The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 36

Chris Bailey

The Productivity Project

Is there a secret to being more productive? Chris Bailey spent a year of his life doing a variety of “me-search” into the topic, resulting in his book, The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. He stresses the importance of working with intention on the right things, not on working faster or harder. Discover his secret to staying focused in a sea of social media distraction, and his trick to preventing procrastination.


Social Media

Book: The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy
Bio: Chris Bailey, a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote over 216,000 words on the subject of productivity on his blog,, during a year long productivity project where he conducted intensive research, as well as dozens of productivity experiments on himself to discover how to become as productive as possible. To date, he has written hundreds of articles on the subject, and has garnered coverage in media as diverse as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, New York magazine, TED, Fast Company, and Lifehacker.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use, to become a more powerful and courageous leader. With me today is Chris Bailey. Chris wrote and excellent book, The Productivity Project, Accomplishing more by Managing your Time, Attention and Energy. Chris, this book comes out of a year of productivity. Chris graduated Carlton University in Ottawa and spent a year really playing with experimenting with the sort of me search idea of productivity, and how to really optimize how effective he is in the world. Out of that project came a book and we’re lucky enough to have Chris with us here today to talk about being productive. Chris, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Chris: Thank you for having me on the Bregman Leadership podcast Peter Bregman. How are you?

Peter: I’m well, thanks.

Chris: Good.

Chris: I graduated university a couple of years ago. I’d been into productivity for about a decade leading up to that point. When I graduated, I received a couple of full time job offers from these big ass companies. I thought, if there’s a time to explore this curiosity … Some people have normal interest like cooking and sports I guess, but people like us are wired a bit differently I think. I’ve always been deeply curious about productivity in the sense of not this cold and corporate and all about efficiency idea, but in the sense of accomplishing what we intend to, and just getting more done every day, so we have more time to do the things that are meaningful to us. When I graduated, I had looked at how much money I had in the bank account. I had about 12 grand that I’d saved up. That’s Canadian dollars, so US you got to adjust, it’s a lot less than US dollars.

Peter: It’s like 15 dollars.

Chris: Yeah, it’s like 50 cents US, I think at this point. It’s basically monopoly money. You could walk into a store here in Canada and pay with monopoly- No, you can’t. That’s a lie. I figured that’s enough money to make it through a year of exploring this curiosity that I had. I took a year out of my life, declined those jobs and ran a series of productivity experiments on myself where I used myself as a guinea pig to experiment with what it takes to push our limits, and of what we can accomplish every day. It was also first and foremost a research project. Looking at all the prevailing academic literature and books about productivity that were out there including yours naturally, to see what it takes to get more done everyday, and how much we can actually do.

Peter: I’m going to ask a weird question coming from me to you, both of us having worked on productivity.

Chris: The weirder the better as far as I’m concerned.

Peter: Why should we care about productivity? Meaning if you’re talking about happiness or quality of life – and I think you write a lot about meditation, I write a lot about meditation – The quality of our lives is to be present to the moment that we’re in. Why is accomplishing things so important?

Chris: I think the best approach to that question is to think about the definition of productivity in the first place. I think a lot of people, it was funny in the book, The productivity project, my initial title for that book was the productivity playbook. That was the one we sold it to the publisher with. It’s a little inside baseball but by editor really convinced me to rename it the productivity project. When I started talking to people, I was a bit worried about the project [Monica 00:04:19]. I realized that the hesitation that people had with the title was the word productivity, because you think of productivity, I think a lot of people, they think to a spreadsheet.

The approach that I’ve always taken and especially being into meditation and that sort of thing is that productivity is very much a process of becoming more deliberate about our work, as well as our life. When we work and live with intention, when there is intention behind what we’re doing and we’re not doing everything on mindless autopilot, that’s I think where the magic of productivity is born. It’s in that deliberateness that productivity exists I think. When you kind of equate the two with one another, I think it’s a much warmer definition of productivity. It’s a definition that scales across your entire life. It’s not just about working faster, faster, faster, harder, harder, harder. It’s about working on the right things and getting more meaning and value out of them at the same time.

Peter: It’s really about being strategic and intentional in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.

Chris: Exactly.

