The Productive Life

Lesson 12/17 - Taming Distractions


The Productive Life


Lesson Info

Taming Distractions

Now, I wanna turn our attention to the final one (chuckles). Man, I dug myself out of that hole, didn't I? So, if you look at kind of the bigger picture that we've been painting, the way of thinking about productivity, you can kinda see energy as the backdrop against which we work. It informs how much we're able to accomplish at any given time. And we start with our goals, the things that we want to accomplish, and those work their way down into the intentions that we set, which work their way down into how we focus on a daily basis. The first thing that I wanna share with you in this section is something that is more vital today than I think it ever has been and that is taming distractions. Now, during these 20 hour weeks, I worked with greater intention but there's a second reason why I believe I was so productive, and it was because that with less time, I had no choice but to focus deeper on what I was doing. With my next book that I'm working on, I'm working a lot with the folks at...

Microsoft, they do a lot of research into how focused we are. I hope they don't watch this, because the same people that are responsible for how distracted we are in large part are now conducting all this fascinating research, but the most fascinating thing that they found and probably the most alarming thing that they found has to do with how frequently we're distracted or interrupted as we're working. And the reason I wanna highlight this piece of research, facts aren't as memorable as stories, I realize, but the reason I wanna highlight this is the way they measured it, they didn't put people in a laboratory, they put a camera in somebody's cubicle for a week or so and they watched their patterns of work. They watched how frequently they switched between the computer and their phone and between different devices, between different programs on the computer and they found that the average knowledge worker only worked on one thing for 40 seconds before they switched to doing something else. So in other words, assuming you're average, the timeline of your work might look something like this. You're chugging along, you make it to this 40 second mark, then boom, you're distracted or you're interrupted. Again, the resistance we have to doing something is so often at the beginning of us doing the task. I feel like Vanna White in front of the board here, but past this point is all the productivity that we're missing out on. Because if you think to when you're the most productive, you're not working on something for 40 seconds at a time, you're working on one thing for an extended period of time, and the productivity costs of this can be massive. They also look at how long we were interrupted for, so once we interrupted ourself, how long when we're completely interrupted does it take for us to resume working on what we were completely interrupted on, and they found again in these same conditions where they measured somebody in situation, in the office that they worked in, they found that the average person took 26 minutes to get back on track. That's a lot of productivity. But you probably experience that when you wake up. You wake up, you reach for your phone, you bounce around between five or six different apps, you check the news, you check Instagram, and before you know it, 26 minutes have gone by when your original intention was to just get out of bed. Right, these things expand to fit how much time we have available for them. Distractions are what expand, right? When Parkinson's law comes into effect. But luckily, this isn't our fault. Because there are three characteristics that something can have that make us more likely to focus on it. The first is whether something is novel. Think a notification coming in onto your fitness band or your phone. The second is whether that thing is pleasurable and so it's enjoyable. The third is whether something is threatening. And so, look at Facebook. What is a better combination of things that are novel and pleasurable and threatening at the same time. It's a pretty good illustration. Look at your smartphone, how many threats do you see on your phone related to the news? How many pleasurable things you see on something like Instagram, how many novel notifications come in? It's a steady stream of all three which is why we wanna focus on that, overdoing something that contributes actual meaningful value that we might not find more attractive in the moment but we might be so happy after we're done with it. This is the most meaningful work. These are the three most important tasks that you defined earlier on. The news is a steady stream of all threat. I'm gonna switch out of this slide very quickly. And again, this is Parkinson's law in action, where the things that expand, they're things like social media. If you don't have a lot to do on a given day, you probably, odds are don't work harder on the most important task at your work. You might spend it on social media or news websites, or checking email repeatedly, maybe on your phone more, maybe on idle chit chat. These are what expands at the place of our three daily tasks of things like writing reports, developing a budget, mentoring new people, investing in our learning and our training which we're doing now. The wrong things expand. But the best way that I've found to tame distractions and interruptions ahead of time is to think of them on two different criteria. So we can kinda divide them up in a two by two grid like the one here, where we can think about them based on two different characteristics, the first being whether or not we have control over them coming up in the first place, and the second whether they're annoying, and so they're unwelcome, or whether they're fun, they're