Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Chris Bailey on Productivity Hacking and Hyperfocus

Chris Bailey on Productivity Hacking and Hyperfocus

In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Chris Bailey about his book Hyperfocus and techniques for productivity hacking.

Key Takeaways

  • For many of us, having available time is not the problem – it’s having available attention 
  • We all have a chronotype which shows the time of day when we are most productive 
  • Productivity is about more than just managing time – it’s about managing time, energy and attention
  • Research shows that we tend to focus on one thing for only 35-40 seconds before being distracted
  • Tasks that lead to procrastination have seven things in common: Those are whether a task is boring, whether it’s frustrating, whether it's difficult, whether it's ambiguous, whether it is unstructured, whether it's lacking in personal meaning, and whether it's lacking in intrinsic rewards.

Show Notes

  • 00:00 Shane: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm at Agile 2019 and I'm sitting down with Chris Bailey. Chris gave the opening keynote on Monday morning and is a self-confessed productivity nerd. 
  • 00:19 Chris: I am. That's right, sir. 
  • 00:21 Shane: Welcome, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
  • 00:23 Chris: Thanks for having me. 
  • 00:24 Shane: Starting with that, what does it mean to be a productivity nerd? 
  • 00:27 Chris Oh my God. Like we only have so much time every day. And so I thought, you know, there's some people with the time they have everyday, who are able to accomplish an incredible amount. They're able to ship big projects, they're able to build big companies, and then there are the people who struggle to get by over the span of the day.
  • 00:43 So what separates those two groups of people? This has been a deep curiosity of mine for over a decade now ,I think, and I graduated from university college. Oh, I can't remember how long it was ago now, but I received a few full time job offers when I graduated, but I thought if there's ever a time to geek out about this topic, to deeply explore it, it was then. So I declined the jobs to start a blog about productivity, which is a difficult decision to explain to a grandparent, never mind a parent, never mind just a random person.
  • 01:14 But luckily it gained traction. Luckily it gained an audience, and that led to a book called The Productivity Project. Then, you know, I continue to poke and prod at my mind and how we all work and how distracted we are, and how it's difficult to focus and this idea that we only have so much time every day, what are we going to do with it?
  • 01:34 And that's led to this book that's in front of us now. And that's the only plug, I promise, to do for the book. 
  • 01:42 Shane: And the book is called Hyperfocus and we will put the link into the show notes.
  • 01:47 One of the things that really intrigued me in your talk was the experimentation approach that you've taken.  Now in the agile space we talk about inspect and adapt, and the empirical evidence and in programming and technology, we do that.  But you did it on yourself. Do you want to tell us about some of those experiments? 
  • 02:05 Chris: That was very much an N of one. Right? It was just only on me. So there were a few of them, like living in isolation for 10 days to experiment with not surrounding myself with people or sunlight, and there were other experiments such as drinking only Soylent for a month instead of, have you heard of Soylent? This food substitute, it's a liquid that apparently it contains all the nutrients that you need to get by in life. I tried doing that for a month. That was the only one that I failed. Miserably at, because I just love food so much. 
  • 02:38 Shane: That sounds like torture. 
  • 02:40 Chris: It was, it really was like food is my core competency, and it was just a terrible month, to gaining 15 pounds a muscle mass in another experiment, which showed, you know, productivity isn't just about the quick hacks, it's not just about time management. It's also about managing our energy. It's also about cultivating how much energy we have. Working around the rhythms of our focus and our energy. I tried working 90 hour weeks for a month, working 90 hours a one week then 20 hours the next, then 90 than 20. 
  • 03:08 First we overestimate how many hours we work by an insane margin. When somebody is randomly surveyed and say they work 70 hours, they usually overestimate how many hours they work by 20 to 25 hours. When they say that's the case.
  • 03:23 And this was the benefit of a lot of these experiments is it showed the misconceptions that I had about productivity in general. There's that saying the early bird gets the worm.
  • 03:33 Are you an early bird? What'd you say? 
  • 03:35 Shane: No, given the calculation that we did, I'm a night owl. Tell us a bit about that.
