Lewis Bollard on self-experimentation, zero distractions, and hyper focus

by lynettebye24 min read27th Apr 2020No comments


Personal developmentCommunity

This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

Routines are the foundational layer that can support all kinds of productivity tools. But they’re not exactly one size fits all, and it can take some trial and error to find the best ones.

So, how do you experiment to find routines that works for you?

Here’s an interview with someone who’s invested in perfecting his daily routines - Lewis Bollard. Lewis leads Open Philanthropy’s strategy for Farm Animal Welfare. Prior to joining Open Philanthropy, he worked as Policy Advisor & International Liaison to the CEO at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Lewis shares how he used lots of informal mini experiments to refine his daily routine for sustainable peak performance.

  • He tracked when he got work done and when he didn’t to discover his optimal routine - heads-down hyper-focused mornings, slower paced afternoons, and taking evenings completely off.
  • He tried working twelve hours in a day when looking for how much he could sustainably work - which is closer to eight hours (while possible, twelve hour days kill productivity the next day).
  • He tried taking a break to meditate or exercise - did he achieve less those days? Nope, he got just as much done.

You can read the full transcript below for more, including:

  • Why he likes Pomodoros
  • How he sets up zero distraction focused work
  • How he thinks he could prioritize better
  • How he uses Toggl as a commitment device


Full Interview

Note: This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Lynette: When you're deciding what to prioritize, and what kinds of big projects to take on, what's your process for that?

Lewis: So one thing internally is every program officer at Open Phil has basically a ton of autonomy within their space. You have a core set of tasks. So you want to make new grants, you want to know how your current grants are doing, and then you want to potentially be doing outreach to other donors if you want to influence them. And you want to be up to speed on knowledge in the field by talking to people and things you can read. And so we actually track all of our time and we try and keep it at particular ratios. So, I can see if I'm spending more than a certain percentage over a course of several weeks on grant making or whatever, I try to reallocate and focus it. So beyond that, I literally just use a simple list of things to do and have three things I want to do each day. And that's basically it.

Lynette: And when you're deciding which things are going to make that cut to be a priority, . wWhat's your process? Are you back- chaining, making value hypotheses?

Lewis: For me the most important thing is what's going to drive the most money because the most important thing we have to offer is money. But sometimes things are time- sensitive. So you know, if there's an issue at a grantee or something, we may have to spend more time on that.

Lynette: What are the detailed steps that you would take to determine what's going to drive money?

Lewis: I think, I mean, you can normally tell how big a grant might be. So I think a lot of it is that—it's looking at “how big could these grants be?” and taking it step by step from there I think.

Lynette: And about how many hours do you work in a normal day on your top priority things?

Lewis: Five hours.

Lynette: And what happens after that?

Lewis: Yeah, so I basically clock eight hours a day, of time. I’m very regimented, I always clock eight hours a day. The rest of it is emails and that kind of stuff.

Lynette: And when you have these three goals, what’s that, like three a day, three a week?

Lewis: I try and do three a week and three a day.

Lewis: I really like the idea of doing lots of mini experiments to see what works for you individually, and I have found that very useful for myself. And I'm a big believer in being productive rather than just trying to work more on things.

Lynette: I'm curious, you said you did lots of experiments yourself, what kinds of things did you do that worked?

Lewis: So the things that have worked for me; one is doing the most important work first thing in the morning. So for me, the most productive time of day is between about 8AM and noon. I think that's when I get just far more stuff done, and so I try and prevent any meetings from being scheduled during that time. And I try and I don't always succeed, to avoid getting waylaid—I still often look at email in the morning, just because I feel like I have to. But I really try and keep it to just, "I'm gonna look at it, respond to anything quickly, and then I'm moving on to whatever the most important project today is." Because I find that's a very easy way to get waylaid by whatever is in my inbox. So yeah, trying to set aside those four hours every morning for the things that are actually really important and need to be advanced. And then afternoon: stacking up meetings, stacking up reading stuff on the field, stacking up emails, all of that kind of stuff.

