What Productivity Means: An Interview With Author Chris Bailey

Step back from work to become more productive, says the author of Hyperfocus

Jill Duffy
Jill Duffy / January 17, 2019

What do we gain by slowing down and not working? According to Chris Bailey, the answer is potentially a more productive life.

When we take time away from working, whether to meditate or reflect on what we want to accomplish, we allow ourselves to see the big picture or better prepare for whatever it is we need to do. Taking 20 minutes to train the mind how to focus or otherwise get into the right mindset before tackling work can lead to more effective working time with fewer distractions, less procrastination, and more intention.

Bailey is the author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, both of which show how we can be more productive in a world full of distractions. Here, he shares some of his thoughts on what productivity means and how he thinks the typical person can increase their personal productivity.


"The internet is where our intention goes to die."

Jill Duffy: Personal productivity has become something of a marketing point or a sales point, not just in business software but also with consumer products. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? What is the promise?

Chris Bailey: Who doesn't want to become more productive?

JD: I'll counter that with, "What does that really mean?"

CB: That was the point I was going to make next. We need to define it properly. Everyone seems to have a different working definition of what productivity is. Some companies see it as doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster. Some people see it as "I have a list of 30 things to do over the course of the day. How am I going to get all 30 done or at least 25?"

I choose a different definition, and it's one a few colleagues of mine in the productivity space have adopted, too. It's accomplishing what we intend to do.

If our intention is to empty our email inbox, write a report, and update our budget in Excel, and we do, I would argue that we're perfectly productive. The same is true if we intend to rest and unwind on a beach with a piña colada, soak in the sun, or drink coffee all day. If that's our intention and we do that, we're perfectly productive.

The key to productivity is in the decision that comes before our actions. We can't become more productive without also becoming more intentional in how we spend our time and attention.

This is something people miss in the pursuit of productivity because they're overwhelmed. They don't always realize that the best way to accomplish more is to, instead of becoming more deeply immersed in the work, do the opposite and take a step back from what you do over the course of the day. It lets you see what's important.

JD: On that same thought trajectory, I think a lot about how the typical person views technology in their life. It has this dichotomous problem in that, on the one hand, it promises to increase productivity. You'll be more efficient. Using certain apps will help you save time. And on the other hand, technology is probably the number one focus of our distraction. People want to become more productive because they see themselves being drawn in and distracted by the Internet, video games, or anything else online. What do you think of that push and pull?

CB: Just out of curiosity, do you think that, overall, technology is a good thing or a bad thing for productivity? Overall.

JD: Overall, I think it a tool. With any tool, it's about how you use the tool. But I want to hear what you have to say.

CB: [Laughs!] I agree with you! Technology should exist for our convenience. It's a tool, but it's also a tool that we need to take control of. It's near impossible to search the internet with intention. The internet is where our intention goes to die. Our intention gravitates like a magnet to three things: anything that's pleasurable, threatening, or new and novel. The internet provides us with a candy store of all three of these factors.

Productivity Project book cover

There are some people who use technology to become more productive, and there are some people who are more distracted by it. I think the difference is whether we use technology with deliberateness and intention, and whether we take control of it.

Speaking from personal experience, I like to think of myself as a pretty productive guy. But if I don't write with a distractions blocker enabled when I'm not on a deadline, I'm going to fall into these same pitfalls of distraction. If my phone is nearby, I'm going to pick it up and tap around mindlessly. I'm going to end up on Reddit, and I'm going to check email, and Twitter…

We need to A) realize that our attention gravitates toward anything novel, threatening, or pleasurable, and the internet can take advantage of this bias embedded in our brain; and B) get out ahead of this bias and realize that regardless of who we are, when we're not on a deadline, we're going to get distracted because our work isn't very structured. We need to use distraction blockers. We need to disconnect from the internet for big chunks of the day.

I'm disconnected from the internet everyday from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. so that I can ease out of the day and into a new one. We need to log out of our social media accounts. I find if I'm particularly distracted, I'll go to Twitter, I'll reset my password, then I'll go into Word, mash on my keyboard for a few seconds and then copy and paste that text into the field for creating a new password, but I won't save it, which means I have to go through the password reset process to get back in.

"We can't become more productive without also becoming more intentional in how we spend our time and attention."

We need to get out ahead of these impulses and realize that one minute of taming things ahead of time will allow us to make that time back 30 times over.

JD: It sounds like what you're saying is you build an environment that creates hurdles based on what you know about yourself and where and how you get distracted, and the hurdles are surmountable, but they remind you to stay focused on your intention.

CB: Exactly. In my latest book, Hyperfocus—a lot of people think I wrote it because I have this stuff together. The opposite is the case! After I published my first book about productivity, I realized how distracted I was and thought, if this is a challenge that I'm facing, maybe other people are facing it as well. Maybe there's a deeper answer here. Maybe I wrote it because I'm so distracted.

It's common-sense advice, but creating hurdles is something we need to do.

JD: I saw on your website not long ago a post about meditation and mindfulness. There's a resurgence of interest in it among the productivity community. Could you share a little bit about your personal experience with mindfulness and meditation, such as how you go about it and what you derive from it?

CB: I like how you phrased the question. People think there's a new trend toward mindfulness and meditation. It's always been there. But now it's taking hold in these niches, such as the productivity niche and the business niche.

The reason I meditate is because it has been shown to increase our working memory capacity. This is essentially the RAM of the mind, and the science shows that how much information we can process in the moment increases about 30 percent when we practice meditation regularly [according to a study of adolescents]. No other practice can do this. For example, investing in our happiness increases our working memory a little bit. But meditation is in a league in and of itself.

