Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction256
Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction256
Our attention has never been as overwhelmed as it is today. Many of us recognize that our brains struggle to multitask. Despite this, we feel compelled to do so anyway while we fill each moment of our lives to the brim with mindless distraction. Hyperfocus provides profound insights into how you can best take charge of your attention to achieve a greater sense of purpose and productivity throughout the day.
The most recent neuroscientific research reveals that our brain has two powerful modes that can be unlocked when we use our attention effectively: a focused mode (hyperfocus), which is the foundation for being highly productive, and a creative mode (scatterfocus), which enables us to connect ideas in novel ways. Hyperfocus helps you access each of the two mental modes so you can concentrate more deeply, think more clearly, and work and live more deliberately every day. Chris Bailey examines such topics such as:
By transforming how you think about your attention, Hyperfocus reveals that the more effectively you learn to take charge of it, the better you'll be able to manage every aspect of your life.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Why Focus Matters
Attention Is Everywhere
I'm writing these words over the sounds of clanging cutlery and muffled conversation at a small diner in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
I've always been a fan of people-watching. There's so much to take in--how they dress, walk, converse, and act when they're either around or not around others. At a busy café, or at a diner like this, it's fun to see personalities collide like particles in an accelerator; to observe a guy's personality change when he switches from talking to his friend to chatting up the waitress; to watch the personalities of waitstaff shift when serving each table, adapting to large families, young couples.
In focusing on other people, I've made a lot of observations about what those people are focusing on. In any given moment, we are all focusing on something, even if we're just lost in our internal thoughts. Let's take a glance through the diner.
I turn my attention first to the two twentysomething girls at the table to my left, who are mostly focusing on their smartphones instead of each other. Between bouts of texting, they flip their phones facedown on the table. This, it seems, is a pretty pointless gesture--they've picked them back up thirty seconds later. While I can't make out their every word, I can tell they're skimming the surface of the conversation they could be having. They're with each other in person, but their attention is elsewhere.
Or take the couple across the room. They're engrossed in a conversation fueled by hot coffee and buttermilk pancakes. They were engaged in relatively quiet small talk when they arrived, but their conversation soon became more animated. Unlike the girls, this couple has focused only on each other since sitting down.
A catchy Ed Sheeran song comes on over the restaurant's speakers, and my attention is drawn to the two guys sitting a few tables over from the couple. One of them subtly taps his foot to the beat while his friend orders. The foot tapper is presumably spreading his attention across three things: the song, what his friend is ordering, and his own breakfast decision. After he orders the Three Egg Express, when the server asks how he'd like his eggs prepared, he directs his attention inward, seemingly recalling how he usually takes them. He orders scrambled.
At the bar are a few strangers making idle conversation while watching last night's football highlights. I find it especially fascinating that millions of people around the world, including these three guys, are fixated on an eleven-inch piece of tanned cowhide. As I watch, one of the guys cocks his head, lost in thought. Then, as though a shock wave was traveling through his body, he rushes to capture an idea in his pocketed notepad. While he was lost in a daydream, and to the tune of football highlights, an insight struck from out of the blue. He had a eureka moment.
Or take me, sitting here with my laptop. This morning, as I sip coffee and nibble home fries, I've been able to focus more deeply on my work and have more energy to burn. My morning meditation may have helped--I find I'm able to write more words when I take part in this ritual (40 percent more, by my calculations). I left my phone at home so I could write distraction free, and so my mind could rest on the walk to the diner, and wander. As I'll discuss later, disconnecting is one of the most powerful ways to spark new and innovative ideas. The music playing on the restaurant speakers is catchy, but not enough to be distracting. I'm not here for the soundtrack, though, and also chose this diner over my favorite café because there's no wi-fi--constant connectivity is one of the worst disruptions to our focus and productivity. As the last few paragraphs demonstrate, I am a bit distracted by the environment and the people it's hosting, but they're serving as good fodder for this introduction.
This restaurant scene is a handy illustration of a revelation I had awhile back: attention is all around us. Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Everyone awake on the planet, in this one moment--whether they're eating breakfast, working, or spending time with their family--is focused on something. Attention is the backdrop against which we live our lives wherever we go and whatever we do, even if we're just noticing the thoughts in our head.