a welcome reprieve from our work. So annoying ones we can't control, office visitors are a good example of one, loud colleagues, meetings that we can't get out of, maybe ones that are with our boss's boss's boss or an important client. But there are fun ones too like team lunches or calls from loved ones that come in as we're hunkered down on something. And because we cannot control these from coming up, we have to control how we relate to them after they do. So by dealing with them and getting back on track, we're enjoying the fun ones. And I have to give you a piece of honesty here, out of all of the pieces of advice that I give in the workshop, I probably follow 90% of them 90% of the time. These are things that have stuck for me and the people that I work with, but this one I find the most difficult, to enjoy the fun ones that I can't control. When you're in that focus bubble and if I'm writing, for example, or in the middle of an intense research report and somebody interrupts me, I get frustrated. But it's a helpful reminder that okay, I was interrupted, okay I can keep my original intention in mind for what I wanted to accomplish. Okay I'm gonna find a way to get back on track because I'm gonna decide in this moment what's important. But luckily, there are many more that we can control. Email is a big one. There was a point in my work and I remember it fondly, where I received very little email. I probably got 10, 25 emails a day, depending on how many newsletters came that day, but things very quickly ballooned out of control where I eventually have to turn off notifications, I had to deal with email out of necessity, not out of nicety, and it quickly ballooned to today over receiving 500 emails a day, that's after unsubscribing to pretty much everything except for, I won't get into that rabbit hole, there's some good newsletters out there though. But there's also some good strategies for bringing some awareness and deliberateness to email. And this is something that you'll find is because technology is so often novel and threatening and pleasurable, we don't approach it with the level of deliberateness that we approach our other pieces of work. We very much use our phone on autopilot mode. Nobody's mindful when they're using their phone, except there's one meditation app that I love and I find that after that, I go into other apps mindfully and I realize, yeah this is a waste of time and then I bounce out very quickly. But simply bringing some awareness to email, that's a weird idea, isn't it? When do we bring awareness to email? We can do this by keeping one big tally of how frequently we check for new messages, and so the average knowledge worker checks their email 11 times every single hour. And that adds up to 77, 88 times over the course of a day. This is 88 times that you prevent your attention from getting past that 40 second mark. You get significantly less accomplished in that way. Second idea is to bring some awareness to email by only checking if you have the time, the focus, and the energy to deal with whatever might have come in, because so often we just check and stress ourselves out without actually thinking, okay, can I deal with what might have come in? Do I have enough energy? A third is to filter people by VIPs, almost every piece of software has this feature where we can become more thoughtful about not receiving notifications when Amazon sends us a newsletter or we get a new thing from some bag we bought a year ago from some store. We could become more thoughtful and only receive a notification when our boss emails us, when somebody we work closely with over the course of the day emails us. I get one when my editor, my literary agent emails me. And so becoming more thoughtful about that, you can defend your attention when you want it to be defended, but you can allow the most important people to poke through. The fourth idea out of five is to limit points of contact. And so if you left the defaults on on the devices that you have, your phone would light up when you got an email, your iPad will light up, your computer, your smart watch. How many, 683 calories just burning doing this talk. Everything will light up. It's such a distraction, we don't need that, eliminating the points of contact, one of the smartest decisions I've ever made for my productivity was deleting the email app off of my phone and I made this decision after an experiment to use my smartphone for only an hour a day for three weeks. The first few days of that were hell. Being accustomed to all this distraction and these novel and pleasurable and threatening things in my psyche, but eventually I felt as though I'd kinda cleared a bend and that a whole new expanse of productivity and creativity opened up for me. It's refreshing, limiting points of contact, being thoughtful not just about who we let through, but also where we allow ourselves to be interrupted. The fifth and final one is to use the five sentence rule. This is a rule where you make a little note in your email signature that for your benefit and mine, I'm keeping every email I send to five sentences or less. And at first when I did this, I felt like kinda that ha ha business guy where I felt like kind of rude doing this but then I saw other people having this in their signatures and I received a couple compliments like thank you for respecting my time. Thank you for not making this an essay, when it could have been, and people are more receptive to this idea than you might think on the surface because this is a pain point for so many people. And if you need to send something longer, it's one of the best cues around to pick up the phone or walk to somebody, or arrange a Skype meeting to connect with them because chances are, you'll save yourself 20 emails back and forth. Meetings. Are another pain point, email