Charged Up! podcast: The art of productivity
Episode 45 with author and productivity expert Chris Bailey
When you’re looking to increase your finances while still maintaining a work/life balance, mastering the art of productivity is crucial. Chris Bailey realized this at a young age, and as soon as he graduated from college he spent a year focusing on learning from productivity masters the secrets to accomplishing all of your goals without sacrificing all of your time.
Bailey, author of “The Productivity Project,” shares with us his insights, the greatest lessons he learned and the tricks you can implement today to start reclaiming your hours while building your wealth.
So, let’s get Charged Up! about mastering the art of productivity!
Jenny Hoff: Chris, thank you so much for joining me today.
Chris Bailey: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Hoff: So I’m super interested in this topic of productivity. We hear so much advice on how to make money on the side or how to advance career-wise, but it’s tough for a lot of people to think of making time in already extremely packed schedules, especially if there are kids involved. I can’t wait to delve into the secrets of maximum productivity so we can free more time in our days to explore what we love and get more done. But first, you have a really interesting back story of how you got into this productivity space. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bailey: Interesting is one word for this story. Some people might go with weird or insane. But this idea of productivity is something that I’ve been curious about for well over a decade now. I can remember picking up books, getting things done when I was a teenager and exploring this idea and trying to get an A-plus in school while doing as little work as I possibly could muster so I could have more fun on the side. That guided me up until the point that I graduated college a few years back.
I was in a fortunate position at that time as I received a few full-time job offers, but I decided if there is a time to actually do something that I give a crap about, it was then. So I decided to go my own my way, carve out a path for myself, and dive deep, deep, deep, deep into this idea of productivity for a year. This even involved doing experiments on myself in which I used myself as a guinea pig, and also interviewing some of the experts that I had admired for years.
Some people have normal heroes, like sports heroes and CEOs and things like that, but I’ve always been fascinated by the gurus of productivity. I looked at the research for a year, all to, just like you said off the top there, to see there’s a lot of advice out there on how we can become more productive. A lot of that is fluff, to be honest with you. There’s a lot of advice that doesn’t work.
That’s the thing about productivity. It’s fine to read about it, but you have to make all that time back and then some or else you’re basically looking at productivity porn. And there’s a lot of productivity porn out there. It’s very much a year of separating the stuff that works from the BS to filter down how we can actually become more productive each day.
Hoff: So you took this year. You did a deep dive and you talked to some of your gurus and some of your heroes in the space. So I’m sure you got a lot of tips and you did your own experiments (read more about Bailey’s productivity experiments) to see which ones seemed feasible and actually work. So we’re going to go into some of that, but first, why do you think it’s so important for people to look for more efficiencies in their lives?
Bailey: I think that’s the issue when it comes to productivity. You mentioned the word productivity. Somebody thinks that’s something that’s so cold and corporate and about efficiency and effectiveness, whatever those things mean. They have their place and everybody has their own definition of them. But that was one of the lessons that I uncovered from the project. I’d been into this idea of just doing more, more and more, faster, faster, faster. But productive isn’t about more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, I found.
It’s really how much you accomplish by the end of the day. Above that, whether or not you accomplish what you intended to do in the first place. So, if you intend to hire somebody new on your team and get a promotion, whatever your intentions are, then you do them, I would argue that you’re perfectly productive even if your intention is to put your feet up and have a Corona on the beach, or three or four maybe if it’s a nice beach. And when you do, I would argue you’re perfectly productive then, too.
But it’s important to have that starting point. I didn’t have that when I started “The Productivity Project.” This is the value of a project. This is so I can figure the stuff the hard way and share the lessons, but I think that idea of intentionality is really what lies at the heart of it. Who doesn’t want more of that? Right?
Hoff: Absolutely. So you feel more accomplished. I knew what I wanted to get done today and I got it done and I didn’t get swayed by a million other things that got in my way.
Bailey: Exactly! I didn’t play whack-a-mole with all these emails that came in. I didn’t feel like a traffic cop at the end of the day, just moving people and emails and bits of information around. I actually accomplished something meaningful and that was what I intended to do in the first place. That’s a productive day. That’s when we feel the most productive even if our intention is to relax.
Hoff: So, part of productivity is being able to also extract from your day things that are not as meaningful, things that are not as important. Basically, knowing what to give up in order to get done the things that are the most important.