Lewis: Another thing I do is try to meditate daily. I also put that in the afternoon just because low productivity time. So in the afternoon, I either meditate or go to the gym. And that's mainly just because it's such a low-value time for me. Between about 1:30PM and 4PM I'm at less than 50% productivity, at least of what I would be in the morning. So maybe I can I have some meetings then, but otherwise there’s just not much point in me doing a lot of stuff.

Lewis: And then the end of the day is normally when I end up just making sure I'm all caught up on email. Basically, just that everything is in line and caught up. So that's the ideal setup. So I would say the things that have worked: stacking in the morning, meditation. Oh, and time tracking, for sure. I don't think organizations should necessarily require it from everyone in the way that Open Phil basically does, but for me it's awesome. I love time tracking.

Lynette: Do you use Toggl?

Lewis: Yeah, and for me, the particular way I use it—and again, I don't think everyone should use it this way— but the way that I use it is as a pre-commitment tool. So for me, it's like, I literally put in "for the next hour, I will be doing X" and I pre-commit to it. And once I put that in I find that it's very hard to not do it because then (a) I can see that that's what I'm supposed to be doing, but (b) I have to go back and change the time card. And it's really irritating to go back and change it. So for me, it's just easier to keep doing the thing I'm meant to be doing.

Lewis: The other thing I've been experimenting with is doing more Pomodoros. I think the sort of in-between that I've done right now is that I don't work on anything for more than an hour. You know, so I'll make sure I have some break at the end of an hour, like five minutes off at least or something. And it would probably be more effective for me to do 25 minute increments, honestly.

Lynette: Why is that?

Lewis: Well, just because I think I'd be even more intensely focused during that time. Like what I find about even an hour slot is it intensely focuses me. But I think it would just intensely focus me even more. Now obviously there's the trade-off as there's a transition cost to switching to do something else and going back to it. But I generally think that being in that position of hyper focus is just so valuable that it's worth many trade-offs to make that happen. The reason I mainly don't do it is I just find it irritating. It's like "I’m gonna do this for 25 minutes. I have to stop and do something. Now I have to come back," you know, it just feels a bit more here, there, everything and it's just kind of irritating. So I generally don't do it. But you know as I say, try and limit things to an hour regardless. What else? And then also trying to have a fairly constant caffeine intake. So trying to make sure basically that I, (a) don't have more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, and (b) that it's mainly stacked in the morning. But I leave myself some allowance that if I feel like I need one after lunch, I can have a coffee.

Lynette: Yeah. For these experiments, like stacking in the morning, taking the afternoon off, how did you determine what your output was? And what times are most effective for you?

Lewis: So a couple of things. Honestly, the morning-afternoon one is something I experimented with long ago. I just found that it was just so obvious. Like when I say experiment, I basically just realized, "Oh, wow, I'm incredibly unproductive right now." And so, you know, even if I was just sitting down when I had something to do, if I did it in the morning, it would get done and if I tried it in the afternoon, it would not. With the meditation and working out one, that was a much more intentional experiment because I did really feel a very natural resistance to stopping working in the middle of the workday. That's not what most people do. So I was like, "That seems like you probably shouldn't do it," you know? So what I tested there was, “Look, what happens if I take like half an hour out to go meditate or an hour out to go to the gym?” And when I say tested, I basically just tried a bunch of times and then saw, did I achieve less on those days? No.

Lynette: How are you measuring how much you achieved?

Lewis: So in the past, honestly, it was more just like, “Am I generally on track? Do I feel like I achieved a lot or not?” The more precise way I have now is I have three things to do every day. Now those things are not always the same amount of work. But it is generally still the case that I can tell, did I achieve those three things or not? And I have some days where I achieved them all, even when it was clearly a relatively more burdensome thing or I have some days where I don't achieve them even when they were less. So I have some vague sense. I've kind of thought about actually keeping a diary or you know, some kind of track over the days of my achievements—I don't do that. It's more I'm like, "What was different today versus yesterday or whatever?"

Lynette: So, you set three goals each day. How do you prioritize what to do?