and meetings are the two biggest distractions we have, and again, we might recall from an earlier lesson, this broader definition of a distraction that I like to use where a distraction is anything that derails us from what we want to accomplish. It could be a notification, which is an interruption, it could be a meeting that we really don't need to attend. And so I have five rules to share with you for meetings as well 'cause this is such a strong pain point for so many people. But best institute, the first is to institute a no meeting day. So I've seen this work in many workplaces actually where there's a no meeting Monday for example, where people hunker down on their most important work. They arrange their week, they call external clients instead of just juggling things internally. It's a great reminder, not just for yourself but for everybody especially if you're in a position where you'll need a team. If you don't, it's a suggestion to make. Meetings are something that are worth respecting, it's not something worth recalling because you just need to chat. The second idea involves five minute meetings. Man that sounds like bliss. But the idea behind a five minute meeting is everybody gets a turn, 15 to 30 seconds to speak, and it's kinda rapid fire, it helps to huddle instead of sitting down around a conference table, but if it's an update that you're sharing with, it doesn't work for every meeting naturally, some involve ideation and greater collaboration in that way, but if you're just sharing status updates, you don't need to have somebody get into some analogy that takes five or 10 minutes, this monologue of what they're working on, a simple status update helps. Third, always have an agenda. This goes back to this idea of deliberateness. Productivity, it's not about doing more faster, it's about doing the right things deliberately and with intention, including meetings. A meeting without an agenda is a meeting without a purpose. Either that or the purpose only exists in one person's mind, and everybody else is frustrated. The fourth idea is something that one of the co-founders of Y Combinator has about makers or managers, and so essentially, within an organization, there are two types of schedules. There are people who have maker schedule, and there are people who have manager schedules. And so a maker is used to making things, they're used to coding, they're used to designing, they're used to hunkering down and one meeting, at 1p.m. in the afternoon might destroy their productivity between 10 a.m. and two or 3p.m., because they're just thinking, oh, I can't get into this big project, I have this meeting coming up, or I can't focus on this, I have a meeting. It's kind of always on their mind, where a manager's schedule, a manager is used to going to meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting and the marginal cost of adding a meeting to a manager's schedule is basically nothing because they're used to switching, they're not used to diving into something so deeply. And so when you're calling a meeting, being mindful of who is a maker, who is a manager, and inviting the right people and being thoughtful about the time of people who are makers is essential. This is such a fascinating thing that we don't really think about, we don't really think about the work patterns of the people around us, but this simple way of categorizing them is very helpful. The final rule is the three bounce rule, so this rule is very simple. When there is a side conversation enemy that bounces three times between two different people, it's tabled for a later discussion, and so, that's a great way to keep a meeting focused and not go off on a lot of different tangents. So a few strategies that, again, are not advice, but they're ideas to consider, there might be one, two, three of these that connect with you that you wanna try and I would suggest whether these tactics or whether anything else is experiment with them all, because the one that works the best for you might be the one that you least expect. I know that was the case with me for the rule of three where I thought, man, this stupid little rule would never work but then I found that it worked better than everything else combined, and so you might be just as surprised. So the ones we can control, email, meetings, alerts. A super powerful thing that you can do for your productivity is to go through the settings on your phone, the notification settings and disable any interruption you don't wanna lose 26 minutes of productivity over. There probably aren't that many. Text messages fall into that too. There are fun ones that we can control, like news websites and the internet, which we spend a lot of time procrastinating on and social media. And the best way to deal with these is to download a distractions blocker. I recommend a few of them in the workbook, but a few of them to jot down, one is called Freedom, one is called Self-Control, and one of them is called Cold Turkey. And what these allow you to do is to disable these fun distractions ahead of time, so if you try and go onto CNN or the New York Times or whatever your website of choice is, they'll show you a splash screen instead where it'll show you some quote, maybe from Steve Jobs, who knows, that will get you thinking about productivity and remind yourself, oh wait, I didn't choose to visit that website, I visited on autopilot mode, maybe I should snap out of it and get back to work. And most of these apps, you have to actually restart your computer if you want to access these sites and these social media websites again and that's a powerful way of getting back on track. So dealing with these ahead of time. There are a lot of different ways we contain these distractions but the key is to deal with them ahead of time, because after they've come up, they're more attractive than whatever it is that we wanna be doing. Once we receive that alert that somebody tagged us in a Facebook picture, we think, oh man, was that from last weekend or was that like a nice picture, and so that gets us into this whole rabbit hole of losing 26 minutes, whereas we could have been focusing instead and consume that on a break. A distractions break, which can be fun as well. If you spend a lot of time working without distraction, sometimes schedule... Break where you just consume a buffet of distractions is a fun thing to do. So I have an activity that's paired with, so pairs nicely with this advice, it's another two minute challenge, and you'll see that on page, let me check in my workbook here, on page nine, we have another two minute challenge, and that is to fill out the distractions grid in your workbook. Make it as full as you can. I've also included just a few resources below it for taming distractions ahead of time. So we can get that (mumbles), let's go three, two, one. There we go. While we're doing this exercise right here, a quick question that came in from Comedy Gumball Machine, who's been watching all day, you had mentioned having all these job offers when you got out of university and Comedy Gumball Machine wants to know a little bit more about where did you study, what did you major in, how did that feed into what you're doing now? I'm always hesitant to talk about my own personal stuff 'cause I know people want the tactics. But yeah, I graduated with a business degree from a little university in Ottawa called Carlton University and yeah, the job offers, I'd worked several internships up to that point, which is how I was able to actually experiment with this advice in the real world instead of just in the academic setting. One was for, I coordinated the student recruitment across Canada, for Nokia, I did a few other things in that way, so I had a good network of people that when I started the project, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't the worst decision I've ever made (chuckles), by declining those offers, but it was, yeah. What did you guys find making this grid? Were you surprised by anything? That here's a lot of them (chuckles). Yeah, there's quite a few of these distractions that we face, but it's funny how many of them we contain ahead of time. More than we might think, and I think that's another place where the value comes from in an activity like this is, a bit of foresight can be worth so much productivity, and that's especially the case when our attention is involved, and these traps are human, just as procrastination is human. You're not messed up because you're just distracted all day, that's just the environment. We're wired to pay attention to things that are novel and pleasurable and threatening so taming them ahead of time is one of the best things that we can do. I have a question for you though. And the question involves what you just did, and it is what is wrong with this idea of taming distractions ahead of time? 'Cause there's one thing that's wrong with it. I see everybody thinking. Yeah. You don't get breaks. You don't get breaks, that's one of them, yeah. I think another one is you're trying to control the future, and-- You can't predict the future-- Right, you can't be in full control. Yeah and some of the distractions are valuable, especially when we work in a collaborative environment. If you're working, some psychologists I follow, they call them war room type environments. If you're in the situation room or in a room that NASA has when they launch a shuttle, you don't want everybody with headphones on, like focused on something, but we don't work in a zen garden. We don't have total control over the attention that we give to our work, and this is, I think what's wrong with this idea is that we can't work without distractions 100% of the time, because we do work that's collaborative. When we work around a schedule of other people, sometimes being interrupted is essential, right, but it involves the breakdown of our work. There are two types of work that we do. The first is work with other people, and the second is work that requires deep focus. So work with other people is collaborative, we need to get information from other people, they need to get information from us. We need to go back and forth because that creates a greater productivity on the team level, right it's essential that we become available in case anybody needs us if we're in one of these war room type of environments. But then you have the tasks that require deep levels of focus, where you don't wanna be interrupted all the time, where there's no value to your team in you being interrupted. And so this is so important to keep in mind, if we're doing people work, maybe we wanna tame the biggest distractions that we have. Maybe we wanna make it so that we don't get derailed by Facebook, for example, but for the focus work that we do, we wanna tame as many as we possibly can. Just to kinda illustrate this, 'cause it's always helpful, for the people work that I do, the more collaborative things have to do with email and planning out my week and doing these maintenance type tasks, where it's okay if I'm interrupted, I can get back on track, but with something like writing a book or an article for my site or reading a deep, rich, boring piece of research, one of these tedious research papers, it can be disastrous if I'm interrupted because anything in that moment would be more attractive than that task. That task is boring, it's frustrating, it's difficult, it's ambiguous, it's unstructured, it lacks personal meaning, it lacks intrinsic rewards, it's something that you would procrastinate on because of these other objects of attention being more attractive in the moment. And so taming them ahead of time is so critical.

