Technology and focus with Bruce Bowser co-author of 'The Focus Effect'

Episode #12
Nov 21, 2018

On today’s episode of the Agile Living Podcast, Jon talks with Bruce Bowser, co-author of “The Focus Effect.” Jon and Bruce discuss how technology controls us.  They dive deep on how it makes it hard to focus on our work and our personal lives. Find out how we can free ourselves from the addictions or at least maintain a sense of balance in using technology.  That way, we are more focused to live a happy, healthy and productive life.


“With a little bit of focus, you can start to change your behavior.”

-Bruce Bowser



02:02 - All about the book 'The Focus Effect' and how technology controls us

04:36 - Is technology the only one to blame? Why employees are distracted

07:57 - What you can do to control emails and calls after office hours

11:35 - Why people need occasional breaks from being online and using digital devices

14:09 - Multitasking does not necessarily equate to high-performance

16:25 - How turning the notifications off can give you more focus and be more productive

21:30 - Showing respect and knowing when not to use your phone

22:55 - The effect of technology on our mental health

24:09 - Spending more time with families more than on technologies


Connect with Bruce:



Jon Voigt: Welcome to Agile Living, The Entrepreneur's Journey. The show dedicated to discovering how entrepreneurs and digital leaders are doing more with less. I'm Jon Voight your host and CEO of Agility and we're on a journey across the country to learn from top digital entrepreneurs on how to live a more agile, adaptable, and fulfilling life. Thank you for joining me today. And let's dive in.


Jon Voigt: Today I have Bruce Bowser, President and CEO of AMJ Campbell. We met over a year ago at a mastermind dinner from one of our good friend Jason. I found out recently, he's also the author of The Focus Effect and jumped on the opportunity to get him on the show. As the book described, we have a major issue with technology in that it controls our attention and doesn't allow us to focus. Bruce, thank you so much for coming on the show. I'd love you to tell the audience a little bit about AMJ and then what was it that made you realize society had such a big problem.


Bruce Bowser: Great, and thank you for having me on the show. My pleasure. A little bit about AMJ. We've been here at Campbell and is actually celebrating its 85th anniversary as a Canadian company next year so, we've been big. I have not been there for all eighty-five years just for the record, But I've enjoyed 26 years leading the organization and it's been a lot of fun. We've got a lot of festivities planned for next year. Kicking them off in January. So, we're coast to coast, have expanded into the U.S. over the last several years. Have a large operation in Florida and starting to do business in a number of other states as well. So about 3000 employees across the country that make a living working for a company and it's been a lot of fun. It still is a lot of fun.


Jon Voigt: It's a long journey. So, congrats, it's awesome.


Bruce Bowser: Thank you. Thank you.


Jon Voigt: So, tell us a little bit about the The Focus Effect and you know how you get into realizing this focus problem and that technology is the heart of it.


Bruce Bowser: So, The Focus Effect is actually a book that I coauthored with Dr. Greg Wells and I've known Greg for a number of years. Greg is a high performing individual who was a competitive swimmer for Canada and then went on to study at University of Toronto and teaches at University of Toronto I think he is on a sabbatical right now but yeah Greg and I have known each other for a number of years and have attended conferences [00:02:30.0] in Canada and around the world on high performance things that you can do to become you know more of a high performing individual. You know both from an athletic perspective as well as a business performance and life performance.


Bruce Bowser: You know a couple of years ago we were at a conference and there was some discussion about the impact that technology is having in terms of you know people's ability to focus. And Greg and I, we sat down talking over dinner one night and said you know this is a scenario where it seems like you know it's been it's been this way forever. But in reality, it's only been 10 years since we've since the advent of the iPhone which as you know is the instrument that most people use to communicate. And over the course of the last 10 years you know I think we've evolved into a community that I would say is largely addicted to their digital devices and it's created a real problem for focus not just in the workplace but for people in general. You know I have a bunch of pet peeves and living in the city of Toronto one of my pet peeves is it's difficult to walk down the street and not have to dodge people that are texting and walking and you know it's one of the leading causes of pedestrian accidents of automobile accidents. And you wonder you know how did we get there so. So, the book is really taking a good hard look at you know where we are as a society today with you know with distraction to digital devices and then it really delves into what are some things that you can do to change that and make yourself a higher performing individual in a company.


