096: Chris Bailey: Hyperfocus, The New Science of Attention (transcript)

October 19, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Chris does things. He does incredible things and I urge you to check out his web page and read some of the things that he does. I allude to it in the conversation but check it out for yourself. But he’s still humble and simple despite doing these incredible things. So if the part of the reason you’re here is you like my burpees or my avoiding food packaging or avoiding flying, you’re going to love Chris. But don’t be fooled. Despite all the things he does, this conversation is about simplicity and focus, putting your full attention and intention and being deliberate about things and he shares how he developed his skills of intentionality and focus. And he doesn’t just show these things off but he shares how to make these things happen in your life. So it’s about what to do, how to do it and most importantly the point of focus. It’s about what you care about. It’s about having in your life more of the things that you care about – family, and things like that. Plus, you’ll hear that I’m very delighted for the personal environmental challenge that Chris takes on without my prompting.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh Spodek. I am here with Chris Bailey. Chris, how are you doing?

Chris: I’m good, Josh Spodek. How are you?

Joshua: I’m very good. And when they contacted me about your book they said this is a book about the hyper focus, it’s about…

Chris: Who is they? Who are these “they” that you’re speaking?

Joshua: Oh, there was… I forget her name but it was from your literary agency. Before I responded to them, I went to your page. OK, so it’s Chris Does Things and one of the big purposes of the podcast is to empower people to do things because a lot of people talk and they don’t actually do. They value the environment, they say they are aware but they don’t actually act on those values. And when they do, I find people really like it. And so can we start? Chris, if you don’t mind, we should normally do this at the end but can you tell us the name of your book, the web page and where they can find you because I want people jumping on your bandwagon.

Chris: Thanks. Yeah. OK. So the book, I always hate promoting myself. So you’re making me uncomfortable from the very beginning but that’s… I’m just kidding. That’s ok. So the book is called Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction? And inside of it I dive deep into how we can bring our full attention to whatever we happen to be doing in the moment. And the site that I have it’s called A Life of Productivity for it’s at alifeofproductivity.com and you’ll be happy to know that just today I disabled that annoying newsletter pop up that pops up on so many different websites so you are now free to browse among the web site undistracted. So those are my outlets I guess you could say.

Joshua: OK, and we’ll put the links up and we’ll come back to it at the end. The reason I brought it up just now is that after I got that email and before I wrote them back, I went to your web page and it says “binge”. And I thought well, that looks interesting so I went there and I binged and I read about all these different things that you did that recalled a lot of things that I’ve done and you did different things and some things were similar. And I was, “I like this.” And OK, here’s what I’d like to talk about for a minute if it’s OK with you is that it talks about productivity… I’m sorry, they talked about productivity when they talked about you and that’s what the book is couched in. And I think the productivity sells books and I think it’s valuable but I think it’s like what I found out about minimalism which I think is a misnomer, they act like it’s about not having stuff but I think it’s really about embracing joy and relationships and it’s productivity… I think there is something that you get out of it. And maybe you’re saying it because you are bringing your full mind to stuff.

Chris: Yeah. You know my take on productivity you know you mention the word productivity to somebody and what comes to their mind is something that feels so cold and corporate and all about this mindless type of efficiency. But I would think that done right the opposite is true. Mindfulness or you know productivity is essentially just mindfulness. But being mindful about what’s important and working on that and paying attention to that and I really think… You know I’ve done all these experiments, I’ve done all this research into this topic and I’ve written a couple of books about this and the idea that I keep coming back to is that what lies at the heart of being productive is intentionality. So if we’re working on autopilot mode, that’s the least productive mode that we can work on. That the mode where our e-mail inbox becomes our to-do-list, where we wake up and then we use our phone for 30 minutes in bed before even getting out of bed, where there’s no gaps in our calendar, there’s notifications that run our life and we kind of just go through the motions of the day and then the day is done and we’re laying down again with our phone and we think “OK, how the hell did we spend our time?”

Then I think you have the days where you work with intention and so maybe you’re on vacation and you’re savoring the time with your family, maybe you’re at work and you’re on a deadline and you’re hyper focused on something that’s important, you weren’t tempted by Facebook or Twitter and you can easily leave your smartphone behind. And so I think there’s these two modes in which we work and the quality of our life and the quality of our productivity is directly proportional to how much of our time we spend with intention. And I think intention is everything when it comes to productivity and you know like you said there’s these connotations that come with the term. But I got to be honest with you, it’s this word that I use to kind of hook people and then talk a little bit about acting more deliberately and working more mindfully. But it’s really a hook to talk about intention with people.

