How can we increase our focus? The answer is simple – we have to learn to manage our attention. Chris Bailey returns to the podcast with his newest book, Hyperfocus. Discover the worst thing you can do for your productivity, the difference between overwork and overstimulation, and the benefits of being bored.
TweetsAre there benefits to being bored? @Chris_Bailey explores the idea of boredom and “adopting a lower stimulation mindset” on the #podcast
Peter: Welcome to The Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Peter: With us on the podcast today us Chris Bailey. Chris has written most recently the book Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. If you’re looking at the video, this is what it looks like. He wrote, before that, The Productivity Project, where you probably first heard him on this show, and I’m delighted to have him back. He’s awesome.
Peter: Chris, welcome to The Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Chris: Hey man, so the first time I didn’t make a big enough fool out of myself, you have me back?
Peter: Well, you know what, if everybody laughs then you just gotta keep them coming.
Chris: That’s right, keep them laughing. One of my favorite monks, his name Ajahn Brahm, and whenever he delivers a story there’s always a bit of humor in it. His saying is that when somebody’s laughing, their mouth is opening and you can throw the wisdom right in. So maybe it’s … I don’t have much wisdom as Ajahn Brahm, but maybe there’s a bit of that going on.
Peter: I think just the fact that you can say the words “my favorite monk” says … I don’t know that most of us have favorite … If you have one monk, that’s probably a lot. So for you to have your favorite-
Chris: Most people know of the Dalai Llama, so I feel like that would be the default pick, but you gotta have a backup monk.
Peter: Favorite monk. So you wrote a book on productivity, then you wrote another, and obviously there was more to say and important stuff to say, I really like this book. What’s the number one takeaway that you share in Hyperfocus, what’s the big point of this book in a sense?
Chris: That the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. What I mean by that is, if we’re distracted in each moment … A moment exists within the context of our life, and so those moments accumulate day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, to create a life that feels distracted, like it doesn’t have a clear direction or a purpose.
Chris: But on the other hand, when we make a more deliberate effort to regulate our attention and focus on things that are important in the moment, then when we make an effort to focus on what’s meaningful and productive our lives feel more meaningful and productive as a result.
Chris: And frankly, this is one of the most surprising things that I uncovered over the course of writing Hyperfocus. I set out to write this book on focusing all day and doing focused work all day long, and to write a book about productivity. But I realized that this is an idea that is bigger than productivity. By managing our attention well, we manage our life well. Attention, especially when we are surrounded with so many distractions, means everything.
Peter: I think you could argue that what we attend to is our life. Meaning, the filter of our life is what we put our attention to.
Chris: Well, one of the folks that endorsed the book, besides a guy named Peter Bregman, was a guy named Shawn Achor. He’s a positive psychology researcher, and he described it as a why by which we can create an adaptive reality where what we focus on becomes our reality.
Chris: Meaning is a great example of that. People always are searching for meaning, they’re trying to find it, instead of just noticing the meaning that’s around them. And I think we can do the same with our productivity, we can notice what’s productive in our work, and make an effort to focus on that. We can notice the meaningful conversations, like the one we’re having right now, and make an effort to focus on that.
Chris: No cheeseburger will be as delicious as the cheeseburger you focus on with 100% of your attention. No conversation will be as meaningful as the one you focus on with 100% of your attention.
Peter: And why is that so hard to do?
Chris: When you couple this with one other idea, we switch between things rapidly, but there’s also a novelty bias embedded within our brain’s prefrontal cortex, where, for every new and novel thing on which we direct our attention, our brain rewards us with a hit of dopamine, that pleasure chemical, which essentially …
Chris: So we go from focusing on email, we get a hit of dopamine, we check Instagram, we get a hit of dopamine, we check the news, we get a hit of dopamine, we focus on a conversation with a colleague, we get a hit of dopamine, we go back to email, we get a hit of dopamine. And so we have so much dopamine coursing through our mind because of this novelty bias, which essentially is just a distraction bias, that we’re so stimulated, and it becomes difficult to settle down a little bit.