Jon Voigt: Right. I did another podcast around just corporate communication and the whole distraction. You know email alerts and pop ups and you know so many people, when right now right now right now and I think that links back to the whole problem with a cell phone is that people use it as an alarm system that somebody else wants you or there's something else going on.


Bruce Bowser: Well I think we live in an age of you know over the last 5,10 years we live in an age where you know we've developed a sense of always being turned on that you know that it's on-demand. You know if you're not getting back to somebody right away, something's wrong. And that's really one of the you know the main approaches that we take in the book. Is to let people know that you know, we don't have to be like that. I mean I love technology. You know I'm a bit of a tech geek.


Bruce Bowser: You know I buy every new piece of technology that comes out so there's nothing in the book that says we shouldn't use technology. It's really about moving shifting from a place where I believe technology controls us in a way too much in our personal lives, way too much in our business lives. And moving from there to a place where we actually control technology. You know and I quickly understood or realize when we started doing this work that you know it wasn't about how we could make employees more productive by getting them to be less distracted where more folks in the workplace when we really started delving into it. We realized that as employers we were largely to blame.


Bruce Bowser: And by that, I mean you know I think a lot of employers today inadvertently have 24/7 access to their employees. And I used to be one of the worst examples of that. I'd get on an airplane. I would fly to Calgary and I have four and a half hours of quiet time. I used to think by the way that it was because I'm a pilot. I was on a plane and I did stuff. That was my time to work. But the reality is there was no distractions which is really what the book is about. You know I get on a plane I do you know 40, 50, 60 e-mails. I'd land in Calgary and without any thought. This is where I think you know the issue comes without any thought these e-mails would go out across the country to you know to managers you know east to west. And I really wasn't conscious of the at the time of day so my manager and Halifax could be out you know with her husband and you don't get the e-mail from the present the company and say sir I've got to take this and I've interrupted their you know their minute their meal or their time with their children.


Bruce Bowser: And quite frankly you know I did not do that intentionally and I use the example of you know back in the in the early 90s I was a bank manager and this was before the advent of the e-mails even let alone you know texting and cell phones like we see them today. And if I needed to get hold of you John and you know in the in the evening to work on something, I would actually have to call you at your home. A lot of stand-up cell phones. You know we couldn't text and. And so, the only way to hold you was call you at home. And I would actually have to think about you know what are you doing probably eating dinner. Unless it was important it didn't happen. And the same happened on weekends so we live in a world where our evenings and our weekends have lost the special meaning of downtime that they used to. And again, I think a lot of employers you know don't realize that's what they're doing.


Jon Voigt: No, I agree one hundred percent because when you send an email you don't need to kind of think, like when I sent an email as I sent it because otherwise, I forget what I was doing and I'm not always assuming someone's sent a reply right away. But I think other people in the general society assumes they need to.


Bruce Bowser: And I think that's just the nature [00:08:00.0] of getting an email from your employer, you know the sense is you should be responding to that. So, one of the things we did at head office at AMJ, a year or a bit ago was we put policy in place where if you send you know we don't send or receive emails before 6am after 6pm or on the weekends. And we get a bounce back an email to say that we've adopted a work life balance program and people you know people initially say you know you're going to go out of business. I mean you know the truth is, by the way it says at the end of email if you need to reach me urgently please call me on my cell phone, and you know I haven't had call as a result you know a year and a half and I think the reality is most people, you know we don't need responses in the evenings or on the weekends and it's okay. It's not okay it's a requirement.


Bruce Bowser: I believe for you know for health, to have some downtime in the evenings and on the weekends and I know people can't live in a constant state of fear of being turned on all the time with their mobile devices or the digital devices.


Jon Voigt: And how does that transition go for customers or for employees?


Bruce Bowser: It was a it was a non-event. I mean if anything you know I had a lot of people write back and say what a great idea and having you know that in itself begs the question of you know, the whole notion you know I think most people would acknowledge that their employees are entitled to the evenings off and the weekends off. It's just you know and I actually think we're going to get to a point before long where you know we're going to see there's lawsuits happening in France for example where you know employees are saying, look I receive 17000 e-mails after hours and on weekends last year and I didn't get paid for it. And the truth is you know we don't pay our employees 24/7. So why should we expect them to respond 24/7.


