People are more distracted than ever which is affecting our psychological and physical wellbeing. If you want to be a high performer and cut through the disruption, you need to construct new practices to encourage focus, creativity and effectiveness. That’s where Dr. Greg Wells and Bruce Bowser, coauthors of The Focus Effect, come in. They believe they’ve perfected the art of unplugging from technology and plugging in to reality.
In this episode, they present techniques for sustainable balanced and successful routines in all areas of life. With strategies ranging from practicing mindfulness, reserving tech free time and performing power work, they provide everything you need to activate ‘the focus effect’ in your life.
Dr. Greg Wells: There is a moment a few years ago that really goes put my life on a different trajectory and that’s when I was hanging with my daughter Ingrid. She’s probably three or four at the time, she was really into this movie Shrek with the ogre and the princess. Mike Myers is the ogre and Eddie Murphy was the Donkey and Cameron Diaz was the princess.
We were at the park, we’re playing and I am on my phone checking my email, and Ingrid looks at me at one point after about 10 minutes and she quotes the movie to me.
“She goes, “Daddy, your job is not my problem.””
That was like, the knife into the heart. I’d probably say I put my phone away, I’ve never touched it again in a park with my kids ever. She was basically like slapping me up, saying, “You get your phone away and pay attention to me.” Like, we’re in a park, let’s do this.
I’ve never forgotten that. It was probably the first moment when I started to really contemplate deeply, this issue of distraction, not being present. Where’s my attention? I focused on that a lot when I was a swimmer growing up but haven’t really deliberately tried to apply it in the entire rest of my life.
So that was the moment that sparked it, and it’s pretty powerful just the way she said it. It definitely put my life in a different direction.
Learning to Focus
Charlie Hoehn: Bruce, do you have a similar story?
Bruce Bowser: Yeah, I think, you know, for me Charlie, a couple of years ago, I decided that I’d go back to university to finish a degree that I started 30 years ago and hadn’t completed.
I started studying online evening courses at the university and realized that to get it finished within a year or so which my target was, I needed to go back. So I was able to shut things down and actually go back to the university in different province from where I live now. Attended two full semesters of university and a full class load.
When I got there, I realized, we’ve been talking about this issue of distraction and the impact it’s having on your ability to think. But I quickly realized a couple of things.
One, it was hard for me to focus because I was constantly checking in and checking texts and checking emails. The second part was that I have two grown daughters. We’ve grown into this space where we think that we can connect with each other. And we do with a text.
If I don’t respond within 10 or 15 minutes, there’s this anxiety around something’s wrong with the world because my dad hasn’t got back to me. So when I get down there, I realized that I was really having a hard time focusing, reading, sitting down for long periods of time, like 60, 80, 70 minutes and trying to study.
I had to make some changes.
I educated my daughters on the fact that I needed to be able to shut my devices down and actually get immersed into studying. And I’d let them know when I was doing that and say, I’m offline for the next 90 minutes.
“If the world comes to an end, you can reach me at the library.”
It did a bunch of things, I think it began, the process for us as a family of becoming okay with not having to communicate instantaneously and it took – it didn’t happen overnight, it took two or three weeks for me to really get comfortable again with being able to study.
I used to love reading and studying when I was in university as a young man and I wasn’t getting that experience until after a week or two of disengaging, turning down the noise and the distractions. I really found that I would get into a zone. I’d be reading, I’d be studying, I’d get into the zone.
Not only would 30 or 40 or 50 minutes go by, two hours would go by and I’d snap out and say, “Gee I was, like, so productive.”
Why The Focus Effect Stands Out
Charlie Hoehn: How is this book unique?
Bruce Bowser: I think what the book does is look at this whole issue of distraction and the impact it’s having on humans globally, it looks like from a personal perspective and says, this is what’s happened to us over the last 10 to 15 yearsin terms of how we become distracted.
You can ‘t pick up a newspaper or you know, read an article online today without somewhere in the news, reading about one more tidbit about how distraction’s affecting people. Our approach started looking at it as a global human issue and the changes it’s having on people. Then move from there to looking at how it’s affecting us in the workplace.
