Chris Bailey looks into how distraction affects productivity and the many ways you can prevent yourself from getting distracted ahead of time.
- Ways to hack your procrastination triggers
- How much time we waste on checking emails
- The 20-second rule and three ways to apply it to your distractions
Chris Bailey is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of The Productivity Project, which has been published in eleven languages. His next book, Hyperfocus, came out yesterday. Chris writes about productivity at Alifeofproductivity.com, and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive, without hating the process.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Chris’ book: Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction
- Chris’ book: The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy
- Research: Phenomenology of future-oriented mind-wandering episodes
- Research: Task aversiveness and procrastination: A multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects
- Research: Neurotics Can’t Focus: An in situ Study of Online Multitasking in the Workplace
- Research: The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices
- Research: The Rule of 52 and 17: It’s Random, But it Ups Your Productivity
- Research: Email Duration, Batching and Self-interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress
- Research: Case Study: Evaluating the Effect of Email Interruptions within the Workplace
- Tool: SaneBox
- Research: Email Overload: Research and Statistics [With Infographic]
- Tool: Freedom
- Tool: Cold Turkey
- Tool: SelfControl
- Tool: RescueTime
- Book: Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- Previous episode: 032: Experiments in Productivity with Chris Bailey
- Previous episode: 327: Unclog Your Brain through Unfocusing with Dr. Srini Pillay
Chris, welcome back to the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.
It’s been a while. It’s been like 250 episodes or something like that.
It’s nuts, yes. I was just thinking about it like your episode before number 32 is like under a tenth of the current episode number. So how about that?
Yeah. Do you ever go back and listen to the first few shows and how – do you think you’ve improved a lot since then or do you even want to listen to yourself back then?
I have listened a little bit, but not a ton. I’ve definitely noticed the difference. I’ve had a couple of guests who’ve been on multiple times and they have said similarly, “You’re better at this now,” which is good. That’s what you’re hoping for.
Yeah. I don’t remember you being bad at it But it’s good.
I’ve always liked looking back on my previous work and hating it because if you can find things to dislike in the way that you worked before, I think you’re on a positive trajectory. It’s when you look at your previous work and you think, “Man, where did I go wrong? Where did I lose my mojo? What’s different now in my work?” I think that’s when you run into problems. May you always look back at work and thinks it’s crap.
Oh, that’s like an Irish blessing. Well, thank you, lad.
Yes, you’re welcome, Pete.
I understand you recently got into knitting. What is the story here?
Who told you this?
I think you disclosed it on a form that I ask you to fill out, while scheduling this.
I didn’t know this would be made public, Pete.
Well, maybe it was one of your people. You’ve got people now. You’ve grown a lot too.
Oh man, yeah. Since episode 30, man, I’m a changed man. No, I’m the same weird person. Knitting is this weird hobby that I think more people would enjoy doing if only they got in the door and tried it out a little bit.
A while back on a total whim, I signed up for a local course here in the small town Canada city that I live in. I this expect it to stick. There’s a piano – I’m looking at it on my left here. It has a bit of dust on it that’s accumulated in my office. I have a lot of things I guess that are kind of fleeting, that evaporate as quickly as they came, but knitting very much is one of my new favorite hobbies.
The benefits of this have been well documented. For example, it distracts you from pain. It leads you to remember more. It even combats things like depression. It lowers your resting heart rate. I’ve been looking at a lot of knitting studies lately in case you can’t hear that.
But those are benefits, but I actually knit to become more productive because it lets me just kind of rest my attention a bit. We can get to this a bit later, talk about this in the book, but it’s when we rest our attention that we become the most creative.
It’s when we focus on something with intensity that we become productive, but it’s in that resting state, especially when we get into that deliberately, that we are able to connect ideas together and plan and rest and recharge.
It’s great as a work break. I knit on planes. I knit on the couch while I’m working. I’m not knitting right now because I don’t have enough attention to spare, but yeah, I was knitting at the coffee shop this morning, drinking my morning tea and ignoring the way people were looking at what I was doing.
Well, you know, it’s so funny you say coffee shop because I remember one time I was on a date, this was some years ago, when I was single.
You know a date is going bad when they break out the knitting needles and start knitting.
Well, she wasn’t knitting, but there was a dude like very close to us knitting and it was funny because he was maybe only four feet away or less. He just, he had his headphones on. He was sipping the coffee and he was knitting. He was like into it. It was clear that he was jamming, he was knitting, and this was the place that he was going to be doing it.
It was kind of funny because in a way I was like, “How odd,” but in other ways that’s pretty cool that you have so much confidence and self-assurance that you can peacefully knit in a public place and be cool with yourself.
Yeah, yeah. It takes another level of either confidence or not really caring. One of the two or maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t know.
It’s funny, I just recently learned about knitting in terms of the research behind it from a recent guest, Dr. Srini Pillay. He mentioned that’s one of the top things you can do to enter a place of letting your attention rest and yet be somewhat engaged, like right up there with tending to a plant is knitting. Now I know.