Jon Voigt: Wow. Crazy. That's awesome that you put that place in grasp.


Bruce Bowser: Yeah and by the way. I mean you know that that's one side of the story the other side of the story is that you know all the studies do show that the average employee today is spending up to 30 percent if not more of the workday distracted. So, you know it is an issue that employees need to address as well or employers need to address with their employees. You know there are a lot of employees who are going to work and you're checking text you know somebody is spending a gazillion dollars a day on Amazon during the work hours. He was checking social media feeds with his Twitter Facebook Instagram. That's happened during workdays. And I think that you know we need to that's a you know a lot of the book has to do with how do you address that problem in the workplace. And it's twofold. Employers acknowledge they can't have 24/7 access to their employees and have employees acknowledge that it's not acceptable to spend 30 percent of your time checking your social media feeds and doing personal text during work. It's not healthy and it's not. It doesn't. It will not make you high performing employee.


Jon Voigt: Right. Right. I guess I guess on a weird viewpoint, you know do those two bouts themselves out for millennials. These people that are strong all the time. You know if they're answering emails in the weekend it gives them the right to jump on Amazon or Facebook or whatnot during the workday. Is that kind of part of the problem or the or the situation or what's happening here? Is it they feel, well if there's if I'm out all the time I'm allowed to also be kind of off all the time. If you know what I mean.


Bruce Bowser: I do think that there, if that's an agreed to arrangement then you know so be it. That would not be my preference for an arrangement with an employee. You know there are times obviously when you need to be working on a project in the evenings or potential on the weekend. But you know I think the important thing to understand is that people need downtime. You know we used to look forward to weekends you know 20, 25 years ago before the advent of digital media. And again, I'm all for digital media just you know we need downtime. I believe that children today are losing the art of conversation. Young children today are out in the parks you know. I see lots of pictures of this and as I drive by parks of you know parents are out there playing with their kids swinging their kids on the swing and they're texting while they're doing it. And you know you go to a restaurant and you know parents are on the phone texting and the [00:12:30.0] children got an iPad and iPhone in their hands to keep them occupied. Yes. You know it's hard for. I think it's hard for families to function like that.


Jon Voigt: Yes. Yes, I agree.


Bruce Bowser: I use example in my book where you know my daughters, I've two grown daughters and you know we love having dinners together. And you know we have nice dinners together so here we go to great restaurants. We sit down have dinner and autonomy one night that all three of us were texting. You know we were not were having conversations in between conversations and we finally agreed, hey let's try something different let's give our phones. Put them on silent, give them to the to the server and try to have a dinner without texting and being distracted. And I have to tell you how much more engaging it is to you know sit down and actually have a conversation where you're not constantly looking at your phone or trying to you know, have four conversations at the same time.


Jon Voigt: Yeah for sure. And I think that one comment I said around you know, [00:13:30.0] about trying to balance or millennials that certain people saying well I can just I want to do the stuff at work and I work on a weekend even if they agree to that. I think the problem goes back to the focus comment which you're talking about. Which is you know your mind is not really meant to multitask is scientifically proven. And the more you switch back and forth between things the less focused and aligned you are in that one thing. So even if you're allowed to, during the day jump on Amazon for a bit because you get to work on the weekend or whatnot, your mind is unable to focus and you're not able to have that clear perspective on what you're working on. And I think that's where.


Bruce Bowser:  You hit it on the nail. I mean you know, we used to think that multitasking was a signature of high performance. When in fact to your point, you know science and live scanning shows that the brain cannot be in two places the same time. It can go back and forth quickly but it cannot be in two places at the same time. So, the studies show that, if you're in the middle of a task and you stop that task, whether it's to check social media feed or reply to a text, that it can take upwards to eight minutes to get back into your task.


Bruce Bowser:  And I use the example, I say to people Look if you're sitting on a park bench and you're reading a book and you're into the book and I come along and I stop and have a quick chat with you how are you blah blah, and I leave, you do not go back to the line before that you're reading, you go back sometimes you know two paragraphs two paragraphs to get back into the into the task. And the same applies to you know to work projects you know on top of the fact that you know we spend according to studies 30 percent of our workday distracted. It's also the time that it takes to get back into task and it's just you know it's plain not productive. I mean you know what I have to do today especially writing this book was a good example. I needed to shut things down and give myself long blocks of time, you know an hour an hour and a half two hours you know or some breaks in there to work and you know people say How do you do that.