Then moving on to how can we provide a program, advice, suggestions on how you can begin to tame that monster and you know, I think it is an addiction.
Dr. Greg Wells: We’re really wanting to focus on life, like you, personally, how is this affecting you, what can you do and can you make minor adjustments that will enable you to have an amazing personal life? How is it affecting your family for example?
Then we dive into work, how is it affecting you at work, and then ultimately, the goal is to enable you to live a world-class life. Three major sections of the book, your personal mastery, work mastery, and life mastery.
We try to give really good, hard science, good research, good studies that have been done, backup the points that we’re making so it’s not just opinion, it’s actually based upon some physiology and some psychology and some corporate research that’s been done but then always finish up with loads of really practical, simple strategies. The 1% tips, that you can put into place every single day that can help you to live a great life.
“It’s also really important to note that we’re not anti-social media, we’re not anti-mobile devices.”
We both run companies, we’ve both got families, we both use social media, we both use our phones constantly. Our mobile devices, our iPads, everything.
There’s a way to use them that’s great that enables you to live a better life, and there’s a way that you can become addicted to them and slaves that actually makes life a lot worse. It’s just all about trying to recognize that and build some really great strategies that you can take your life to another level.
Bruce Bowser: One of the things that Greg and I wanted to have come out of this book was the beginning of a change, that we want this to be the beginning of a movement that helps change things for future generations.
I mean, children today that are being raised on iPads, they’re being babysat by iPhones. They’re with parents who aren’t present with them.
That concerns both of us in terms of what the future looks like.
It’s about finding balance, the pendulum swung so far one way with digital distraction. I love technology. I love what it’s able to do for us. We just need to harness it in a way where it’s not doing harm.
Starting in the Morning
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s start with Master Your Morning. Now, this has always seems to be something that if I get it right, the rest of my day is great, but I’m not exactly sure what happens when I get it wrong. Tell me what I need to do here?
Bruce Bowser: If we can control our morning, win the morning, win the day, it’s something we’ve been saying for a while. I think a lot of people wake up in the morning and jump basically right into email and social. It more or less instantaneously puts you on someone else’s agenda.
You don’t end up doing what matters to you, you don’t end up doing the most important things. You get sidetracked by whatever fires have been going on.
“I think it’s essential for all of us, first thing, to get our day set up properly.”
This includes things like exercise, a little meditation, planning your day, figuring out what your own priorities are, what you want to try to accomplish, some affirmations about what you want to try to do, great food, connecting with your family.
So that when you actually do sit down to do what work you need to do or what studying you need to do or what training you need to do, that you’re all in on that.
I think trying to multi-task between managing your email and social media while making your family breakfast or getting people at the door is a recipe for disaster and you end up doing all the wrong things at all the wrong times.
You’re simply not putting yourself in the best possible position to be as great as you can. That would be my take on it.
A Focused Morning in Action
Charlie Hoehn: Can you break down exactly what you two do in the mornings. Minute by minute, what does it look like?
Bruce Bowser: I make light of the question, how do you tell that somebody’s a pilot? And the answer is you wait five minutes and they tell you. In our book, you know, Greg and I talk about how the morning routine is a bit like what a pilot does.
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been flying, one year, 10 years, 30 years, pilots have a checklist. It’s not something that ever gets skipped. Before a pilot just starts off down the runway, they’ve gone into a complete checklist, if there’s a copilot, they’re double checking that checklist.
The way I try to live my life is not rigid to the point that like a pilot but rigid to the point where you don’t by chance work out.
It’s important for me that I work out three to four times a week. I try to schedule four workouts unless I’m traveling, and even then, I still try to schedule it. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s in my book.
“Unless there’s a family emergency, I don’t change that.”
One of the very first things I do, I get out of bed before and before I check anything, I go to my gratitude journal, I start journalling about the three things I’m grateful for. You would think that I’d be able to come up with three things first thing in the morning, but you know, I really need to think and even sometimes get creative about the three things I’m grateful about.