  • 03:40 Chris: Yes, for sure. So the idea is based on our chronotype, which is essentially just when we're wired to have the most energy, we can calculate the peak energy time of the day that we have. So that we can do our focus work during that time. We can have our most important meetings and conversations during that time. We can hunker down and bang out 200 lines of code during that time of the day. 
  • 04:03 Whereas the other times of the day when we're kind of blah, why, when we're struggling to get one more dragging our feet, we can accommodate those times too by doing more creative work.
  • 04:12 And so we're most focused when we have the most energy, but when we have the least amount of energy we're the most creative, and so we can work around that.
  • 04:21 One experiment that I feel you would hate as much as I did was waking up at 5:30 every single morning for three months. 
  • 04:28 Shane: Oh, I can go to sleep at five, but ...
  • 04:31 Chris: Yes, me too, man. But waking up, then it's like I'm not hosting a morning show by any means, you know? It's not the kind of life I live, but I've had the routine that productivity dreams are made of, or so I thought.  I woke up at 5:30 every morning. I meditated, I went for a run or a workout. I read the paper for that time, and then I realized I absolutely hate this ritual. I have to go to bed when people are hanging out and inviting me out to, I live in Canada, so to catch the hockey game at the pub, and I have to wake up when I really don't want to. And that led to a lot of research, and this was. You know, experiments with an N of one make for a fun story, but it's the research that tells the story of what we're actually like.
  • 05:14 And that led to some research on how there is no difference, you'll be happy to hear, there is no difference in socioeconomic standing based on what time we wake up at. 
  • 05:23 So people who wake up at 4:30 these insane people, maybe some of them are listening if they haven't tuned out already. You know, these people who wake up at 4:30 are just as successful as people to wake up at 8:30 or 9:30 like you and I, much of the time.
  • 05:37 It's really what we do with the hours of our day after we wake up that make the difference in our life, that make the difference in how, you know, I hate the word successful because everybody has a different definition and it brings the mind.  You know, if somebody hears that there's a speaker on the podcast and he's talking about success, it brings to mind one of those success speakers with the slicked back hair and stuff.
  • 05:58 But it really doesn't make a difference. 
  • 06:00 It's how deliberately we work in live after we wake up and make the difference. And that's really at the heart of every good productivity tactic. It's the tactics that allow us to work and live more deliberately and thoughtfully and intentionally. That's what lies at the core of what it means to be productive.
  • 06:18 It's not working on autopilot. It's not being responsive. It's not doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster. Cause when the hell do you stop, it's about doing the right things deliberately and with intention. 
  • 06:32 Shane: Intentionality, deliberate, thoughtful, but I'm busy. 
  • 06:38 Chris: No, you're not. 
  • 06:39 Shane: I've got lots of things on my plate. We talk in the agile space about the limiting our WIP, our work in progress, and we're terrible at it. 
  • 06:48 Chris: We tell ourselves a lot of stories about our busyness, don't we? And especially one thing to keep in mind surrounding this story is notice when you tell yourself you don't have time for something.
  • 07:00 So many of us have time to wake up in the morning and then poke and prod at our phone for 20 or 30 minutes while we're still laying down in bed. But then somebody asks us to coffee later on in the day and, Oh, we don't have time for that, or people are grabbing drinks after work and, Oh we don't have time for that.
  • 07:16 People say, Oh, I haven't had time to read a book in years, but they have time to go on Instagram for an hour a day. The average American watches over four hours of television every single day. And so, we think we don't have time for a lot of things, but really on a personal level, we don't have the attention for it.
  • 07:34 And that's a distinction that's really, really worth making is, as far as I see it, the picture of our productivity, I think has three parts. There's our time, so we have to manage our time, but we've always had to do this, right? 
  • 07:46 We've always worked around the schedules of other people, and since the train system came into being in the United States, in North America, it’s kind of synced up the times that we all live by.
  • 07:55 And so we're in sync. We have meetings, we have calls, we have sessions to run. And there is a second ingredient energy, which we've touched on, you know, that's why fitness is, or even just elevating our heart rate every single day, is critical. Drinking enough water. Some people come to me for productivity coaching, and the first thing I do, they think I'm wasting their time, but the first thing I do is I ask them, how much water do you drink every single day? Because sometimes that's all you need to do in order to get to a higher level of performance is drink enough water, put good fuel and hydration into your body, 
  • 08:29 But there's a third ingredient in addition to time and energy, and that's attention, that we need to manage stronger than the others because it's asked of us that we give our attention to so many different things, right? 
