RHR: How to be Insanely Productive Without Destroying Your Health

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I am often asked when I travel and speak at conferences or just meet people, how do you still spend time with your family and take care of your own health, while writing a book and seeing patients, building a supplement company, etc.? So today I wanted to do something a little different for the show and spend some time talking about healthy productivity.

In this episode, we cover:

1:48 What Chris ate for breakfast
7:40 The most important strategy for increasing your productivity
21:52 The simple thing preventing your mind from being productive

Links We Discuss

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Full Text Transcript:

Steve Wright:  Hey, everyone.  Welcome to another episode of the Revolution Health Radio Show.  This show is brought to you by ChrisKresser.com.  I’m your host of the show, Steve Wright, and my website is SCDLifestyle.com.  With me is integrative medical practitioner and healthy skeptic Chris Kresser.  So, Chris, how’s the day going?

Chris Kresser:  It’s going pretty well.  It’s absolutely gorgeous here.  We have in the Bay Area what they call Indian summer, late summer, so it’s about 75 degrees outside, maybe 80, I don’t know.  It’s a really warm, gorgeous, crisp, clear fall day.  I’m looking out my window at the redwood trees and feeling pretty happy about being in California right at this moment.

Steve Wright:  Beautiful.  Well, I can’t say that Boulder is quite at 75 degrees today.  We’ve hit a little bit of a cold snap, but at least there are no clouds in the sky.

Chris Kresser:  At least you’re not underwater, right?

Steve Wright:  That’s true.  I have met quite a few people who did lose homes and can’t actually get back to them for several months, so I feel very grateful that my apartment complex was not affected by the flooding here.  But it’s definitely as bad as some of the pictures made it look.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  My heart definitely goes out to everyone who has been affected by that.

What Chris ate for breakfast

Steve Wright:  Yes.  Yes, for sure.  So, on today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about how to be insanely productive without destroying your health.  Before we get into that topic, though, we need to know, Chris, what did you have for breakfast?

Chris Kresser:  Ah, of course.  Yeah, I saw that we got a few requests for that feature to come back on the comments from the last show.  What did I have for breakfast?  Today I had some ground beef with liver in it, chopped up and added to it, some onions and some spices.  I had some sweet potato fries roasted in duck fat.  It was actually a combination of sweet potato and regular potato fries from dinner the other night.  They were leftover, so I just kind of reheated them.  And then some collard greens that were leftover from dinner last night.  These were just really simply done.  They were steamed, and then I added some ghee to them.  And then I had some beet kvass along with it.

Steve Wright:  Gourmet as always.  That definitely beats my Bulletproof Coffee and frittata.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, that sounds good, too.

Steve Wright:  It wasn’t too bad.  It was pretty simple, just a cheese and broccoli one.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm, yeah.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, so, Chris, how do you do what you do and produce all the content, do all the different business ventures, and not get sick?

Chris Kresser:  Well, yeah, I wanted to do something a little different for the show today.  I know it’s not strictly a health topic, but it’s something that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to and will be interested in, and it touches on a lot of different health topics because health is actually crucial to productivity, and as you just said, Steve, if we’re overproductive or perhaps… I’m not even sure if that’s the right way to say it.  If we are not efficient in our productivity efforts, it can certainly affect our health.  So, I wanted to spend some time talking a little bit about this because I am often asked when I travel and speak at conferences or just meet people, how do you do it?  How are you writing a book and raising a 2-year-old and continuing to maintain the blog and doing the podcast and running a supplement company and overseeing all of the digital programs you offer, etc., etc., and still spending time with your family and taking care of your own health and having a life outside of all of that?

Steve Wright:  You stressed me out right there!  Gosh.  I’m going to take some deep breaths.  Keep going.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, so the answer really is that I’ve cultivated over the years a real focus on productivity.  I guess you could say I’ve become a productivity hacker.  I’ve always been interested in strategies for maximizing productivity.  I’ve always paid a lot of attention to that, and I’ve spent time actively working on increasing my productivity and letting go of things or cutting things out of my life that decrease my productivity.  It’s been an area of focus for me for many years, and it continues to be.  I’m still learning.  For example, I just read an article today that I picked up a couple new things from, and we’ll maybe talk a little bit about them.  I read books on it.  It’s just something that’s on my radar a lot because the more I can accomplish in a given period of time, the closer I get to fulfilling my purpose, which is to help as many people recover their health and live their dreams as possible.  We’re going to try to get this done in one episode.  If we’re really productive, maybe we can, but I’m not sure.  It’s actually a lot of material to cover.  There are five essential strategies that I’ve identified over the years in terms of increasing or maximizing productivity.  And I’ll just mention them here briefly, and then we’ll talk about each of them in a lot more detail.  The first is to move your body, the second is to clear your mind, the third is to plan and prioritize, the fourth is to rest and rejuvenate, and the fifth is to play and have fun.

Steve Wright:  So, in each one of these, are we going to talk about what you had to cut out and then what you do positively?

Chris Kresser:  If you have any questions specifically about that, feel free to ask.  I’m going to cover probably that and more, maybe not exactly in that formula, but I’m going to cover where you might get stuck in some of those areas, what my recommendations are, and why you should even be paying attention to them in the first place.

Steve Wright:  Well, let me put you on a side tangent before you even get there because I’ve found in my own life as I try to become more productive, as I try to start my habits that I’ve had to, like you said, let go of some things and be kind of ruthless with certain areas of my life.  I’m just curious myself – and I’m sure listeners are – do you have, like, a top one or three things that you had to cut out in order to sort of take on these new habits and these new things?

