Chris Bailey is a writer who thinks a lot about productivity — he literally wrote the book on it, The Productivity Project.
He has a new book that just hit the shelves: Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. It turns out that when you’re trying to be productive, it’s important to know how to keep your focus.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Chris about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
Chris: My latest project is my book Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, which is a deep dive into the research on how our attention works—how we can sharpen our focus, better relax our attention to recharge, and how we can resist falling victim to distraction (long story short, being distracted isn’t our fault, but there are also science-backed ways we can manage our attention better).
One common theme kept recurring as I connected the research: that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. If we’re distracted in each moment, these moments accumulate, day by day, week by week, year by year, to create a life that’s distracted. When we focus on what’s meaningful and productive in each moment, these moments accumulate to create a life that’s filled with those same qualities.
This surprised me. I went into the project thinking I was writing a productivity book. But the more research I explored, the more I realized that managing our attention isn’t only a way to squeeze more productivity out of our day. It’s a way by which we can live a more meaningful life, and even increase our happiness.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?
Chris: I spend around half of my year on the road. This is totally fine, but last-minute travel can really trip up my healthy habits.
I make sure to plan ahead if I see a heavy bout of travel in my calendar. I stay at hotels with gyms (and bathtubs!), look for healthy take-out options nearby, and schedule time to meditate and talk to friends and my fiancée, all of which ground me and make me happier. Obstacles are a piece of cake—provided we deal with them in advance. Last-minute trips make this planning a lot more difficult.
Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Chris: Yes: that laziness is a bad thing. I’m one of the laziest people you’ll ever meet—and that’s precisely what drives my productivity. My laziness motivates me to look for shortcuts (ones that don’t diminish the quality of my work), and also forces me to carve out room so I can think more deeply about what I’m doing and creating. Setting aside this time for idle thinking is one of the best things we can do for our productivity.
Looking at the state of our attention, we spend so much time responding in autopilot to the tasks that come our way. It’s in the space between doing tasks—when we let our attention rest and wander in these periods that sometimes come across as lazy—that we choose what to do next (we think about our goals 14x more when our mind is wandering versus when we’re focused). This is also when our best ideas strike.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Chris: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
The source of this proverb is unknown, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve found it to be true across pretty much every part of my life. For example, a lot of people assume that putting out a book is a solo project. But speaking from personal experience, the cumulative work of everyone else on the team is likely far greater than my own. Between editing the book, pitching it to media outlets, marketing it, designing the cover, creating translations, and so on, publishing a book (at least in the traditional way) is a team sport.
At work, at home, and everywhere else, our happiness, productivity, and success is intertwined with the happiness, productivity, and success of the people surrounding us. If you think it isn’t, you’re not living up to your full potential.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Chris: I practice Buddhism, and one of its central tenets is that happiness is nothing more than coming to terms with how things change. We can do this by managing our expectations—that’s meant a mental shift where I now believe things never truly go wrong, they just go differently than I expected.
Truthfully, these ideas took a while for me to internalize. Once I did, my stress levels plummeted. This is not to say I don’t strive for success, especially by more traditional measures (money, recognition, and so on). But today, when I notice my happiness is being batted around by external circumstances, I make sure to check what expectations I had in the first place.
When doing so, I often find there’s something I felt entitled to that I shouldn’t have, or some uncomfortable truth that I’m not willing to face about myself or the situation. It’s always worth running towards discomfort.