  • 08:43 If you're listening to this podcast right now, chances are, look around you, there are so many things that can compete for your attention. Maybe your attention is waxed and waned as you've been listening, maybe to a chore that you were doing around the house, maybe to a message that came up on your phone. Maybe if you're in front of a computer doing some mindless survey, maybe that called for your attention as well. And we live in a world of limited attention. And if you look at the latest research, it shows that when we're doing work in front of a computer, especially when our phone is nearby, we focus on one thing for an average of just 40 seconds before we switch to focusing on something else.
  • 09:19 And I touched a bit on this in my talk. So, I apologize if some folks listening were at the session, but this lowers to 35 seconds when we have Skype or Slack open while we're trying to work. And so this ingredient, it's so critical that we manage it well, 
  • 09:36 Shane: What do we do. 40 seconds. 35 seconds.  How do we increase that? 
  • 09:42 Is it just turn off all of those things? But I need to be accessible, I need to be available, and maybe something happens that I'm going to miss out on. 
  • 09:49 Chris: Oh my God, man. Some news story that's happening, perhaps. Well, this is what, Oh man, I promised to not plug it, but this is kind of a natural thing to mention, this is the impetus for writing Hyperfocus, was I noticed how distracted I was personally. And the first book that I wrote, I gave advice on how to tame distraction. And so I said, we should be taming our devices. We should use our phone less. We should be doing this with our computer. But then I realized that it became over time, more and more difficult to follow my own advice.
  • 10:22 And, whenever I notice that trend, you know, first of all, you need a bit of self-awareness and, and you know, just to admit to yourself that you might've been wrong, but that was kind of the signal that maybe there's a deeper picture there, that the advice that I was giving was missing and trying to follow was missing and the advice that other people we're giving, we're missing as well. 
  • 10:43 And so that set me on a whole course of gathering research surrounding how our attention works. And I think it's critical to start with what the foundational problem is. 
  • 10:55 We think the problem is that we reside in a world of distraction that's always calling for our attention, that is a problem, but that's a symptom of the problem that runs much more deeply than that.  Which is that our minds don't just fall victim to distraction, our minds crave distraction. There's a mechanism in our mind called the novelty bias, whereby for every new and novel thing we direct our attention at our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine. That same beautiful pleasure chemical we experience whenever we make love or order a pizza, Little Caesars has this pepperoni and cheese stuffed pizza with the parmesan crumbs on it, Oh, Shane, it's so good, man. And the dopamine is released, but that same chemical is released every time we turn to a distraction because of this novelty bias.
  • 11:48 And so we don't just fall victim to it. It isn't just that distraction is the most interesting thing in the moment. It's that on a fundamental level, our mind rewards us for seeking then finding it.  
  • 12:00 Which leads us to follow this distraction every 40 seconds or so. It's actually served us pretty well. I feel, you know, some of the listeners might be as geeky as I am about this kind of stuff. So it's interesting to talk about the history, 'cause it served us pretty well over the course of our evolutionary history because instead of  hyperfocusing on building a fire and not noticing the saber tooth tiger that was encroaching in and rustling the feathers. We noticed the tiger, we dealt with the threat, hopefully, we survived to live another day and build another fire.  
  • 12:34 But these days, of course, the nearest tigers are at the zoo and the rustling of the feathers, those are the notifications that come in on our phone that tempt us and then reward us.  The best kind of equivalent for that digital rustling is that email notification that comes in in the corner of your screen as you're working. That's a digital equivalent of the rustling of the leaves that we used to get rewarded for paying attention to. It was a survival thing and you know, it's great we have this mechanism, but it's actively setting us behind today. 
  • 13:07 Shane: So we've got the mechanism. Yeah. We know about it. 
  • 13:11 Chris: Yes.
  • 13:11 Shane: We've deconstructed the problem a little bit. We're doing some analysis. 
  • 13:15 The parts are on the table, how do we synthesize it and put it back together? 