Chris Kresser:  I do and that’s a great question.  I think it will actually be easier and make more sense to answer that in the context of those five strategies that I just mentioned.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.

The most important strategy for increasing your productivity

Chris Kresser:  The first is move your body, and actually I was just reading an article – I can’t remember where – it was an interview of Richard Branson or it was mentioning Richard Branson in the context of productivity because he’s known as someone who is highly productive.  And I guess they were on his, you know, 90-foot yacht or something, at some party that he was hosting –

Steve Wright:  But not his island.

Chris Kresser:  No, it was on the way to the island, actually!  Yeah.  And so, the person who wrote the article asked him, what’s your secret?  What’s your secret to staying so productive?  And he was expecting this kind of longer answer, but he said, “Work out.”  That was the secret.  And actually it’s maybe not a secret, but if there’s one thing that can help people to increase their productivity, especially if they’re not physically active right now, it’s becoming physically active.  There are so many studies that suggest that physical activity improves cognitive performance.  There’s just a wide variety of literature on this topic.  It’s not really controversial at all.  But a lot of people, of course, are wondering, well, part of the problem is that I feel like I’m not productive enough, so then I don’t have time to work out because I’m trying to get things done, which is one of the traps that you can get into.  And for me, I’ve just been ruthless about not letting exercise and physical activity get superseded by anything, really, unless it’s just absolutely dire that I finish something.  But even then, I will tend to cut something else out of my day and make sure that I get some physical activity because I know it’s just that important to my performance.  It’s another reason that I’ve become a believer in integrating more physical activity into my daily routine, and I suggest that for others.  I’m going to have a whole chapter on this in my book that’s coming out in December, but there are essentially three strategies for how to do this.  One is to sit less; two is to increase your non-exercise physical activity, which I’ll explain in a moment; and three is distinct periods of exercise.  This framework was conceptualized and put together by Dan Pardi over at Dan’s Plan whom we’ve had on the show before.  He’s done a lot of really great work on this.  It’s a real research interest of his, and Dan’s Plan is a really great tool for helping you to integrate this kind of approach to movement into your day.

As far as sitting less goes, we’ve talked on the show before about how detrimental sitting is even if you’re getting adequate physical activity during other times of the week or the day.  So, I suggest sitting less, which means maybe standing about half the day if possible.  A good strategy there would be to get a standing desk.  If you can’t get a standing desk – and even if you do have one – take frequent breaks every 40 to 50 minutes, let’s say.  And studies have shown that even a 2-minute break, so if you sit for 40 minutes and you get up for just 2 minutes and you walk, go to the bathroom, go get a glass of water, just walk around a little bit, take your eyes away from the screen, that can have a significant impact, and it can really reduce the harm that sitting causes.  It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s enough to reverse a lot of the harmful impacts of sitting.

One tool that I’ve found to be really helpful for reminding me to do this is a software application called Time Out.  This is on the Mac.  I think a similar one for PC is called Workrave.  And essentially it runs in the background.  You can determine what intervals the reminder pops up at.  But it has short breaks.  I think my short break is configured for every 10 minutes.  It’s a 15-second break, and I’ll just look away from the screen, rub my eyes a little bit.  It’s important to look away from the screen periodically because staring at a 2-dimensional surface right in front of our face is not what our eyes evolved for, and it can have a detrimental effect on our brain.  So, in the short breaks, I’ll look away from the screen a little bit.  And then I have a longer break configured for 45 or 50 minutes, and that’s a 3-to-4-minute break, and I will either step away.  If I’m on my treadmill desk, I’ll maybe go over and do some pull-ups or some push-ups or whatever muscle group I’m working on that day.  I might go get a glass of water.  I might go outside and walk around a little bit in the sunlight, run up and down the stairs in front of my house or something like that.  So, that can be a really helpful tool just to remind you to do that throughout the day, and I guarantee you, if right now you’re sitting for most of the day and not taking really many breaks at all, if all you get from this podcast is this and you install Time Out or Workrave and you take a short break every 10 minutes where you look away from the screen and then a longer break every 40 minutes, you will feel like a different person.

So, that was sitting less.  The next step was increasing your non-exercise physical activity.  One easy way to do this is just walking more.  And as I’ve discussed before, I suggest aiming for about 10,000 steps a day, and you can use a device, a pedometer like the Fitbit to track your number of steps.  If you work in an office most of the day, that can be a little bit challenging.  One thing you can do is walk or bicycle to work.  If you live too far to do that, you can drive part of the way and park a ways away from the office and then walk the rest of the way.  You can commute by foot or bicycle to do your grocery shopping.  You can get a trailer for your bike that you can carry lots of stuff on.  You can do your own gardening.  You can do manual labor around the house and in the yard.  You can take the stairs instead of the elevator.  If you’re looking for opportunities to stay active throughout the day, there are a lot of different ways that you can do that.

Steve Wright:  And I don’t know if the listeners are going to hear it, but Sylvie was really encouraging everyone to heed that suggestion.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right!  She’s become quite a vocalist lately.  She’s making up her own songs and singing at the top of her lungs all through the day.  It’s just amazing to watch.  I love it.  Especially during my podcast, she seems to really get her wind there.

