First, some math. If Chris Bailey’s new book, “Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction,” is 215 pages long, and I can read 40 pages per hour, how long should it have taken me to read the book? Answer: A weekend. Reality: three weeks.
It’s not Mr. Bailey’s fault. He’s written an engaging book about how managing your attention can make you more productive, but every time I tried to sit down and read, I was pulled in a different direction, mostly by way of my phone: Instagram, email, more email, Facebook, WhatsApp; sometimes, I just scrolled from screen to screen aimlessly. When Mr. Bailey was writing this book, he may as well have pinned my photo above his desk and labeled it “my audience.”
“Hyperfocus” teaches readers to control their limited capacity to focus on and process things in the moment, which he calls our “attentional space.” It turns out our brain’s scratchpad is pretty small and can only hold a handful of tasks at a time. When one of those tasks is complex — like putting together a business proposal or taking care of a toddler — that number dwindles down to one or two.
The problem is that our brains are predisposed toward distraction, wandering for an average of 47 percent of the day, writes Mr. Bailey. And those of us who sit in front of a computer, an endless source of novelty, typically work for only 40 seconds before being distracted or interrupted. As a result, our attentional space is constantly filled, which slows down our work.
I always thought my brain’s resistance to concentration was a character flaw I needed to learn to work around. “Hyperfocus” helped me recognize the limits of my attentional space and make my environment more conducive to focus.
Mr. Bailey splits his book into two sections: one on hyperfocus, which is the state of devoting all your attention to one complex task, and the other on scatterfocus, intentionally allowing your mind to wander in order to connect ideas, plan for the future and recharge. While hyperfocus is key to productivity, scatterfocus supports creativity.
Mr. Bailey teaches how to re-examine your tasks, determine your priorities and minimize interruptions. Our most insidious distractions are self-perpetuated; they are the personal concerns nagging at us throughout the day or the too frequent reaches for our phones. Addressing this, Mr. Bailey invokes David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” a productivity book published in the early aughts that introduced a time management method based on the notion that our brains are designed to come up with ideas, not hold them. Mr. Allen calls these unresolved thoughts, projects or tasks “open loops,” and Mr. Bailey argues that they gnaw away at our attention.
“When you capture the tasks, projects and other commitments on your plate, you’re able to stop thinking about them and focus on your other work,” writes Mr. Bailey. Once you’ve written all the thoughts that are distracting you, he gives recommendations for changing your environment or habits to tame distractions ahead of time, like putting your phone on airplane mode or blocking the sites where you tend to waste time.
But it can be useful for your mind to wander, and that’s where scatterfocus comes in.
“When our intention is to focus, daydreaming can destroy our productivity. But daydreaming is immensely potent when our intention is to solve problems, think more creatively, brainstorm new ideas or recharge,” writes Mr. Bailey.
The gag is that it needs to be “deployed on purpose.” When I started the second part of the book, I excitedly placed exclamation points next to all the examples of places your mind could go if it was left to do its own thing. It could slip “into a pattern of ruminating on the stupid things we’ve said,” (Yes); “fantasize about how great we’d feel if we had come up with a witty retort to something said earlier,” (That’s me!); and also harp on “worries about work and money” (O.K., now this feels like a personal attack).
The point is: My mind was already inclined toward scatterfocus, but I wasn’t using it strategically. In filling my attentional space with lingering thoughts and low-priority tasks, I was leaving little room for deep concentration.
As I read “Hyperfocus,” I visualized my attentional space; my thoughts were silver specks inside a walnut-sized circle. They began to feel more malleable and movable.
One day during lunch, I left my phone on my desk at work and went out for a walk, my copy of “Hyperfocus” in tow. Maybe physical distance from my phone would make it easier to power through the book. I walked several blocks to a pizza place adjacent to a plaza near my office. On the way, my brain did mental cartwheels, landing on a dozen different thoughts or tasks: “remember to text Lia”; the lyrics to “I’m Every Woman”; a pang of regret over leaving my cellphone, another and another; random bits of prose (“her hair spiraling in unplanned directions”); and these very sentences. I wrote all my lingering distractions, my open loops, into the margins of the book (seriously, this line is on page 135), and so when I sat down in the plaza, there was nothing to pull me away.
Don’t get me wrong: Later, I lost track of my attention a few times and then got sucked into a family group chat. I’m a working draft! But I’ve learned to check in with myself more and catch my mind when I feel it spiraling. Knowing that my brain can only process one complicated task at a time takes off the pressure to multitask and fit as much as possible into each moment.
I deleted most social media apps and now put my phone on airplane mode for hours at a time, so I’m not tempted to pick it up. And I don’t know if there’s any correlation, but one night while I was reading in bed at around 10 p.m. — about a week after I started actively trying to hone my focus — the leftover Dominican cake sitting in my fridge materialized in my mind. I actually resisted the impulse to cut myself a slice. Am I a mental ninja now? Maybe! All I know is: That’s never happened to me before.
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