Joshua: So were you always full of intent and deliberate action or were you like everyone else? And what were you like beforehand? Were you born with something special?

Chris: No.

Joshua: But I think that a lot of people listening they think, ‘Oh, yeah, well, that’s nice for you. But all my calendar is full. I do have all these e-mails and if you are like me, then you would see that that’s impossible for me what are you talking about.”

Chris: Oh, no. It’s totally possible. And I think this is a trap that a lot of people fall into and a lot of people I coach. I work with a lot of executives who come at this idea of productivity from this kind of mindset of just doing more and more and more or faster, faster, faster. But then I try to kind of take that preconception and turn it around a little bit where it’s not really about doing more, more, more, faster, faster, faster. It’s about doing the right things and doing those things deliberately and with intention. And once you have that mindset, I think you know productivity ultimately, it’s not about how much we produce over the course of the day. We can be busy all day long and not accomplish a single thing. But rather it’s about what we accomplish because that’s what we’re left with at the end of the day, kind of cycles through whenever we’re working throughout the day. We go from focusing on something that our mind wanders, so we get distract. Then we bring it back to what we were originally doing.

And so I think when you model an idea, a kind of model of attention on top of that where you choose something that is productive or meaningful on which to focus you eliminate distractions after that, then you bring your full attention to it. You not only work on what’s actually important but you make the room for yourself to do that because you’ve gotten out of your own way. So as a result of this you know you feel more at ease with what you’re doing and you accomplish more because you actually choose more often what you want to accomplish. And I think that’s kind of the art of productivity, isn’t it, where we don’t choose often enough what we work on before we begin working. We simply focus on what’s latest and loudest without setting a more productive course for ourselves. And so it goes back to that idea that productivity is essentially centered around this idea of deliberateness and intentionality that I think has to be there because if you’re just keeping up with things, you’re really not moving your work forward.

Joshua: So yeah, I think that you talk about the things that you do and I think some people would listen and think, “I don’t want to do 35 hours of meditation a week. I don’t want to be [unintelligible].

Chris: No, you don’t need to.

Joshua: I agree you don’t need to but I believe that you have to do some things. Maybe the things that you do don’t resonate with some people, maybe some things I’ve done don’t resonate with other people. Yeah, but you got to do some of these things and there’s no guarantee one of the experiments you do will work but I guarantee that if you don’t do the experiments, you’re going to stay in reactive mode and maybe it’s going without packaged food, that was a big thing for me, swimming across the Hudson was a really big deal for me. And you’re going to do some things that… I don’t regret any of the things I’ve done but some of them were wasted time, wasted money. But you can’t tell until you do it what you’re going to get out of it. And if you keep doing what’s in front of you… I mean if you listen to this podcast because the word leadership is in there, you probably want leadership in your life. And if all you do is what’s in front of you, you’re never leading. And leaders do things that you don’t know how to do it which means it’s you know off the beaten path.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I think we’re chatting about this blanket productivity advice that a lot of quote unquote experts give and I think when somebody gives a piece of advice and maybe I’m guilty of it myself because you know it’s a trap that we sometimes fall into. But I think when somebody has a 5-10-step system to getting more done and becoming more productive, they’re bs-ing you know they’re taking you for a ride because it’s personal productivity so you really like you said you have to try this on for size, you have to take the ideas that work for you and leave the rest because our attention is just so important and our productivity is so important when you see it as a way by which we accomplish what’s important in our life, what’s productive in our life. And I think the cost of not doing it are so great that it’s just you don’t have to meditate for 35 hours over the course of a week unless you really want to and which you know I’d encourage you to attend a meditation retreat and try that on for size but definitely try to run experiments. I’m always running experiments on myself just to see what sticks because what sticks always surprises me. And probably the biggest thing that stuck was this idea of reactivity like you were saying you know where we see productivity as just doing more, more, more or faster, faster, faster, checking more things off of our to-do list. But when I dove into that idea over the course of this project, over the course of hyperfocus, I came up with the opposite conclusion which is about doing less, it’s about slowing down so we can actually see what’s important and become less reactive. It’s about you know choosing three things we do over the course of the day instead of ten so we can actually prioritize what we want to accomplish over the course of the day. It’s about choosing more often what we focus on before we focus on something. So some of the lessons are pretty simple but I think there is a lot of power in that experimentation.

Joshua: Now I’ve secretly been doing another translation in the background of almost everything I’ve been saying and I hope that everyone listens… I suggest people go back and listen the whole thing again and translate what you’re saying into environment speaking, environment issues. Certainly, the last stuff you’re saying about slowing down, being more attentive, be more mindful of things that’s the result… Like people do lots of stuff without thinking about it.