That is what I thought like, Chris Bailey, Mr. Productivity experimenter, knitting is probably down with the research and sure enough you are.
Oh yeah. It’s in doing something that’s a habit too. This is one of the fun parts about writing a book about attention is when we do something simple that’s habitual, like when we take a shower, when we swim laps, when we just have our morning coffee, with just having the coffee and not listening to something or doing something else, this is when we’ve been shown to have the most – the greatest number of creative insights.
Because we have something habitual that anchors our attention to what we’re doing, that kind of guides us along – knit, pearl, knit, pearl, pearl stitch, knit stich, but – and it’s fun, so it anchors our attention, but it doesn’t consume our full attention at the same time, so we’re able to let our mind wander around to things like ideas and plans for the future.
Our mind has been shown to wander. It has this perspective bias that’s built into it, where when we just let our mind be – if you let your mind be in the shower tomorrow morning or maybe you’re listening to this in the shower in which case, hello – if you just let it be, you wander to think about the future 48% of the time, so about half of the time you’re thinking about the future when you’re letting your mind rest.
People think, “Man, I’m not focusing on anything. I’m so unproductive right now.” But you are productive because you can choose what you do after you let your mind wander. You can set intentions. This lets you shut off autopilot mode to work more deliberately and actually consider your goals before you act instead of just acting on this autopilot mode.
It’s one of those counterintuitive insights where sometimes the best thing we can do to manage our attention is just to not focus on anything at all and let our attention be.
All right. I dig it. I dig it. Thank you.
Can you dig it?
I am. I am in fact digging it.
You’re digging it. Okay, that’s good to hear that you’re digging it.
That stat there – 42% or 48%?
48%. Our mind wanders to the – I’m going to try and get these numbers right. I might be off by 2%, might be transposing the numbers in my mind, but the future is 48%, it’s half. We also wander to consider the circumstances of the present 28% of the time. The past, only 12% of the time.
We think we only reminisce on the negative, and that’s true, when we go through a personal challenge, that number rises above 12%. But on average we think about the past 12% of the time.
This is why we come up with so many beautiful light bulb eureka insights in this mode when we let our attention scatter. Those numbers don’t add up to 100% and there’s – but the rest is when we’re thinking of ideas that we’ve collected. That’s when we connect all three to come up with beautiful creative insights that make us more productive overall because it lets us work in a more strategic direction.
There’s these kind of these two modes that we have over the course of the day. There’s the focused mode, but there’s the unfocused mode. The two modes are even anti-correlated with one another in our mind. They really complement one another in these ways, where when we’re focusing, we’re doing something productive, but when we’re letting our attention rest, we can choose what to focus on in the first place.
That’s cool. That’s cool.
It’s fascinating, yeah.
Well, so then you mentioned your book a couple times, Hyperfocus, sort of what’s the main-
-message of Hyperfocus all about?
Yeah, I like the realm of productivity, but not productivity in a cold corporate sense, but productivity in a sense of just accomplishing more of what’s meaningful and what’s important every day.
There’s a lot of books on time management out. I think there’s more than enough. That market has been long saturated. But I don’t think there are enough books about attention management. Maybe more specifically, the science behind how we should manage our attention.
I noticed this in myself after I wrote the last book that we were chatting about way back when on episode 30-something, The Productivity Project. I noticed that once I had finished that book, I had fewer deadlines in my work right after shipping that project. I was waiting for feedback and I stayed busy, but my work kind of expanded to fit how much time I had available for it. It was kind of Parkinson’s Law in action.
I realized I was tending to a lot of distractions, even though I was giving a lot of people advice that they should tame the distractions in their work. I noticed I was tending to social media more often. I noticed that I couldn’t focus as well as I could have before that book.
I thought if I have this problem as somebody who calls themselves a quote/unquote productivity expert, that’s kind of – it’s a tangent, but I don’t really think anyone’s an expert. I think we just – we’re constantly discovering more questions about things. But if I have this problem, then maybe other people do to.
Maybe the advice that’s out there that we should just tame distractions and become less busy and more focused, maybe that sounds good on the surface, but it doesn’t actually work in practice. That’s really what kicked off this project.
Intriguing. Then when it comes to what does work in practice, I guess there’s so many different ways we can slice and dice and present it, but let’s hear it. What are some of your top practices?
Oh man, there are so many of them. But I think where’s it’s maybe a good place to start is in how we focus to begin with because our focus has natural rhythms to it the research shows. It’s actually quite simple on the surface. I’ll say the rhythm and you’ll think, “Yeah, that’s obvious.”
But how we focus is we focus on something, our attention gets distracted, either by something external to us or something internal to us. We find ourselves in a daydream that’s unintended and not one we purposefully enter into when we’re knitting or taking a shower. Then once our attention gets distracted, something internal or external comes along, we bring it back.
