Hyperfocus: Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

Self-described productivity geek Chris Bailey is the author of “Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction”, and his passion and research into productivity resonates with agilists: we are all working to improve how we work and live.

Bailey’s message – bolstered by many statistics – is simple and profound: “The state of our attention reflects the state of our lives.” He offers practical advice for improving productivity at work while also invoking the deeper yearning that each of us feels to get more out of life in our relationships with others and with ourselves. Mindfulness and meditation are in the mix because, as Bailey puts it, “For every minute you meditate, you get ten minutes back, because you notice that your mind has veered off track.”

Favorite quotes:

  • “On average, we only work on one thing for 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else.”
  • “We can do almost anything for a minute besides focus… Your mind will resist even that one minute…”
  • “We’re the most creative when we have the least energy, because our minds are less inhibited.”

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at Agile2019 in Washington, D.C.

Listen on iTunesListen on Spotify

Full Transcript:

LESLIE MORSE: Welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Leslie Morse, and we are podcasting live from the Agile 2019 Conference in Washington DC. Today my guest is Chris Bailey. He was one of the keynote speakers at the conference this week and is an international bestselling author of the book, Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, as well as the Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. Once called the most productive man you’d ever hope to meet, Chris transforms how people think about productivity in the workplace and beyond. Chris, how are you today?

CHRIS BAILEY: I’m good, Leslie Morse, how are you?

LESLIE MORSE: I’m doing well, so we’re here at a conference about Agile but you wouldn’t necessarily identify as an Agilist yourself.

CHRIS BAILEY: Not yet, at least.

LESLIE MORSE: But I feel like you’re already part of the family.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, I remember in the session I asked anybody who is a fellow productivity nerd to raise their hand and it was a choir of people saying, “Hallelujah, amen.” I am in that tribe. This is definitely my tribe of people. So different sort of technical skills for sure. Mine is more of a productivity research background, but that same geeky always wanting to become better and perform a bit better and organize things a little bit better. Whether it’s organizing our attention, our productivity, our life, whatever the heck we’re wanting to organize. I feel these are my peeps. I feel right at home here.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And I couldn’t agree with you more, because that is one of the things we definitely start geeking out on and the science behind that is really cool. So what I get curious about is when you got the call you’re like, “Hey, Chris, we’d love to have you come keynote at Agile 2019,” what was it about that invitation that made you say, “Yes?”

CHRIS BAILEY: It was honestly that tribe of people. I always ask, “Okay, who will be at the conference?” Because some opportunities are more rewarding than others. As you can imagine, speaking to five gray-haired executives in a room is much less rewarding than to, I think it was around 2,500 people that were at the keynote session yesterday. Folks, like everybody here that would actually soak in the information and be eager to apply it. And so I touched on a few things in the keynote; how we can better manage our energy, how we can set intentions every single day, how we can manage our attention, and the science behind doing so, which is one of the most scarce resources we have to getting things done. And people were looking. They were paying attention, which is always a refreshing thing. And so I felt these are my peeps.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. One of the things to this that we’re going to get that level of energy you’re bringing right now if we follow your guidance and your advice.




CHRIS BAILEY: This is peak energy right now. I’m very solemn on the Internet. I have a podcast and yeah, it’s very sad.

LESLIE MORSE: I don’t believe that.

CHRIS BAILEY: Okay, please don’t.

LESLIE MORSE: So if somebody wasn’t in the session, right, the majority of our listeners aren’t here at the conference this week.

CHRIS BAILEY: Shame on them by the way.

LESLIE MORSE: Don’t shame people, that’s not friendly.

CHRIS BAILEY: Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did that. I’m ashamed.

LESLIE MORSE: But what did they miss out on?

CHRIS BAILEY: Oh, not much. Honestly.

LESLIE MORSE: I don’t believe you.

CHRIS BAILEY: I’m just kidding. Maybe we can start with the first kind of idea that I shared during the session, which is the limits of our attention. And so we know our attention is limited, right? We know we can’t really multitask, or at least many of us do.

LESLIE MORSE: We pretend to.

CHRIS BAILEY: We pretend to multitask, but we’re really just rapidly switching between things. But we don’t realize the extent to which our mind is limited. And so we can hold very, very few things in our mind at one time. We used to think the number was seven or eight things concurrently, but the latest research shows that it’s about three things. And so you look to the culture around us and you see so many examples of us grouping together things into sets of three so we have sayings like, “Good things come in threes,” and, “The third time’s the charm,” and, “The good, the bad, the ugly,” and, “Blood, sweat and tears,” and the stories that we have.

LESLIE MORSE: Deaths come in threes.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, exactly, we divide stories.

