I’m Chris Bailey And This Is What Makes Me A High Performer

What would you do if you had two job offers straight out of college?

Accept one of them?

Nah… where’s the fun in that!

What if you take a year off, read every piece of productivity and time management information you can get your hands on, put it to the test and share your results with the world?

That sounds a lot more interesting, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

That’s exactly what our next guest did. Chris Bailey, the founder and head honcho of A Year Of Productivity (now A Life Of Productivity), took it upon himself to focus all his time, energy and attention for a full year in search for the most practical and tactical tips to make his (and yours) life better. A human guinea pig, a passionate productivity consultant and speaker, devoted Buddhist, voracious reader, busy blogger with quite the social media following… how does he do it all and still find time to run some crazy experiments on himself?

Let’s find out.

Take it away Chris!

How did you get started with the whole Year of Productivity? What got you into productivity and time management?

I did a TEDx talk a week or two ago where I talked about the story behind it. It was interesting. There was a picture from that talk where I was on a beach – and this is probably about a decade ago – and I’m reading a book. Presumably my family and my friends are off playing beach volleyball or something, and I’m reading a book named The Joy of Stress about how to manage your stress.

Since I can remember, I’ve just been obsessed with the idea of becoming as productive as possible – getting more out of your time, getting more energy, managing your focus and your attention, because these are the three things that you combine throughout the day to get stuff done.

I’ve just been obsessed with it, because the way I come at productivity, I don’t see it from the viewpoint where I want to do more, more, more, more, more. I come at it from the angle where I want to be able to get 10 hours of work done in 5 or 6 hours, so I have even more time throughout the day to do things that are more important to me.

So it’s basically getting things done faster so you can enjoy the rest of your day?

Yeah. But not only done faster, because I think people make a mistake – when they think of productivity, they just think of doing more faster. I think there’s more to it than that. There has to be meaning behind what you do; there has to be intention behind your actions. Those things are really important as well.

I personally think there are two types of people: the people who want to do more, and the people who want to do less. But there’s also people that just want to go and go and do 40,000 things at the same time.

Yeah, my approach – it’s kind of like what Apple does. If you look at Apple as a company, every single product that Apple makes would fit on a small table, yet Apple is one of the biggest companies on the planet, because they decided on a few things that they’re going to do, but they do the hell out of them. They do them really, really well, and they invest all of their energy, all their time and all their focus behind these few products. That’s what makes them so successful.

That’s kind of the approach that I take. Even with this project, just trying to do this project, this one thing really, really well for an entire year, as opposed to being something that I did on the sidelines when I took a full-time job.

What’s the first thing that you do when you wake up?

Every morning, I wake up at 5:30, and right when I wake up, I take these creatine tablets which help me work out. I take two creatine tablets at about 5:30, and then I take a caffeinated pre-workout drink about 15 minutes after that, and I leave to the gym before 6 a.m. every morning.

But even though that’s what I do when I wake up, and people often think it’s impressive when you wake up early, it should be noted that there’s no difference in socioeconomic standing between somebody who wakes up early and late night. I just want to throw that out there, though.

See, there’s no difference between somebody who wakes up at 5:30 and wakes up at 8:30 if they sleep for the exact same amount of hours, because they have the same number of hours every day to get things done in.

What does your typical day look like? You start at 5:30, and then what happens?

I wake up at 5:30. I hit the gym by 6 in the morning. From 6 until 8 – I usually have a 1 ½ hour or 2 hour workout. I plan out my entire day at the gym. I define the three outcomes that I want to achieve. Not things I want to get done that day, but actual outcomes that I want to get out of a certain day.

The outcomes are essentially what your to-dos lead to. I try to reduce every day to just three of these things; it seems like an arbitrary number, but it really works when you put your energy, your time, and your attention behind three arrows throughout the day. So I do that from 6 till 8, I plan out my day.

And depending on how much structure I think I need for these outcomes, I schedule my day accordingly. So if I’m doing a lot of writing or doing something where I need to be creative, I won’t drink caffeine that day; I’ll just drink decaffeinated tea, like I’m doing right now. But on the other hand, if I’m just trying to become really, really efficient and get more done and become more focused in what I’m doing, I might drink caffeine and I might have a more structured day. So I plan out my entire day from 6 until 8 every morning.

Then I take a 1 hour break, and then I usually work from 9 to about 5 or 6. During that time, I’m reading, I’m doing academic research, reading all these very dry and boring papers. I’m conducting interviews with folks that I admire in the productivity space.

From 6 until 8, I meditate, I read, I do some more research. I work a little bit, but at a slower pace so I can kind of ease into my nighttime ritual, which begins at 8.