Lewis: So this is sort of, you know, based on how much money it could move—well, this is not the only thing now. So to me, my number one job responsibility is to move money. My number two job responsibility now is to manage because I have two people I manage. So those are the things that I try to always give precedence to. I guess the third top priority for me now is moving other people's money, like working with other donors. So other donors also get priority. And so what that means is, basically, I have a list of things I need doing, and the things that involve other donors, managing people or big potential grants, they're going to get prioritized.

Lewis: The thing I actually struggle with the most are things that are time- sensitive, but don't fit one of those categories. I have a lot of trouble with them because, inevitably, either I don't prioritize them and then someone gets annoyed at me because they were expecting a response by a certain time or, you know, this was a time-sensitive thing and I'm not getting back to them, or I do prioritize them, and then I get annoyed, because I didn't do this thing that I actually think is much more important.

Lewis: So I like the idea of—one of these books focuses on this idea of the grid, you know, where it's importance versus timeliness. And so I think maybe I should even literally physically have that, it’s more explicit about the trade-offs. I think what happens instead is that if something is time-sensitive and urgent, it goes number one on my list for the day, it's very easy. If something is time-sensitive and not urgent, It probably doesn't go number one on my list. But I probably end up feeling by the afternoon like I should be prioritizing it or something because I have some residual guilt for not prioritizing it. So yeah.

Lynette: So it sounds like these four hours in the morning are your main block of effective time. Could you do more than those without getting really diminishing returns on your top priorities?

Lewis: I think probably not. So basically, I have incredibly constant hours week to week—and again, this is not something I think works for everyone—but I track my hours week to week. I've now done this for about 150 weeks-170 weeks, and my guess would be over like 90% of those weeks, I've done somewhere between 40 and 43 hours. And that is just because that's what I found works.

Lewis: So basically, what I find is that's the maximum highly productive amount of time I can do. And what that means normally is doing those four hours in the morning, and then having like, two hours of low-productivity afternoon stuff, but where it's things like reading on the field, meetings, whatever. And then ideally, depending on how many meetings I have and things, having another two hours of in-between productivity later on. So that's between, let's say, five and seven typically, when I'm not as productive as I am in the morning, but I'm still productive enough to get through a lot of emails or something like that.

Lewis: So what I've basically found in the past is, if there's something really urgent that comes up, I can certainly do more hours than that in one day. But normally, I pay the price for it. Normally I can do twelve hours in one day and I can make many of them productive, but then the next day I'm just a total mess and I get almost no hours of productivity. And so, to me, what I found is this is the sustainable level. Like this is the thing that I can do day in, day out, week in, week out.

Lynette: So like three to five hours a day of this top priority focus work seems to be a fairly common thing that comes up. I'm curious, though, you're still accomplishing a lot, you're getting a lot done. What is it that you think you do for prioritization that's setting this apart and allowing you to get so much done in these few hours each day?

Lewis: Something I'm really big on is just zero distractions. So I have no notifications on my phone. I try to only have max two windows open, ideally, just one window open. Ideally, it's whatever document I'm working on in Google Drive, that is the thing I have open. And ideally, one task at a time. I mean to me, that is just overwhelmingly the thing.

Lewis: And I kind of find it amazing when people who I know flip back and forth on Facebook and things during the day. I have no idea how they get anything done. Like I didn't actually think about this consciously, I kind of just developed it unconsciously because I didn't like working as much as other people did in college or law school. And particularly in law school, I didn't like working after 6PM. And everyone I was going to law school with worked after 6pm. And I also didn't like getting up at 6AM to work. So like, there had to be some alternative, you know? And I actually constantly felt guilty that I wasn't working in the evenings, but I just hated it so much I wasn’t going to do it. And what I found was that I was doing just as well as they all were. And now in retrospect, I'm like, "Oh, because they were sitting there doing everything at 30% productivity." They were sitting there, flipping between Facebook, coming back to this, going back to that.

Lewis: Whereas when I do it, I’m just completely antisocial: I put my head down, I'm doing this one thing and then it's done. I have to be a hundred percent focused on it, I have to be a hundred percent energy. The other thing during those four hours is I'm well caffeinated. If I start getting sleepy or something, I'm going and getting a coffee immediately. I'm not playing with like, "Oh, just see if I get tireder and tireder and then I'll you know whatever."