Bailey: Because this is like the truth of productivity, isn’t it? That not all things on our plate are created equal. You can pick a crazy example like writing a report for work versus watching Netflix. It doesn’t take much consideration to realize that a report would be a bit more productive. One of the experiments I did was watching Netflix for a month. It was what I intended to do that month. But it’s the truth, right? That not all tasks are created equal.
So, because of that point, the most productive mode we have to work inside of is not responding to all the BS that comes our way throughput the day. It’s to actually take a step back and think, “OK, what do I intend to do here?”
One of my favorite strategies, because I love the practical, tactical advice, one of my favorite rules is the rule of three. It’s probably the one thing from “The Productivity Project” that’s (a) the simplest but (b) that has actually stuck afterward. I’ve been using it for years. It 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 this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?”
It’s such a simple rule, but it fits with the way that we think. We’re wired to think in threes. We have examples of threes pretty much everywhere, sayings like good things come in threes; celebrities die in threes; the third time’s the charm; blood, sweat and tears; good, the bad, the ugly. We grow up immersed in stories that involve threes: The Three Little Bears, The Three Blind Mice, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Musketeers. Even a story itself, we divide into three parts, the beginning, the middle and the end. The examples are endless. It not only fits the way we think, but it allows us to work with that intention and take a step back.
So much of productivity is about taking that step back. But it lets us work more deliberately. We get to shut off auto-pilot mode where we’re just being responsive to everything that comes our way. This is maybe the key lesson that I talk about in the book that I learned from this year is that what lies at the center of productivity is this intentionality, this deliberateness, this choosing what we do before we do it.
Every single helpful tactic that I got from the experts and the research itself suggests that’s the case, too. We become the most productive and accomplish the most when we step back and consider what we should be doing in the first place.
Hoff: I definitely want to get into more strategies, too. What would you say are maybe the top five strategies that you’ve learned that really tend to work for people to increase the productivity in their lives? I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I’m a mom. I’ve got kids at home. I’m working. Every free moment, I’m with my children, but I’d really love to also be able to get into workout during the day. I’d love a little bit of mental peace, reading a book wouldn’t be bad. How does somebody figure out how to fit all of that into a day by being more productive?
Bailey: I think a good starting point is to track how you spend your time in the first place. This is, I think, something that we really don’t have awareness of. We all see our time as being so constrained. We only get so much of it every day to spend on things that are meaningful. But at the end of the day, we waste a lot of it. We waste a lot of it checking email.
The truth is, if you have time to – if your phone wakes you up first thing in the morning, you see somebody has tagged you in a picture on Facebook, then you go check Instagram, then you go check the news, and then you bounce around between different apps for half an hour before getting out of bed. If we have time to do that, we have time for actual important things too that actually progress our life forward in a meaningful way.
My friend, Laura, she talks about this quite a bit. She has a good TED Talk out there, too, that you should check out. I think she has five kids. Her point is that we need to see our time as abundant because we have more of it than we think we do. She likes to give the example where if your water tank breaks down, you’ll probably muster up a few hours to find the time to fix it throughout the week, even if you feel like you’re at capacity.
This is true for our work, too, I think. (View one of Bailey’s TED Talks.) Our work follows Parkinson’s law, which states that our work tends to expand to fit how much time we have available for its completion.
This is why they say if you want something done in less time, give it to somebody who is on a deadline, who is always busy, because busier people get things done quicker. But it’s because they’re taking in more work and their work doesn’t have the luxury of expanding to fit how much they have for it. So, I think looking at that busyness is a signal that we should step back and form an intention to work on something else. It’s a super powerful thing that we can do. Sometimes that busyness is a sign that our work is expanding to fit how much time we have for it.
Hoff: OK. What would you say are some strategies that people can start implementing right now to get more productivity in our lives? One is the rule of three. So basically choose three things that you want to get done that day that are the most important and need to get done and you’ll have to call out other things if they’re interrupting that. What are some other ways to get more productive?
Bailey: And weight the new emergencies and tasks against those original things, by the way. It’s a good way to prioritize on the fly. The second one, I’m going to cheat a little bit and expand the rule of three to the second point. I won’t take up three points with the rule of three, I promise. At the start of the week, set three intentions as well. Think, when this week is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished by the end of it?
It’s another simple strategy. It’s pretty lightweight because – that’s the thing about productivity advice, as well. For all the time you spent planning about what you’re going to do, you’re not doing the things that you plan. And so these lightweight rules are very simple in that regard, too.
That would be the second one that I would give. The third one is to disable distractions. There are so many distractions that we face throughout the day. Our phone is constantly going off and vibrating. We’re constantly getting email notifications. Things are coming at us from seemingly every direction and they pull us and we feel like we’re being tugged in a thousand different directions as a result of this.