It has been a few years since I first began to explore how we can not only focus better but also think more clearly. While this is tough to admit, especially as someone who was making his living as a "productivity expert," I started to notice my own increased distraction, especially as I accumulated more devices. I had never been so busy while accomplishing so little. I had grown restless with boredom and a lack of stimulation and was trying to cram as much into every moment as I could. I knew that my brain never functioned well when I was trying to multitask, but I felt compelled to do it anyway. Working with my email client open and my smartphone on my desk was simply more appealing than trying to concentrate on one or two simple things. For me, this book was born out of necessity: I wrote it because I needed it.
When I get excited by a new idea, I typically order dozens of books on it and nerd out about that topic. Focus has been my most recent fascination. This includes how we can best manage the distractions around us; multitask more effectively, if that's possible (it is); battle our resistance to focusing on tasks that make us procrastinate; and also better unfocus so that we can genuinely relax and recharge. In my reading, I found an awful lot of information--advice (often contradictory) that was fun to read but ultimately didn't help me progress my work and life forward.
I then turned to the actual scientific research--scores of academic studies and decades of documentation dedicated to learning how we best focus*. As I carefully read every study I could find, the "Focus" folder on my computer became massive. I amassed tens of thousands of words of notes and began to identify the most practical, tactical lessons from them. I started speaking to the world's foremost attention researchers to get to the bottom of why we get distracted so easily and discover how we can get our stubborn minds to focus in a world of distraction. And I started to experiment with the research myself, to see if it was actually possible to get a grip on my focus.
What I discovered completely changed not only how I work but also how I live my life. I began to see focus as not only a contributor to my productivity but also a factor in my overall well-being. Surprisingly, I learned that one of the best practices for fostering my creativity and productivity was learning how to unfocus. By paying attention to nothing in particular and letting my mind wander--as I did on my way to the Kingston diner--I found that I became better at making connections between ideas and coming up with new ones.
I also found that we encounter more distraction today than we have in the entire history of humanity. Studies show we can work for an average of just forty seconds in front of a computer before we're either distracted or interrupted. (Needless to say, we do our best work when we attend to a task for a lot longer than forty seconds.) I went from viewing multitasking as a stimulating work hack to regarding it as a trap of continuous interruptions. While trying to do more tasks simultaneously, we prevent ourselves from finishing any one task of significance. And I began to discover that by focusing deeply on just one important thing at a time--hyperfocusing--we become the most productive version of ourselves.
Above all else I began to view attention as the most important ingredient we can add if we're to become more productive, creative, and happy--at work and at home. When we invest our limited attention intelligently and deliberately, we focus more deeply and think more clearly. This is an essential skill in today's world, when we are so often in distracting environments doing brain-heavy knowledge work.
This book takes you on a guided tour through my exploration of the subject of focus. I'll share not only the fascinating things I've learned but also how to actually put those ideas to use in your own life (I've road-tested all of them). Productivity research is great--but pretty useless when you don't act upon it. In this way, I see Hyperfocus as a sort of "science-help" book; one that explores the fascinating research behind how you focus but also bridges those insights with your daily life to explore ways you can manage your attention better to become more productive and creative. These ideas have already changed one life (mine), and I know they can do the same for you too. On the surface, the results can seem a bit like magic, but magic stops being magic the moment you know how it's done.
How to Better Focus on This Book
Reading this book is your first chance to put your focus to the test, and the more attention you can dedicate to it, the more you'll get out of the time spent on it. Let's begin on a practical note with seven ways to focus more deeply while reading.
But first, a quick comment. If I've learned one thing from my research, it's that productivity is highly personal. Everyone is uniquely wired and has different routines--as a result, not all productivity tactics will mesh comfortably with your life. Not to mention the fact that you may simply not want to follow some of the advice I offer. Experiment with as many of these focus tactics as you can, and adopt whatever works for you.
1. Put your phone out of sight
When your mind is even slightly resisting a task, it will look for more novel things to focus on. Our smartphones are a great example-they provide an endless stream of bite-sized, delicious information for our brains to consume.
As I'll discuss later, distractions and interruptions are infinitely easier to deal with before they become a temptation. Start seeing your smartphone for what it really is: a productivity black hole that sits in your pocket. To focus on this book, I recommend leaving your device in another room. It may take your brain a few minutes to adjust to not having your phone or pad attached at your hip, but trust me, it's worth powering through that initial resistance. It's never healthy to be dependent on something--addictive, shiny rectangular devices included.
Here's a fun experiment to dive deeper into this idea: over the span of a day or two, pay attention to the number of times you instinctively pull out your phone. How are you feeling, and what compels you to reach for it? Are you trying to distract yourself during a long elevator ride? Are you avoiding a boring task, like updating your quarterly budget? By noting the times you habitually reach for your phone, you'll gain insight into which tasks you resist the most and how you're feeling in those moments.
2. Mind your environment
Look up and around you: Where are you reading this book? How likely are you to be distracted or interrupted as you read, and is there a place you could go to avoid those distractions? Or are you reading in an environment where you don't have much control, such as on the train or the subway?
Modifying your environment is one of the top ways to cultivate your focus. The most focus-conducive environments are those in which you're interrupted and distracted the least. If possible, move yourself to one of these places--whether it's a café down the street, the library, or a quieter room in the house.
3. Make a distractions list
Distractions will always be present, even if you manage to find a reading spot in a Japanese Zen garden with your phone far away. External distractions aren't the only ones to blame--think of the distractions that can come internally, like your brain reminding you that you need to pick up groceries.
Whenever I have to focus, I adopt the two tactics mentioned above--and I also bring a pen and a notepad with me. In the notepad I write every distraction that makes its way into my mind--things I need to follow up on, tasks I can't forget, new ideas, and so on.
Maintaining a distractions list as you read will capture the important things that float to the surface of your consciousness. Writing them down to make sure they don't slip through the cracks will let you refocus on the task at hand.
4. Question whether this book is worth consuming at all
We consume a lot of things out of habit, without questioning their worth--books included.
Take time to weigh the value of your routine consumption. A tactic I find helpful is to view the descriptions of books, TV shows, podcasts, and everything else as "pitches" for your time and attention. Ask yourself: After consuming one of those products, will you be happy with how you invested your time and attention?
Just as you are what you eat, you are what you pay attention to. Attention is finite and is the most valuable ingredient you have to live a good life-so make sure everything you consume is worthy of it. As I'll cover in depth later, bringing awareness to what you consume can provide hours of extra time each day.
5. Consume some caffeine before reading
If it's not too late in the day--caffeine takes eight to fourteen hours to metabolize out of your system--consider reading alongside a cup of coffee or tea.
Caffeine provides an invaluable focus boost, and while you usually have to pay this energy back later in the day as the drug metabolizes out of your system, the costs are often worth it. Caffeine boosts your mental and physical performance in virtually every measurable way (more on page 207). Use this energy boost wisely to work on an important task or to read this book.
6. Grab a pen or highlighter
There are two ways to consume information: passively and actively.
One of my (many) habits that bother my fiancée is that I tear out the first page of every book I read to use as a bookmark. (She argues this is sacrilegious; I say there are more copies of the same book at the store.) This is only the start of the carnage; I also read with a highlighter and a pen in hand so I can mark up the book as I read it. The number of highlights and notes on its pages indicates how much I liked it. When I finish that first read, I go through the book a second time, rereading just the highlighted parts so I can really process the most valuable nuggets. If I can, I'll annoy someone nearby by sharing these bits so I can process them again even more deeply.
Table of Contents
Chapter 0 Why Focus Matters 1
Chapter 0.5 How to Better Focus on This Book 7
Part 1 Hyperfocus
Chapter 1 Switching Off Autopilot Mode 15
Chapter 2 The Limits of Your Attention 23
Chapter 3 The Power of Hyperfocus 50
Chapter 4 Taming Distractions 73
Chapter 5 Making Hyperfocus a Habit 111
Part 2 Scatterfocus
Chapter 6 Your Brain's Hidden Creative Mode 133
Chapter 7 Recharging Your Attention 159
Chapter 8 Connecting Dots 171
Chapter 9 Collecting Dots 182
Chapter 10 Working Together 200