris Bailey: Yeah. And this is the truth about our work, it’s called Parkinson’s Law is what it’s referred to in productivity circles. Our work tends to expand to fit how much time we have available for its completion. And this is something that I find with some executives that I coach. When they tame all their distractions, so they force themselves for just one day to not tend to any unproductive distraction, work all day with the distractions blocker … Some people find that they have like three hours of work to do and that the rest of their time, it’s filled with things that support their work like email or social media or just checking up on the news, things that make us feel busy, which makes us feel productive, but don’t necessarily allow us to accomplish much.
So it’s a good way to get a handle of how much you have on your plate, too, because sometimes being distracted … And this is kind of a controversial opinion that I have but I think there’s a lot of truth behind it. Sometimes the fact that you’re distracted a lot throughout the day is a sign that you have the capacity to accomplish even more than you are and take on projects even more complex than what you’re already doing.
John Jantsch: Yeah, that makes total sense to me.
Visiting with Chris Bailey, he’s the author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. Chris, tell people where they can find out more about you, your coaching, your books, and anything else you want to share.
Chris Bailey: Yeah. So the book is called, Hyperfocus. It’s in bookstores everywhere. If you like the sound of my voice … I have a cold right now so it’s a bit lower than the audiobook but I record my own audiobook. Yeah. My site is called TheLifeOfProductivity.com and all my articles there are free. I just got rid of that annoying newsletter popup that comes up when you visit so it’s a friendlier place now.
Yeah, thanks for having me, man.
John Jantsch: And James Earl Jones did my audiobook but … you know.
Chris Bailey: No big deal.
John Jantsch: I asked him, he was busy okay? All right. He didn’t really do it. Chris, it was great to visit with you. Great book and I look forward to running into you out there on the road.
Chris Bailey: You too.