You know there’s a couple of markets near me. I don’t shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. There’s so much garbage packaging and people mindlessly, people who tell me to my face, “I never get anything unnecessary and I am very aware” and things like that. They’re coming home with double bag everything and all those packaged stuff that doesn’t need any packaging at all and we’re mindlessly doing things. Like people talk, “Oh, here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.” Sorry, stop me if there’s something you want to say. I realized this recently like why do people drink so much bottled water? Because it’s healthier. Healthier than what? Healthier than soda, like healthier than what they would get otherwise. When did something other than water become the normal thing and water became the alternative?

Chris: My water is smarter than your water.

Joshua: Well, when did this happen that we have to get… When I was a kid bottled water was this European frou-frou thing and we were like, “Bottled water? That’s like what…”

Chris: [unintelligible]

Joshua: Yeah. And now they consider it healthy because it’s healthy… Water from the tap is fine. What’s healthier then? As far as I can tell it’s healthier than an unhealthy alternative. And meanwhile we’re filling up landfills with you know they think it’s recyclable but 90 percent of it doesn’t get recycled. And even the stuff that does get recycled, it doesn’t. It’s all this pollution upstream and so forth. And so we are mindlessly doing all these things while we consider ourselves mindful and actually being mindful which means actually putting your attention into things.  You might not feel like you’re not switching around back and forth between these as much so you don’t feel as busy but I think that you’re getting more done and you’re living more into your values and people are afraid of doing that because they feel like what I have… And tell me if you see things differently because I’m translating what you’re talking about into what I see with people who say they care about the environment and really want to do stuff but they keep doing what’s easiest. They keep following what’s around them and it’s like…. And like you said you responding to e-mails and your calendar’s full and that to me is like you know someone offers you something packaged and you’re like OK, sure. And then they you just eat what’s available and you don’t really think about it. But if you really thought about it’s like factory farmed or whatever and if you put the effort in, I think you end up what you were talking about mindfulness and being less busy and getting more done or doing more of what you care about.

Chris: And you know I think when you define productivity as accomplishing what you intend to do when you use that definition as a starting point which is honestly you know there might be a better definition of productivity out there but this is the best one that I’ve found after exploring this idea for about a decade and writing about it. I think our productivity given that definition and that definition works at work, it works at home, our productivity is directly proportional to how much of our time, what percentage of our time we act with intention where there is a purpose behind what we’re doing. And you know I feel like I’ve said the same thing a few times but where we choose to do what we do before we do it and it’s in that choice that’s where our freedom lies. This gap between intention and action we can overcome it when we have a strong enough intention to work within the first place.

You know then we don’t fall victim to these distractions. We don’t fall off track. And I think riffing off what you were just saying there’s a certain vulnerability in a way of hyperfocusing is the term that I like to use on one thing for a period of time, on focusing on an opera for half an hour or an hour at a time before your mind wanders, for focusing on writing your report, for focusing on volunteering and or being with your kids or with your family. There’s a certain vulnerability in that because if you spend more time on something, you’re spending more attention on it too but you also inherently need more confidence that you’re working on the best possible thing in the first place. And so I think that it’s essential that we choose more often what we do before we do it and then you know if something’s aversive, then we don’t want to do it, eliminating distractions and then bringing our attention back when it wanders off to something else. And so you know this idea I think is kind of universal, isn’t it, that that when we manage our attention we become more productive at work, we accomplish more. That’s the lens through which I see things. So I’m a bit kind of biased in that direction but we also get to live a life that’s true to who we are on a deeper level, that’s aligned with the values that we have because the more often we step back, the more productive our life becomes I think.


Joshua: I think that’s the whole thing is that right there. You said it becomes about your values. Minimalism is not about getting rid of stuff, it’s about knowing your values and then you live by those values and you act on those values and getting rid of things you don’t value forces you to do things that you do value and I think you’re talking about something… Like that’s more with material objects. And I think with you it’s more how you spend your time, your attention, probably your relationships.

Chris: Your energy. Yeah.

Joshua: Yeah. And if you spend it on whatever, you don’t get that back. Certainly not your time. I have two things that I think will motivate what’s coming next which is that one is that if the interconnectedness of environmental issues and acting on that, I am putting in the acting part myself, if that connects with everything else, then I think you get some benefit out of it and that it connects that doing stuff environmentally would be doing stuff productivity and mindfulness and connected to all those things. And also, one of the big things that… The reason I like to have influential guests who do things, leaders, is that I think that a lot of people out there feel like, “I want to do something but if I do it and no one else does, what difference does it make?”