Bruce Bowser:  And to me, you know my daughters love to be able get hold of me. So, I tell my daughters, hey girls I'm going offline for the next two hours to work on a book. You know if something urgent please reach out to my assistant and she'll get me. I mean we don't have many urgent situations in our lives. Thank goodness, you know 1, 2 years, if that's the case. And I think you know a lot of it is just setting expectations it's one of the one of the things we do with the book when we're working with employers and employees, is we say you know we set the expectation that you know that you don't have to be online all the time, that you don't have to respond. You know we're in the moving business. We have a 24/7 customer service department that people can reach, but outside of that we're not saving lives. We're not you know we're not in special operations where we need to be connected 24/7. And so, you know it's healthy for people to be turned off.


Jon Voigt:  Yeah sure for sure and I know I spoke another thing another podcast that I recorded, I am adamant about turning off alerts on my devices and my computer and using it more when, OK I have time now to look at my e-mails versus every time. If I responded or looked at every e-mail when it came in, I don't think I'd get anything done during the day because that little alert in the corner would be constantly going, constantly going. And I'll be like oh another e-mail or another e-mail it would it would kill me.


Bruce Bowser: No, I mean. You know the studies show that the average person, the average North American spends over 60 hours a year just looking to see if they have an alert. Not reading the actual e-mail but just looking at their phone or the device to see if there's a, you know a red tick on one of the sources that needed to get and somebody says that you know this seems like a lot of time it's eight minutes a day which when you bring it down isn't a lot of time, but just the amount of time people look to see if they have an alert. Sixty hours.


Jon Voigt: It's crazy.


Bruce Bowser: You know crazy is not the right word. We've just, we've been lulled into it has not been that long a period of time. And you know we're trying to do is get people to see that, it's something that with a little bit of focus you can start to change your behavior. You can start on practical things. You touched on a second ago, or when you're doing e-mails turn off notifications and better yet pick times of the day to do your e-mails. You know we book all of our appointments into our calendars. Most of us you know for me, I start the day I don't look at my e-mails until I'm at Starbucks or sit down at the office. If people need get hold me urgently, they can call me. And work on e-mails. Maybe it's you know, maybe it's the first 45 minutes of your workday running most. Then don't do it again until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and then maybe you know at the end of the day and shut it down. You know I like Tim Ferriss' book The Four-Hour Work Week and in the book, Tim talks about a lot of hacks. And one of his first hacks years ago was email batching.


Bruce Bowser: So you batch your e-mails and doing them at periods of times. You know when you're working on a task whether it's a project, whether you're writing a book you know responding to you know to request, you know shut off notifications. Give yourself a period time so come and take the next 30 minutes 40 minutes. We think people work well in increments of 60 to 75 minutes and then they need a break. You know shut it down during those times. Even doing e-mails. If you're going to do e-mails and you're giving yourself 60 minutes, say, shut all the other notifications off for social media and just focus on completely on e-mails.


Jon Voigt: Yeah right. Yeah, I know we did have problems even just in meetings. You have 60 hour meeting, people in that meeting and they need to be checking their e-mails or they kind of have their laptop open, And for any of our higher profile meetings, we started, I started pushing back saying close your laptop no laptop, no cell phones you know because that one little e-mail in the middle of a good discussion in a meeting can pull you away and then are you back into it. Or one bad e-mail comes in, that's not critical, but it's still something that you know you're frustrated about and then you can't focus on what's going on.


Bruce Bowser: Yeah. And that's great practice. We do the same things. If we're going to meetings, please put your phone on silent. Here's a basket, put it in the basket. If you're expecting something urgent, you know something going on in your life you expect something urgent, please call this number it's my assistant she'll come in and interrupt us or somebody can interrupt you. But to your point, you cannot be present in the meeting and pay attention when you're when you're emailing. I tell the story in the beginning of the book about having to you know senior people from a large consulting firm into our office to pitch me on something you know a year and a half ago. There was a large project and one would speak and the other would be emailing, texting as soon as the other was speaking. This put back and forth like five or 10 minutes and I said guys we need to stop. And they both looked at me like what and I said You guys are way too busy for me. And you know I wasn't trying to be rude but I was they were being rude.