Greg talks about setting your intention for the day, that’s in my gratitude journal, what is my attention for the day, again, back to the pilot analogy.
You don’t set your destination once you’re in the air, you’ve got that planned out before you take off.
It’s not getting up and haphazardly saying, “You know geez, I hope I can get to the gym.” There’s going to be things that come up whether it’s something about your family, travel schedules, that will change that, but you need to guard and protect those really important pieces of your day.
Focusing on Work Master
Charlie Hoehn: Now, let’s move in to work mastery. Once we’ve handled the routine of the morning. The morning is good, what about how chaotic and busy work can be sometimes?
Dr. Greg Wells: I’m a huge fan of learning how to control your attention and making sure that your attention is on the single most important task that you need to do. If you identify what that is, we are able to move from time management which is racing through your calendar or scrambling through your calendar to actually deliberately an intentionally getting the most important thing you need to get done.
I realize some people have control over their schedules and other people don’t. If you’re doing customer service, for example, you don’t have as much control as you do if you’re an author and you can control it.
“For me, the success comes when you’re able to control your attention.”
You’re not distracted, you’re doing one thing really well.
Then, if you want to be distracted, you can go off, take a break, check social, take moments when you’re very deliberately allowing your focus to widen. That often allows us to be a lot more creative when we do enter into that state.
But it’s being intentional about what we’re doing and when, and controlling our environment to enable us to do our best work as easily as possible.
I don’t want people getting through to the end of the day and being exhausted and being burned out and being fried.
I want people getting to the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month, the end of the year feeling like, “Wow, I’ve really actually gotten something done here. I got important things done, did a great job, I crushed that presentation, I was able to learn what I needed to learn from that article that I was reading.”
That only happens when we’re able to control our attention and very deliberately move our focus where it needs to be.
I think that that unfortunately is becoming more and more rare as the distractions in our world are ratcheting up.
Work Mastery Transformation
Charlie Hoehn: Tell me a quick story about your favorite transformation you’ve seen in being more diligent about work mastery?
Bruce Bowser: Charlie, for me, you know, one of the traps that I think a lot of us have fallen into over the years have been lulled into a sense that you can multitask, right? For many of years, I don’t know if I mentioned I was a pilot but I had this sense that I could have multiple screens open.
If you went to my office three years ago, I had like two 20 inch screens and I have my iPad setup and on a stand and I had my iPhone on another stand, I had Google open, I had calendars open, I had counters open, I had my email open, I have my text open, I had all these screens open and I felt that I was being effective multitasking, when in fact, you know, I just became more and more scattered.
“You can’t actually be in two places with your mind at one time.”
For me, if you look at my office today, it’s one screen, when I’m working, I’m working on one task at a time, I don’t believe in multitasking. I’m far more productive when I can stick to one task and part of that is just understanding what your day looks like.
If I know that I’m spending an average of an hour a day responding to emails. If I can break that into two half hour segments instead of you know, being on demand all the time and checking my emails every five minutes, I’ll check them two or three times a day but I’ll have a block set aside where it’s you know, 20 or 30 minutes to respond to emails so I can cleanup my email box. Nobody feels good when they get their box full of cluttered with emails.
Instead of trying to write a report or a blog or focus on an issue, then keep bouncing back and forth, I found it really helpful and it is very helpful to stay focused on one task and not try to switch back and forth.
Pros and Cons of Social Media
Charlie Hoehn: I wonder how much of the multitasking now is an escape, of getting away from work you don’t actually really enjoy or get all that into.
Dr. Greg Wells: Yeah, absolutely. It’s okay for it to be an escape, if you’re intentional about it. If you want to take a break, you want to go check Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn or Snapchat or text messages or email or whatever, that’s fine. It’s totally okay.
It’s when it’s a compulsive addiction and you’re doing it repeatedly throughout the day. Stats are crazy when we look at the number of times people check email.
The fact that a lot of people check email when they’re in the bathroom, for example. It’s the first thing in the morning when you wake up, before you’re even out of bed. It just makes it extremely difficult for our brains to work the way that they’re supposed to work.
It is an escape.
And actually, that speaks to even more important issue which is maybe ultimately when you end up controlling your attention and being a little bit more deliberate and a little bit more intentional about what you’re doing, you may discover some deeper issues, in that you are doing work that maybe you’re not completely as excited about as you could be.
Maybe there’s other things you could be doing. Maybe there’s other things you’re great at, maybe you’re able to realize that you’re spending a lot of your time on things that you’re not efficiently doing or not your unique ability.
I think that it actually unlocks a very different pathway in your life once you start being intentional, once you control your tension, once you start putting your attention where you want it to go, on the things that you want to be doing rather than what the world is forcing at you, it can be pretty powerful when we do things a little bit differently.
For example, if you passively consume social media according to Dr. John Izzo and his book, The Five Thieves of Happiness, which is another brilliant researcher and author, it actually negatively affects your mental health.
“If you positively comment and engage with social, it can improve your mental health.”
The way in which we engage, the way in which we go through our days, the way in which we activate our attention and our focus can have a profound impact on many different aspects of our lives.
Theother way to get around that is if someone is on vacation be like, “Hey man have a great time.” If someone’s kids have just won some sort of award, “Hey congratulations, way to go.” When you positively engage it completely changes the factor of that consumption of that information on your body and on your mind.
Charlie Hoehn: So you two talk about the workspace, creating the space for focus. What do you mean by that? Is it just clearing off the desk and only having things on there that you want to need?
Bruce Bowser: Yeah so I touch on the fact that part of it is the physical set up of your office. So if you’ve got multiple screens going, unless you’re a stock trader and you need to see those things at all times, our smart recommendation would be go down to one screen.
When you are working on something, don’t have other things open. Stay focused on that.
The other part Charlie I think is really important is actually dissecting your day and reconstructing it. That would be looking at I mentioned a moment ago, how many emails, how much time you spend a day on emails. Our tendency is to respond to emails as they come in.
That is for sure not the best way to do it.
I mean unless you’re in the business to saving lives or you are dealing with things that are very time sensitive, for most of us if you respond same day for sure, within hours that’s sufficient. So I often tell people when I get on an airplane, I can bang out 30, 40 emails very quickly. Because I am focused, there’s no distractions, go figure, right? You’re on an airplane. You are in that environment where you are highly focused.
If we do the same thing during the work day, and you pick times of the day where you are going to respond to emails, you are going to work on certain things.
“You don’t have to over-structure, but don’t be constantly distracted.”
So part of it is changing the physical environment, part of it is understanding your process during the course of the day. How much time you have to spend on certain task.
I don’t think enough of us spend enough time learning, for example. So I carve time into my days where I am going to be reading a book. I am going to be researching something that satisfies my curiosity. So program those things into your day.
One of my pet peeves that I talk about in the book is how frustrating it is to walk through a public area. So here in Toronto we have an underground path system, and I walk to the underground path system. And I am dodging seven out of 10 people that are texting or checking emails or doing something on their phones.
Can we not wait five minutes or 10 minutes for when we’re going to check our emails? I have taken pictures of people doing it. If I don’t move, I am going to get run over.
Charlie Hoehn: Nice. So in the last – actually in the third section of your book, you have life mastery. What’s the overview here?
Dr. Greg Wells: The main thing here is that if you can improve your personal life, if you can improve your work life, it’s going to put you in a different path. We didn’t write this book or have this discussions or all of these thoughts in order to help people be more productive, although that is a nice outcome.
We’re all just about creating a great life.
There’s things that we can do that put your life on a really positive trajectory and things that you do to make life more difficult.
And I believe the reality is, if we do these things right, that life gets so much better. If you have dinner with the people that you love and all the devices are off and you are eating amazing food and you allow some time to have great conversation and drink some amazing wine or great tea. That’s an incredible experience you’ll remember forever.
“If you are with your children when they’re young, and you’re really with them, that’s an experience that you will remember forever.”
If you see a great concert, you don’t need to film the entire concert. You need to put the phone away, watch the musicians play, listen to the music, experience how it makes you feel. By doing that, I believe it elevates your life.