And I think that if they hear people who do things, do something that they might, then I think they’ll feel like, “Oh, I’m part of a community. It’s not just me doing these things.” And so I’m going to invite you if you’re up for it to do something environmental to act on this value. I mean ideally connecting with this interconnectedness that you don’t have to fix all the problems of the world all by yourself overnight but it can’t be telling others what to do and it can’t be something you are already doing. But would you be up for doing something acting on your environmental values?

Chris: Of course. Me personally or…?

Joshua: Yeah.

Chris: Of course, yeah. And you know I might take things up a notch even more where you know I’d love to give people a few tools to be able to do that. One of my favorite productivity techniques of all time…

Joshua: Oh, wait. Before you said that you care about the environment, and if there’s anything that you could take on a personal challenge to live by that value in a way that you haven’t done yet. You probably have some ways.

Chris: Yeah. This is a fun… This is a fun challenge because this is something I think a lot about. And you know it’s one of those things where I’m not really aware of what I’m doing well and not doing well. I think one thing that I could personally do is to minimize the amount of travel that I… And I love how the cars are beeping out. But I think this is something simple where you know taking public transit, we’re going to see Mission Impossible tomorrow, just simply taking the public transit that’s going there anyway instead of hopping in an Uber might be a fun way to do that. Or one of the beautiful parts, I live in a little city in Canada here. One of the lovely parts that I love about being here is that it’s so walkable, it’s eminently walkable, we drive hardly anywhere but I do a lot of flying here and there where you know I’m traveling around the world to give talks and things like that. And so I think another challenge maybe I could give myself two, is that ok? If I give myself two here?

Joshua: Well, let’s make the first one a SMART goal, if that’s cool for you.

Chris: Yeah.

Joshua: So is it something you do for a period of time? I mean the T in SMART is time. What I hope to do is bring you back a second time after you’ve done it and to share your experience.

Chris: OK. Cool. Yeah for sure. I think we could. You know we see a movie probably every week or two. And so I think this is something that I don’t think there has to really be an end goal here. I think it’s just something that we got to be more mindful of. And I’ll have to check with Ardan but I’m sure she’ll be down as well to do this.

Joshua: OK. Yeah, because I think this is a good one because a lot of people think, “I want to do something but it will get in the way of someone else.” And what’s really interesting is hearing people, effective leaders help other people achieve goals and they don’t necessarily see other people as a problem but as part of the solution. I’m not sure how you will work with it.

Chris: She usually guides me through achieving most of my goals. So I’m sure she’ll help me out with this one too, if she’s down. But she’s pretty mindful as well.

Joshua: OK and how long do you think it would take for you to feel like, “I’ve done this enough that I can come back and tell the listeners what the experience was like?

Chris: I think around three months.

Joshua: Three months? OK. So I propose after we hang up we could schedule the follow up conversation three months.

Chris: Cool.

Joshua: Right. And so I wanted to focus on one. And you had another one.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. So I do a lot of flying here, there and everywhere. And I think that’s one of the ways that I personally could minimize the footprint that I have on the world. And so perhaps I can find one trip that is unnecessary over the span of these same three months that could be better on the train, it could be better on some other way. Do you think that’s a good one or no?

Joshua: I love it because you are the first person who spontaneously said I would consider flying less. Almost everybody else is like it’s almost as if a fundamental part of human nature is that we must get on airplanes. And for someone to spontaneously suggest it is… I love it. And plus, you made it a SMART goal right off the bat. It’s possible that no trips would happen anyway.

Chris: One happens every week or two. So I think it will be you know it should be pretty easy to find one to eliminate. Plus, you know it’s exhausting traveling sometimes.

Joshua: So this is going to blow the minds of listeners. Somebody would voluntarily choose to not fly.

Chris: Is it? Will it?

Joshua: Well, for people who absolutely cannot imagine a life without flying which to me that’s like what we were talking about before it’s like a life of the following life. Yeah, there are places I want to fly but if you think you absolutely can’t live without flying as if hundreds of thousands of years of humanity pre-invention of flying were like somehow all miserable. I shouldn’t [unintelligible] because I get to…

Chris: You get worked up.