Steve Wright:  She was just urging us to hit 10,000 steps.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and that’s an interesting parallel there.  Kids are just so naturally active.  It’s rare that they’re just going to sit around on their butts.  They’re always exploring and moving and using their body in interesting ways.  And being with kids or getting a pet if you don’t have children – or even if you do – can be another way to increase your activity.

The last one would be distinct periods of exercise, and this can take a few different forms.  You could do, like, 150 minutes a week of moderate activity like jogging or yoga or things like that; 75 minutes of more vigorous activity like sports, soccer, basketball, tennis, etc., more strenuous yoga; or 30 minutes of the most intense activity, so those would be intervals like sprints or lifting weights either to failure or almost to failure, things like that.  Or you can do some combination of all of that, which is what I do.  I think doing some strength training in that mix is especially helpful for me, for my cognitive performance and productivity, I’ve noticed.

Steve Wright:  It’s really important for mine as well.

Chris Kresser:  Uh-huh.  One thing I do want to say, of course, is that physical activity is crucial for productivity, but like everything else, it can be taken too far.  If you get yourself into an overtrained state, that’s actually going to have the opposite effect on your productivity that you’re looking for.  A lot of my patients have pretty severe adrenal fatigue, and that compromises their ability to concentrate and focus.  They have difficulty with word recall and memory.  So, it’s sort of the Goldilocks thing where the right amount of physical activity can really increase your productivity, and too little or too much can decrease it.

All right, so that’s number one.  Any questions about that, Steve?  Observations?

Steve Wright:  Well, I’d say just kind of talking with you on a regular basis for the past year or longer, it seems like a way that people would really make significant gains in this one tip area – it seems like for you, anyway, that the treadmill desk was sort of a game changer.

Chris Kresser:  It was.  It was a huge game changer for me because, as I’m sure many others can relate, it’s hard if you’re working and you’re really busy throughout the day and your work requires you to be in front of a computer or talking on the phone.  It’s difficult to reach the 10,000-step goal.  You could get up earlier in the morning and do that, but of course, you don’t want to cut into your sleep, and you can exercise after work, but for me personally I’ve found that integrating activity throughout my day was the biggest game changer in a general sense, and then specifically the treadmill desk was the most helpful tool for integrating activity throughout my day along with some of the at-home exercise equipment that I have now in my home office, straps and pull-up bar and jump rope and PowerBlocks and weight bench and things like that so that it’s really easy for me to just step away from what I’m doing and do a quick set of strength training or more aerobic type of training.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, it brings to mind this movie that I can’t recall right now about a bunch of stockbrokers, but the guy is doing curls and stuff while he’s on the phone, being this really successful stockbroker.  He’s obviously very vain.

Chris Kresser:  I haven’t gone that far yet, but I am on the treadmill often when I’m talking to my patients, and the only reason I haven’t done it with the podcast yet is that the microphone that I use is so sensitive you’d probably hear this constant whine of the treadmill in the background.

Steve Wright:  All right, well, when we see you on your book tour, man, we’re going to be looking at your biceps to see where they’re at.

Chris Kresser:  Well, yeah.  You can look at my biceps, but I haven’t figured out a way yet to be on a treadmill desk while I’m speaking on the tour, but standing up is good.  I won’t be talking to people sitting down, that’s for sure.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  Well, here’s the last question I think a lot of people would like to know:  When you choose to do dedicated exercise, if it’s at another facility or even if it’s just at your house, do you prioritize that at a certain time of the day?  And if so, is there a reason for it?

Chris Kresser:  I used to and probably will go back to having more distinct periods of exercise once the craziness of the book has passed.  In the last year while I’ve been writing the book – or nine months or whatever it’s been – I haven’t really had as much sort of distinct exercise.  I’ve been integrating all of that physical activity that I mentioned throughout my day.  So, instead of saying, yeah, I’m going to go to the gym and work out for a half hour or 45 minutes or whatever, I will do all of those sets and the sprints and the intervals and the more vigorous and even moderate activity all the way through the day in short bursts.  And then I will also do things like go on hikes or go surfing when I’m able to find the time to do that, which is a lot less than I would like at this point, and those are distinct periods of exercise, but otherwise I’ve been focusing more on integrating it.

Steve Wright:  OK.  Awesome, and I’m sure obviously having children and pets is definitely going to play into that.  I know for myself, if I don’t do it right away when I get up, like, within the first hour, if I don’t head off and actually go do my distinct exercise period, the chances become extremely slim that I’ll actually get back around to that by the end of the day.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, we’re going to talk a little bit about that strategy, too, in the context of productivity, but I think a lot of people feel the same way, that if they do it right when they wake up, they’ll be more successful.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  Well, let’s roll on to tip number two.

The simple thing preventing your mind from being productive

Chris Kresser:  All right, so number two is to clear your mind.  And really it’s as simple as this:  A clear mind is a more productive mind.  You can’t be productive if you’re completely distracted, stressed out, and unfocused, but unfortunately this has become the default state for many of us in this culture.  As new technologies have become available and the pace of work life seems to have increased, the expectation of when you’re working, the boundaries that used to exist there seem to have kind of liquefied in many cases where people are checking their phone at home and on the weekends and on vacation, and the work emails are coming into the same account or they’re checking those any time and place.  So, instead of even just maybe 20 years ago when someone was on an airplane or riding a bus or train or when they’re on vacation, they actually were able to step away from the constant barrage of thoughts related to work and issues that are arising and fires that need to be put out just by the nature of being away from the office.  But now that has just become increasingly difficult, or at least it requires an increasingly greater amount of discipline and planning to get away from those kinds of distractions.