  • 13:20 Chris: Yeah. The answer is twofold because you know, we kind of blame it on the world, the fact that we're distracted, but we need to look at two places. 
  • 13:31 The first is internally. And the second is externally. 
  • 13:35 So the external are the hacks that we can do to modify our environment and our technology to be less distracted. Because frankly, there are the times that we seek out distraction and then there are the times that the distractions kind of seek us out and we need to tame both of those equally, 
  • 13:52 The answer is to make your mind a bit less stimulated and because there's so much dopamine coursing through your mind because of this novelty bias that he got to get that down. You got to get that settled a little bit, and there are multiple ways of doing this, but one of the best ones is to let your mind wander.
  • 14:09 Let your mind rest. Have periods of time, it takes us about eight days to settle down into a new lower level of stimulation, and this maps on top of research that shows that when we're on vacation, it takes us about eight days to fully settle down. So, vacation time is actually a really good time to do this.  You get to reward yourself while you settle your mind a little bit, but for a period of two weeks, challenge yourself to do, I hate the word detox, it's kind of a digital detox, which my friend Cal Newport talks a little bit about in his book, Digital Minimalism. There, I'll plug somebody else's book to offset. 
  • 14:45 But for two weeks try this. Limit the amount of screen time that you have. Delete any non-essential apps. Have a daily disconnection ritual from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM every day, try to disconnect as best you can. Have a technological Sabbath that you and your family follow so you can break out the cards in a play some Euchre, when was the last time you played Euchre besides at grandma's house? 
  • 15:06 And so you know, do what you can to make your mind less stimulated. There is an experiment that I conducted over the course of this project where I made myself bored for an hour a day for a month. And so, I put a call out to readers on my website at the time, and I asked them, what's the most boring thing that you can think of doing for an hour a day? Because I want to make myself bored for an hour a day. So, one day I read the iTunes terms and conditions. Another day I watched a clock ticking. So luckily it had a second hand, which made it quite exciting. You'd be happy to hear. Another day I read Wikipedia articles related to rope, but anything to get my mind less stimulated.
  • 15:45 And I found that at the other side of stimulation was a world of focus. The first week was hell. I mean, I'm not going to beat around the bush. It's not necessarily the most graceful of processes to get your mind into a state of lower stimulation. But once you do. You'll be able to focus like you used to, you know, before you had your phone attached at your head, beeping and buzzing, and that solves the internal side of the equation.
  • 16:13 Shane: But what do you do when you go back to work. 
  • 16:15 Chris: When you go back to work, when the vacation's over. You know, you need those routines at home still to disconnect to make sure that you don't get into a heightened level of stimulation and there will be the distractions that come to you, but you'll find that you'll seek out them less and less often.
  • 16:33 There are the periods of time throughout the day where we so often are craving a hit of distraction essentially. Cause that's exactly what it is, on a neurological level, distraction releases dopamine. We take hits of distraction. You'll find that that drops precipitously. But again, there are still the external ones that come to us and you know, set up filters and  trying to solve distraction is like trying to solve rain right? 
  • 17:01 You can't stop rain from falling. You can't stop email from coming in. You can't stop Slack messages from coming in. You can't stop people from coming by your office and saying, Hey, Shane, yet, do you have a minute? That was your vacation, first of all. Second of all, these are the six things that happened when you're away that it would be great if he can action within the next half hour, but creating filters, especially around email. 
  • 17:23 Creating rituals such as batch-checking email, doing email sprints, that it's one of the best strategies available because you know, the fact of the matter is we do two types of work throughout the day. We do work that's focused, that requires only us, and we do work that's collaborative. That requires us interfacing with other people.
  • 17:43 And interruption is kind of a necessary by-product of doing work that's collaborative. It's the cost of collaborative work, the biggest cost of doing collaborative work, but email sprints are a wonderful strategy, or Slack sprints or any message sprints. They're a wonderful strategy for getting on top of that for batching those collaborative tasks so that we have more time for ,and attention for, focused work too.
  • 18:06 Shane: Just thinking about back at work, I've got used to being bored. 
  • 18:11 Chris: You've enjoyed your vacation. Where did you go? 
  • 18:14 Shane: I live in New Zealand, close to the beach. So I spent most of the time down on the beach, walking on the beach. 