Peter: When we have that piece, then we’re accomplishing things because those are the things that give us joy.

Chris: Exactly, and you got to do some things that you don’t want to do naturally, I think everybody on the planet does. There’s the meaning bit that makes something valuable, but also the value bit. I do a lot of things everyday that I don’t necessarily- I wouldn’t necessarily pick them to do everyday, but because they allow me to accomplish a lot in my business, in my life, I do them.

Peter: After a year, what was your most interesting discovery?

Chris: It was kind of the bigger picture of productivity. In addition to that deliberateness, it’s funny how most of the lessons that I uncovered over the course of the productivity project, I uncovered when I was putting the book together so after the whole year. I didn’t really uncover the lessons until I stepped back from that entire project.

Peter: It’s so interesting and it doesn’t surprise me at all. The element of reflection versus just experiencing is huge.

Chris: Yeah, you see everything from that higher level perspective that you don’t necessarily get when you’re immersed in it. It’s interesting that relates to productivity too, is the most difficult time to invest in your productivity is when you’re immersed in your work. It’s when you take that step back and kind of [ritualizing 00:06:54] taking that step back every morning by defining your intentions for the day, every week as well in general and throughout the day. You can kind of realign what you’re spending your time, attention and energy on to what you’re working on and what you should be working on. It’s a very curious idea.

In addition to the deliberateness idea and that intentionality that has to exist, I think it’s the bigger picture of productivity, that it’s not only about managing our time, that we have other ingredients to manage to. Attention is one that’s in the most demand. If our time is the most limited, our attention is the one that’s in the most demand. In any given moment, there are countless things that we can focus on that are in front of us. Every moment is like that big Netflix grade. When you fire up Netflix and you see the 50 shows that you can jump into for things to watch. We have that in front of us throughout the day. We have a bunch of windows open on our computer, we have our phone, we have maybe a book off to the side. I have terrarium right here on my desk. We have so many different objects that we can devote our attention to.

Being deliberate about that is the key. Energy is another crucial ingredient of productivity, because if we burn out, if we don’t get enough sleep or do simple things like that, our productivity will be toast as well. When you dive deep into an idea like productivity, you begin to see just how many elements contribute to how much you get done everyday, including and those would be the three ones that I would identify are time, attention and energy.

Peter: Let’s play with attention for a second. We’ve all had this experience – I know I’ve had the experience – where I’m trying to write something for example, or do a particular piece of work and it’s not boring but it’s hard, it’s really challenging. I’m coming up against roadblocks and every part of me is screaming: “go eat a snack or go …”

Chris: Pick up your phone.

Peter: Pick up your phone.

Chris: Check Twitter.

Peter: Check your email, do something like that. I was listening to NPR yesterday and they were talking about multitasking.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: I thought to myself, “This is such an old story.”

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: I’ve been writing about multitasking for five or six years now at least and there’s been researchers who’ve been writing about it for ten or fifteen years. We know that multitasking is bad. There’s no question about it, there’s no opposing research that says, “Actually, you know multitasking is a really productive habit and everybody should do it.” Nobody is saying that.

Chris: No.

Peter: Yet it is almost irresistible to multitask.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: People do it all the time. The challenge itself is: how do we maintain our attention during these difficult times? How do we prevent ourselves from following tangents that we know are not productive and yet almost irresistible?

Chris: I think it comes down to changing the environment that we allow ourselves to be in when we’re doing work. In any moment if you have a more attractive potential object of your attention than the work that’s in front of you, and so you’re trying to write a book in one window in your computer, but then your email’s open in another and it’s constantly giving you alerts and … So many people that I coach and work with, they have that outlook notification in the bottom right hand corner of the screen that pops open all day, constantly derailing their attention. I think that’s the best solution to that, is it’s so much easier to manage your attention when you deal with these potential distractions ahead of time.

Peter: Meaning shut everything off.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: Put yourself in a closed room.