Steve Wright:  Well, even 10 years ago Facebook wasn’t even popular yet, and PDAs were the only smart thing you had in your pocket.

Chris Kresser:  Right.  So, it’s a profound change, and we’re so adaptable that we quickly get used to whatever our normal reality is, and we forget that there was ever anything different.  But we’re in the midst of this crazy experiment right now, and I think it’s affecting us in really profound ways, as we discussed on a previous show about electronic media, but it’s notable.

I want to kind of stay on track on here and bring this back to the subject at hand.  There are some strategies that have been especially useful for me for clearing my mind and eliminating those mental distractions and managing the stress and staying focused.  And the first, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear, is my meditation practice and mindfulness practice.  This is something that I started doing when I was 17, and it has been a huge part of my life and a significant contributor to my productivity.  There are a lot of misconceptions about meditation, I think, in the West.  It can be a spiritual practice or part of a spiritual practice.  In many cases, it is.  The technique that most people understand is meditation originated in Eastern spiritual practices, but it can also be used by anybody regardless of religious or lack of religion as a way of cultivating awareness and attention.

If you think about it, it’s not too difficult to understand how a practice that improves your ability to keep your awareness in the present and to keep your attention focused on something would be really useful in a culture and in a work environment where there are constant distractions.  If you’re sitting and you’re meditating, let’s say, for 20 minutes, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have lots of different thoughts, hundreds or thousands of thoughts during that period of time.  You’re going to have all kinds of sensations.  Your knee might hurt.  Your neck might start to hurt a little bit.  You might feel air against your skin if you’re outside.  You might notice a change in the temperature.  You might hear some people doing construction work across the street.  These are all sensations that you become aware of while you’re sitting there, but the practice of meditation, depending on the particular technique, is to bring your attention back to the present.  So rather than pursuing a thought if you have a thought like, “Oh, what am I going to cook for dinner tonight?”  Instead of going to the next thought and thinking, “Well, I could get this out of the freezer and then I could do this,” as soon as you become aware that you had that thought, you bring your attention back and you just focus on your breath in some techniques or some other part of your body in other techniques or just an awareness of the present moment in other techniques.

What you’re doing there, as I said, is you’re practicing mindfulness.  You’re practicing focus of attention.  You’re practicing a cultivation of awareness that is not easily distracted by all of the vagaries of the mind and of the body and anything else that might come into your attention while you’re sitting.  And of course, like anything else, that practice then translates into other areas of your life.  So, if you’re sitting and you’re writing a chapter for your book, for example, and you have a thought that, “Oh, wait!  I was supposed to send this email,” or “I forgot to check this,” or whatever, instead of just as a knee-jerk reaction going to do that, you maybe make a note of it, maybe you take a second to write it down on a piece of paper so you don’t forget, but you continue writing, and you’ve developed and honed that ability to stay focused and keep your attention on what you’re doing through the meditation practice.  That’s how it can be such a valuable tool for productivity.  And of course, there are many other benefits to it that aren’t related to productivity that we’re not going to go into right now, but I really feel like that is one of my secret weapons in terms of how I can do what I set out to do.

Steve Wright:  Do you have any practices where you sort of have some activities that you know are going to get done today so that you can also help sort of ground your mind when you think about those other things that you might want to do to in your many vast things, like, where today is only book writing or something like that?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s pretty much what “plan and prioritize” is all about, which is the next one.

Steve Wright:  OK.

Chris Kresser:  So, you’re thinking in the right direction.

Steve Wright:  Yeah!  For someone who’s kind of listening to this – just like you said, do one of those three types of activities, if you do all three, you’re probably going to change your life – is there a minimum level of something that we should encourage everyone to give it a shot with?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, so first of all, for people who are just starting out, there are many, many different ways to learn meditation and mindfulness.  As with most other things, having a teacher who is really experienced and knowledgeable is the best way, and you can look into local meditation centers, Zen centers, Vipassana meditation centers.  You can look into mindfulness-based stress reduction training, which is offered in hospitals and other places around the country.  But there are some fantastic books, and there are some fantastic audio programs if you can’t find a teacher or you don’t have time to look for one right now or whatever.  There are a lot of DIY resources available.  Two of the better books if you’re just starting with meditation would be Buddha in Blue Jeans by Tai Sheridan.  That’s more about Zen meditation, which is what I practice.  And then there’s Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, which is another Buddhist meditation practice.  Those are both really good resources, a really good way to get introduced to the basics.  There’s a free audio program on mindfulness-based stress reduction, several free audio programs that you can download from a particular URL that we can put in the show notes.