Chris: If you ask people to describe their attention, somebody who is in a state of high stimulation, they’ll use words like, “I’m distracted, I feel overwhelmed, I’m overworked, I’m pulled in a thousand directions,” but somebody who’s in a state of lower stimulation, who can read a book and really hunker down on it, who can have a meaningful conversation, will use words like deliberate and thoughtful, and they’ll feel like they have more insights to offer the world.
Chris: So I think a lot of it has to do with just how stimulated our mind is by default.
Peter: So does that mean that we have to be willing to be bored, and unstimulated, in order to be in that place where we come up with insights? I’m thinking about the argument that you’re giving, which I buy, but it’s hard to fight the dopamine hit. Meaning the dopamine hit is actually … If you have a life of dopamine hits, you go “That was an exciting life.”
Chris: Well, you have that too if you do cocaine every day. But that doesn’t necessarily gonna-
Peter: So let’s talk about that, not cocaine, but the … We have to be willing to be bored. How do you convince people that doing the dishes without also watching TV, or a kid doing their homework without also watching a video, or to not multitask because there’s too much for us to do in a single day, but if we do three things at once we get more done …
Chris: We feel like we’re getting more done.
Peter: We feel we get more done, right. You and I would agree that multitasking is a bad idea. But how do we-
Chris: Not always, but most of the time.
Peter: So I want you to explain that in a second, because you talk about scatterfocus, and I think that’s useful. But how do you convince people, or what do you say to people, who might say, “Look, if I’m doing the dishes and I’m watching TV at the same time I’m having more fun.” Why not?
Chris: I think boredom and laziness, and I don’t mean laziness in the sense of vegging out with Netflix in front of the TV with your iPad and your phone there, I mean proper idleness, these are ingredients that are so underrated with regard to our productivity.
Chris: Look at a vacation for example. It takes you a little while to settle into vacation mode, the research shows about eight days. I think stimulation has a similar effect. One of the experiments that I conducted over the course of writing this book, because I like doing these weird experiments to see the research through a different and experiential lens, was making myself purposefully bored for an hour a day for a month.
Chris: So I remember the first day I read the iTunes terms and conditions, which are shorter than you might think, I had the chance to read them two or three times over the course of that hour. Another hour I watched one cloud in the sky passing by.
Peter: So there wasn’t a lot of wind, if you can watch that same cloud for the full hour.
Chris: No. And yeah, it wasn’t a dry day, so the cloud didn’t evaporate either, it was a very big dialogue running through my mind. “Is the cloud gonna evaporate?” I plucked the seeds from-
Peter: And wasn’t that painfully boring?
Chris: Yeah, I plucked the seeds from a strawberry with a pair of tweezers, and various things like these suggested by my readers. It led me to the conclusion that boredom isn’t a desirable emotion. It makes us feel restless. But it’s the process through which we often adjust downward into a state of lower stimulation.
Chris: So I’m a big advocate for taming distractions out of time, because when you look at the fact that we’re surrounded by so many novel things, that are pleasurable and threatening, that take advantage of this novelty bias in our mind, so we need to get out ahead of them, over time we can adjust downward into a state of this lower stimulation where we don’t necessarily feel the restlessness of boredom, but we are able to raise the quality of our attention.
Chris: The quality of our attention, how much control we have over it, determines the quality of our life. And the research bears this out, the more attentional control we have, we become more productive because we’re able to focus. It makes sense.
Chris: But we have been shown to be more satisfied with our life overall. Our levels of happiness go up. We become more creative. Every measure of the quality of our life increases, and it’s because we adjust downward into this state of lower stimulation. I don’t think we need to make ourselves bored necessarily, but it doesn’t hurt.
Peter: I’m curious, I’m gonna ask you something personal here Chris, because I know you well enough to know a little bit about your schedule, and to know that … And also know what it’s like when you come out with a new book, and you’re promoting the new book, and you’re moving around, and you’re doing a lot. I’m just curious to know your experience with slowing down when there’s a lot to do.
Peter: I’ll actually share something personal for me, which is I just got the shingles shot, which is a vaccine, and somehow I got the shingles. So I know-
Chris: Oh, that’s not what you want. That’s the opposite reason why you get the vaccine.