Bruce Bowser: And I think that's part of the issue. You know it sounds crazy. These people want to do business with me and they can't give me 30 minutes of their own attention. And I said wait a minute, look one of you speaks the other e-mails are texting, we're in the middle of a big project. I said go finish your project back and see me another time which obviously never happened. But you know I think again somehow, we've been lulled into this notion that it's acceptable to do that. And you know I think it's bad manners. I mean you know I go to restaurants and I see couples sitting down across from each other on their phones. I mean you know go back 20 years, 15 years, 12 years even if you went out for dinner with your spouse and you pull the magazine or newspaper. And I have to tell you what it'll be over. Exactly. We seem to think it's OK to pull out your phone and check your social media feeds. I mean, it's brutal.


Jon Voigt: Yeah and it's a snowball effect right because somebody else does it. And then you want to do it. And you know even if you're at a table with a bunch of people and one person that you see them do it. Oh, now I want to check mine 'coz I see them do it.


Bruce Bowser: It's like it's like most things that are you know, we don't like to call it an addiction. But the reality is you know studies also show that you know we get a little shot of dopamine when we check our text, or we check our messages or check our social media feeds. So, there is an addictive side to this. You know I don't think it's a major addiction is major in the sense that it's had a huge impact. But I think, let's start with the little things so you know if you're walking to a meeting especially if you're downtown Toronto and you're on the street with me, don't text and walk. Try to make it to you don't text and walk. If it's that urgent that you have to check and text in an eight-minute walk or a five-minute walk pull over to the side and show a little courtesy. You know do not cross intersections when you're texting and walking.


Bruce Bowser: Studies have showed the drivers are doing it. So, you have a pedestrian walking across the crosswalk while drivers turning and texting. It's just a proven recipe for disaster. So, start with the little things or when you are going to dinner. Start looking at family dinners. We're gonna turn the phone off or put them in silent and turn them off. The world's going to be OK for 60 minutes. Yeah. And you will. I guarantee you'll find that you have a far more meaningful dinner lunch coffee whatever it is and just even you know this whole notion of being present you know walking and texting the entire time you're walking you're missing everything. We live in a beautiful country. Turn it off for a minute.


Jon Voigt: Yeah, it's interesting. I got into a couple years ago, into some Buddhist temple, kind of meditation training and you know one of the biggest things I learned from there was not about this whole concept of sitting there and meditating. It's about the concept of focusing and being in and out. And one of the big things was, you know anytime you're doing multiple things at once you're not in that state and you're clouding your mind and you're not really, you're not really focused. And it was actually a big realization for me during that time especially I have lost a bit of it but I had to work to get breath back is when you are walking around you know and you're texting, it means you're not in the moment you're not looking around. And that's what the true kind of meditation state is, its real focus.


Bruce Bowser: I mean it, not only are you not in the present. You're quite often in a state of anxiety because you know you're constantly looking for that next message or text. I mean we know that you know that it's one of the leading causes of anxiety in young people that they're not getting the likes that people are making their social media feeds.


Bruce Bowser: A look you know the pendulum has swung too far one way. We're not saying that you know we need to be done with digital devices. Again, I think they're great. They allow me to want to travel like I do and do some of the work I do. It's just about who controls it and you know how can you maintain a sense of balance. And more importantly for me as an employer, how can I make my employees healthy, happier, higher performing employees not by having them turned on all the time. But by letting them know that it's OK to have a weekend off, Like I tell managers do not pester employees in the weekend. They're entitled to have a weekend off, we're not paying for the weekend. Let them be with their families. And then I think once people are in that state and as individuals it's important for them to start doing little things like they take their child to the park, put the phone in the pocket for 30 minutes, when you were with a child. Some of the best memories I have as a father are playing with my children at the park. You cannot be present playing with your children in the park if you're texting. Same thing if you're having dinner with your spouse, your partner, your children, turn your phone off, put it on silent, leave it in your pocket. Better yet leave it in the car and be present with your family.


Jon Voigt: Yeah, I love it. Bruce l

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