One of the most productive things that we can do is to see just how much productivity these distractions cost us. I read a study the other day. I am deep into study mode where I’m poring over research again for another project that I’m working on. The study found that when we’re doing work with our phone or a computer nearby, we’re interrupted or distracted every 40 seconds.
As a result, we only do 40 seconds of work before we pay attention to something that’s new and novel and unproductive usually. What this means is we get pulled in a few different directions at once. We become busier without becoming more productive.
So often, like I said, we tend to look to how busy we are as a proxy for how productive we are. But really, that shouldn’t be the case. Right? Because we could be busy on Twitter on Facebook all day and not accomplish what we intend to do or accomplish something that’s meaningful.
Productivity is not about how busy we are. Because busyness, it’s really no different from a sort of laziness, an active sort of laziness when it doesn’t lead us to accomplish anything. And so I would recommend paying attention to that busyness and setting a distractions blocker on your computer. Maybe that’s points 3 and 4 or should we classify those as one? What was your expert opinion on this?
Hoff: We’ll classify it as one so we can get another one out of you.
Bailey: OK. We’ll cram another one. There are great apps like Self-Control is a good example of one. Freedom is an app that I love. It’s such a weird name for an app, isn’t it? A distractions blocker, Freedom. Because if anything, it gives us less freedom. We’re not able to check the news or social media. But what you’ll find when you enter into this mode, it’s like working on a train or a plane where you don’t have access to the internet. You still have access to the internet. It’s just you don’t allow yourself access to the distracting portions of the internet. You feel an odd sense of relief kick in when you launch one of these apps.
I’m doing that now because I’m deep in writing mode for my next book. I fell victim to these things again. I refresh Twitter because I’m a very vain person, to see if anyone followed me or retweeted my stuff. I fell victim to these things, too. I check the news to see what the president has got down there. I’m not going to enter to that zone, but I live in Canada so we see all the Trump news as well. In the moment, what we see as a distraction is just an object of attention that is more attractive than what we truly want to be doing.
That’s why we fall victim to them. That’s why we pay attention to the TV that’s behind our partner at the restaurant that we’re at even though we truly want to be paying attention to who we’re with. And so disabling these things in the first place is one of the most productive things that we can do so that we can make it past that 40-second mark when we become distracted again.
I would say No. 4, riffing off that point, is to reframe how you think about your smartphone. Because it distracts you every 40 seconds, for every time we’re distracted completely from our work, we can lose an average of 25 minutes of productivity. It takes us that long to get back on track when we’re distracted completely. That’s a lot of productivity to waste when we’re distracted so frequently throughout the day. Our phone is the source of so many of these distractions.
Now, if productivity means working and living with greater intention, which I would argue that it is, our phone is basically the destroyer of intentionality. It leads us into dealing with what’s latest and loudest and feels important but actually isn’t. It makes our relationships less deep. It makes us remember less because we actually process the world differently when we’re multitasking than when we’re focused on one thing. This is why, by the way, we remember movies that we see in the theater a lot more than a show that we binge-watch on Netflix with our phone or a tablet nearby, because we actually process the world differently.
So I would say No. 4 would be to reframe these relationships. See your smartphone as what it is, which is a very distracting computer that happens to be attached at your hip throughout the day. Seeing how distracting it can be that it derails your productivity every 40 seconds, that you can lose as much as half an hour of productivity because of that distraction. It can be powerful and it can change the way that you think about that device.
To share a quick story from the project, I conducted dozens of these productivity experiments on myself, and one that I remember to this day out of these experiments was using my smartphone for just an hour a day for three months. The first few weeks of that experiment were hell. They were hell to slog through and try to get to the other side of and I would so look forward to when I could use my smartphone and check Twitter and email and all these things.
But a few weeks in, I felt as though I’d cleared a band and that a whole new expanse of focus and productivity and creativity as well opened up for me because I didn’t fill my life, every little gap between doing things and between conversations, when I was going to the bathroom, whatever it was, with just mindlessly tapping on a piece of glass. I actually took in and processed the experiences around me. I let my mind wander a little bit so that I could set intentions and think about the future and process the present and the past and my life was transformed in that experiment. It became richer and deeper because of that.
I would challenge people to do a similar experiment. Now, one hour might sound a bit drastic if you’re currently using your smartphone all the time. It’s probably how you’re listening to this podcast in the first place.