I think it’s possible to map on top of this natural structure a way by which we can focus better. I think there are four steps that one should follow in order to focus deeper.
First we should choose what to focus on. This is something we don’t do often enough is set intentions for what we want to accomplish. I think there are moments of the day when we have a deliberate focus, when we choose something to focus on, then we focus on that thing.
Then there are the moments when we’re on autopilot mode so there’s no intention behind our actions, where our email inbox becomes our to-do list. We use our phone bouncing around between the same five or six different apps for a few minutes before getting out of bed. There are no gaps in our calendar. Notifications run our life. We kind of go through the motions of the day.
I think our productivity and the quality of our attention is partly proportional to what percent of the day we act with intentionality behind what we’re doing. I think this is an essential first step of focus is in any moment, we’re either focusing on something with deliberate focus, deliberate intention or we’re just on autopilot mode.
Because there are an infinite number of things that we can focus on at any given moment that makes doing this more essential than it ever has been because we have things that vie for your attention.
One thing that is missed in a lot of research on attention and the advice a lot of people give is that it’s not our fault that we can’t focus on what’s important. It’s just the way that our mind is wired. Our attention is fascinating in this regard.
We’re wired to pay attention to anything that has one of three characteristics. We’re wired to pay attention to anything that is pleasurable, anything that is threatening, and anything we find novel. There’s even a novelty bias that is embedded within the prefrontal cortex in our brain, the logical part off our brain, where we release dopamine for every new novel thing we focus on.
This is why it’s so easy to lay down in bed for half an hour bouncing around between the same loop of apps because nothing in our life is more pleasurable or threatening or novel than our phone, so we pay attention to that instead of the day, instead of things that are more meaningful and productive.
I think the first step, choose what we focus, tame distractions after that, focus on that thing, and then bring our attention back to that thing, but, yeah, I don’t want to go on for too long about these four things because then it turns into a monologue and not a podcast.
Well, thank you. That’s really intriguing.
I’m fired up. I got to check myself every once in a while.
I’m curious when it comes to things which are pleasurable, threatening, and novel, it seems like there could be some nifty approaches that might enable you to trick yourself into finding the task that you quote should be doing in the moment to be one that is more pleasurable, threatening, and novel. Do you have any tips on that?
Oh yeah, we can reward ourselves for focusing on certain things. This is I think why taming distractions, why we need to get so ahead of that impulse because in the moment – what we see as a distraction is just an object of attention that is sexier than what we truly want to be doing.
If you’re listening to this podcast, for example, and you have your phone with you and you saw that somebody tagged you in a picture on Facebook, you might pause the podcast and maybe check out the picture and the comments that people left about you or focus on that instead of the podcast. The podcast might present you with more meaning potentially, maybe more productivity later on, but it’s not the most pleasurable thing or novel thing.
I think that’s where to start with this stuff is to eliminate anything that could be more pleasurable, threatening or novel than what we truly want to be doing. This is the key because our attention will always gravitate to something that has any one of these three characteristics.
We look for threats in our environment. In reality, there are no saber tooth tigers encroaching on us building a fire, but the closest threats are maybe we’re with our significant other and we’re having a nice meal, but CNN happens to be playing in the background, so our attention gravitates toward the red, threatening letters on the screen, the reason the CNN logo is red.
We have to eliminate these things ahead of time. But like you said, it’s possible to kind of trick ourselves into not putting off the things that are important as well.
A little side note on that. My mind is sometimes full of – my mind is like a Medeley database. It’s just full of a lot of studies that I can type a little search query into. One of those studies was conducted by … from Carlton University in Ottawa. Good Canadian, like-
-yours truly. Eh, bud. He’s a really good Canadian chap and He found that there are certain attributes that a task or project can have that make us more likely to procrastinate on it. Those are whether something is boring, whether it’s frustrating, whether it’s difficult, whether it’s ambiguous, whether it’s unstructured, whether it’s lacking in personal meaning, or whether it’s lacking in intrinsic reward.
Our most important work usually has several of these and that’s why we hopefully get paid more than minimum wage to do it. The most productive things on your list, the most consequential things, they’re probably not pleasurable or threatening or novel, or as pleasurable or threatening or novel as Facebook or email notification.
We can kind of hack those procrastination triggers to make things more threatening. We can make them more threatening by working with somebody to set a deadline, maybe our boss. We can make it more pleasurable by rewarding ourselves for following through on something. We can make it more novel by maybe setting an artificial deadline.
Instead of saying, “I’m going to work on this report for the rest of the afternoon,” we can say, “I’m going to set a timer for 35 minutes because that’s how long I think I can focus on this thing for and I’m not going to allow myself to work on it past that point.” You work on it for 35 minutes. You get hyper-focused on that task and it’s kind of a shortcut to make it more threatening and novel and pleasurable at the same time.