LESLIE MORSE: Which is I’m really morbid.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, exactly. The celebrities die in threes, right? Third time’s the charm, and even a story, right, which is hundreds of things that happen one after the next. We divide into the three parts, the beginning of the middle and the end. If we have a dispute right now, Leslie, we play rock, paper, scissors to settle it.

LESLIE MORSE: Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock.

CHRIS BAILEY: Lizard, Spock. Maybe for the people who can fit four things in their mind, but I’m not one of them. It’s too much pressure! But we can work around this attentional limit. So the rule goes like this, at the start of the day, you fast forward to the end of the day in your head and you ask yourself, “By the time this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” That’s it. 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 but these are the main things. And you do the same thing every week and you actually remember them because you work within the limits of your attention. You might not remember a laundry list of 25 things that you need to follow-up on or do or get done or ship, but you’ll remember three and you’re more likely to follow through on them that way.

LESLIE MORSE:So having those three, right, and to their point doing more stuff as well. But I’m guessing it also takes the courage to say no to stuff.


LESLIE MORSE: So how does that play into this?

CHRIS BAILEY: I’ll share the most valuable productivity thing that somebody can do and the golden rule that I use for productivity advice is that for every minute you spend reading about it or listening to a podcast like this about productivity, you have to make that time back and then some, because it’s productivity, it should hopefully make you more productive in some way. And the activity, apart from the rule of three, the other things that I spoke about that have the highest return for each minute you spend on it, one of them is determining your most important activities in your work.

And so the activity goes like this, on a sheet of paper, you take out a nice sheet of paper that’s blank. You get a pen out and you make a list. Doesn’t have to be in any order of every single activity that you do in your work over the course of a month, everything, get it out- big, small, short, long, whatever. And ask yourself, once you have all those things out of your mind and on that sheet of paper, “If I can only do one of those things day in, day out every single day, which one of them allows me to accomplish the most?” Right? What allows me to accomplish the most and move things forward the most? Which is the most consequential to the company? Which is the most consequential to how meaningful it is to me?”

And then, okay, you’re allowed to do that one thing, now you’re allowed to do a second thing. You can do two things now. What’s second most important one do you have? What third most important one do you have? And when I coach folks for becoming more productive, when I speak in front of folks who want to become more productive, usually when people do this activity live, their marginal productivity after about three tasks falls off of a cliff and every other tasks beyond that point that they accomplish significantly less, right?

It’s such a simple activity and some of the best productivity strategies are we don’t need so many of the quick hacks. We just need to step back, figure out what’s important, whether it’s what the rule of three every day, every week, whether it’s what the most important tasks in general, and then get to work on it. And so I feel that’s going back to the second question that you asked, what attracted you to the people at the conference? I feel people are in need of these lightweight rules for managing all of the deluge that we have to deal with over this course of the day.

LESLIE MORSE: So it sounds so simple yet in reality, it is so hard because I struggle with this every day. I think about one of the famous people in our Agile world is Lyssa Adkins. She wrote the book Coaching Agile Teams. She describes herself as a recovering project manager. So I feel I’m a recovering desiring of wanting to be productive person. Because it sounds good. I can do this. I might can start it, I might sustain it for a week, but then I fall back into the old patterns. What is it, as you look into the science and the research, that needs to flip in terms of mindset to make stuff like this stick?

CHRIS BAILEY: It gets how we think about productivity. We see productivity as doing more and more and more, faster, faster, faster, and keeping up with everything on our plate. But I think the definition of what it means to be productive has to shift because the work that we do has shifted so much. We used to do factory work that was simple, it was repetitive, was on an assembly line. Didn’t take much knowledge. Now, of course, we do knowledge work-

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, and that’s not necessarily measured in output.

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly, right? You can have a day. So I write books on productivity and I can have a day where I write 242 words or something.

LESLIE MORSE: But how many hours of thinking did that take to get to that?

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly, and we can’t measure output anymore. Right? Because 242 words could be garbage. But you know what else also was 242 words was the Gettysburg address, which changed the course of American history, and so we can’t measure … I remember that there’s a story at Apple where, back in the day, they used to kind of track everybody’s lines of code, how many lines they coded throughout the day. And so they started rewarding people on this. And there was one programmer I think, it’s Bill Atkinson, he handed in a sheet at the end of the week saying, “Oh I wrote negative 2000 lines of code,” because he made a way to make everything more efficient, and how do you reward something like that? And I think we need to catch up with the way that we think about and relate to productivity on a personal level. It’s not about how much we produce, it’s about how much we accomplish and the difference that we’re able to make over the course of our day.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, it’s almost bringing in the Apple theme. It’s like the Steve Jobs like, “How much of a ding did I make in the universe today?”

