How To Destress and Be Productive

Photo: Ardyn Nordstrom
Chris Bailey

One of the world’s leading productivity experts on how to achieve work results and bring your team closer together during these stressful times. 

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Covid-19 has piled many employees’ work and home lives on top of each other, and caused unparalleled levels of stress as people worry about their families, their work and their future. Canadian author Chris Bailey, one of the world’s leading authorities on productivity, has studied what makes people productive in his books The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus.

In his work, Bailey explains how to be our most productive selves at work and at home by reducing distractions, finding sources of calm, and developing productive sleep and meditation habits.

By doing so, Bailey says our brains can achieve their most powerful modes of focus and creativity. 

As we face high levels of stress with many people stuck playing the role of parent, teacher and employee, Bailey offers his insight into how to be our most productive selves during the pandemic. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

With workers reporting higher than ever stress levels, how can people stay productive?

I find neuroscience the most fascinating part of studying productivity, focus and attention. The science says we have a novelty bias embedded in our brains. Every new and novel thing we direct our attention at, the brain rewards us with a hit of dopamine. 

Understanding this is the way our mind is wired is a good starting point. 

Every 40 seconds on average, people interrupt themselves from what they are doing. Most of what we tend to do as distractions are also ways of distressing ourselves. When we tend to distract ourselves we make cortisol, the chemical our bodies release during a stressful situation. We do not need more cortisol during distressing times. 

The path to focus during a stressful time is finding a way to make your mind less stimulated. 

How do you recommend people start reducing their stress and become more productive during this time?

Recognize that stress is a tool. Without stress we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. But it’s worth understanding the boundaries of our stress. There are acute stressors and chronic stressors. 

The acute stress would be for single events, like if someone we cared about was in a car accident or we have that big presentation that has to go right. These are the kinds of stressors that give us meaning in our lives. 

Jane Austen wrote her books while she had tons of family running around and having lives all over the place. 

The chronic stressor though are the things we need to examine. Most of these come from the digital world: reading the news, checking twitter. They make us feel like they are contributing to our happiness, but really they are stressing us out. 

One of the best tactics is making a list of things you can and can’t control. 

One thing we can control is how often we check Twitter or check the news. It stresses us out, which makes us want to tend to distractions even more, which starts the cycle all over again. 

Why is the digital world so dangerous for productivity?

Our attention is always drawn to what’s novel, pleasurable or threatening, and the digital world always provides us some concoction of those three ingredients. 

The digital world preys on every insecurity we have, and provides us with distractions for that insecurity. Examine how the apps on your phone and the sites that you frequent and feed into the insecurity you already have.

Insecurity can have a way of taking over one’s whole life. People get fancy cars and big houses because they are insecure. 

What can parents who juggle working at home with taking care of children and being an educator do to stay productive? 

Productivity is what I think about all the time. It’s the lens through which I view all the research I’m looking at. But productivity is a lot less important right now than it has been during such a stressful and anxious time. 

There’s a friend of mine, a single working mother with three kids at home, and she can’t be productive anymore because she has to wrangle her kids schedules when she was already at capacity before.

We need to be easier on ourselves during a time like this, and when we bully ourselves into being more productive, we don’t want to follow our own advice. Understanding our constraints has to come first from a place of self-kindness.

So much of productivity comes from understanding your constraints. If you’re anxious, it’s ok to feel anxious. If I feel more anxious, maybe that’s the way things should be during a pandemic. 

A calm mind is a productive mind. We need to find wellsprings of calm in our lives right now, and we get productivity as a result of that.

How can people start to create more calm in their lives?

We can start by recognizing our minds are overstimulated and telling ourselves, “I deserve better than this. I deserve to invest in strategies that allow me to relax.”

We suck at being lazy. We suck at idleness. There’s this hustle culture I can’t stand. These people hustle themselves into an early grave. 

We need to find sources of energy and renewal. If you look at nature, it doesn’t just “go go go” all the time. We should have the same sort of seasons in our lives.

A lot of workers and business owners are waiting on things like the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment insurance or federal loans. How can people cope with uncertainty?

We need to be optimistic. I’m not saying we should have blind optimism, but nobody wants to follow leaders who are pessimistic. Optimism is something that’s worth rallying behind. 

You shouldn’t try to not think about your problems. The surest way to think about something too much is trying not to think about it. I have a philosophy I like to follow in my businesses which is: It’s worth considering every problem like a puzzle to figure out and put together. 

It’s such a simple phrase but we’re often so immersed in the things that stress us out we don’t view them as something we need to figure out. It makes you a bit more removed from the problems you’re facing.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t be inside the problem. It’s not like this isn’t a threat but it’s not like our skills have gone away overnight. 

What advice would you give to people managing employees at this time?

What people need from their managers is support and they need things to be engaged with. Business goes on and life goes on even during something like this. It’s impossible to feel anxious and be engaged with something at the same time. 

Distribute the work so people’s engagement is maximized through the day. Engagement is a remarkable salve right now for chronic stress. 

Say you have a single dad at home managing the kids, he might be the person you temporarily give a bit of leeway to if they don’t meet their deadlines. Then there might be someone on your team who travels all the time and now is stuck at home. She might be the person who needs important things to do. 

It’s about understanding the dynamics of your team and it’s about giving deadlines. Nothing makes a person more focused than knowing they have a report due in three days for a huge project. 

This is an opportunity to become closer as a team. Struggling through something rallies people together. This is a time for connection. 

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