You can certainly share what you’re going through, what you are experiencing in order to communicate with your family and friends, since the grandparents know what’s going on with the kids and they communicate with your friends that are all over the world. That’s amazing.
But we need to also make sure that we are taking time to truly experience life.
Because unless you’re present, unless your attention is on the moments, unless you are really trying to experience the incredible things that are going on, life can pass you by pretty quickly and we’ll look back and barely remember what happened.
So it is just a different way of living that allows you to take your life in a very different direction that ultimately unlocks your potential and how amazing life can be.
We don’t know how long we’re here, but I want to absorb and enjoy every single second of it if I can.
Mindfulness and Focus
Charlie Hoehn: It sounds like what you are talking about is carrying over the benefits of those movements of mindfulness, meditation into how we physically behave in our personal life and in our work life. Does that sound accurate?
Dr. Greg Wells: That’s exactly it, and meditation and mindfulness are two tools that we talk about a lot in the book. I’ve implemented a meditation practice myself about 18 months ago. It’s been an absolute complete and utter game changer for me.
I’ve noticed when I take my kids Adam, my son at the beach, he’ll play for a little bit but then he’d always finds time to walk off by himself. He’s only three.
“I actually think this is sort of inherent to us as humans.”
He walks off by himself, sits there and stare at the lake for five minutes. You could see him just settling down and calming down and letting go. It’s incredible to watch.
Bruce Bowser: Yeah, we were talking about in one of my early careers I work as a hospital chaplain and worked on a cancer ward. I had the opportunity to spend time with people that were near the end of their lives.
We have often heard people say hey, they don’t talk about their work or they for sure don’t talk about how much time they spent at work and how they wish they had spent more time, they talk about broken relationships. How they wish they had to spend more time with family members. How they wished they would have spent more time being present.
When pushed, even though they may be with family, they were distracted with something else.
Thanks to social media, thanks to digital communication, that we are able to quickly learn more about things like meditation being present and taken out of that mysterious sort of mystical realm that it was in 10 or 15 years ago today is common place and there are so many apps that you can get or download on your phone.
There are devices like Muse, which we’ve got to know the founders of Muse here in Toronto, and for me part of the beauty of technology is we’re able to do things like use a device like Muse where we get present and learn how to focus and meditate without having to go through a three month course on meditation.
Years ago, I took a course on meditation and it did change my life. It’s allowed me to meditate and get more focused, but today, instead of me having to explain for hours and get something or read a book, I say, “Okay, download this app or get the Muse device and it’s meditation for dummies.”
Because you’re going really quick and get present. Anybody you talk to about life and the importance of life when they have lost somebody they love it’s like, “You know I wish I had spent more time being present with that person.”
The Beginning of a Movement
Charlie Hoehn: So I am curious Greg and Bruce, what is your hope with this book? Not just on an individual level but on societal or even global level? What part do you hope to play?
Bruce Bowser: So I think right from the very beginning when Greg and I sat down and said we wanted to do a book. We’re both big thinkers and we’re born with that gene that wanted to make the world a better place. So we did not want to write just another book that pulled in all sorts of pieces about what’s happening with digital distraction and the impact. We wanted to write a book that created awareness around it and pulled a lot of it together to cement us here as a bit of a wakeup call.
When people read the book, when people talk to us about the book or the topics in the book, there’s a lot of, “Oh yeah,” it resonates with them and then we’d really want to move them to a point where we say, “Okay we’ll start doing something about it.”
We have allowed technology and digital distraction and digital addiction to creep into our lives in a way where it’s having a harmful effect on us. Let’s take control of it.
“The book is really about how can we create the beginning of a movement.”
A movement where employers for example see the importance of allowing their employees to disconnect. One of the things that I’ve done over the last year in our head office is we don’t send any received emails before 6 AM after 6 PM or on the weekends.
And when I first started doing that a year ago, people would email me and say, “Really Bruce? You’re going to shut down in the evenings and the weekends?” and I’d say, “You know what a novel notion.”