Yeah, I love that line of thinking that there are things we can do in order to tame these things ahead of time.
Yes, I’m thinking about the novel perspective in terms of you could do it in a different location. It’s like a Dr. Seuss book. It’s like you could do it with a mouse. You could do it in a house.
Okay, cool. That’s handy there. I want to talk a little bit about the natural rhythm in terms of you’ll focus and then you’ll stop focusing. You’ve actually spelled out some timeframes, amounts of time associated with focus and then breaking. How do those times line up?
Well, the rhythm that we work in today is very choppy. It’s very chopped up. One of the most alarming statistics – I don’t really find statistics that powerful because you need to map several of them together to really create a picture of how we work because you can never really rely too much on one study, so you have to kind of take them as a painting as a whole and each one of them is a bit of a brush stroke that creates that final vision of the way things are.
The one stat I think that shines brighter above all the others is one that looked at how long we focus on just one thing for in our work before we switch to doing something else. The thing I love about this line of research – this was an institute study. They didn’t bring a mouse into a lab and find that the mouse could only focus on drinking water for five seconds.
They looked at people in an actual workplace and they had logs on their computers. They set up cameras to look at how people focused throughout the day. They did well at first, but then they kind of settled into their natural rhythms.
What the researchers found, what Gloria Mark and I think Mary Czerwinski found, was that on average when we have – when we’re doing work in front of a computer, we only focus on one thing for 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else. This kind of shocked me in a way that I find difficult to explain because once you observe this pattern in the way that you work, it’s difficult to go back to working the same way again.
You look at the cost of constantly switching. There’s a difference between multitasking and rapid task switching I found in looking at the research. Multitasking is doing a few things concurrently, which we can do with habits and things like that.
But when we switch rapidly between things, when we go from checking email to working on a report to looking at Instagram to Facebook to a conversation, our tasks have been shown to take about 50% longer compared to when we do one thing from start through completion.
The reason for this is there is a certain attentional residue that remains in our mind that are fragments from the previous task that we were just focusing on. It’s impossible to go from, for example, having this conversation to checking your email, for an example, because there are certain fragments of this conversation that remain as an aftertaste in your mind.
Because of this, the longer we work on one thing for, the more productive we become because we don’t have that residue that we’re trying to clear as we switch to something else. Because of this, we feel like we’re multitasking, but really we’re just remembering a little bit of the previous tasks that we were doing as we try to focus on a new one.
This is the rhythm by which we operate for so much of the day. We feel busy – I found this in myself. If I sound like I’m kind of chastising people for working this way, I found this in myself, which was the sad part to admit, especially as somebody who considers himself or is often called the productivity expert.
But I notice this in myself that I felt busy, but that I wasn’t accomplishing as much as when I just focused on something for an extended period of time and tamed distractions before getting into that.
When we get off track completely, this is when our productivity really falters. When we get distracted or interrupted completely, whether this is an external distraction or an internal distraction, it takes about 25 minutes to get back on track and resume working on the original task. And we work on 2.5 other tasks on average before we resume that first task.
We fare a bit better when we’re interrupted externally versus internally like our mind wanders or we seek something that’s pleasurable or novel. But this is the rhythm by which we work when we don’t manage our attention deliberately. We’re productive enough to keep up with our deadlines, but we don’t work up to our potential and we don’t feel as rested as we could if we deliberately scattered our attention to.
A couple things. That 40 seconds, it’s almost hard for me to believe that is true. Could you maybe paint a picture of what that looks like there?
Yeah, it’s actually 35 seconds in a lot of cases when we have IM conversations open. When we have apps like – 40 seconds is kind of a nicer finding from the study. I actually found it hard to believe. This study was done by a team of researchers at Microsoft of all places. It was done by Gloria Mark, Mary Czerwinski. I didn’t really believe this myself, so I flew out to Microsoft to ask them about it.
Microsoft, it turns out, has thousands of people who conduct research for research’s sake because I guess Bill Gates believed in doing that I guess, which is nice. It gives us nice insights like this, but this was the rhythm that people worked in when they were doing work on a computer.
It measured kind of the context switching. We switch between windows on our computer a lot, but we switch between different projects more often. This was the switching between projects in that digital context mainly. But yeah, we fare even worse when we have things like IM open in the background. It’s a fascinating rhythm and it’s something that’s worth observing in yourself.
We fare a bit better when we’re in certain tasks above others. For example, having a conversation with somebody, in that context, keep in mind this is a mainly digital context, so if we’re having a conversation with somebody, for example, Pete, you and I were grabbing a coffee. I didn’t bring my knitting needles because the conversation is pretty good, but maybe I’ll keep them in my bag in case there’s kind of a lull and we can’t find things to talk about.
But let’s say one of us leaves our phone on the table. We flip it down so as to be respectful to the other person. Another one of my favorite studies that I encountered in writing Hyperfocus was it looked at coffee shop patrons who brought their phone with them to the coffee shop and flipped it face down on the table.