Chris: Exactly, and realize that your work will not be the most attractive thing that will be in front of you. Doing email will always be a sexier task than doing work. It’s more stimulating, it’s more engaging and a lot of times it’s more fun. You don’t accomplish as much as it so it doesn’t make you more productive, and it’s usually not all that meaningful. Being a traffic cop, chances are that’s not your job. Chances are your job is to engineer a new product that people will end up using, or whatever it happens to be. Eliminating these potential objects of attention ahead of time, I found that to be one of the best things, instead of trying to resist them in the moment.

When I was writing the book, I wrote most of it while disconnected from the Internet, because one study I encountered said that we spend 47% of our time on the Internet procrastinating. Quite literally, things take us twice as long when we’re connected to the Internet, especially when basically everything on the Internet is more attractive than doing actual real work.

Peter: There’s something profound about that, which is the realization, the recognition, the acknowledgement that these other distractions, the Internet, email, et cetera, will be more interesting and more fun.

Chris: Yeah. They almost always are, or else we wouldn’t spend time on them.

Peter: Right.

Chris: We wouldn’t want to do that instead of doing actual work.

Peter: Then we just have to decide for some period of time, I’m not going to do it. How about when you have to go on the Internet for work, because you have to research something that you’re writing about and you go on the Internet. Do you get sucked in?

Chris: Of course, yeah and I’m as bad as anybody. When I wake up, I pull my phone out from the other room. Sometimes I’ll lay in bed and bounce around between the same five or ten apps, just checking email and then doing this other thing then this other thing. It’s so easy to lose grip of our intention when we’re on the Internet. It’s a candy store for our brain. We bounce around between so may different engaging things when we’re connected, but it invariably makes us less productive. I would challenge folks who are listening to perform an experiment like that one, kind of a mini-productivity experiment if you will. When you need to do something on the Internet . . . . . what were you looking at?

Peter: I was looking up …

Chris: Was there a fly?

Peter: No, I was looking up to see Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.

Chris: Oh, fantastic book.

Peter: He has completely shut off. He does email but privately to the side. He doesn’t do very much email. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter. I was sort of looking for it there because one of the questions I wanted to ask you is should you actually make a more permanent decision? You’re saying that you still check Twitter in the morning, and you still go back and forth between Instagram and Facebook.

Chris: That’s not a bad day, yeah.

Peter: Why not drop all of that completely? Why not pull out of? This is Cal’s perspective, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: Pull out of all of those things. If you actually look at the research about book sales and things like that, it doesn’t actually really help that much. Why not actually create a life that’s truly distraction free?

Chris: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of value in that. There’s value in being connected, but I don’t think there’s a problem with technology when we use it with intention. The problem is that it’s so difficult to use technology with intention. If you’re disconnected and you find that you need the Internet for something and you say, “Okay, I’m going to do that one thing on the Internet, you get there.” You might and you probably will end up being sucked into this black hole where you bounce around between a bunch of different things. It’s because that intention is so easy to lose a grip over. Something that I do and I might have mentioned Twitter in the app thing, but I don’t have Twitter on my phone.

It’s because I found that I was most likely to lose grip over that intention when I fired up Twitter, because there are so many rabbit holes that you can dive down into that. What I do is I have an iPad and that’s kind of my distraction machine. I don’t have Twitter in my computer. My password is twenty or thirty characters long and I have it written down. It’s underneath my couch if anybody is interested in robbing me for my Twitter password. What I do when I want to connect with it on my computer for whatever reason is I pull that piece of paper out from underneath the couch, and because there’s enough temporal distance between wanting to check Twitter, having the urge to check Twitter and pulling that password out and typing it in, I end up not doing it. I kind of compartmentalize the social media to that one device.

That’s the device I use for Instagram even though the Instagram totally sucks on the iPad. When you’re deliberate I think, deliberate enough about compartmentalizing these things, while you question what you need them for in the first place. I don’t have Facebook as an example because I found I wasted too much time on it, and that I didn’t get enough value out of it. I enjoy checking Instagram and I enjoy checking Twitter and staying connected with the people that I follow. I get value out of that so why get rid of it in order to live without distractions. I think there’s- You got to have some enjoyment too naturally.

Peter: Right, and so that’s your enjoyment, but you cordon it off.

Chris: Yeah, you got to compartmentalize that from the work, the actual work that you’re doing I think.