Lynette: How much do you think is just this single-minded focus versus picking what thing to do during that time? Like how much of the relative benefit of that output comes from those two things?

Lewis: So I don't actually know how to choose between them both. I mean I think those are the two most important factors of my productivity. I think that the first one comes much more intuitively to me; the one of just focusing on one thing and eliminating all distractions is actually much more intuitive to me. The one that I have a lot more trouble doing is prioritizing the right thing, which is probably the opposite of a lot of people, I think. I have no trouble ignoring distractions. I have a lot of trouble actually making sure that I prioritize the best thing. So yeah, I think probably when I have days where I'm not as productive, it's nearly always because I just misprioritized.

Lynette: Got it. What do you do to try and prioritize as best you can? Like, what is the explicit process you go through?

Lewis: So, basically, it's normally that I set aside literally five minutes in the morning to just be like, “What should my three things be today?” And I try and do that on a weekly basis. But honestly, I haven't been as good about it. I normally don't really put enough time into working out what actually should be the priorities for the week—and so it normally happens on a daily basis. When I do that, I have this document that's my project document, and it's literally just a Google Doc with a list, which is basically a to-do list, but I don't put small stuff there. In fact for the small stuff, I mainly use my inbox, which I know is a bad technique. But it works for me to just leave the emails there until they're dealt with.

Lewis: But yeah, what I should do is go to that list and say, "What are the most important things on this list?" With some account for time limits, maybe. What normally happens instead, is just like, "What's the most important thing that I feel like I'm behind on?" The other thing that happens is I look at that list and there's some things I just know I don't want to do, and so they don't get prioritized. Or I looked at that list, and I say, "Oh, I know I could get this one finished in four hours." So I'm going to do that one, because it will be very satisfying when I get it finished, because I know that one's like 12 hours. And I really don't want to have the lack of satisfaction of only doing a third of this. I don't think that's the correct approach, to be clear. I think that's a mistake, but it's a mistake I often fall for.

Lynette: Got it. So it sounds like you're not doing any kind of explicit calculation of like, which of these are most important to some sort of expected output or back- chaining or something?

Lewis: Well, only in the sense of how much money—I mean, I have those three reference points, right? So it's basically, if this was a potential grant, how much money is that? That one is very easy. Now of course, I'm not doing expected value, what I'm doing is the amount of money. But the two are correlated, because we only consider big grants if we think they're going to be big impact. We would have eliminated it if it was a $3 million grant that had no impact. And if something is on there as a $50,000 grant, it's most likely because it's like, "That's a trial, I'm really unsure about it. I don't think this is as important as the $3 million dollar one." So I can typically use the amount of money as a proxy for that. So I do, you know, where it's like, "Okay, there is a $3 million renewal that's come up," that gets priority. That's easy.

Lynette: So it sounds like this prioritization is all before it gets onto this project list. As it makes its way onto the project list, you’ve evaluated it enough to see if it’s going to be important.

Lewis: So yes, so the project list is ranked by importance. It's not necessarily well ranked by importance, and I don't necessarily revise it enough. So typically, the way it gets ranked is like, anything that I know is big that needs to be done, gets added to it. And depending on how high a priority it is, it gets added to the top, the middle, or the bottom. That's basically how it happens. And then occasionally I shuffle them around. But mainly I don't. So yeah, that's kind of the process. And typically, it will have made it to the top of the list if it has one of those attributes; if it's a lot of money, it involves big donors, or it involves managing.

Lynette: Okay. And, caffeine is really important. What other things are really important for your overall productivity, mood, exercise, etc?

Lewis: For me exercising on a regular basis is pretty important. It's not so much about exactly when I exercise, like I bike to work, and I find that very useful. What else? Getting enough sleep is critical to me. So that's something that I’m huge on. Sleeping at least eight hours, sometimes nine if possible. And always going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time is critical. So yeah, that's definitely big for me. Not working in the evenings is big. Nor working at my home or anything. Being like, totally off when I'm off, is also really big. So, basically, I never do work after 7:20PM, there’s basically no time when I break that rule. Those are critical.