And so just simply reframing that relationship and observing how many times you pick up your smartphone without an intention, just to stimulate your brain a little bit, that can change how you relate to technology. I don’t know. Maybe I’m an old man in this regard but I think technology should exist for our convenience, not the convenience of everybody on the planet who wants to contact us and to give a moment. I think if we live in that way, we can reclaim some of our intentionality as well.
Hoff: Absolutely. I wanted to also talk about how it can impact your finances. So, it shows a lot about financial health and finding good financial health and either increasing your wealth or decreasing your debt or just getting or just getting organized, what would you say the role productivity plays in managing finances and increasing wealth?
Bailey: I think technology exists to support the life that we live. It can be insanely powerful when it comes to our finances. In terms of giving us the technology to track how we’re behaving, whether that’s how we’re spending our time or our money.
Money is such an incredible resource when it comes to our life. It’s why we do so many of the things that we do. I love apps like Mint and things like that that let me – I’m a big points guy, especially when it comes to airplane points. I don’t know if that’s tangentially related to what you talked about. So many of the credit cards are points cards. In Canada, we have Aeroplan. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. Every dollar that I spend eventually trickles down into a stream that leads into this ocean of Aeroplan points for me. It’s fascinating for tracking stuff like that.
I think when you see productivity, when you see technology as supporting the intentions that you set, a lot of the intentions that we set relate to money. And so our intention is to make a certain sales target by the end of the year. Our intention is to meet a certain financial goal. That could be one of our three weekly intentions, to only eat out once this week.
That’s my big problem. Whenever I write a book, I’m always like – I have some Thai food container in front of me that I was eating before we started talking. It’s a big problem. Please send help. Or please send more Thai food. I can send my address and you can just send surprise Thai food to me.
Setting these intentions as they relate to money can be a super helpful thing to do as one of your goals. This speaks to this idea – I forget who said this originally. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. That relates to how we spend our time, how we spend our money, how we spend our attention, how we spend our energy. I think they’re related in some marvelous ways.
Hoff: In your research and I think your interviews, what were some of the out-of-the-box ways that you learn of other people increasing productivity that you hadn’t ever thought of before? I think I’ve read that you mentioned meditation or whatever but what are some of the ways that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with productivity that you learned and yet you saw over and over again seem to work for people?
Bailey: It’s kind of an odd question in a way because the advice that seemed nonobvious to me at the start kind of seems obvious now, so it wouldn’t necessarily come to mind. Meditation is a huge factor. It’s this way of sharpening our focus. At any given moment – I talked about mind-wandering between doing certain things, we mind-wander quite a bit throughout the day, when we’re lost in a daydream.
Daniel Gilbert, for example, found that we spend 47 percent of our day in this mind-wandering mode. It has some remarkable benefits but when our intention is to focus on something, it’s not really that helpful if we’re lost in a daydream when we’re at a meeting and that we’re fantasizing about dating Taylor Swift or whoever it might be. So, sharpening our focus so that we can actually bring more attention to what’s in front of us instead of just more time is so important.
That was another takeaway that I got from the project. Viewing productivity as something more holistic. We tend to connect time management to productivity. I think that’s a pretty big part of it. But attention management is just as important. Bringing more than just 53 percent of our attention to the moment and focusing more on what’s in front of us, whether that’s a loved one, whether that’s a conversation with a co-worker, whether it’s somebody that we’re mentoring.
If we’re thinking about our phone, our productivity and our life is going to become more diluted because of that fact. Energy was the third ingredient in addition to time that I found to contribute to my productivity at the end of the day. Especially when you measure your productivity in terms of how much you accomplish, our energy is like the fuel that we burn over the course of the day in order to get stuff done. So that led me to some counterintuitive insights, in addition to things like meditation, on things like eating good healthy food and not overeating can provide you with more lasting energy. How simple things like getting enough sleep, enough rest, taking breaks over the course of the day can have a huge impact.
We feel less productive when we’re taking a break because we’re less busy during that time, but we become more productive because we have more energy to burn. This is counterintuitive in a way, where time is essential to our productivity but 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 have the energy to follow it through. And so it’s that more complete idea of productivity that stuck out toward the end of it.
Hoff: So, when you really do start implementing more productivity in your life, what do you see happens to your career, your goals and your thoughts about the future?
Bailey: Well, if you’re perfectly productive, you accomplish what you intend to do. And so I think you can extrapolate that to a general level where if you’re perfectly productive on a daily basis, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What that means is that in the longer term, we end up exactly where we wanted to be.