What they found was that on average, these people checked that phone every three to five minutes. People thought they were investing in the relationship, but still there was that constant switching and that attentional residue from that digital world that prevents us from becoming close with the person ….
They found that the phone on the table interfered with their closeness, connection, even relationship quality. Fascinating.
In short the 40 second thing, you’ve seen it within yourself. You saw it at Microsoft and you absolutely buy that it’s for real.
I do in a digital context with that caveat. When we’re having a conversation, it would fare a bit better, but when we’re working in front of a computer, especially when our phone is nearby and especially when we have IM windows open and things like that, we switch contexts more often than we think we do.
Wow, that’s wild. Okay, so that’s kind of the pace there. What would be an optimal pace? If that’s sort of the standard of what is occurring, what would be ideal?
Yeah. It’s a fair question, but the answer is it depends on the type of work that we do. This was something that – I went into writing this book thinking, “Okay, everybody should just focus all day. We should – the longer we can focus for on one sitting, the deeper we’re able to work, the more productive we become and the more we end up accomplishing.”
But there are two types of work that we do over the course of the day. There’s the focus work that we do. For example, a novelist would spend most of their day hunkering down, writing a book. Maybe if they could tame all distractions, leave their phone in another room, have no internet, write it on the typewriter, they could be optimally productive when they cut off the outside world.
On the other side of that focus spectrum, there’s the collaborative and in some cases the hyper-collaborative work that we do. An example of something hyper-collaborative, we’ve all seen the picture of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of Defense, and all those people during the Osama Bin Laden raid.
If everybody in that picture had noise-cancelling headphones on and they were hyper-focusing on that thing and not talking to anybody and … off from external distractions, things may not have gone as well as they did after that picture was taken.
We need to think with the … that are on our plate, where we are on that spectrum. Because if we’re doing something that’s collaborative or even hyper-collaborative, we sometimes need distractions. Often distractions and interruptions are relevant … that we’re currently working on.
But on average we have about 9 to 11 projects that we have on the go at any one time, so the odds that an interruption or a distraction like an email notification relate to what we’re currently doing are in fact pretty low. I think that’s where we have to start with, where we have to think, “Okay, what’s the focus work that I have to do today?” I love playing blocks of time on my calendar where I hyper-focus on these tasks where I’m not available.
But then you have the collaborative things where sometimes it’s good to be interrupted because that’s – collaboration is a process of continuous interruption. We need information from other people. They need information from us, so by interrupting, we can get that information.
It’s fragmented by default in a good way because even though we might not become more productive individually, we become more productive as a system, as a collective group with our team or with whomever we’re working on a project with. I think that’s … start.
Depending on the breakdown of the work we do, we can go from that point to work backward to how much time we should be focusing, hyper-focusing and not.
It kind of reminds me of the makers versus managers in some of the lean startup-y stuff suggesting that makers, the people who created stuff and produced bodies of work with their intellect, whether they’re coding or designing or writing or editing a podcast or something, need more uninterrupted spaces versus the managers need less of that because they’re more about just kind of look quickly, giving and receiving information that people need to have so that everyone’s coordinated and doing the right stuff.
Yeah, yeah. Totally, yeah. One meeting in the schedule of a maker – if somebody’s a coder and somebody schedules a meeting with her like three in the afternoon, that’s going to disrupt that coder’s entire afternoon and maybe even their entire day because that’s kind of a bit of tension in the back of their mind that they have to dedicate toward that one thing.
I think that was one thing that surprised me. I think this speaks to the benefit of experimenting with the research because a lot of the things that sound good on the surface like, “Oh, we should tame every single distraction we face in our work,” don’t really prove to be true when you actually try them on for size.
It speaks to the value of road testing these ideas, but it also speaks to the value of adapting what works for us and leaving the rest because it’s personal … because of that, the advice is personal. We should take what works for us I think.
Okay. One thing I wanted to dig into in terms of speaking about what works for us is you have a suggestion that we should take a break before we need it, before you’re feeling exhausted, fatigued, bogged down. I’m curious to hear if you have any sort of guidelines in terms of minutes of focus that that is in terms of a range.
For me, what I find, this is been a pattern in the mornings I’ve noticed. It’s like, “Okay, I’m cruising, I’m enjoying it, it’s fun, I’m getting ideas, I’m making connections, I’m flowing and rocking and rolling.” I just sort of go, go, go. Afterwards I go, “Oh man.” It’s sort of like I don’t know when should I say, “I know you’re having fun and enjoying this and being productive, but nonetheless, it would be optimal to stop right now.”
Yeah, stop right now, thank you very much. Yeah, when you’re in the zone – here’s the interesting thing about breaks is the more often we have to regulate our behavior, the greater number of breaks we’ll need.
Sometimes people turn to productivity advice for the wrong reason. They hate their job for example, and … find the motivation to do it, so they think, “Okay, maybe … will help.”
