The book, divided into two parts, covers first how to configure your environment and schedule to focus effectively, then how to foster creativity insights by taking productive breaks. It is a natural follow up to Chris' previous book The Productivity Project, diving deeper into the topic of how to use your most crucial productivity tool: attention.
Hyperfocus, a term originating from the ADHD literature, is the author's jargon for the process of managing your environment and schedule to minimize distraction and maximize the quality and duration of your attention. If you already read a few books on the topic, such as Deep Work or Indistractable, the framework and its suggestions will sound familiar.
To practice hyperfocus:
- Choose a productive and meaningful target for your attention;
- Eliminate as many external and internal distractions as you can;
- Focus on that chosen object of attention; and
- Continually draw your focus back to that one object
The final point is the one less touched upon by other productivity books, and the one Chris Bailey does an excellent job at unpacking.
Monitoring where your attention is at and nudge it back on track when it wanders off is fundamental to achieving peak focus levels. Our minds are built for distraction. Reading, writing, coding... those are all activities that hijack parts of our brain to do something they didn't evolve for. Don't beat yourself up when your mind loses concentration while trying to solve a complex problem; gently steer it back on track.
Hyperfocus is a framework to get the most out of your brain when working on challenging problems, but not everything a knowledge worker requires this kind of laser-focused attention.
Tasks that require more creativity or long term vision are better executed when the mind has space to wander. The trick here is to give your attention a leash long enough to jump around and make unexpected connections but short enough that it won't get lost in the woods. Chris calls this process scatterfocus.
While hyperfocus involves directing your attention outward, scatterfocus is about directing it inward, inside your own mind.
To practice scatterfocus, take a break from your computer and engage in something habitual and relaxing, like going for a walk, having a coffee out, or sorting the laundry (I find that relaxing, okay? Don't judge). While doing so, let your mind wander, following where it goes without trying to steer it. Make sure to have a pen and paper at hand to note down the ideas that surface this way.
Chris defines three particular modes to scatterfocus.
- Capture mode
- Problem-crunching mode
- Habitual mode
Capture mode is similar to the mind-sweep practice that David Allen defines in his Getting Things Done framework. Simply sit down and dump everything that's on your mind. This might seem awkward at first, but you'll see that tasks and worries will start to pour out on the paper once you get started.
Scatterfocus in capture mode is an excellent remedy to the feeling of being overwhelmed. Get stuff off your head and into a medium on which you can organize them and plan how to tackle them. I find this is best paired with a hot drink at a cafe or at home with some instrumental music.
When you are stuck on a problem, the problem-crunching scatterfocus mode will help you find the answer. You probably experienced this already: you're out on lunch break when suddenly the solution to the problem you struggled with all morning materializes in front of you. This mode is the intentional deployment of the same mechanism that resulted in that eureka moment.
The mind-wandering in problem-crunching mode is more constrained than in the other modes. When you notice you're thinking about something unrelated to your problem, nudge your attention back to it.
Cal Newport proposes a similar technique in Deep Work, calling it productive meditation. Take a time when you are occupied physically but not mentally, like walking, exercising, or driving, and focus on a well-defined professional problem. The main benefit of this practice, he argues, is in training your ability to focus intensely on a single problem.
Finally, habitual scatterfocus is the practice of letting your mind wander freely and see where it ends up. This is Chris' favorite mode and the one he recommends the most. Through this process, your mind will end up making unexpected connections and generating insights, new ideas, and plans for the future.
When done right, habitual scatterfocus can also boost your mood and better recharge you.
Intention and awareness are the two underlying themes in Hyperfocus and Chris Bailey's productivity approach.
The foundation on which all the book's techniques stand is the idea that we cannot live in autopilot, but ought to take charge and make the most of our limited time and attention. Hyperfocus and scatterfocus might be unnecessary names for tactics that are neither new nor revolutionary, but they are nevertheless worth exploring and practicing.
Scatterfocus, in particular, is my stand-out concept from the book. Not only it gives clear and practical instructions on how to take productive breaks, but it also makes a case for the value of stepping away from your computer. If you are anything like me, this is something you need a constant reminder of.
Get in touch on Twitter at @mokagio or leave a comment below to discuss hyper- and scatterfocus or anything else productivity-related.
If you'd like more book recommendations on the topic of productivity, check out my opinionated Top 10 Productivity Books list.