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: So what put the fire in your belly about this work? Because you could have gotten geeky about a lot of different stuff. But why productivity?

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, I’m very lazy and so I want to find the shortest way to do things. I don’t want my work to take 12 hours a day. I want to be able to accomplish more or as much as other people and do that in four or five hours of focused attention.

LESLIE MORSE: So it’s a work smarter, not harder.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. And because we all have as many hours in the day as everybody else on the planet, but some of us are able to accomplish as much as Elon Musk or Steve Jobs or the famous people throughout history and other people don’t, and so what’s the difference between these people? And I’ve come to believe that there are three main ingredients with regard to what contributes to our productivity at the end of the day. There’s our time, which we’ve always had to manage around other people, but there’s also our energy, which we need to manage as well. There’s also our attention, which I think is the most vital one, to me.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I was going to say who cares about productivity? There’s just so much stimuli in the world. How to stay focused is a day in, day out challenge.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, and the problem isn’t what we think it is though. And so the second-

LESLIE MORSE: As I look at you skeptically.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, I see that skeptical look in your eyes, Leslie, but I don’t buy it because the problem isn’t what we think it is. We think the problem is that we’re distracted but that’s more of a symptom of the problem which runs more deeply, which is that the problem is that our minds are so stimulated throughout the day and they’re more than just stimulated. Our minds crave stimulation. 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, one of the main pleasure chemicals of the mind. And so we tend to things that are novel.

And this served us pretty well in our evolutionary history because instead of hyper-focusing on building a fire for our village and not noticing a Saber-toothed tiger encroaching in on our territory, we notice the tiger, we dealt with the threat, we survive to live another day and build another fire. We noticed food in this same way, but, of course, these days the nearest tigers are at the zoo and food is pretty plentiful and so are distractions that cater to this novelty bias and the latest-

LESLIE MORSE: And actually engineered to exploit that novelty bias.

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly. These companies that test 20,000 shades of red to find the ideal shade of red to show the notification badge inside of … this caters to this desire for novelty and so because there’s so much dopamine coursing through our mind, on average, we only work on one thing for 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else. We think the number’s much bigger, but it’s 40 seconds.

LESLIE MORSE: You don’t make much meaningful progress in 40 seconds.

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly. How much are you able to write in 40 seconds? How many lines of code? All right. What kind of meaningful conversation are able to have in 40 seconds? Not that meaningful. Not that much.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s negative 2000 examples of meaningfulness.

CHRIS BAILEY: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. The well is depleted, but it’s quite remarkable once we de-stimulate our mind. One of the experiments I conducted around the Hyperfocus book was making myself bored for an hour a day, for a month and so I put a call out to the readers on my website at the time and I asked them, “Okay, what’s the most boring thing that you can think of doing for one hour?” And people sent in, I think I received 5,000 responses or something like that from my readers.

LESLIE MORSE: What were some of the strangest ones?

CHRIS BAILEY: Day one I read the iTunes terms and conditions. I watched-

LESLIE MORSE: I was going to say reading contracts.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, reading contracts, yeah, essentially I read Wikipedia articles related to rope another day. Another one of the days I removed the seeds from a strawberry with a pair of tweezers. One person suggested I forget who it was a reader on my site suggested, “Find three rocks, three small rocks, and move them from one place to another repeatedly for an hour.” So the stuff people come up with, it’s concerning frankly, so I did this and I noticed that my attention span grew. I could focus relatively effortlessly, especially after about a week of doing this.

LESLIE MORSE: So how would you say that that idea of bringing boredom in is almost a different version of meditation and getting your brain to slow down?

CHRIS BAILEY: Almost. Yeah, and I think we look to the external solutions for taming distraction. We look at, “How can I disable notifications on my phone? How can I tame the distractions on my computer?” But if you continue to seek out the distractions in the first place, you’re not going to solve the core problem. I meditate for 30 minutes every single day because I know that I make that time back and then some, it’s one of the best productivity strategies in the world. And I think for every minute you meditate, you make 10 minutes back because you notice that your mind has veered off track. You notice that your mind is wandering. You notice how focused you are. You notice your energy so you can take a break.

LESLIE MORSE: I think that’s such a really tangible way of describing the value of meditation. It’s training yourself to notice when you get off track.

CHRIS BAILEY: All meditation is, is noticing.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, but I don’t know so that I’ve heard someone use those exact words about it. It’s yeah, it’s helping you get more calm and stillness and all of these things but actually just training to the noticing. I just think it’s a great way of describing it.