I find I'm able to delve deeper into conversations because of it. I find I'm able to notice the meaning in my life and situations I'm in compared to when I don't meditate. I find I'm able to write more deeply. If I didn't meditate, there's no way I could have written two books about productivity. I write about 40 percent more words over per day on days when I meditate.

The honest to god truth is that I'm so into getting more out of my time that I wouldn't meditate if it didn't allow me to accomplish more over the course of the day, as shallow as that might seem! It does make me a better person. It makes me more empathetic. But that's not why I do it. For every minute I spend on the meditation cushion, I make back two or three in how much more focused I am and how much less distractible I am throughout the day.

" Productivity is doing what we intend to do."

There's a disconnect between our time and how much we accomplish when we do knowledge work for a living. If you work on an assembly line and you work four hours instead of two, you might make eight widgets instead of four, whereas one programmer who works smarter, work more deeply, and slow down a bit to connect information on the fly and works with fewer distractions might be able to accomplish ten times in the same day as someone who procrastinates.

Because meditation takes time, it turns people off. There's an inherent guilt in slowing down. Whenever we step back, we feel guilty because we begin to consider the opportunity cost. If we're working out, we could be working. If we're meditating, we could be working. If we're disconnected in the evening, we could be working. So we don't easily realize how these things could be good for us in the medium to long term.

We should feel guilty about not meditating as opposed to meditating.

JD: We know a decent amount about how people create new habits. If you want to create a new habit, you really can't do more than one at a time. To pick up two new habits simultaneously is pretty hard. Three is virtually impossible. But there's a misconception about increasing productivity in that people think about it as one activity rather than a series of many habits that they have to cultivate.

Along those lines, do you see common misperceptions people have about changing their personal productivity? Or conversely, are there one or two things you think people should focus on first when they've decided they want to change some habits to become more productive?

Hyperfocus book cover

CB: The biggest misconception is that productivity is about getting more done. The reason we have that misconception is because there usually aren't enough hours in the day to do all we want to get done.

When you come at it from the other direction, and it's about getting the right things done deliberately and with intention, you can see that maybe productivity is about stepping back. Maybe productivity is about disconnecting. Maybe we need to rise above the trenches and look down upon our work and have that higher perspective of what is important.

That's the best possible starting place when consuming productivity advice.

You could consume productivity advice for 24 hours a day for the rest of your life and not run out of advice. Most of it isn't helpful, honestly. A lot of it is about organizing the things on your plate, or these five- or ten-step systems for getting more done. If you don't have a good definition, you can't filter that advice.

Here's what I find helpful whenever I'm consuming anything that's productivity related. I start with the definition that I like the most: Productivity is doing what we intend to do. Then I can ask, "What allows me to accomplish more of what I set out to do?"

Sometimes we overlook the things that are in front of us the whole day. If you spend your time organizing what's on your plate, you might miss the fact that certain apps are affecting your mood. Happier people are 31 percent more productive than people who are in a negative or a neutral state. We need to take this to heart.

When we organize everything on our plate at the expense of examining the effects of everything that's right in front of us, like how much time we spend watching TV or how much negative news and information we consume, we miss the point! We miss that these things that affect our mood.

"Sometimes we overlook the things that are in front of us the whole day."

I think we need a good working definition of productivity, and we need to filter the advice we consume through that lens, and the best definition that I've found is whether we've accomplished what we set out to do.

JD: How do you go about setting your intentions?

CB: I set three every single morning.

JD: In your head? On paper?

CB: On paper. I keep them in an app called Things.

JD: Do you have a moment, like at the beginning of the year or the beginning of the month, when you set larger goals?

CB: I've experimented with different timelines. I set intentions daily, weekly, and yearly.

For today: 1) Write for 60 hyper focused minutes, which means distraction-free. 2) Pack and prepare for a trip I'm going on tomorrow. 3) Have fun in a few interviews I have today.

The intentions aren't always to do something intense. They're often to rest and recharge.

My yearly intentions are—and these are both personal and work ones—first, earn out the advance of Hyperfocus. Second, give talks that change lives. And third, incubate and begin thinking about a potential third book down the line. Personal intentions: Overhaul my body composition through fitness and a healthy gut; develop deeper relationships in life; and the third is a retirement savings goal for the year.

Some of these are difficult to measure. How do you measure whether you changed lives after a speaking engagement? But I review this list every week to make sure I'm acting toward these goals and that I'm on track. What you do on a daily basis feeds into what you want to accomplish on a weekly basis. And what you do on a weekly basis feeds into the goals that are on the longer-term list.

JD: On a lighter note, you already mentioned you use Things. Do you have any other apps, websites, books, games, lifestyle stuff—anything else you're into that you want to share?

CB: I'm really into knitting right now.

I try to use very few apps. I use Things, as well as Simplenote for capturing ideas. I'm really into my happy light because it gets dark here in Canada.

JD: That's a UV light that replicates natural light, right?

CB: Yeah. It's a good boost.

These days I'm really into recharging and resting. After big projects and accomplishments, we don't give ourselves enough time to rest. Publishing a book is like that. You go from doing so many interviews and being on all the time, and right now I'm doing a lot of talks. I really believe that after we ship a big project, we need to reward ourselves. We need to come down off of it.


Interview conducted November 14, 2018.

Photo by Chris Roussakis, CC.

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