Peter: That is certainly not what you want with the vaccine, right? Which is incredibly painful. But what people are saying is, “You gotta slow down because your immune system’s weakened.” And my answer, which is a little sad to me, is, “What does that actually mean to slow down? I don’t think I’m moving that fast.” And people around me are saying, “You’re actually moving very fast. You’re moving much faster than you even realize.” But I don’t actually realize it.
Peter: When there’s a lot to do, when you’re engaged in your work and you really like it, but you have a sense that it’s important to slow down, but embarrassingly enough you may not even know what that means, I might not even really know what that means. I’m curious to have a perspective from your life, because I know you experience at least a lot of the same scheduling dynamics as I might.
Chris: The same constraints on our time and energy. That’s a big coffee cup that you have, can you bring that back into frame for folks who are watching? It’s like a regular coffee cup, but it’s like somebody stretched it vertically.
Peter: But what I will say is all there is here is lemon and water. Just to be clear, in terms of the conversation, I’m not trying to-
Chris: This is not a vodka soda-
Peter: Hyperstimulate myself, it’s just basically water and lemon.
Chris: A lot of water and lemon.
Peter: A lot of water and lemon.
Chris: Let’s make that clear here. It’s funny, about a week before the book launched, and it was a big book launch in many different countries, it was my sister’s wedding. A couple days before the book launched I got a concussion. Two weeks after the book launch, in the midst of all this traveling and media interviews, sometimes 15, 20 interviews in a day, I got a terrible case of a cold, and then the flu. So slowing down amidst all of that was quite, quite difficult.
Chris: But I think there are ways that we can slow down without compromising the productivity that we have. That slowing down makes us more productive because what we lose in speed we make up for more so in deliberateness with how we act.
Chris: One big change that I’ve made in my own life, just as a very simple example, was subscribing to the physical newspaper every morning. So every morning I wake up at about six, I’m disconnected from the internet until about eight AM, I get two newspapers. Here in Canada we can only get yesterday’s New York Times, so the Times is always a day late, but The Globe and Mail comes day of.
Chris: It’s a wonderful ritual because you go beyond the front page. When you go to thenewyorktimes.com it refreshes every 15, 20 minutes. But the newspaper refreshes once a day, and so once you make it past the front page of the newspaper, and delve into the other sections, the art sections, the science sections, the opinions sections, things that you wouldn’t consume online … It’s a wonderful way to become immersed in a physical experience. We actually read differently with physical mediums, we have a different eye-scanning pattern where we delve into it more deeply. But it’s a simple way to become less stimulated, another example is putting-
Peter: Let me just ask you one quick question about that, because I’m curious. Is that true for Kindle too? If you’re reading Kindle, is it like you’re reading a hard paper, or is it like you’re reading a screen like your computer screen?
Chris: You know what, I don’t know, but I would prognosticate that we read it the same way we read a physical thing, because there are no alternative objects of attention at which we can direct our focus.
Peter: That’s what I would think.
Chris: We have kind of a scanning pattern when we read something online, where we’ll scan a line, then we go to the righthand side of the page, we see the recommended articles, we click on whatever one of those is the most novel in the moment, maybe after 40 seconds or so then we go see that.
Peter: Well, the internet is built to be a distractibility machine. The whole point is everything is a neon blinking sign on the internet. Anytime you do anything, someone else is trying to get your attention to do something else.
Chris: It’s where our intention goes to die. It’s a great way to lose … If you wanna lose control of your attention, go on the internet. If you wanna gain control of your attention, have sex. It’s the most … It’s the way by which we’re able to enter a flow state more so than any other activity. And it also makes us the happiest. There’s happiness to be gained in that way. But slowing down, we focus for longer and differently with physical mediums. Spending less time in front of screens is a great way to slow down as well.
Chris: There’s one study I encountered recently, writing the book, where they ask one group of people, they got one group of people to watch six or more hours of news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings, and they sampled those folks against folks who were in the actual marathon and personally affected by it. They found that the people who had watched six or more hours of news coverage about the marathon were more likely to develop PTSD than somebody who was in the marathon and was similarly affected by it.
Peter: Wow. Right. So interesting.
Chris: Another simple thing that I do that cuts the amount of time I spend on my phone in half every single day, without changing its functionality, is to enable grayscale mode, G-R-A-Yscale. It’s an accessibility feature built into most phones.