  • 18:20 Chris: I'm going to come visit.
  • 18:21 Shane: You're very welcome. Might've taken a bit of a road trip and gone to see some of the mountains and some of the scenery.
  • 18:31 Maybe here's a plug, maybe gone to Hobbiton. 
  • 18:35 Chris: There you go. 
  • 18:36 Shane: Take my grandkids Hobbiton, they love it. 
  • 18:38 Chris: Plug central here. 
  • 18:42 Shane: So I've come back to work. I'm used to maybe at night-time reading books instead of looking at my devices, and I'm okay with a bit of boredom and I'm now back at work. And all the pressure's starting to build up. How do I prevent falling into this trap again?
  • 19:02 Chris: I think a big part of is clarity for what's actually important. I'll share one of my favourite productivity rituals. It's not necessarily a ritual, it's more of a strategy, one of my favourite ones of all times. So you know, the golden rule of productivity advice is for every minute you spend reading about productivity or trying out the advice, you have to make that time back and then some, right?
  • 19:23 Because, it’s productivity, it's not like fitness, it's productivity. So, it has to have that return and minute for minute that this activity is one of my favourites of all time. And it's a way of figuring out the most important tasks that you're responsible for. And so, here's the activity. 
  • 19:41 So sit down, you know, get a coffee, maybe a glass of wine even, or a pint of something or other, or just a coffee or tea, and with a sheet of paper in front of you and a pen, make a list of every single thing that you're responsible for in your work. Every single activity that you do over the span of a given month, everything, get everything out, small, big, short, tall, skinny, whatever. Get it all out of your head and onto the sheet of paper.
  • 20:10 Then once you have all those things, first of all, that's, it's kind of refreshing the exercise in and of itself, cause you externalize these commitments. But ask yourself if I could only do one thing on this list day in, day out, every single day. Which one of them allows me to accomplish the most,  not produce the most, not become the busiest, not become the most responsive.
  • 20:35 You know, we think we need to be more responsive than we actually need to be, but which one allows me to accomplish the most? Then you can get a second one too. What second one allows you to accomplish the most? What third one allows you to accomplish the most. And with the folks that I work with and speak with and coach, usually after about three tasks, people's marginal productivity falls right off of a cliff, and the marginal return on the tasks beyond that point is so small that we should really be delegating and shrinking and eliminating all the other projects. Or giving them to our teams that we possibly can. 
  • 21:11 Mine are researching, writing, and speaking very simple. Anything that isn't one of those things is taking time away from those things and probably supports my work and can be delegated or eliminated, not many things can be eliminated in practice, you know, we often have to give it to somebody else or shrink it or something along those lines. Like email. We can never get rid of email, but we can do strategies like batch checking it 
  • 21:35 Shane: And unsubscribing from all those lists that you got on by mistake.  
  • 21:42 Chris: Yes, exactly.  Precisely. But then, you know, using that knowledge and acting upon it every week every day. 
  • 21:48 One strategy that I love for this, it's simple. It's lightweight, it's called the rule of three. At the start of each day. Think when the time is done and you know, the end of the day has come, what three things will I want to have accomplished. That's it. That's it. You know, you do other things too, because if you did three things all day, you probably wouldn't have a job after much of a period of time because there is the minutia that we have to keep up with.
  • 22:13 But what three main things will you want to have accomplished by the time the day is done.  Do the same at the start of every week. And if you want every month, every quarter, every year, whatever timeframe you want to use this rule arm. And it's a way to keep in mind these most important priorities that you have these most important activities.
  • 22:31 And it's a way to connect on a daily basis to what's actually important. 
  • 22:36 And it's tough to say no to what comes in, but when you have those daily priorities, you're able to weigh the work that other people give you and try to get you to do against what you find to be the most meaningful and allow you to actually accomplish something of importance to make a difference 
  • 22:53 Shane: In agile terms and in using the language of the technology teams, you're being the product owner of your own time because the product owner responsibility is to prioritize the work for the team. 