For my nighttime ritual, I recall three things that I’m grateful for, usually with my girlfriend. What that does is it trains your brain to recall the things to be grateful for throughout the day, which has been proven to make you happier. So I do that. I recall one positive experience I had throughout the day. I meditate, and then I go to bed, and then I do it all again the next day.

Is your routine any different on the weekend?

Yeah, it’s completely different on the weekend. I don’t really have a structure for my weekends. Well, that’s wrong; I have a loose structure for my weekends, but nothing too rigid. I like to kind of go with the flow and have some fun. I relax a bit on the weekends.

Besides sleep, what takes the most out of your day?

A lot of research, a lot of writing, and also whatever productivity experiment I happen to be doing at that time. Some productivity experiments happen in the background, and they become kind of the tapestry of how I live my life.

Drinking water for a month, for an example, is a recent one that I did, and that doesn’t take that much time, to only drink water. Actually, it probably takes less time than if you drink coffee and tea and what not.

How do you come up with those experiments? Do you come up on your own, or does your audience give you suggestions? How does that work?

The folks that read the site, a lot of them suggest experiments. I’d be foolish not to take the best from there. But most of them come from myself. I have these three areas that I experiment with; there’s my energy levels, there’s my time, and there’s my focus and my attention. I just look at different aspects of these three variables that I want to fine-tune and play around with to experiment with.

What has been the best experiment so far? Or the one that you did it and you want to stick with it?

That’s kind of a weird question, in a way, because of the way I structure the experiments. For the experiments, I usually take things to the extreme. For example, meditating for 35 hours over a week, or watching 70 hours of TED talks, or not drinking anything but water for an entire month.

Most of them aren’t sustainable. If there was one that benefited me, it was probably the meditation experiment. Meditation’s tough, because it’s this pocket of time in your day where you’re doing nothing. You constantly want to push it off because you always want to be doing something. It’s a practice that fights against the natural current of how you think and how your brain works.

But I can’t think of anything that’s more rewarding for your productivity than meditation, because it lets you step back from your work and see it from this 10,000-foot level and decide whether you’re working on the right things in the first place.

It’s hard writing about this stuff, because I have the same natural tendencies as everyone else. I want to push away meditation as a practice that makes me more productive. And I do. I do frequently. I have a hard time integrating these habits into my life.

But if there’s one that has benefited me the most, it’s probably meditation – even though I struggle with it a lot of the times. But that’s the purpose of meditation. If you were good at it, you wouldn’t need to meditate.

What are some of the apps and softwares and tools that you use?

There’s an app I love called Instapaper.

The whole idea behind it is that you can group all these articles that you want to read over the course of a day together so you can blow through them all at once. I do that every Sunday; my girlfriend and I, we visit a local tea shop, and I read every single article in my Instapaper queue that day that I didn’t have the time or inclination to throughout the week. So Instapaper is one.

I do all my writing in an app called TextEdit on the Mac. TextEdit, it’s like WordPad, but for the Mac, but it’s so simple – deceivingly simple. When I write, I don’t want any distractions; I don’t want a cluttered toolbar or anything like that. I just want to type some words on my computer, and I want them to show up on the screen, and I want to be able to do that again and again and again, and I want it to work. I think it’s simple enough so that it gets out of my way and lets me write. I like that.

I’m a big fan of an app called Keynote for the Mac as well. Keynote I think is one of the most underrated design programs out there on the planet. It’s meant to be an equivalent to PowerPoint, but for the Mac, but it’s so much more than that. Most of the things that I design for the website that I don’t have my buddy who’s a designer do, I do those in Keynote.

What’s your best time-saving trick?

The easiest way to save time is to not do things in the first place. And I don’t say that from a place of laziness; I say that from a place of defending how I spend my time in the first place. One of the easiest ways to reclaim time is to say “no” to these BS commitments that take your time and zap you of your energy and compromise your focus and your attention when you’re doing them.

Even commitments that you impose upon yourself, like checking email. You don’t need to check email 10 times an hour. You need to, at most, check email maybe three or four times a day. People will adjust to the expectations that you have and that you set for other people.

So the best time-saving trick that I know of and that I could possibly ever think of is to say “no.” I would start with figuring out what outcomes you want to accomplish during the day, and then I would say “no” to the things that get in the way of those outcomes. Obviously, if something better comes along, do it, because then you’ll be more productive and you’ll get more returns out of your time.