Class Description

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The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy
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It’s a common refrain: “If I only I had more hours in the day, I’d be able to get everything done.” But since finding more hours isn’t an option, we search for ways to be more productive—to better use our limited time to not only complete our required tasks but also accomplish our loftier goals.

Chris Bailey, author of “The Productivity Project,” spent a year of his life conducting productivity experiments on himself in order to discover the secrets to living the most productive life possible. He’ll share his most insightful lessons on how to work deliberately rather than reactively, manage your energy better, avoid excessive procrastination and have more time to do what you find meaningful in life.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Slow down and work more deliberately.
  • Shrink or eliminate the unimportant from your life.
  • Focus on your highest-leverage tasks that give you the greatest return.
  • Schedule less time for important tasks.
  • Distract yourself from inevitable distractions.
  • Develop productive procrastination.
  • Use a healthy diet, sleep and exercise to be more productive.
  • Strive for imperfection.
  • Form good habits so your productivity is automatic.
  • Motivate yourself by understanding why you want to get something done.


Michael Duskus

I wasn't sure what to expect from this course, but I was happily surprised to learn very useful, practical approaches to being more productive in all aspects of my life. Chris's approach to dealing with time and productivity challenges we all face daily are simple to comprehend — and with a little discipline, easy to implement. I'm looking forward to reading his book, too. Additionally, the team at Creative Live are so great and make the experience memorable; from their smiles, warm greetings and professionalism to the great food provided, they know how to bring out the good vibes in everyone. We're definitely looking forward to attending more classes!

Helen Leung

I found Chris' book very useful, full of great ideas that are easy to implement, and totally fun to read. This seminar is the same: inspiring, practical, and very enjoyable. The productivity ideas that he introduced are crucial for reducing stress and enjoying our work and personal life more. Highly recommended!


A fantastic class that will NOT teach you how to be more productive in creating to-do-lists and completing as many tasks as you can, but will explain how to make right priorities and choices and how achieve what you want in a more efficient matter while having a holistic view of your productivity, including your approach to food, sleep and meditation. The class is packed with actionable tools and techniques and I recommend it to everyone who would like to start working less and achieve more. The teacher - Chris - has a great personality - he's very likable and relatable - and he delivers the message in a manner that makes it very easy to understand and act upon the message.