Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

by Chris Bailey

Your brain has two powerful modes: a focused and productive mode called hyperfocus and a creative mode called scatterfocus. In Hyperfocus, you’ll learn how to unlock these two modes so that you can think more clearly, connect more ideas, and live more deliberately. Full of insightful research and scientific theories, this book shows you how to take your productivity to the next level to achieve your daily tasks and major life goals.

Summary Notes

Stop living on autopilot

“We are what we pay attention to.”

Most people rarely plan the different elements of their lives and are essentially living in autopilot mode. This is not always a bad thing; autopilot mode does come in handy for actions like brushing your teeth, responding to a text, or choosing a brand of ketchup. Living unintentionally can sometimes save you time and energy.

However, some decisions have to be made deliberately, and how you choose to manage your attention is important. Your attention is a limited resource: and you have to choose what to focus on during your day.

Your attention is constantly being divided among productive, unproductive, attractive, and unattractive tasks:
- Necessary work - productive but unattractive
- Unnecessary work - unproductive and unattractive
- Purposeful work - productive and attractive
- Distracting work - unproductive but attractive

Your goal is to stop living in autopilot mode and start engaging only in purposeful and necessary work.

Actions to take

Your attention is limited

“The state of your attentional space determines the state of your life. When your attentional space is overwhelmed, you, in turn, feel overwhelmed. When your attentional space is clear, you also feel clear. The tidier you keep your attentional space, the more clearly you think”

Your attention is the most powerful tool you have. However, there’s a limit to the number of things you can focus on at a time. Out of the 11 million bits of information you receive per second, your brain can only focus on 40 at a time. Therefore, your attentional space—your mental capacity to focus on and process information in the present moment—can only hold a small amount of information. This is why multitasking rarely works. 

It's important to be consciously aware of what’s filling up your attentional space at any given time. The content of this space changes every 10 seconds, so you need to ensure that you’re constantly focusing on productive rather than useless things. Once you’ve filled your attention space with a productive task, there’s little to no space available for distractions. 

Multitasking can lead to attention overload which reduces your productivity. Switching quickly from one task to another also leads to attention residue, which means your attentional space is still occupied with the previous task even though your mind has moved on. To avoid these productivity barriers, you have to simplify your attentional space and spend more time on things that are more meaningful to you.

Actions to take

The power of hyperfocus

“Attention without intention is wasted energy.”

Hyperfocus is your brain’s most productive mode. You enter hyperfocus mode whenever you’re immersed in a task to the extent that it fills your attentional space. Hyperfocus is deliberate, undistracted, and focused work that leaves you energized and happy. You can afford to slow down and still accomplish more in an hour than you would if you were rushing to complete several projects at once. 

Hyperfocus mode is best utilized when engaging in complex rather than habitual tasks. Complex tasks such as report writing tend to fill your attentional space whereas habitual tasks such as walking do not. Habitual tasks do not benefit from hyperfocus as much as complex tasks would. Therefore, save your willpower and mental energy for complex tasks. 

To enter hyperfocus mode, you need to select a productive task and then eliminate as many distractions as possible. Once you’ve done so, focus on your object of attention. When your mind wanders, shift your focus back onto the task at hand and keep doing so until you complete your work. 

The key step here is to set an intention of what to focus on instead of leaving things to chance.

Actions to take

Tame distractions

“When our brain is even slightly resisting a task, it hunts for more attractive things it could do instead”

Every 40 seconds, we switch from being immersed in productive work to getting distracted by an unrelated and less meaningful task. Due to these constant interruptions, we struggle to enter a hyperfocused state and our productivity suffers. We then work more frantically to get back on track but this creates added stress that further derails our attention. 

You have to eliminate distractions ahead of time so that you don’t waste precious willpower resisting them.

We can categorize distractions based on two criteria. The first is whether the distraction is controllable or uncontrollable. The second is whether it's fun or annoying. Distractions that are controllable and fun include browsing through social media. Distractions that are uncontrollable but fun include team lunches and water cooler conversations. Some distractions are uncontrollable and annoying such as meetings and office visitors. Finally, some distractions are controllable and annoying, such as emails and phone notifications. 