I mean when I started my career as a young banker 35 years ago, if I need to get a hold of Greg, if I work with Greg and I need to get a hold of Greg on the weekend, I couldn’t send him a text or an email.
I had to pick up the phone and call him. Before I did that I would actually think. “What’s Greg doing? He’s probably with his family, how important is this?”
And so part of my perspective as an employer is it’s time that we allow our employees to have their evenings and their weekends back because you need that. That is important for life, family and balance and you start controlling technology so that it’s not as pervasive as it is.
I think employment is such a big part of our lives that our book is geared towards change of work, change your life, that we want employees and employers to read this and say, “You know it’s time we started doing something different.”
If you look at some of the most successful emerging companies in the world, the Googles, the Amazons, some of these large corporations that are so successful both from a growth revenue and a performance perspective, they’ve built work-life balance into their way of work.
“They have demolished the old eight-hour relic of a work day.”
And they have introduced all of these new ways of doing things.
So that’s a big part of what Greg and I advocate for. Take a hard look at what you are doing and join a movement that will change that.
Dr. Greg Wells: I just want to make the world a better place, at scale. I want my children growing up in a world where mental health is not a challenge like it is right now.
I would love for kids in schools to be able to just reach their potential. I want people to love their careers and the work that they do and to have the chance to spend time with the people that they love and actually be there.
And I think the challenge that we’re faced with in our world right now is we do live in an era of distraction and we have also access to some of the greatest technology that’s ever been invented, in the mobile phone and in the internet.
It’s revolutionizing our world right now, or transitioning. Very similar to how we transitioned from agriculture to industry 100 years ago, we’re transitioning from industry to technology. And in that transition, we have incredible opportunity and incredible danger.
“I just want us all to be able to take advantage of those opportunities and avoid the threats.”
If we can do that, if we can create this different world where we are going on a different direction, that gives my kids the best possible chance of growing up in a world where they have a chance to reach their potential, be happy and be healthy, and it is something that my kids are going to achieve. Hopefully, millions of other people can achieve it also.
A Challenge from The Focus Effect
Charlie Hoehn: Could you leave our listeners with a challenge, something they can do today from The Focus Effectthat can have a positive impact on their lives?
Bruce Bowser: I start with little things when I challenge people. If I’m challenging an employer, I said, “Okay, if you can’t go 6 AM to 6 PM and weekends off, pick something. Let your employees have the weekends off, put something in place at the workplace.” If you’re a leader in business, put something in place at the workplace that protects time off for your employees because they’re entitled to it.
Quite frankly, I think it’s going to become an issue as we go down the road where we’re burning out employees because we have them on all the time. To my colleagues in business, I challenge them frequently to examine the way they’re doing their business and look at creating balance.
You know, I tell people little things, like see if you can walk to a meeting without having to pick up your phone and text and check messages as you’re walking. I mean, it’s the number one cause of pedestrian accidents. Number one cause of, sadly, automobile accidents, and now we’re seeing people bumping into each other and concussions.
Put your phone down when you’re out for dinner with your children and your family. Those are some off the things that I challenge people to.
Dr. Greg Wells: I want you to at some point, in the next day or two, put on some headphones, get out your mobile phone, play one piece of incredible music that you absolutely love, close your eyes while you’re listening to it, and see if you can concentrate on that music without your mind wandering.
“It’s only going to be three or four minutes.”
Notice when your mind wanders, bring it back to the music, and see if you can do that pretty consistently.
And you’ll notice at first, how hard it is to stay on that one piece of incredible, beautiful music. If you do it four or five, six times, you’ll get so much better, so much faster.
You’ll really learn and see straight away where you’re at when it comes to your ability to focus. And also the focus effect, which is going to be when you can focus completely on that piece of music the whole time, how incredible that is for you.
And then you can start to apply that the rest of your life and a whole bunch of different places as well.
Charlie Hoehn: Excellent. How can our listeners connect with you guys and follow you?
Dr. Greg Wells: I’m @drgregwells on all social, my website is www.drgregwells.com. They can go to the website, thefocuseffect.ca and we’ve just started to build a site for that but be able to follow us through that.