Headshot of Chris Bailey

Meet the Man Super-Sizing Productivity: Chris Bailey

September 11, 2017

Chris Bailey conducted a year of productivity experiments on himself and wrote a book about the experience, The Productivity Project.

Chris Bailey conducted a year of productivity experiments on himself from May 2013 to May 2014. A recent business school graduate, Bailey immersed himself in productivity research and interviewed productivity gurus from around the world to come up with his experiments, recording all of his findings in a blog. By the end of the year, his musings had been read over one million times by people from almost every country. He wrote a book about the experience, The Productivity Project, which became a bestseller. Now a productivity guru in his own right, he is a writer, coach, workshop facilitator and speaker.

Follett-Campbell: Why did you decide to do a year of productivity experiments on yourself originally?

Chris Bailey: It is kind of weird, isn’t it? The impetus for the project was that productivity has been a curiosity of mine for more than a decade. When I graduated university several years ago, I received three full-time job offers, but I thought if ever there was a time to explore something that I was naturally curious about, it was then. I declined the job offers to conduct a year of productivity experiments on myself. I looked at all the research on performance in a workplace-type environment and interviewed some of my favorite experts in the productivity space. It was really a burning curiosity that motivated me to start the project.

Why is productivity such an interesting subject for you?

I find it fascinating that we don’t all accomplish the same amount throughout the day. We each get 24 hours to be productive and live a meaningful life. There are some people who seem to accomplish so much more in those hours. They are more focused, they have more energy, they work more deliberately and with intention. There are some of us who work on autopilot mode, and we’re busy, but we accomplish very little. I think I have always been curious about this: what makes the most productive people tick?

Another part of it was that there is a lot of b.s. in the productivity space. There is advice that is fun to read about but that you don’t necessarily earn that time back reading about. That is the thing about productivity advice — for all the time you spend reading about productivity, you have to earn that time back and then some. Otherwise, you are basically just looking at productivity porn, because it doesn’t move your work forward in a meaningful fashion.

Are you a naturally productive person?

Because I have been steeped in these ideas for so long, I achieve what I intend more often than [others]. That is one of the ideas I settled into by the end of the project. The most productive people are not the ones who work on autopilot — they are the ones who work deliberately and with intention. I have definitely gotten better at managing my personal productivity since I started the project. I struggle like most people when it comes to getting all my stuff done throughout the day, but I think I manage okay.

What was the most challenging experiment that you conducted on yourself?

Anything related to food. There was one where my goal was to gain 10 pounds of muscle mass, while I lowered my body fat percentage from 17% down to 10%. I managed to gain 15 pounds of lean muscle by the end of that experiment, but my body fat was abysmal. I think I made it to 15% instead of 10%. It is because I love food so much. Any experiment that I failed, I pretty much failed because it involved food in some way.

In another experiment I consumed only Soylent for a week. It tastes disgusting, especially if you like food … Soylent is this powdered food substitute that has everything that our body nutritionally needs to sustain itself throughout the day. I think on day two or three, I was missing food so much … I stopped at a Burger King … and ordered the biggest Whopper they had.

How scientific are your experiments?

Not very scientific. I’m not in a laboratory. The experiment hooks people into an idea with a fun story and I can throw some research their way at the same time. Whenever I am doing one of these experiments, I am always diving deep into the studies surrounding that area to [understand] the science behind it. I share stories along the way of me experimenting with that science.

What is the strangest experiment you conducted on yourself?

They are all pretty strange.

Can you tell me about the time you lived like a caveman for a month?

That was a fun one. I slept on the floor. There is a weird subculture of people who sleep on the floor because they think it lets us get in touch with our evolutionary roots. I don’t really buy that. I slept on the floor, I made sure that I walked five to nine miles every single day — which is what cavemen walked. I ate like a caveman — mostly vegetables, not much meat, no sugar and nothing refined. I had more energy after that experiment than I’ve had in a long time. It consumed a lot of time, because I had to upset all my daily habits and rituals to shoehorn this experiment into my life. At the same time, it provided evidence for the idea that our productivity is much more than just managing time. Our energy is a huge component to how much we
accomplish over the course of the day. If we don’t work out, if we eat garbage, if we don’t consume enough water and if we don’t get enough sleep, our productivity is often toast. Doing the simple things like recharging is pretty important.