Whatever our longer term goals are, when we see through it on a daily, on a weekly basis that those little actions funnel into these larger goals, whether it’s through the rule of three, whether it’s from disabling distraction so we can actually focus on those things relating differently to our smartphone, doing the basic energy tactics.
That could be No. 5 for us just for the sake of completeness. I’m a big completeness fan. It has to be complete. Doing these things, we end up exactly where we intend to be. We end up achieving our larger goals when we see to it that our daily and our weekly actions filter into those. I think that’s what we have to gain.
There are people who talk about doing stuff, and then there are people who do stuff. I think productivity is the difference between those two groups of people. The people who do stuff, they know what they want and they know what they need to do every day and every week to get there.
Hoff: Absolutely. How should we be measuring our productivity then? You would say it is about getting done what we intend to accomplish?
Bailey: Yeah. I think our intentions are the benchmark that we should use to measure our productivity. It’s not about how busy we are. It’s not about how many emails we answer. It’s not even about how productive we feel. Because we can feel productive when we go on email and social media all day and then we look back and ask, “How much did I accomplish?” And we realize, I just treaded water today. I think our intentions are the benchmark that we should measure our productivity against. In order to make that measurement, we, of course, have to set intentions in the first place which I think is essential.
Hoff: Absolutely. To add on to that, I went through a period of my life where I decided to be super productive and I made my plan for the day and it felt amazing at the end of the day to know that I got done everything that I wanted to do that day. It felt really good. You don’t go to bed with regrets. You don’t feel sluggish. It’s like avoiding junk food. You’ve actually eaten healthy food. You’ve done the things that you wanted to do without giving into the temptation to procrastinate or to throw it off to the side.
I think that it’s absolutely right what you said, this learning about productivity and really focusing and having intentions are what will give you also just greater satisfaction and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.
Bailey: Oh, my God. Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. There was a time when I was in the middle of writing “The Productivity Project” that I was on a trip in Dublin, Ireland, and I had a few pints when I sat at the pub. And then when I was walking home to the Airbnb I was staying at, I slipped down a steep cobblestone sidewalk. The sidewalks were slick. It was the middle of February. It was, I think, 2 or 3 in the morning. I ended up shattering my leg in a bunch of different places. I guess when you twist your leg and fall in the exact right way, you can do a lot of damage.
It meant months of recovery. It meant I was in this rut when I was in the middle of writing the book. I thought I would miss my deadline for the book because I was on such a tight deadline for it. But the first day when I woke up because I’ve been doing this rule of three for so long up to that point, the first thing that occurred to me as soon as I woke up was, OK, what are my three intentions today? At first, I thought it was a bit ridiculous.
But then I thought, OK, what do I have the energy to accomplish today? What are my limits? What do I want to get out of today? They had to be small. I think the first one was check in with my assistant just to make sure everything is handed off to her. The second one was make a few small laps around the hospital ward that I was staying at in my little walker. And third was to say hi to some loved ones and call them so they could stop worrying.
All those things were a struggle. Every single one of them. I think I was hopped up on morphine probably. I don’t even know. But I had never felt more productive than I had that day because I accomplished exactly what I set out to. It was a challenge, but I accounted for the limits. I chose what was important. I chose goals that align to my larger goals of work and of my personal life and of bringing these deeper relationships to my life. I don’t know if I’ve felt as productive since.
It speaks to that idea that we’re perfectly productive when we accomplish what we intend to and we push on our limits a little bit. But don’t just be busy for busyness’ sake. We don’t deal with what comes in on auto-pilot mode. We take a step back. So much of productivity is about taking that step back and thinking, OK, why am I here? What do I need to do? What do I want out of today? I think that’s what productivity is all about.
Hoff: Absolutely. And finally, our show is called Charged Up. What gets you charged up about mastering productivity?
Bailey: Man, I think it’s pure curiosity, if I’m honest with you. I’m so deeply curious with these ideas. They’re connected to what I value. I value things like completeness, making five-point lists and things like that. I value efficiency. It really is curiosity that drives me. That’s really my hope, whether it’s for a chat like this one, whether it’s for a book, whether it’s for my site. Whatever it’s for, what gets me charged up is being curious about things that I love and hopefully making other people curious about these ideas too.
Hoff: Fantastic. Chris, fascinating discussion. I highly recommend people check out your book, check out your website, get some tips and ideas, and even implementing one or two or three things in your life can make a huge difference. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Bailey: You bet. You bet. Thanks for having me.
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