Joshua: I get worked up and since I’m in my third year of not flying it’s been so long that I’ve enjoyed… I think it’s like the slow food movement. It’s been so long since I’ve had fast food that I don’t… The idea of the smell of McDonald’s is revolting to me, not enticing although I know that when I ate fries a lot it would McDonald’s be delicious. Then it was. Now it’s the opposite. There’s zero willpower for me to not eat fast food or Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Dazs or whatever. That doesn’t take willpower. And so with the not flying I’ve gotten to the stage where I’m like I love my community, I love my country, I love the adventures that I get, the cuisine that I sample what I’m getting stuff from around here. And so when I talk about not flying I think I’m so gung ho and I love so much my community and the adventure and cuisine that I can get without flying. I think I sound out of touch. And I think people find me as less accessible.

Chris: No. You know I think there are some trips that you can’t avoid like with the line of work that I have. I was invited to do a talk in Saudi Arabia and I think it’s in a few weeks or so. And so it’s kind of hard if one of the things you do is speak for a living and somebody really wants you to be there and you think there’d be a net gain. You know if you’re talking to a team of leaders to become more mindful and more considerate about each other and their attention, I think that’s a net gain overall. It’s kind of hard to go to Saudi Arabia from Canada not flying. But I think then there are the more recreation trips that I have you know going to Prague last week is a good example of one where you could take a staycation here and savor the town that that you live in. Well, one of my favorite writers is David Kane. You should have him on the podcast. He writes a blog called Raptitude. Oh, hello. It’s one of my favorite blogs on the Internet. And he advocates…


David Kain’s he is incredible but he advocates for doing a depth here where you know so often we buy new books and we travel to new places and we try to meet new people and we do all these things to seek out what’s new instead of looking at all the books we haven’t read and all of the people we’ve lost touch with and the beautiful cities in which we live. And I think if you look around you, there is so much depth and that doesn’t involve traveling all over the world in order to savor it. And so I think an idea along those lines is pretty cool as well.

Joshua: I really look forward to the next conversation because I think we’re going to pick up right here and the listeners are going to hear this conversation and most of them will like jump into the next one which will be you talking about how the experience was of choosing to do the staycation, choosing to explore and going to depth. So I close with a couple of questions. One is is there anything I didn’t think to ask that we should bring up? And the other is is there any message you want to give directly to the listeners?

Chris: The second one is easier. Anything we didn’t talk about? I don’t think so but I will say that I’m really happy that we did talk about that idea of everything being so interconnected because you know I haven’t really put my finger on the pulse of that idea but I think what this new book, what the last one, with this message that I’m trying to spread that’s kind of the thing that lies at the center of it. And I think it’s something that is worth all of us exploring how our behavior, how what we say and what we do and even to some level what we think affects how we perceive the world and how other people perceive us and how the world works around us especially as leaders so I think it’s cool that we put our finger on the pulse of that idea. Is there something I need to talk a lot about on the pod or no?

Joshua: Yes, not in exactly the same words but to me it’s about your values, it’s about what you care about, it’s about… You know I mean for you interconnectedness that certainly resonates with me you know with a background on physics, there’s a famous Richard Feynman quote about the…Well, it’s the world in a drop of wine. And when you say that, it reminds of why I studied nature in the first place.

Chris: Yeah, it’s beautiful and we’re creating our own nature, we’re part of nature too. So it’s such a beautiful idea. A message that… What was the second thing? A message I want to leave folks with?

Joshua: Yeah, if there’s something directly for the listeners. And then after that, please repeat again the book and where to meet you.

Chris: Ok. Cool. A message that I’d like to impart on people you know this idea of our attention is very much on the top of my mind right now. And I think these days our attention is the most valuable ingredient we have to living a good life. If we bring only a fraction of our attention to a conversation or a podcast show or an opera or something we’re working on, we’re really only bringing a fraction of ourselves to what we’re doing. And I think this is one of the biggest deficits that we’re facing now is this idea of working on this mindless autopilot mode that frankly the world around us draws into operating on. But the more we work with intention behind what we do and the more we manage our focus and our attention well, the better our life will become.

And that’s the message I’d like to impart. I hope that the conversation was valuable for folks. I know we’ve veered off the topic of the environment a little bit but you know I hope people still find it valuable.

Joshua: Chris, thank you. And we’ll have you back in a few months and I look forward to hearing how it goes.

Chris: Awesome, man. Thank you so much for having me.

Joshua: Thank you.


Well, you could certainly hear how glad I was that he suggested not flying unprompted by me. So maybe the cultural tide is turning. Maybe you’ll see more people do it. I think you will. I suppose that’s a sign that this podcast may be making a difference. So I’m also glad that he realized the limitations of his awareness to motivate his taking on the challenge because he’s refreshingly open-minded. I didn’t hear he was making a big deal out of it. He was not moralistic. It was just practical which is I think the most effective way to approach big challenges. So I look forward to hearing how things go with his not flying challenge.


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