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Another experiment was using my smartphone for only an hour a day for three months. I have always been this person with his smartphone attached at the hip. I never go anywhere without it. At the start, it was hell being able to only use it for an hour a day. Eventually, I felt as though I kind of cleared a bend. A whole new expanse of focus, creativity and productivity opened up for me. This little rectangle in my pocket wasn’t calling out for my attention through the day.

At the end of the productivity project, after stepping back and exploring everything I did, I came to the conclusion that every single thing that I experimented with that actually moved my work forward and allowed to me to accomplish more every day fell into one of three categories: managing my time, managing my attention and focus and managing my energy. I think all three ingredients are crucial.

Did any of the experiments stick? Were there any that you kept doing after they were over?

No, because they were all so extreme. There was a current that underlies the lessons that I uncovered from these experiments. It is the idea of intentionality — the intention behind our actions. Choosing what we spend our time on before we spend our time on it.

[In one of the experiments] I became a total slob for a week. I hardly showered, I ate a lot of junk food, I watched a ton of TV and my energy was gone as a result. It showed me that being a slob is fun to do every so often … if our intention for a given day is to sit back and relax that is fine, as long as it is our intention. [In another experiment, I drank] only water for a month. It showed me that drinking alcohol is essentially a way of borrowing energy and happiness from the next day. Similarity, caffeine is a way of borrowing energy from later on in the day when we experience that caffeine crash. That is okay, as long as we understand … there are costs and benefits associated with every action …. Becoming thoughtful about what we spend our time, energy and attention on in the first place is so essential.

You mentioned three things that improve productivity. If you had to pick three things that diminish your productivity the most, what would they be?

I would say anything that sucks us into working on autopilot. You see this a lot with the smartphones. Our smartphones wake us up, and immediately after we will notice a bunch of notifications, or that someone tagged us in a picture on Facebook. We will go check that out, then check our emails and then go check Instagram. We find ourselves in this kind of haze of distraction where we burn through 30 minutes of our lives that we will never get back. We don’t spend that time in a meaningful fashion or with intention. The Internet is a candy store of distractions … which can be extraordinarily hazardous to our productivity. [Basically,] it is anything in our work that pulls us away from our intentions.

Second — the busyness trap. If you walk up to anyone and ask them how they are doing, they will tell you that they are busy and have so much going on. When we say that we are busy, what we are essentially saying is that the world needs us quite a bit. It is us expressing how important we are. Busyness is really no different from laziness when it doesn’t lead us to accomplish anything.

Our work tends to expand to fit how much time we have available for it. When we are on a deadline, we hardly ever check social media or keep on top of our emails. Chances are that those are shut off and we are focused on what is important.

When we are not on a deadline, when we have a bit less work to do, these tasks tend to expand to fill the rest of our time. We only do three, four or five hours of work throughout the day and the rest is busywork … Just because you are busy doesn’t mean that you are productive. Especially when you define productivity as: a) how much you accomplished; and b) whether or not you accomplished what you intended to do in the first place.

The third mistake is that we want to make too many changes in our personal life. The idea of the change is very attractive on the surface. The process that we have to go through to implement the change is anything but attractive. I found this in my experiment to wake up at 5:30 every morning … I had the routine that productivity dreams are made of. I woke up at 5:30 to have a coffee, at 6:00 I went to the gym. I planned out my entire day while I was working out. I would get home and make a big healthy breakfast, shower and then meditate. I was disconnected from the Internet during this time.

Then I realized I absolutely hated the ritual but loved the idea of it. I had to go to bed in the evening when my friends wanted to hang out or when the hockey game was on. I had to totally disrupt my life in a way that I didn’t enjoy. I think that speaks to a lot of the changes that we want to make. The idea of the change is always more attractive than what we have to do to make that change a reality.

This is the case for our productivity as well. A lot of us want to become vice-president at our company, and we want to have a six-pack by the summertime. In the moment, what we want to do is play hooky and grab a cheeseburger … I think when we are intending to do something, we have to consider what the process of actually accomplishing that thing will be like. We all want to become a world-class pianist but not many would want to go through the process of getting there. Considering the trade-offs in that regard is important too.