If you have to regulate your behavior – and we all have to stuff we don’t want to do, but if your whole day is stuff you don’t want to do, then you’re going to … breaks, because you have to regulate your behavior and more specifically your attention to focus on stuff, pay attention to stuff, to pay attention to conversations, to get stuff done because it isn’t pleasurable or novel enough.
I would start by that point – at that point. The more you need to regulate your behavior, the greater number of breaks that you’ll need.
I would kind of develop a mindfulness, not on a specific number per se. I was looking for the optimal number and there’s been some interesting studies on breaks. I think one study looked at the optimal number of breaks that we need to take to be optimally productive over the course of the day.
I think they found something like for every 57 minutes we work, we need to take a 13 or a 20 minute break or something along those lines. A number that essentially equals out to one and a half hour break for eight hours of work over the course of the day.
But it really depends and this is the tough part about giving advice. I think a reason why this is – what I learned in the process of writing this book – a reason why we should blanket – we should question all the blanket productivity advice that people give. Question the advice that I’m giving. Question the advice that all of the experts on this show are giving.
Question the advice that especially when it’s blanket productivity advice that everybody should do things a certain way because if you love your work more, you’re going to need fewer breaks. If you … your job and you have to – or you hate a – let’s make things a bit less dark.
Maybe you hate a project that you’re in the middle of and you’re slogging through it and you find you definitely need to tame distractions to eliminate anything that’s potentially more attractive at the moment than what you really want to be doing, then you’re going to need more breaks and you should reward yourself because you’re going to need to recharge your attention more often.
But I think as a general rule we need a one hour break in the middle of the day to divide things up and as well as a couple 15 minute breaks here and there, where we don’t focus on social media, but we give our brain an actual rest.
This is … people make when they take a break is when we take a break we need to rest our attention. We need to let our mind wander because that’s how it recharges because by doing so we don’t need to regulate our focus.
When we just switch to tending to our smartphone instead of leaving that behind and going for a quick walk through nature to the coffee shop, it’s just focusing on something else and then moving our mind to focus on something else, and then moving our mind to focus on something else back to work and we feel like, “Uh, okay, I can’t really take this on. I’m just going to look at email for a bit.” And … do.
Find something that’s …, that doesn’t consume your full attention so you get the benefits of doing something habitual that let’s your mind wander and lets you ideate and plan for the future but still rest up a little bit too.
I dig it, thank you. I also liked the study you referenced that revealed that email can consume much more of our attention than it does actual hard minutes of time. Unpack this one for us.
Yeah, like meetings are kind of the opposite of this idea, eh? A meeting might take up an hour of – I just dropped an eh, inadvertently Canadian. That would be – if I were to publish a memoir, Inadvertently Canadian would be the title I think.
The research on meetings, we don’t bring a lot of attention to them, but they soak up an incredible amount of time, but email is kind of the opposite. On average, I have the stats in front of me. This isn’t in my mind, so I have to tell you that I’m cheating.
On average we spend about 35 minutes on email each day, but on average we also check it 11 times every single hour, which adds up to 88 times over the course of the day.
This speaks to that 40-second study, email being just one of the things that we switch away from our work to, where we focus on something and the way we work from afar looks kind of odd. If an alien were to come down and look at you working or even just a researcher from Microsoft sets up a camera in your office and in a non-creepy way hopefully. Hopefully they tell you.
But they would find that you go from doing something totally productive, you’re in an Excel sheet, you’re typing up your team’s budget to checking your email another time. Or you’re listening at a conference call and you’re contributing, but then there’s a little lull in it where you don’t need to and so you pick up your phone and stop focusing on that and check your email on your phone. It kind of speaks to that idea.
Email is one of those things that we need to tame ahead of time. One study that is fascinating I think and speaks to this, the fragmented attention that we have, is 70% of emails are opened within the first six seconds that they’re received.
Oh my gosh, really?
I notice this in my newsletter stats. I send out a newsletter whenever I publish something. You can see how quickly people open it. It really is opened pretty quickly.
But we can get ahead of this a little bit by hyper-focusing on email, not keeping it open all the time, but maybe setting – say you deal with an incredible volume of email, perhaps setting a 20 minute timer at the start of each hour and during that time you blow through as many emails as you possibly can and then focus on something for the other 40 minutes that isn’t as time sensitive, so you can get out of that reactive mode.
At most, if an email is urgent, somebody has to wait 40 minutes for a response, which they have to do when you’re in a meeting anyway.
Limiting points of contact is another strategy that I think really helps us become a better custodian of our attention where we don’t need all our devices to light up when we receive an email from Amazon telling us that our order is shipping.
I realized this when I was beginning to write the book and pouring over this research, focusing on it, up until the point I had around 25,000 words of research notes. I was pouring through those. I realized an email, my office would be as bright as a Wal-Mart because my watch would light up, my iPad would light up, … would light up, all because I got a single email.