Lewis: What else? I think otherwise, like yeah, caffeine… I can't think of many other things. When I'm bored I chew gum, but I don't think that's one. That mainly keeps me awake or prevents me from being really bored. But that typically happens in the mid-afternoon section when I have to read something boring and I'm at low productivity anyway, it's like “Okay, I'll chew some gum so I can keep doing it.” Maybe I'll listen to music, but it's the same deal. It's not particularly important to my productivity.

Lynette: Yeah. Are there any other motivation hacks, to keep yourself going on something when you would otherwise want to be bored or...

Lewis: Good question. What motivates me on these things? I mean, one thing I try to do is, oftentimes, the work that I'll do in the morning, that is more important, is also of the form that is somewhat less interesting. So for instance, I find writing up grants to be a pretty boring activity. But that's something which is also high-priority, and which will take precedence. And so, that goes in the morning. In the morning, I feel much more motivated. I come into the office just excited to get stuff done.

Lewis: Whereas in the afternoon, in that less productive time, either it's meetings, in which case it's more stimulating because it’s in person contact with someone, or it's things like I'm reading a new report that I'm really curious about. In fact a lot of it is actually driven by curiosity honestly. Like one of my priorities, lower priority, is to stay up to date on the field, know what's going on, know everything happening. And for that a ton of it is just that I get Google Alerts or someone sent me a report or that kind of thing, and that all goes into a ‘to read’ box. And then in the afternoon I'm like, "Oh, cool, I can go into the to read box and check out this interesting stuff." And at the end of the day, should I tell you what's motivating for me at the end of the day? It’s that I want to have my inbox completely empty by the time that I leave. And so it's extremely motivating to me to get through, to get down to Inbox Zero. That's extremely motivating.

Lynette: Is there anything you do when deciding how to scope a project, to make sure that you're doing it efficiently, but also thoroughly enough that you're capturing the value? How do you think about that?

Lewis: Yeah, I think I typically overdo projects. So I think, one challenge is working out, what's the essential part of this that actually has a lot of value? I find that tough.

Lynette: Are there any questions that you could ask yourself that help with that?

Lewis: Yeah, I mean, I probably should. I think to ask myself, for instance, "What actually is essential to the case for this grant," would be useful. Because instead, what I normally do with a grant—like, let's say that I have a grant write up, there are a whole bunch of questions there, and I'm just like, “I need to answer all of the questions”—and so I put equal time into each of the questions. Some of the questions are way more important than others, particularly for certain grants, you know. Maybe the budget is critical to this grant and maybe whatever. And I end up sort of spending more time on that unintentionally, but I don't prioritize.

Lewis: What I don't necessarily do is spend as little time as I could on things that don't matter. And so I think, yeah, one thing that I want to get better at is just spending a lot less time on each of those things that is less important within a project. And yeah, I think I'm still not particularly good at that. I don't write out steps with an approach for instance. Like, you know, this is the ‘getting things done’ framework of breaking up a project into small things. I don't do that, mainly because I actually don't really like to-do lists even though I have this big one. And I want to avoid having more small to-do lists. So yeah, but I think asking some questions would be a good way.

Lynette: Okay. Any other weird, hacky things that you feel are important?

Lewis: I mean, this is not a weird hacky thing, but something which I very much appreciate about the EA community, which I think is not true in most workplaces, is having the ability to just experiment and test your own stuff and adjust accordingly. Because I think in most workplaces, you can't do that. And particularly, for instance, I try to only check my email two or three times a day. I think in most workplaces you can't do that. They’ll think you're lazy if you don't respond to an email within an hour in some places. So to me, that's a huge perk that we have at most organizations, it seems, in this community, that you can do that and you can say “This is how I work best.”

Lewis: And so, to me, the main hacky thing is just continually testing what works best for me by, you know, trying to look at what are common best practices, and then saying, "Which of these seem to work well for me?" “Can I just force myself to keep doing them?”

Lynette: It sounds like you've done a fair amount of that experimentation.

Lewis: Yeah, exactly.

Lynette: It was a pleasure talking to you.

Lewis: Yeah, likewise.


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