As far as your question, Steve, the best tip that I have for learning meditation is to start really small.  So, instead of saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna meditation for an hour every day this week,” in most cases, if you try that and you’ve never meditated before, you’ll just be setting yourself up for failure.  So, rather than doing that, I would suggest saying, “I’m gonna meditate for 5 minutes this week,” and set a particular time that you’re going to do it each day, and if it can’t be the same time because of your work schedule, plan in advance what time you’re going to do it and schedule it on your calendar and treat it like an appointment just like any other.  Then sit down and set a timer for 5 minutes, and rain or shine, show up and sit down and do it.  And even if you feel like going for longer, don’t go for longer because the other side of that is if you feel like doing shorter and stop.  You don’t want that either.  So, just stick with the time and the goal that you’ve set, and what will happen is if you’re successful with that and you achieve that seemingly small goal, you’re building a habit.  The skillful way of building habits is starting small, giving yourself a chance to be successful right off the bat, and you gradually over time will create that habit.  And you can then start increasing the amount of time that you spend sitting by maybe a minute a week or a couple minutes a week, and before long, you’ll be at 20 or 30 minutes or an hour or whatever it is that you’re shooting for.  So, I would say just starting with 3 to 5 minutes a day for a week can have a really profound effect.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  This is definitely one of those things where paying money to begin a habit like this that has a high-perceived chance that you won’t follow through might really help actually cement that.  There are a lot of reasons to buy a personal trainer, especially because they can really help transform your physique, but the other thing is that you have a defined appointment that you have to show up for and you know that you’re accountable to somebody on a regular basis.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.  I think that’s a really excellent tip, and I would add to that joining a group, getting some kind of support.  And this is a sort of different topic, but there are some other tools that can be really helpful in establishing new habits.  It’s ironic because these are technology based and, therefore, could be a distraction for some people, but there’s a website called Lift.Do, and it’s very, very simple.  It’s a simple interface.  You list what habits you’re trying to cultivate, and then you just check them off each day.  So, if your goal was to meditate for 5 minutes, you just check it off when you did it.  And there are all these gamification features, like, people can give you a thumbs-up and comment on your status, and if you’ve done it a certain number of times in a row, I think you get some kind of a badge, and everyone on there is kind of supporting each other.  So, it can be a useful tool just for keeping things that you’re trying to add into your life present in your mind.  We’re all kind of naturally competitive even with ourselves.  If you’ve meditated for 33 days in a row, for example, nobody wants to break that chain, so there’s a natural competitive urge to keep those things up.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, there’s always the principle that what you don’t track probably won’t change.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.

Steve Wright:  I really like the Lift app.  I just did a post on creating habits and some of the things that I’ve used, and that was one of the recommendations I made.

Chris Kresser:  Cool.  All right, so there’s a second important strategy in terms of clearing your mind, and this is, of course, related, but it’s eliminating distractions.  I often hear people say – and I’ve said it myself, too, of course – that it seems like there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish what I need to or want to accomplish.  But there are some big caveats here for some people, at least.  The average American devotes half of their leisure time to watching television, and now when you add computer activities like social media and email, it’s probably even a greater percentage of leisure time.  There’s nothing wrong with social media and email and checking our phone, which the average person, by the way, does 150 times a day, so if you consider that that’s an average, you know there are, of course, people who are checking their phone 300 to 400 times a day.  There’s nothing wrong with all of that, but it can become excessive, and it can become a distraction, and it can become a way of procrastinating and not engaging in the things that we want to do to meet our goals, especially if we’re having some difficult feelings or difficult thoughts, it’s very easy to just try to distract ourselves from them by checking our email or logging onto Facebook or whatever your chosen method of distraction is.  These things are so ubiquitous now, what I was saying earlier how this has just become the new normal, that often people don’t even question it, but it’s really helpful, I think, to step back and look at these types of behaviors and ask ourselves the question, do we really want to live in that kind of relationship to ourselves and to the technology around us?  Do we want to give that much energy to all of these distractions?

Each time we choose to go onto Facebook or Twitter or check our email when an email comes in and we hear a beep or even answer a phone that rings if we’re in the middle of something, we’re making a decision, whether we’re conscious of it or not, to shift our attention away from whatever it was that we were doing that we set out to do that we established as being important to our purpose and mission in life or to our vocation and livelihood or our health or whatever it is.  We’re making a decision that we’re going to prioritize this other thing, even if it’s just checking out what friends are doing on Facebook or seeing what email just came in, we’re prioritizing that over accomplishing our goals.  And I think it’s really helpful to think about it that way because a lot of times those decisions are unconscious, and this is again where meditation comes in and helps us to be aware of when we’re making those decisions.  But I think if I asked most people in these terms, if I was able to kind of be over your shoulder and you were working and all of a sudden an email comes in or a notification comes up that some friend posted something on Facebook and you go over and look at it, and if I asked you in a nonjudgmental way, “Is that really more important than what you were working on?” I think most people would say no, but the problem is it has just become unconscious behavior.  It has become compensatory behavior when we feel distracted and overwhelmed, and it has become kind of socially accepted and in some circles almost like a badge of honor, like how many emails you get, how hyper-connected you are, how many friends you have on Facebook and other social media, etc.  There’s almost a real value placed on those things, and I think it’s a value that’s really been unexamined in a lot of the public dialogue about this stuff.

So, again, I’m not saying don’t use Facebook.  I’m not saying don’t check your email.  I’m saying be conscious of how much energy and attention you want to give to those things, especially when you’re doing some other activities that are directly contributing to you reaching your goals, whatever they are.

One more thing about that, some distraction is natural and healthy.  And in fact, we’re going to talk about that later.  It looks like it’s going to be another episode because it’s 45 minutes into the hour and we’re not even to number three yet.  But some distraction is natural and health and even productive.  The mind needs a break, and taking a little break is helpful, as I mentioned before, but most of us can tell the difference between a healthy distraction and an unhealthy distraction.  One feels like it’s benefitting our productivity and is helping us achieve our goals, and the other feels kind of compulsive, addictive, and destructive in terms of how it affects us and our ability to reach our goals.