  • 23:05 Chris: Yes, precisely. And it works on a team level too, right? Yeah. You know, you might not want to hear the 10 different things somebody is working on, on your team this week, but you'll probably be willing to listen to three things right? And so ask people on your team, you know, what three main things are you looking to get done this week? It forces them to prioritize, and then they might say, okay, how does whatever fit into that? Whatever is more important than those three things. So you can work together to prioritize, you know, 
  • 23:32 This activity where you list out all the activities that you do, get everybody on your team to do that. Everybody should have clarity of what's important and should have an understanding of how that fits into the broader picture of the team and what the team is there to accomplish because it brings more meaning to what we do. We're able to connect with what we're doing.
  • 23:51 Shane: 23:51 And what about the stuff that we would really love to discard, but we just can't.  The emails from the boss that, yeah, we've got to read this thing. Maybe I'm not going to do anything with it, but you know, if they're going to ask if I read it and if I didn't, maybe somebody's going to get tense or whatever. Is it just put it into one of those email sprint blocks?
  • 24:14 Chris: 24:14 I think. So there's always crap work to do, isn't there? And this is the thing, all the productivity advice in the world won't let your boss be less pissed off when you didn't see and respond to that email from her that wasn't really important in the first place.
  • 24:28 But sometimes it's just a matter of, like you said, hunkering down and focus and you know, there is kind of some, you know, I feel as a general rule, we have more control over our time than we think we do because it might take a bit of foresight, but there are always some ways to get out of work that we don't really find that important.
  • 24:47 You know, collaborating with our boss to say, okay, this is an activity that some guy talked about on some podcasts. And you know, I'm thinking is your thinking mapping well on top of this, are these the three things that you think are the most important for me this week? Or are these the activities that you think are the most important for me in general?
  • 25:06 And if they are, can we work together, cause you know, I have a lot of demands that are being pressed on me that aren't important in that case?  And so I think, you know, seeing it as a collaborative thing is often helpful too. So you don't become that guy or that girl who doesn't want to do the crap work.
  • 25:21 Yeah. But there is something to be said about crap work. It's fascinating, especially around procrastination. There are certain attributes of a task that a task can have that make us more likely to put it off. And those are whether, I'll try to remember all seven of them here. 
  • 25:36 Those are whether a task is boring, whether a task is frustrating, whether it's difficult, whether it's ambiguous, whether it is unstructured, whether it's lacking in personal meaning, and whether it's lacking in intrinsic rewards. So the process of doing it isn't that fun. And we can look at the crap work that we do that isn't that fun and said, okay, how can we reverse these triggers of procrastination?
  • 26:01 How can I make this more fun? It's as simple as doing the dishes for an example, if you hate doing the dishes, make a game out of it. How many of them can you blow through in five minutes? That's why I love email sprints because it makes a game out of something as boring and tedious as email.
  • 26:15 If something's unstructured, get some deadlines, get some milestone delivery dates for those things and mind the characteristics of the tasks that you delegate to your team as well. If you're in a position where you lead a team, either directly or indirectly, if the work that you're giving them is unstructured, they're going to put it off. If it's boring, they're going to put it off. If they don't see the meaning in it, so that connection to the broader team, they'll put it off. If they don't see the process as rewarding, so they're not recognized throughout the completion of that thing, they'll put it off. So mind these characteristics on a personal level for you, but on a group level for the team as well.
  • 26:54 Shane: Chris, some great advice and really interesting stuff. 
  • 26:58 Chris: We packed this so big people don't even need to buy the book. 
  • 27:01 Shane: Oh, I'll still tell them to buy the book. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
  • 27:09 Chris: 27:09 I actually have a podcast. My wife and I do it. And it's not just so we can expense trips and stuff. That's called Becoming Better,  if you like to geek out about productivity's as much as we did today. The books are Hyperfocus how to be more productive in a world of distraction and The Productivity Project accomplishing more by managing your time, attention and energy. Both mouthfuls but I'm happy with how they turned out.
  • 27:32 Thank you for having me. 
  • 27:34 Shane: 27:34 Thank you very much indeed.


More about our podcasts

You can keep up-to-date with the podcasts via our RSS Feed, and they are available via SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and the Google Podcast. From this page you also have access to our recorded show notes. They all have clickable links that will take you directly to that part of the audio.

Previous podcasts

Rate this Article