What do you think is the biggest mistake that employers make when they are trying to make their employees more productive?

I think focusing on how busy people are instead of how much employees actually accomplish. That is ultimately what productivity is. I define productivity as accomplishing what we intend to do. The productivity of a team is how much the team accomplishes.

It is so hard to measure our productivity when we do knowledge work for a living. We used to create widgets on an assembly line and do these repetitive-type tasks at work. In that sort of environment, it is very simple to measure someone’s productivity. If person A makes 15 widgets in an hour and person B makes 30 widgets in an hour, person B is twice as productive. It is that simple.

When our work is more ambiguous and unstructured it becomes more of a challenge. If you have two programmers, programmer A writes 150 lines of code and programmer B writes 300 lines of code, programmer A could have been more productive. Maybe their program accomplished twice as much, had fewer bugs in it or solved problems that weren’t called for in the first place … When work becomes more unstructured and ambiguous, we tend to look … to how busy we are as a proxy for how productive we are.

I have fallen into this trap too. If it was a really busy day, I would feel very productive. Then, I would look to how much I actually accomplished over the day to see how productive I was. I think this is something we have to start doing in team environments too. It doesn’t matter how quickly someone responds to your email messages if they are ultimately not accomplishing what they are there to do.

What was the biggest lesson you learned about yourself doing this?

That I love food quite a bit. Whenever I fall into a routine where I am less productive, it is always because what I eat takes a tumble — I am not eating as healthy as I could be.

For about the entire time that I have been curious about productivity, I have been curious about meditation. At the start of the productivity project, I saw meditation as the antithesis of productivity. I viewed productivity as doing more and more, faster and faster. I viewed meditation as sitting there, observing my breath and not doing much at all. Then I stopped meditating entirely and I noticed several things started to happen. I became more distracted through the day and I couldn’t focus as intently on what I was doing. The academic research I was pouring over became more tedious when I couldn’t focus on it. I gained weight because I ate less intentionally … I worked more on autopilot mode and used all my devices more. Ultimately, I became busier while accomplishing less.

It was eye-opening. It speaks to this idea that when we think of the word “productivity” we think of something that feels cold and corporate — about efficiency and effectiveness. I realized after the experiment that nothing could be further from the truth. Productivity is accomplishing what we set out to do. If we intend to have a relaxing day on the beach and then we do, I would argue that we are perfectly productive in that scenario. The same is true if we intend to hire a new staff member, submit a report, mentor new employees and catch up on emails. If we accomplish these things I would argue that we are perfectly productive.

So it is not an issue of virtue versus vice?

Exactly. Productivity is achieving what we set out to do. [The lesson I learned was] that meditation wasn’t the opposite of productivity. Productivity is about focusing, intention and achieving what we set out to do.

Are you still doing productivity experiments on yourself?

Yes, I am. Right now, I’m designing an experiment where I experience one hour of boredom every weekday and record my thoughts over the course of that time. I view boredom as something we … are so averse to. I have the idea that maybe that isn’t necessarily right.

Do you ever let other people choose experiments for you?

Yes. A lot of the experiments that I do are suggested by my readers. They will email me some weird idea. I think becoming a slob and waking up early were suggested by readers. Often times I will start with something that I want to measure and work backwards to an experiment that will allow me to talk about the science behind it. As an example, I wanted to experiment with information retention: how things like meditation and taking breaks affect our focus, information retention and productivity. I decided to overwhelm my brain with information and watched 296 TED Talks over a course of a week … I start with something that I am curious about and work backwards to an experiment.

For how long do you think you will keep doing productivity experiments? Will you experiment on something else?

I think when you define productivity as accomplishing what you intend to do, there is so much that can get in the way of that. How much energy we have influences that. How well we can focus influences that. How we manage our time influences that. That is a lot to experiment with, everything from listening to music to living like a caveman.

I don’t think I will run out of ideas soon … because [productivity] is not about how busy or responsive we are; it is about taking a more holistic approach and really observing everything that affects how much we accomplish over the course of the day. I think there are a lot of different things that you can experiment with in that context.

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Emily Follett-Campbell
Emily Follett-Campbell is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Your Workplace. Find her online at www.emilyfollett.com

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