So, let’s get a little specific in terms of recommendations here.  One thing I can recommend right off the bat if you haven’t done this before is using an application like RescueTime, which is a web-based application.  I think you download a little desktop thing for your Mac or PC or whatever you use, and what it does is essentially tracks how you’re using your time.  The free version only tracks what you do on the computer and online, but there’s a paid version that’s pretty cheap where you can also track your offline activities, like phone calls and meetings and things like that.  Most people who I get to do this are actually quite shocked at how they’re spending their time throughout the day, and when they realize how much time they’re devoting to social media and email and other things that aren’t productive, that don’t necessarily get them any closer to their goals, it’s a big wakeup call.  I think awareness is really the first step in behavior change, and something like RescueTime can really help if you have any question about how you’re spending your time.

Number two would be batching email and social media.  And this has been another, I would say, top-three or top-five change in my life that has dramatically increased my productivity.  What I mean by this, and those of you who have read Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek will know exactly what I’m talking about, but this means dedicating a certain period of time or periods of time each day to email and things like social media, and then not engaging with those activities anywhere outside of those dedicated times.  For example, depending on the day, I might have two or three dedicated periods where I check email and social media.  And this will vary, of course, depending on what your vocation is.  I mean, some people, due to the nature of their job, have to be a little bit more in touch, but even if you had to have six times a day where you checked, it’s still far better to have those be distinct periods and put them into your schedule than it is to just kind of do it whenever an email comes into your inbox.

There was a study done.  I can’t remember what the actual number was, but it was shocking.  It was hundreds of times that people who had notification turned on for their email would look at their email throughout the day, the average employee.  It was several hundred times a day, and so along with batching email and social media, the number three recommendation would be to turn off notifications.  I have all notifications except for, like, text messages and calendar reminders turned off on my phone and iPad.  I use a dedicated application for emailing a client on my computer, and I just quit it when I’m done with my email period, so I have no way of being notified when someone sends me an email or if anyone responds.  I have Facebook notifications for my page turned off so I don’t get any notification if someone sends a message or responds to something I posted.  The only time I know about that stuff is when I go in during my social media times and actually look at the page and check the notifications and things like that.  That alone freed up a remarkable amount of time in my day.  When social media and email became a bigger part of my life, I just, like everyone else, was using it the way that everyone else was using it without really any examination, but I think the first time I was exposed to the batching idea was before Tim’s book came out.  I had heard about it maybe through him or somebody else, but since then, I’ve really adopted that in earnest.

Actually there was a period of time about three months ago where I was just so busy with the book and communicating a lot with my publisher, etc., where I fell out of the habit, and I thought at the time that I had to do that because of everything that was going on, but what quickly became apparent was that my productivity plummeted, and making myself available at all times throughout the day for the emails didn’t serve them, it didn’t serve me, it didn’t serve my goals.  I’m a pretty busy guy, and I know there are people out there who are busier and maybe have more demands in terms of their availability, but I think if I can check email only two or three times a day, most people can probably get by with that as well.  You may need to put a little thing on the bottom of your email, like an auto-responder that says, “I’m only checking email a couple times a day, so bear with me if you don’t get an immediate response,” or something like that.  I never bothered to do that, but some people do that.  I will occasionally get email responses from people that say that when I send them an email, and I always appreciate it actually.  It doesn’t bother me at all.  But this is a potential game changer, I think, for a lot of people.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, it’s on my list of things.  Now that we’ve talked about it, I’m going to have to implement it because I’ve known about it for years, and I’ve tried it at times.  I’ve just never stuck with it, like you said.  And then what you were talking about earlier with distractions because of the Internet, there was a pretty good course on productivity that Eben Pagan put out, and in it I think he called it “Internet loops,” but Jordan and I both, we found, had these unconscious Internet loops.  That course really taught us to get aware of our usage on the computer, and it turned out that I would loop between these certain sports sites and media sites, so nowadays I can actually catch myself as I go to the first site and be like, “Oh, nope.  That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing right now.”

Chris Kresser:  Right, yeah.  It’s sort of just like a knee-jerk behavior, and it’s very easy.  I think the thing that’s kind of fascinating and scary about the Internet to me is… I think it would be really interesting, and I wonder if anyone’s ever done this in the art world or something, to see, like, a physical performance of what browsing the Internet looks like.  Like, if you were to kind of act out how most people browse the Internet, you quickly go from one site to the next.  You’re looking at this, then you click on this link, and this window opens, and you close that, and this video plays.  You know what I mean?  If you were to kind of physically act that out, the person would look like they’re absolutely crazy!

Steve Wright:  Yeah!

Chris Kresser:  Or they’re on, like, speed and caffeine and every kind of stimulant you could imagine.  They’d just be bouncing off the walls, and they’d be institutionalized, you know?  We can do that sitting in a chair – or standing, if we’re lucky – looking at a screen, and it looks and seems normal, but our internal experience is actually closer to what the person who is acting that out physically is, right?  And that is what I mean by this kind of crazy level of distraction that we’re faced with, with all of these new technologies.  And if we don’t examine it continuously and bring our attention and our awareness to it and continually ask ourselves if that’s the way that we want to be living and that’s how we want to be experiencing life, then we’re just going to keep doing it because as we talked about in the podcast about how the Internet is rewiring our brains, these behaviors are addictive.  It’s not totally benign.  If we just let momentum carry us, we’ll continue engaging in these behaviors, whether they serve us or not.