Peter: Black and white basically.
Chris: Yeah, it makes your phone screen black and white. So it’s like reading a newspaper, where your phone becomes in black and white, but the world, the person in front of you, is in color.
Peter: So let me ask you a question, honestly, have you changed it back to color because it’s so much more interesting, or do you still have it grayscale?
Chris: I will be 100% honest with you, it is in grayscale mode I would say about 80% of the time.
Peter: That’s great.
Chris: When I look through photos though, when I’m sharing photos, it’s very hard to tell if a photo’s good in grayscale mode. It’s not like one of those black and white filters where it looks really appealing in black and white. So it’s very hard to tell the colors of something, if I’m taking a food picture of butter chicken, every plate of butter chicken looks gray, but some are this vibrant orange color, that beautiful-
Peter: That’s great. So switching your phone to grayscale makes it less enticing, and then you spend less time on it.
Chris: Yeah. Exactly. I find that my time is about cut in half when … I did not expect to find that. But our attention gravitates to anything that’s one of three things. First of all, anything that’s novel, because of that novelty bias. But especially when there’s that novelty coupled with the fact that something’s either pleasurable or threatening to us in the moment.
Chris: So think threatening like the news, or even an email that comes in from your boss. Think pleasurable like Instagram pictures from fitness models, and other websites that will go without naming. These things are more attractive objects of attention to us, and so we really do need to get ahead of that impulse.
Peter: Talk to us about hyperfocus versus scatterfocus very briefly.
Chris: This is actually a surprising that I uncovered in writing the book. I intended to write a book on, “Okay, how do we focus for every minute of the day?” And I eventually came across quite an overwhelming amount of research from my own experience, as well as talking to the researchers and looking at their research, that the worst thing that we can do for our productivity and for our attention is to focus all day long. We need …
Chris: One of my favorite things to do is watch traffic flow. If I’m in a hotel, I look down at the highway below. Flying over in a place, landing into a city, I look down at the highway. There’s a road outside of my office here, and if you look at what allows traffic to move down a highway, it isn’t what you would expect it would be.
Chris: What allows traffic to continue moving fast isn’t how fast cars are moving, but rather it’s how much space exists between the cars that allows traffic to move forward. I would make the argument that our work is the exact same way. In fact, we think about our goals in the future 14 times as much when our mind is at rest and wondering versus when we’re focused.
Chris: And so it’s that space between the tasks that we do that we choose what to focus on in the first place, and replenish how much energy we have, and become more creative because more ideas strike us in those moments. It’s never when we’re focused that our best ideas come to us, it’s when we’re … Scatterfocus is what I call it.
Chris: Managing our attention, that’s kind of the art of it, is learning how to unfocus a bit, and while you become less stimulated when you are focused so that you make some space between things, which allows you to focus on the right things in the first place. It’s kind of this beautiful dance, this tango, between this focused mode of our mind and this wandering, scatterfocused mode of our mind.
Peter: Which means that we have to be much more deliberate about what we’re not gonna do, so that we can create space for the scatterfocus.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. And we feel like we’re being selfish when we say no to something, at least I did before. But it’s really kind of a mental posture of realizing that when you say yes to something that is unimportant, you have less time for your family, you have less … I keep a few pictures of my family right here next to my desk because when I pick up the phone, when my lecture agent calls me, or when I get an opportunity that comes in over email and I’m weighing whether to do it or not, I wanna remind myself of the opportunity cost. It’s not being with them which is the opportunity cost. It’s not that I don’t make a bit of money, for example.
Chris: So I think having that awareness of what you’re giving up when you say yes to something, including saying yes to things in the moment, when you just distract yourself, I think there’s a … It’s such a beautiful kind of awareness.
Peter: You say something interesting, that the research shows that the more impulsive you are as a person, the more stressed you become when you block yourself from distractions.
Peter: Which makes a lot of sense. Impulsivity is actually quite useful for creativity. So I’m curious about what you can say to creative people, who tend to have a lot of impulsivity. How could they create this hyperfocus without building up so much stress on the side of it?