Peter: Let me switch gears here a little bit, you mention a super interesting MRI scan in your book between your present self and a stranger and your future self. Could you describe that?

Chris: Yeah, for sure. The research shows that if you have … If you put somebody in an FMRI machine, which is a brain scanning machine, functional magnetic residence imaging.

Peter: Resonance imaging.

Chris: Yeah, sorry, thank you, thank you for bailing me out of that one. Then you ask them to think about their future self, so themselves but in the future, and then you ask them to think about a total stranger, what you’ll notice is pretty interesting. You’ll notice that the two scans are pretty much identical to one another. The idea is we see our future self as basically a stranger to us. This is why we have a bunch of nature documentaries loaded up in our Netflix. I’m on the Netflix bandwagon right now.

Peter: I can see what you’ve been doing all morning.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, before we were chatting, I was binge watching, no. We buy classic books, we buy Dickens books that we’re “bound to read someday.” We put all these things off and we’re less likely to save money for retirement. We spend it today instead of thinking about our future self. The more we see our future self as a stranger, the more likely we are to put this stuff off for our future self to do. This is a major reason why people procrastinate. We procrastinate not only because other things in front of us are more attractive than the actual work, but because we are disconnected with our future self. We see our future self as a total stranger.

If you ask somebody to, if they wanted to run a marathon two years from now, they might agree to it because they can see the image of running through the finish line and having a good time and everything. It’s because they’re disconnected with their future self that they fail to see what they have to actually do to get there. I think that disconnect can cost us quite a bit in productivity if we’re not careful.

Peter: It’s why it’s so easy to delegate to ourselves in the future, because if there’s work I don’t want to do, I’m going to give it to someone else.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: Even if that someone else is me, but if I see them as a stranger, then I’ll give it to someone else which is me in the future, who I’m not really identifying with.

Chris: It’s why we say things like, “Yeah, I’d love to grab coffee with you in three weeks Peter. Sure that works.”

Peter: Now I know how you really feel.

Chris: Yeah, no, I’m just kidding.

Peter: You have a beautiful little trick to remind yourself of your future self. Share that with the listeners.

Chris: I forget what that is.

Peter: It has to do with a picture of you.

Chris: Oh, I have the picture but nobody will see it because we’re on a video. I don’t know, it’s at the top of my bookshelf.

Peter: Oh, I see it actually, I see it. Describe what it is that I’m seeing.

Chris: It’s not very high resolution. It’s like a little pics on your screen probably. The idea is that I’ve framed and printed of a picture of myself but in the future. What I’ll look like forty or fifty years from today. I used an app called Aging Booth on my phone and anybody can download it. I think it’s available for pretty much every platform. What you do is you take a selfie of yourself and it shows you what you’ll look like as an old person. They add wrinkles, they add all sorts of different effects. It’s semi-realistic, but what it does is it gets you thinking about yourself but in the future. It’s a good little cue, if I find myself procrastinating on something. I’ll look up at future Chris up there, future 70 year old Chris and it works. It’s a stupid trick. It’s actually very stupid.

Peter: You know what, it’s the same trick as moving your watch forward five minutes so that you’re on time place. They work.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: Even though you know what they are, they work.

Chris: Yeah, even though it’s a dumb little trick, it really does work, especially when you put an investment into ordering. I ordered this. They print pictures on glass. When you put in that investment, it really does get you thinking about your future self. What also works is writing a letter to your future self. Thinking about what things will be like if you start running a couple of miles a day or a week or whatever it might be, or you eat fewer pizzas every week, whatever the change might be. Thinking about what things will be like after you’ve made this productive changes can be really helpful too.

Peter: It’s great. There’s something that you write about that actually was also sort of profound for me in reading it, which is that the hard part about productivity is that one decision – let’s say I make a decision I want to lose weight – actually represents dozens of small sacrifices in a day.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: That’s good, why don’t you talk about that?

Chris: Yeah, it’s the idea that, the idea of a change is always a lot sexier than what we have to actually do to make that change happen. It goes for any change. Losing weight is a good example because I think most people on the planet have been there. They’ve gained a few pounds and then you try to lose it. The idea of rocking a six pack by summer time is a really attractive idea. Getting there involves making those million small sacrifices along the way. It goes to the idea that sometimes a change isn’t worth making. We like the idea of the change, but in practice it’s just total hell. One of the things I did for the project was run a lot of experiments on myself, where I used myself as a guinea pig to explore productivity. I did things like gain ten pounds of muscle mass and watch 300 TED talks in a week to play around with information retention.

I worked 90 hour weeks for a month. When that comes to mind in this example is waking up at 5:30 every damn morning for a few months. I struggled to integrate this habit into my life for the first few months of my project. After that, I’d finally done it. The stuff that productivity dreams were made of. It’s like sunshine and rainbows in my mind. I woke up at 5:30, I meditated, I made a great breakfast, I read the news, I had a coffee before the rest of the world even woke up. Until I realized a few months into that that I absolutely hated that ritual. I hated every second of it. I couldn’t stand going to bed when people wanted to spend time together, or spend time with me. I found myself spending way less time with my friends and going to bed when I had the most energy and when I was actually the most productive.

I’m a night owl at heart, and so I have the most energy at night. It makes no sense to go to sleep then when I’m the most productive. That led me to a lot of research on how there’s zero connection between our socio-economic standing and what time we wake up. There’s no connection between the two. It’s what we do with the hours of our day after we wake up that make the difference in our productivity and in how much we accomplish everyday. That’s just one example of how the idea of that change … I still like that idea, even though I realize that I absolutely hated it. The idea of that change is way sexier than what it was actually like in practice. It kind of plays into the future self a little bit. I didn’t make this connection in the book, but thinking about it now is, they kind of work together. Sometimes we’re so connected with the idea of something that we forget what it’s actually like in practice.

Peter: Yeah, and the glamour of achieving the thing is very in some ways disassociated with the drudgery of actually making it happen, of sort of doing the day to day work. This is where I think courage is important – it my big theme these days, partially because it’s my next book that I’m writing.

Chris: Cool.

Peter: Also because when you buy a red car, you see red all over the place so I see it all over the place now.

Chris: It’s your reticular activating system.

Peter: It’s my reticular activating system, exactly. That the amount of courage we need to be productive means we need to decide if everybody else’s thinking productivity means waking up early, and we’re actually going to wake up at 10:00 in order to get our work done and go to sleep at 2, and that’s what works for us. Or the courage to be different than the people around us, or the courage to do these small, make these dozens of sacrifices everyday in order to kind of get to where we want to go. Or the courage to say no to email for some period of time. It’s necessary, but what I liked- One of the things that I liked about your book – is there were constant reminders of: here’s the reality of it and don’t try to twist that reality into something glamorous, just recognize that those are going to be sacrifices and decide if those are the sacrifices that you want to make.

Chris: Yeah, exactly and it goes to the idea that there’s got to be meaning behind what you do. If there isn’t that deeper connection to why you’re doing something in the first place, where is that courage going to come from? It’s going to be an effort to garner that everyday. It’s going to be a sacrifice that is in the end, I don’t think it’s worth making, if your work isn’t deeply connected to something that you find meaningful. I don’t think everybody does work that’s completely meaningful, but I think there’s meaning in work that most of use do. Finding that deeper connection to that is crucial I think. Having that why is as Simon Sinek might say. That’s kind of the depth of our work. If we don’t care about our work, it’s going to be hard to be productive on a daily basis. There’s going to be a slag and in the end, it’s not going to be really worth making. Man, that was a depressing statement but meaning is a beautiful thing once you have it and once you find it.

Peter: Yeah, and actually it actually takes some intention and thoughtfulness to create meaning in things that you might not otherwise see meaning in. Sometimes it just takes a moment to say, “Why am I doing this?”

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: By the way, if there’s no reason to do it, then maybe I should just stop doing it. But if I find that meaning, then it energizes everything else that I’m doing.

Chris: Yeah.

Peter: Chris, thank you so much. Chris Bailey, The Productivity Project is the book, Accomplishing more by Managing your Time, Attention and Energy. It’s much more than a time management book. It’s really about accomplishing the things that are most important to you, which is a topic near and dear to my heart as well. Chris, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Chris: Thanks so much for having me.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Bryan Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.