Steve Wright:  Well, I also believe it’s a double whammy, too, because not only did you take some time off of whatever project or whatever goal you were trying to achieve at that point in time, I can’t remember if it is 20 minutes, but I know there have been some studies about distractibility and how long it takes for you to get back to that state of flow or at least concentration on what you were doing.  And I know for myself that if I do hop outside of the project I was working on and get into that Internet loop or even go check a study or something, just getting back into the writing flow or blog or whatever I was doing can really take, like, 10 minutes.  So, you lose this productivity, not to mention you lost the time in which you were just distracting yourself.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it can take at least 10 minutes.  I think, for some people it might be almost more than that.  They might never get back into it, at least that day, if one thing leads to another and one distraction leads to another, which is often the case.  So, yeah, it’s a big deal.

Steve Wright:  Well, I’ll share one tip that has helped me on this.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.

Steve Wright:  It’s a site called FocusAtWill.com, and they state that there’s some research out there about how distractible your brain is and how it is looking for that stimulus that you were talking about, Chris, where at some point in time your brain needs some extra stimulus, and as it’s hearing sounds, there are certain predictable patterns in which your brain will start to search for a new stimulus.  You can use it for free or you can get a paid membership, but they have different types of music that they’ve synched up to these brain patterns in which your brain will start to search for a new stimulus, and it switches the music right about that time in which it’s supposed to happen, and it has definitely upped my ability to stay on task when I’m using it.

Chris Kresser:  That’s fascinating.  I didn’t know about that.  So, we’ll definitely have a listing.  Steve, we’ll have to go through and collect all these resources and list them out on the web post for the show.

There’s one more productivity tip that a lot of experts agree on and I’ve definitely found to be crucial and another probably also in my top five in terms of increasing my productivity, which is to do what some people call your “frog,” which is the activity that you tend to procrastinate the most about – it’s usually something that really needs to be done and often that you want to do but there’s some fear in it or it’s something you’re not familiar with or comfortable with or that requires a lot of focus – to do that activity the very first thing in the morning.  So, don’t get up and check your email.  Don’t get up and start social media.  I mentioned batching email and social media, but another thing, an absolute rule for me, is I do not, except in rare cases where there is something I absolutely have to attend to, I don’t check email first thing in the morning.  I usually wake up at about 5:30, and depending on the day, if I sit first or do some activity, I might start working at about 6:00, and I will work and do writing or blog posts or preparing for a conference or whatever.  Anything that requires a lot of attention or something that I’ve been putting off, I’ll do that before breakfast, and I will rarely check my email before breakfast.  So, that’s another big tip and one that’s been really useful for me.

I think we may need to stop there, Steve, in keeping with the value of taking breaks and not trying to pack too much information into one short period of time.  We’ve covered two out of the five areas that I want to cover.  “Plan and prioritize” I can do fairly quickly, “rest and rejuvenate” will take a while – perhaps naturally – and then “play and have fun” is a little bit short, too, so I think we’ll definitely be able to knock it all out in the next show, but let’s have a part two and come back next time and finish this off.  And this will give you some time to work on some of the things that we’ve talked about today because as I mentioned earlier, if the one change is just becoming more physically active as far as moving your body, and then you make one change in terms of clearing your mind, which would be like doing some sitting meditation practice 3 to 5 minutes a day for a week, that will have a huge impact on you.  And those are big changes, so let’s give you some time to do those, and then we’ll come back and finish this up.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, and I think what would be really awesome is if when they listen to this, if you listeners listen to this, choose at least one thing to try, whether it’s a tool that Chris talked about or the exercise thing or several things, and then on the next show in the comments section, let us know what you tried, or even on this comments section, let us know how it’s going, what’s working and what’s not, because a lot of different things work differently for different people.  I know that my mornings, as Chris was talking about, choosing your most important thing or the hard thing to work on, if I script out my morning ahead of time exactly what I’m doing and what I’m going to work on first and everything, my morning goes so much better and I have so much more productivity.  But that act of scripting out to the minute, you have to make that a habit.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, absolutely.  We’re going to be talking more about that in the “plan and prioritize” section of the next show.

Steve Wright:  Perfect.

Chris Kresser:  Steve, that course you mentioned, is it evergreen, ongoing, or did it happen once and it’s over?  That might be another resource for people.

Steve Wright:  The course is called Wake Up Productive.  I believe it’s evergreen.  It’s part of Eben Pagan’s business trainings.

Chris Kresser:  OK, so maybe you can put that in the show notes also.

Steve Wright:  Definitely.

Chris Kresser:  All right.  Well, thanks for listening, everybody.  Hope this leads to more productivity, and of course, what that’s all about is helping you get closer to whatever your goals are.  Whether it’s learning an instrument or accomplishing something with your work or vocation or improving your health, being more productive is the key to personal fulfillment and success.  And being able to increase your productivity in a way that doesn’t compromise any of those other areas of your life is a real art and skillset that you have to cultivate and develop, so I hope that this will take you another step in that direction.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, we can’t wait.  Chris and I both know that we can learn a lot from other people, so if you have some tips in these two areas that Chris talked about today that really work for you, hopefully you’ll leave those in the comments and stimulate a good discussion about getting more productive.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.  It’ll hopefully become the authoritative productivity hacking thread.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  Well, thanks, everyone, for listening.  Stay tuned for part two.

Chris Kresser:  See you next time.

Note: I earn a small commission if you use the links in this article to purchase the products I mentioned. I only recommend products I would use myself or that I use with patients in my practice. Your purchase helps support this site and my ongoing research.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. says

    This article distracted me from my task of writing a video script. But it was well worth it. I’m looking forward to the links being published.