CHRIS BAILEY: It’s simple, right?


CHRIS BAILEY: In meditation, people over-complicate. You just have to focus on your breath, right.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s the problem, people over-complicate it.

CHRIS BAILEY: The breath is so boring. It’s the most boring thing in the world. But if you can focus on your breath for … Try focusing on your breath for even a minute, right. Pause the podcast now, try to focus on your breath for a minute. You won’t be able to do it. And, in fact, your mind will resist even that one minute of doing something. What else can’t you do for one minute? We can do almost anything for a minute besides focus, right? And so when we train that attention, we train our mind and if you can focus on your breath because it’s so boring, you can focus on anything. If you can become engaged with your breath, you can become engaged with anything, a conversation, a meaningful experience, a dinner, a meal. By God, the most delicious burger you’ll ever eat is the one that you focus on with 100% of your attention for it.

LESLIE MORSE: And actually, savor it.

CHRIS BAILEY: That’s why food tastes better at the … I have a theory. Food doesn’t taste much better at restaurants than it does at home. It’s just that we’re at a restaurant and we actually focus on what we’re eating, right? Instead of trying to get food that’s twice as good or twice as expensive, just focus on it twice as much. You’ll enjoy it that much more.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s a really good point. I never thought about that.

CHRIS BAILEY: There you go.

LESLIE MORSE: I’m going to eat my dinner tonight differently. So how does this go back to the energy management? Because you alluded to that but I don’t feel we talked about that much.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, let’s touch on that a little bit before the pod’s over. So the idea behind that is our energy, and our focus move in tandem with one another. They hold hands throughout the day. And so where our energy goes, so too does our focus, so too does our productivity. And so if our energy is shot our productivity is shot, but if our energy is fantastic, we’re going to be able to focus on what we intend to accomplish. And there are predictable, consistent rhythms that our energy levels have throughout the day. And in the session, of course, I went through and allowed people to calculate when they have the most energy because we can do this and it corresponds to our chrono-type when we naturally have the most energy. But even just a simple reflection, are you a morning bird? Are you a night owl? Are you neither? This will inform when you have the most energy and when you’re the most creative. When you have the most energy, you’re the most productive.

LESLIE MORSE: Is this going to play into the power of when?



CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah. Sort of, yeah, there’s a wonderful book When by Dan Pink. The Power of When, which is another good one and we need to understand how our energy fluctuates.

LESLIE MORSE: And it’s actually kind of thinking about that. It’s unfortunate that so much of our work-culture boxes us into artificial time boxes when that might not be the best time for me to be productive and collaborative.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, exactly, or creative. We’re the most productive when we have the most energy, but we’re the most creative when we have the least energy because our mind is less inhibited.

LESLIE MORSE: Again, I look at you skeptically.

CHRIS BAILEY: It doesn’t hold back on the ideas that it generates, and so most people’s peak creative time is first thing in the morning because, first of all, your prefrontal cortex is less inhibited first thing in the morning. But any time that you have less energy when you’re waking up when you’re about to fall asleep, how many great ideas hit you right as you’re falling asleep?

LESLIE MORSE: Okay, I’m glad you said that again because I thought you said for a second, “You’re the most creative when you have the least energy.”

CHRIS BAILEY: That’s true. Yeah.


CHRIS BAILEY: Because your mind is so not inhibited with the ideas that it … It doesn’t hold back.

LESLIE MORSE: Okay, okay, okay. I had to hear it twice.

CHRIS BAILEY: It’s like you’re drunk.

LESLIE MORSE: Well, I was going to say, because I was like, sometimes I do my best work after two glasses of wine because I’m not thinking as much.

CHRIS BAILEY: Here’s the fascinating thing. There’s a fascinating study called Uncorking the Muse: How Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving. My mind is like a spreadsheet of study sometimes, but essentially what it said is we’re more creative when we’ve had a glass or two of wine, but the more we drink, the less we’re able to reflect on what our mind is thinking about. And so it generates more ideas and more insights about the way the world works. But we’re not always aware of the insights that it generates because we’re kind of zoned out a little bit and a measure called our metacognition decreases, it declines. And so we’re able to reflect less often on what’s in our mind, essentially. What our mind is full of mind-fullness. We’re less mindful when we’re drunk, or had a glass or two of wine. And it’s actually fascinating to observe. If you meditate, try meditating after a glass of wine, you can observe this firsthand. Your mind will wander more often and you’ll be less aware of the fact that it’s wandering. It’ll wander for more time before you can catch it.

LESLIE MORSE: That’s interesting.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, it’s fun.