Deleting the email app off of your phone is one of those powerful things that you can do because it just frees up so much attention for focusing on better things.
Oh yes, I am pretty hard core about limiting notifications.
I’m right with you there. Now since you’ve been doing all the research, I love that I can just throw it out to you-
Most of the research. There’s probably a few things that are still-
Every bit of research under the sun, you’ve looked at, which we appreciate your efforts on our behalf.
I think I was looking at a – from a SaneBox blog. I use SaneBox and I love them for the record. The McKenzie Global Institute found the average employee spends about 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to emails. That’s way more than 35 minutes.
Are you – do we know what the mismatch is there? Is it due to much of the time is just looking at it, like, “Oh hey, there it is,” as opposed to “Huh, I will thoughtfully reply to this now?”
Yeah, there would be different methodologies to studying this. Of course different samples. But the ones that I looked at looked at not time logs, but actual logs of, which said that this person was in Outlook for … seconds and then they switched to Excel for 5 minutes 3 seconds. It’s kind of pretty granular the studies that I looked at.
But I would trust the McKenzie name. They definitely have that name. Sometimes a lot of these studies look at time logs that people create for themselves.
Do you know the sample? Maybe they were executives that had those more collaborative type roles, where managers do spend more time in meetings and emails because they play more of that traffic cop role.
It’s back to the maker and the manager idea where managers, another distraction – their day is a bit more distracted and they don’t benefit from these long extended periods of deep focus because they just don’t get them that often.
Understood. Thank you.
I don’t know if that helps, but-
I dig it and I think I buy it in terms of if I just look at my actual sent messages on a given day, it’s like okay, well maybe I sent 20 messages and each of them are maybe 1 to 6 sentences on average. It’s like – well, I guess I didn’t have to think super hard to craft each of those. It may very well be perhaps 35 minutes, and yet, it can pop up – I try to minimize it because I know it has that novelty. It’s like, “Oh, what’s that? Let’s take a look.”
“Yeah, what’s that in the corner of the screen? Chris Bailey emailed me. That’s a new dish cloth he made.”
Well, it’s very pleasurable.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And sometimes threatening frankly.
Well dish cloths can be very – this – yeah, man I have more dish cloths than I know what to do with right now. One of things I’m thinking of doing, just as kind of a side note, is I do a lot of corporate talks and I’m thinking of this would be a cool thing to work into the talk. Talk about knitting and give out a dish cloth that I made for – maybe I’m speaking to McKenzie or something, give out a dish cloth that I made to someone in the audience. It could be fun.
That’s nice. Yeah. And they’ll clamor for it. “Who wants a dish cloth?” “Ahh!”
“I want a dish cloth. Oh my God.”
They’ll just go nuts.
Yeah, like a rock star. This is how I imagine it in my mind at least.
I also want to hear you have a 20-second rule, which I love, because I love the David Allen 2-minute rule. You’ve got a 20-second rule. What’s the rule here?
Yeah, so 20 seconds is a weird number in this way. The research shows that it’s about enough of a temporal distance that something ceases to become distracting or we can use it to bring positive distractions toward us.
I look around my office right now. My meditation cushion is to the right. There’s some nice plants around. There’s a piano to my left, which honestly I haven’t played in a while, so maybe it doesn’t work, but I found it works for other things.
But the idea is if … 20 seconds away, we’re a lot less likely to … into it. If we have a bag of chips that we keep in the basement in the corner in an area that we never go to, that’s a lot less appealing to us than if we keep it in the cupboard in the kitchen and it takes 20 seconds to go down there and fetch them. This is about enough of a temporal distance as something ceases to become a distraction.
We can keep positive distractions around us. I like to keep a lot of books – I have many books around my desk here because they’re a positive distraction. They’re not email. They’re not my phone. My phone is in another room right now. I just looked around to check to make sure I wasn’t lying. My phone’s in another room right now, so I need to leave my office and go to another room in the house. I’m working from home today – in order to fetch it. We can keep distractions that far away.
Another one of my favorite ways of doing this is I’ve relegated/delegated, whatever the hell the word is, I’ve made one device my distractions device. I’ve done this with my iPad. My iPad’s sole purpose is my distractions machine. I check my email, where I don’t have it on my phone and it’s very difficult for me to get to on the computer because my password’s so long.
That’s another use of the 20-second rule, where you keep your password so complicated and long that it takes you 20 seconds to remember and type them in or find them in a certain place. I do that. I use that as a distractions machine and I keep it in another room in the house. It’s … a costly investment. I think our attention is so valuable and that we easily earn that time back in how much more focused we are.
That’s cool. You could even just put your email program, if you have Outlook or Apple Mail underneath or within a folder or two and so it’s like, “Hey, that’s not just one click. You’re going to have to double click something and to double click something else and then open that thing up.” You may take more than 20 seconds to actually pull that off.