    For about a month, every morning just after waking, I’ve been doing a scaled down, home version of exercises I learned while doing CrossFit. Takes me about 15 minutes and I feel great afterward, very creative and excited to work.

    I also write down what I am excited to do or create that day, what tasks I am committed to doing, and what I am grateful for. I then shower, then eat first or start working while eating. I try to accomplish a few tasks before I check email and social media.

    It’s really helping. Another tool I use is Trello, it’s fantastic to give me a broad view of all the video projects I’m working on.

    Chris, I’ve struggled for years to incorporate meditation, but your description of it was really eye opening to me. I always beat myself up for having those thoughts bubble up. If I couldn’t have a clear mind, I told myself I was doing it wrong. But after reading the transcript I now understand having those thoughts bubble is up part of the process of practicing not being distracted and staying focused.

    I will be starting w/ 1 minute of mindfulness meditation each night. I also need to take more breaks at 10 min and 40 min intervals.

    Thanks Steve and Chris.

  2. says

    Just have to throw in a plug for the book “Body By Science” and Drew Baye’s website (baye.com). I have no affiliation with either one, but I have experienced the benefits of a high intensity training program (not sprints, but weightlifting). It is HIGHLY effective and efficient. Workouts lasting from 10-15 minutes, once a week. You can do it.

  3. Ralph Ohnemus says

    Hi Chris,

    Many thanks for your ideas. I’ve played around with a few of those but failed to really built the habit. Have even tried to implement a three times a day ‘check emails’ policy in my company and basically my people do not really follow that advice. I’m currently contemplating to set up a software solution that will limit the syncing of emails to 3-4 timeslots a day. We are a consultancy company but I don’t think we have to be available 24/7. If something is important there is always the good old landline.

    Ralph

  4. Jane L says

    Reading this distracted me from a freelance project – oops! But I will definitely implement these strategies in my daily life. Thanks!

  5. Jamie says

    This is up there as one of the best podcasts you have done. Gonna listen again, take some notes and implement the recommendations

  6. Sara says

    Great podcast, can’t wait for the next one. I am really interested in the mindfulness URL that is mentioned but didn’t see it in the links up top:

    “There’s a free audio program on mindfulness-based stress reduction, several free audio programs that you can download from a particular URL that we can put in the show notes.”

    The Lift app and Rescue Time have been great so far! Trying Time Out next.

  7. Dylan says

    This podcast came out at the right time for me, my last two semesters for my BS in biology. I have the hardest time keeping focus and getting started on tasks.The batching emails and dedicated social media is the one I am starting right now and I’m looking forward to the plan and prioritize step.
    Thanks, Chris and Steve.

  8. Jodi says

    Hello lovelies! I like the idea of setting a timer to interrupt computer time with getting up, eye stretching etc but have always been concerned with the ‘taking ages to refocus’ aspect you mention later. 10 minutes to get back into it seems to combine poorly with a 10 minute alarm to stretch eyes for 15 seconds. Anyone got anything further on this?

  9. Missy says

    Thanks so much for this podcast. I’m going to listen again, and like Jamie said, take notes and implement recommendations. Great information!

  10. Dean says

    An android app I have used is “Time balance” It’s good for analyzing your habits. You set up categories for all the activities you do during the day and then as the day progresses you click on the category and it records the time, as you switch to the next categories you tap the screen to change the timer to that category.
    It would be tiresome to use it all the time, but using it carefully for a typical week, you can get a good idea of exactly where you spend your time. A great reflection tool. The pie charts can make for some startling self realization.
    If you notice one activity is consuming too much time you can set an alarm that will tell you are going too long.

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.acquasys.timebalance&hl=en

  11. Steve says

    What about the dangers of EMF posed by these “tech-enabled” pedometers like the FitBit mention in this podcast? I have a FitBit, and it uses BlueTooth 4.0 Technology to constantly transmit data. There is no OFF button for the wireless/bluetooth. I have the one that goes around my wrist, so it’s not as close to my body as a waist clip, but still, my common sense tells me that anywhere near my body for most of the day is not a good idea. Articles that talk about the dangers of EMF, cell phones, bluetooth…anything wireless…lead me to believe my intuition is right, but then articles like this one on that promote FitBit are confusing to me. Don’t get me wrong–I love the idea of a FitBit and am looking for someone I trust to tell me it’s OK and provide supporting evidence (if any exists), but I just haven’t read anyone address these devices head on (e.g., Natural News, Mercola, Kresser, etc.). What is the verdict? Are these “tech-enabled” pedometers safe or not (i.e., the ones where you can NOT turn off the wireless transmissions)? It would be perfect if you could turn off the wireless and then just transmit at the end of the day…just saying…

  12. Pamela Webb says

    Can’t seem to find the link to this in the show notes (*below). Can anyone point me in the right direction? thanks

    *There’s a free audio program on mindfulness-based stress reduction, several free audio programs that you can download from a particular URL that we can put in the show notes.

  13. Gigi says

    Lots of great info, can’t wait to read part 2! (But I *will* wait, because I have tasks to do now!)

    I don’t see a link for this, either?

    “Steve Wright: The course is called Wake Up Productive. I believe it’s evergreen. It’s part of Eben Pagan’s business trainings.
    Chris Kresser: OK, so maybe you can put that in the show notes also.”

  14. Pamela Webb says

    Hi Steve, any chance you could post this link that Chris mentioned in his Meditation section?? >>>

    “There’s a free audio program on mindfulness-based stress reduction”

    Thanks, Pam

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