LESLIE MORSE: Now, my brain hurts.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah. I’m sorry everybody for making your mind hurt. But this is the benefit of reading a book about a topic like this. Like I propose you can go at your own pace whereas a podcast, it’s hard to pause it.

LESLIE MORSE: So when I was talking to Michael Hamman the other day, we were talking a little bit about the idea of brain candy, right? Oh, this is novel to kind of think about here in the moment and listen to the podcast on. It’s something different. It goes beyond being brain candy when it’s actually something that awakens within you and initiates a shift so that you actually do something different. So what, for you, is sort of a key ingredient to taking these ideas from just being brain candy and something fun to think about, to actually translating it into real life?

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, it was funny, I wrote this book because I realized how distracted I was and it was kind of an uncomfortable truth because I gave advice on taming distractions in the first book that I wrote tried to follow it myself. But I realized that I still fell victim to it. And so that set me on this course of researching this science surrounding our attention. And I realized, “Okay, this stuff makes you more productive. But it’s bigger than that.” It came to the point where I realized, “Okay, the state of our attention, it’s what determines the state of our lives.” In fact, how much control we have over our attention is positively correlated with productivity, with creativity, for overall meaning in our life, for how satisfied we are with our lives overall, and countless other measures of happiness and well-being.

And so when you look at something that has that much impact over you, you realize it’s not, it won’t just change how you work. It won’t just change how you live for 10-20% of an improvement. It’ll change how you live your life and relate to everything that you do. There is a huge, on average throughout the day, our mind wanders for about 47% of the time. We’re trying to focus on something our mind is somewhere else. We’re trying to work, our mind is somewhere else. What does a life look like where you get that number from 47% down to 37%, down to 27% and lower, where you bring more of yourself to interactions, to experiences, right? Things are richer. You experience things as they are and things get better and you become more productive as kind of an offshoot of that. So I think I’d say productivity got me in the door, but I’m staying because of the other benefits too.

LESLIE MORSE: So let’s, as we wrap up today, let’s dream for a minute.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, I love dreaming.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes, lets dream. So we inspire people from all of this and they’re like, “Okay, this is not just brain candy. This is something I’m going to do” What do you believe the impact on the world and society could be if we all started shifting in this way? Like what could be possible?

CHRIS BAILEY: I think there’d be so many more ideas because people would have the attention to not only focus on them but generate them in the first place. During those periods of lower energy for an example, I think more would get accomplished. I think relationships would be deeper.

LESLIE MORSE: I was going to say relationships are the thing I was really thinking about myself.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, exactly. There’s one study I encountered that looked at how many text messages a kid sends and correlated that against a bunch of different variables and kids accept themselves less the more text messages they send. They’re less satisfied with themselves overall with their body image, with how they relate to everything. And I think we’re the same way. We’re just kids that just somehow can pretend to be growing up.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, in grown-up bodies. We make it up all the time, shhh don’t tell them.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah, I’m making this all up. All those studies that I mentioned just made them up on the spot.

LESLIE MORSE: I don’t believe that, Chris.

CHRIS BAILEY: Please don’t Google them. And so I think we won’t only become happier ourselves, right. But we’ll make other people happier too because we’ll show up, we’ll show up to conversations. We’ll show up when other people are there.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. All right, so then let’s bring it home by thinking a little bit about Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point. How many people do we need to reach with this inspiration in order to actually start a movement and bring us over that tipping point to where this becomes a normal way of looking at the world?

CHRIS BAILEY: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, but I hope as many as possible.

LESLIE MORSE: Maybe we’ll just start with all of our listeners tonight.

CHRIS BAILEY: Yeah. Well, let’s start with that then we can go from there.

LESLIE MORSE: Any final thoughts for us today, Chris?

CHRIS BAILEY: I would just echo that idea that the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. Pay attention as well too, as you invest in these strategies, as you make yourself bored every once in a while, as you set those intentions, as you work around how much energy you have, pay attention to how much you’re able to accomplish that measure of productivity. Because ultimately that’s the most self-reinforcing measure of any strategy underneath the sun. Once you notice this stuff in action, it’s changed my life for the better, so I hope it’ll change you as well, and I hope it helps you out.

LESLIE MORSE: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming and joining the Agile community, being part of the family now, getting out with all of our Agile Amped listeners. I really appreciate this time. It was a great conversation, Chris.

CHRIS BAILEY: Thanks so much for having me.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, you’re welcome and thank you for listening to this episode of Agile Amped. If you learn something new, please tell a friend, coworker, or client about the podcast and we invite you to go online and subscribe to hear more inspiring conversations.