Or delete email. Or one of my favorite things to do because I get tempted by this even after looking at all of the other research, I get tempted by things like Twitter throughout the day when I’m not – when I don’t have a distractions blocker like Freedom or Cold Turkey or SelfControl enabled.
What I do is I purposefully make – I go to the site and I say change my password, and then I literally – I enter it, open a text document and bang on my keyboard until I have a series of letters and numbers. I paste that into each of the fields. I log out.
Then I need to go through the whole process to reset my password and do the double set verification. Did you make – are you the one who did this. Open up your email. Here’s the reset link. Verify that it’s you. That takes more than 20 seconds, a minute or two. But if I really need to get into Twitter, I’ll get into Twitter, but there will be a cost to doing so that’s at least 20 seconds long.
I love it. Well, Chris, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?
I want to give people something practical. I think we covered most of the stuff.
Honestly, I mentioned distraction blockers for a little bit. I always like giving people some tactical things to walk away with. I think download a distractions blocker while you’re in this mindset of taming distractions because this feeling will be fleeting. It’s easy to go back into working the same way that you did before.
If you’re on the go, open up your calendar app and schedule a little 15 minute block of time, download an app. Freedom is a great example of one. Cold Turkey is a great example of one. SelfControl is a great example of one. RescueTime is a great example of one. Some of these work across devices. Freedom being one of them. Download it and schedule a few blocks of time in your calendar that nobody will book you in that you can use to focus on just one thing at a time.
Tame distractions, enter into this mode, and have some fun with it. Whenever I enter into a distractions-free mode, I like to make a cup of coffee or go to a café if I’m – or maybe I’m on an airplane and I order something off the little menu. Have some fun. Have a coffee. Maybe listen to some music that you like that you find conducive to focus. Focus on what’s important.
You might feel some … at the start. If you do, ask yourself “Could I focus for an hour?” Maybe you say no. “Okay, well 45 minutes?” “Uh.” “30?” “Uh.” “25?” “Yeah, I could focus for 25 minutes,” and you focus for 25 minutes and you take a break and you go from there.
Be kind to yourself because, especially at first – I remember when I was first starting with these ideas in Hyperfocus, I couldn’t focus for a few minutes, but it’s a muscle that you build over time and now I can do it for a few hours just by using these ideas.
Maybe a couple tactical things to end with. Download a distractions blocker, schedule blocks of time in which you can focus and defend the time religiously because your attention is worth it.
I love it. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote?
I love – have you had Seth Godin on the show?
You should. My favorite quote is from him. He said “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” …
I dig it. Thank you.
How about a favorite book?
Book? Probably – it’s a bit hippy bippy. If you get the book, keep that in mind. Again, question everything. But Mindfulness in Plain English. I forget the monk who wrote it, but it’s essentially a book on how to practice mindfulness and meditation. I found it to be so accessible and this is what got me into meditation and mindfulness in the first place. Maybe it will for you too.
How about a favorite habit?
Habit? I think the distractions-free mode is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Meditation is one of my favorites. Ordering copious amounts of pizza and drinking wine and watching Netflix is also – it’s not a habit, but it’s a nice ritual that kind of – it’s nice.
I want to do that immediately.
Yes. Yeah, if you’re listening to this-
You’re painting a picture for the end of the workday.
If you’re listening to this, forget about the podcast, forget about what we’re talking about, schedule a block of time in your calendar tonight in which you can binge watch Netflix and wine and Indian food or pizza, whatever your style is.
Lovely. Do you have a final additional call to action for folks?
That’s my call to action. Honestly, your attention – the one thing that I learned from looking at hundreds – some people say they looked at hundreds of studies, I read like hundreds of studies front to back and I’m very convinced after doing so that people who say they’ve looked at all the research, haven’t because it’s difficult to read a study from front to back.
The final challenge I will give to you is to use this research to your advantage because if there’s one thing that I uncovered looking at it all it’s that the state of our attention determines the state of our life.
If our attention is overwhelmed in the moment, we’re going to be overwhelmed. If our attention is pulled in a thousand directions in the moment and we’re putting it in a thousand different places in the moment, we’re going to feel pulled in a thousand different directions and we’re going to feel overwhelmed in return.
But on the flip side, if you deliberately manage this ingredient that you have that makes you more creative, it makes you more productive, and you can bring more meaningful things to your attention to actually focus on them and savor them and appreciate them. I think these moment-to-moment things and experiences and events are what accumulate to, at the end of the day, create a life.
The more productive and meaningful and creative things that we focus on, the more productive and creative and meaningful our life becomes. Use this to your advantage. Pay attention to the research, but maybe more important than that, pay attention to what you have to do on a daily basis in order to make your life better because of it. Because it’s worth doing I found. That’s one thing I’d like to impart on you.
Lovely, thank you. Well, Chris, this has been a pleasure yet again. Please keep up the great work and congrats on all you’ve done with the book, Hyperfocus, and everything else.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.