Chris: This is one of the surprising findings. I expected to be able to write that distractions blockers are amazing for our focus, but when you start with the science and then you work backwards to how we should act differently, you realize that when you’re more impulsive that the world is a bit different … In fact, impulsivity, curiously enough, is the character trait that is, there’s that massive cup again, it’s very … This is like a pleasurable, novel thing in my-
Peter: You’re easily distracted, Chris.
Chris: I am.
Peter: Every time I drink.
Chris: Yeah, I’m very easily distracted, that’s why I needed this book. Impulsivity, curiously enough, is the character trait that is most highly correlated with procrastination as well. And so we procrastinate more, but sometimes that gives us more time to incubate different ideas.
Chris: I would say changing your environment, if you’re impulsive. Away from the computer, to just present yourself with alternative cues at which you can direct your attention. Spending time in nature, whatever your mode of choice is, if you want to harness your creativity.
Chris: But another good strategy is, because you adjust to that lower level of stimulation, is use a distractions blocker, for an amount of time you’re comfortable with, and afterwards treat yourself to an all-you-can-eat buffet of distraction. This works even if you’re not into impulsive stuff, if you don’t consider yourself an impulsive person. Because it’s a reward for focusing.
Chris: One of the things that I recommend, people always ask, “How long should I focus for?” Well, how long do you wanna focus for? Shrink the amount of time that you’ll focus for in your mind until you don’t feel that same level of resistance to it. And so you think, “Could I focus for an hour? No, 45 minutes? Thirty? Yeah, I could focus for 30.” Then treat yourself.
Peter: It’s interesting because I think when I think about the ways in which I get distracted, there’s a subtle distinction between focusing long enough and needing a break versus longing for a break because I’m focusing on something hard and I wanna distract myself because I’m writing a hard sentence and it’s easier to go eat a snack.
Peter: And I’m wondering if you know, or have seen anything about, the differences of those focus, or am I fooling myself? And if I’m doing something hard and I’m feeling like I need a break, then maybe that’s true, and maybe I just need a break and I shouldn’t give myself such a hard time about trying to escape my challenges.
Chris: The fascinating thing about that is the more often we have to regulate our attention in one way or another, so in other words to force ourselves to focus, the more mental energy we deplete as we work. This is why … I feel a lot of people come to the work that I do because they have a hard time being productive, because they don’t really care about their work. But it’s so difficult to invest in your productivity when you don’t care about the work that you’re doing on a deeper level.
Chris: We all have stuff that we don’t wanna do, but you need that deeper reason because when you’re naturally motivated by something you won’t have to force yourself to focus on it. Focus comes easy when we do work that we love, and when we do work that we love in the moment. That aversiveness that we have with some tasks …
Chris: The fascinating thing about that resistance is it’s usually stacked towards the beginning of us doing a task. It takes us three months to build up the courage to clean out the closet in the side room, but once we do it for two minutes we could go on for hours, and that resistance-
Peter: That’s interesting, that’s true, I think that’s very true.
Chris: That resistance evaporates into the ether. I would say it depends how often you have to regulate your attention.
Chris: So this is the advantage of having a distractions blocker on your computer, or putting your phone on grayscale mode, or leaving your phone in another room, or on airplane mode, is when you eliminate that alternative object of attention, you not only give yourself no choice but to focus in the moment, but you also give yourself some energy to focus because you don’t have to force yourself to focus on something. It’s the same kind of mental energy that gets depleted when we have to regulate our attention in order to make decisions. That expends the same amount of mental energy.
Chris: But the beautiful thing about scattering our attention, that scatterfocus mode that I mentioned, is that when our attention is scattered we don’t have to force ourselves to focus because we just unfocus, we do something that we love. We’re having a cup of coffee, we’re going for a run, we’re drinking out of our oversized mug some lemon water. We’re just kind of not focusing, and we get more energy because of that.
Peter: I love it. Chris Bailey, his latest book is Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. We have just touched the surface of this book, it’s a really, really fun and good book to read with a tremendous amount of super practical ideas in it. So Chris, thank you so much for being on The Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Chris: Thank you, Peter Bregman, for having me on The Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.
Peter: A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of business, a lot of hard work, that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com.
Peter: Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.