If you cannot control a distraction, then simply deal with it when it arises and get back to work as quickly as possible. The majority of your distractions are controllable though, and you tend to interrupt yourself more than others do.

Actions to take

Overcome mental wandering

Several reasons explain why your mind wanders whenever you want to focus on your work. The first is feeling stressed or bored. You feel stressed whenever your work demands exceed your ability to handle them. You feel bored when your work is not challenging or complex enough to occupy your full attention. The second reason is thinking about your personal concerns. You may find yourself struggling to shed the attentional residue of unresolved personal issues weighing on your mind.

Your mind may also wander if you’re questioning whether you’re doing meaningful work. You may have a negative view of the work you’re doing because you feel you should be doing something else that’s more important. Whatever the reason may be for your mind wandering, your goal is to become a better custodian of your attentional space. Learn to deliberately manage it and increase its size when necessary.

Actions to take

Your hidden creativity

“As far as boosting our creativity is concerned, mind wandering is in a league of its own”

If you want to be productive, you need to enter hyperfocus mode. But if you want to be creative, you need to allow your mind to enter scatterfocus mode. Scatterfocus means intentionally letting your mind roam free. You may be engaged in an activity, say, biking or running, but you leave some attentional space free for random thoughts. Scatterfocus enables your mind to plan for the future, recharge its mental energy, and connect old ideas to new ones. 

Despite such benefits, most people are afraid of being alone with their thoughts. This is why we prefer to fill our attention with anything that seems novel (Twitter feed), pleasurable (food), or even threatening (the News). But when you intentionally allow your mind to wander, you can visit the past, present, and future to find the ideas necessary to create the reality you desire. 

There are 3 styles of scatterfocus that you can use—Capture, Problem-crunching, and Habitual mode. Capture mode is effective for identifying whatever’s on your mind. Problem-crunching mode is useful for solving specific problems. Habitual mode is the most powerful for recharging and connecting the highest number of ideas. Whatever scatterfocus style you use, make sure that you’re always intentional.

Actions to take

Recharge your attention

“As our mental energy steadily depletes throughout the day, so too does our ability to focus.”

One of the factors that determine your ability to focus is your mental energy levels. Spending a lot of time in hyperfocus mode drains your limited supply of energy. As a result, your attentional space contracts, and it becomes more difficult to focus on the task at hand. But when you recharge your energy, your attentional space increases by as much as 58%.

Some of the signs that you need to recharge your attention include switching randomly between tasks, doing mindless tasks like checking social media, and inadvertently slipping into scatterfocus mode.  When you experience these symptoms, then it’s time to take a break from work.

You need to create time in your schedule to restore your mental energy. Take a refreshing work break either by entering scatterfocus mode or engaging in a low-effort task that you enjoy. Make sure that your breaks are pleasurably effortless so that your mind is free to wander and create attentional space for more ideas.

Actions to take

Connect and collect the dots

“The richer our environment, and the richer our experiences, the more insights we’re able to unearth”

Scatterfocus enables you to be more creative in two ways. First, it helps you connect more dots i.e. connect the various pieces of information floating through your mind. Secondly, it helps you collect more valuable dots i.e. find ideas that are more valuable than what you already had. Your brain is constantly accumulating information, and all the events you experience in your life are stored in your brain as dots of information for later use.

These dots form a random network, but it is only when your mind intentionally wanders that you can fully access this information. As you practice habitual scatterfocus, you’re casting a net across your mind to scan for any ideas that may be of use to you. Since your mind can only hold a small amount of information, you cannot be aware of each thought scanned. But when some random connections are activated, they trigger your attention, and this is what gives you a sudden eureka moment. 

Therefore, to keep connecting more dots, you have to feed your mind with more valuable information throughout your day. Consume information that is useful, practical, and accurate instead of only seeking to be entertained. At the very least, consume balanced information that’s both useful and entertaining. Avoid trashy information that doesn’t help you achieve any of your life goals at all costs.

Actions to take

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