But if you have these three outcomes that you want to achieve during the day and something comes up that – a lot of these things that we have to do and we convince ourselves that we have to do, there are these things that seem really, really urgent – and they are, often – but they’re not important at all. And then on the other side of things, you have these things that you want to accomplish that aren’t urgent, but they’re very, very important.

A huge part of productivity is defending your schedule against these commitments, these hour-long meetings where you say five words, or these emails that you’re copied on 100 times that you don’t have anything to do with that buzz your phone all the time. It’s figuring out what you want, and then saying “no” to everything isn’t what you want.

If you think of the extreme, if you’re going on vacation, you have to say “no” to everything. And then you have all the time in the world.

When people go on vacation, they often fear coming back, because they expect so many missed calls and voicemails and emails. They are so stressed about them during the vacation, that don’t relax at all.

There’s definitely good ways to combat against that. One of my favorites that I help folks out with is creating these little pockets of time, like 1 hour in the evening every day when you’ll check your email. And that seems like, “Oh my God, I’m going to check my email for a whole hour this evening?” But then you can tell yourself throughout the day that “I don’t need to worry about these work-related things because I’m going to work on those at 7 p.m. tonight.”

And creating that short window of time where people can contact you, too, so you’re not always worried about your phone ringing and forgetting your phone in the hotel room, and you can take calls during that time, too. So a lot of productivity also, I think, is compartmentalizing your commitments so you can manage them better. But that’s beside the point.

This is like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, right?

Somewhat. A lot of what he talks about says that there shouldn’t be many boundaries between your home and your work and your relaxation, because you have everything captured into a system, and you work on whatever is the best thing at any one time.

Do you agree with the GTD methodology?

There’s this big kernel of truth, this golden nugget behind the methodology, where you take everything, all of your commitments, all your to-dos, all your tasks, you take them out of your head and you put them into some external system.

And there’s something to that, especially when you can rely on that system in order to be productive and in order to stop thinking about these things. If you’re trying to work on something and you have an arcade bouncing around in your head of thoughts, then you’re not going to accomplish much at the end of the day. That, I think, is the biggest part of Getting Things Done. When I interviewed David, he recognized that as the biggest golden nugget of his system, the biggest breakthrough that his system had.

The rest of what he talks about is kind of a layer on top of that truth, is a layer of how you manage that system, that you put all of these things that should be bouncing around your head and are bouncing around everybody else’s head – its’ the system that goes on top of all that.

What motivates you to do what you do? What pushes you to do A Year of Productivity?

The love of helping people. There is nothing more rewarding in the world than getting an email from somebody saying “I read some articles from you, and I was having a shitty day, and I was feeling unmotivated and unproductive – but then I read this little thing that you did, or I was inspired by this experiment that you did, and it changed the way I live today. This is how I’m going to make a change in the future.” That’s the best kind of feedback that I could receive, and that’s what motivates me at the end of the day.

First of all, I’m amazed that people actually want to read what I write. The fact that I can put something out there and it gets so many – hundreds of thousands of people can read something that I write, that just blows me away – but the fact that people actually read it and they don’t just take it as productivity porn, they actually take it and they make changes and improvements to their life with it, that’s the real cool part, I think.

What’s productivity porn?

It’s like these lists of things, like “100 hacks that’ll save you time” that people read, but they don’t make any changes to their life because they read it. The only purpose of a website or of anything should be to change people.

That’s my goal, is to change people’s behavior. It’s great if I entertain someone; that’s fine. But at the end of the day, I want to make somebody’s life just a little bit better because they read something that I wrote. That’s the coolest feeling.

Was that always your motivation? What about when you first started out and there weren’t that many people that read your content?

Just the love of productivity.

Besides productivity books, what other books do you read?

Right now, I’m reading Pride and Prejudice and The Hunt for Red October.  I find older styles of English just fascinating. It’s such an elegant way of phrasing what you have to say. I try to take a little bit of writing inspiration from older English, like Jane Austen novels, but not too much.

(Here’s how Chris’s book collection looks like):

A Year Of Productivity

Your Turn Now

And that is how someone who dedicated a year of their life to productivity experiments does it.

The biggest takeaway – learn how to say “no” to nonsense commitments, even the ones that you sometimes give to yourself. Also, adopt the habit of meditation and remembering 3 positive things about each and every day. One will help you relax, the other one will make you happy, both of which are essential to your productivity and success.

If you want to learn more about Chris and A Life of Productivity (formerly known as A Year Of Productivity), head over to his website and make sure to sign up for his awesome newsletter. If you want to get a quick recap of the biggest takeaways from his one year productivity experimentation, check out this video.

What is your biggest takeaway from this interview? Share in the comment section below: