Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey: Summary and Lessons

How to train your brain’s two most productive modes: the focused mode (Hyperfocus) and the creative mode (Scatterfocus).

Image for post
Image for post

“We are what we pay attention to, and almost nothing influences our productivity and creativity as much as the information we’ve consumed in the past.”

Rating: 5/10

Related: The Productivity Project, Free to Focus, The Effective Executive

Read more on Amazon

Get the full index of lessons here

Hyperfocus Summary

Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey explores how to train your brain’s two most productive modes: the focused mode (Hyperfocus) and the creative mode (Scatterfocus). The first is needed to be highly productive while the latter is best for connecting ideas and solving problems. Some good parts, but overall a confusing read with nothing new. Read Deep Work by Cal Newport instead.

Executive Summary

Hyperfocus: to keep one important, complex object of attention in your awareness as you work

The 3 combinations of tasks that fit comfortably within your attentional space:

  1. A few small, habitual tasks
  2. One semi-complex task + a habitual task
  3. One complex task

The 4 Stages of Hyperfocus:

  1. Choose a productive or meaningful object of attention
  2. Eliminate external and internal distractions
  3. Focus on that chosen object of attention
  4. Continually draw your focus back to your object of attention

To enter a hyperfocused state:

  • Make your tasks more complex
  • Take on more complex tasks

Challenge of a task vs Our Ability:

  • When Challenge = Ability, we become totally immersed in the task
  • If Ability > Challenge, we feel bored
  • If Challenge > Task, we feel anxious

How to battle your initial resistance to hyperfocus:

  • Shrink your desired hyperfocus period until you no longer feel resistance
  • Notice when you “don’t have time” for something
  • Practice hyperfocus every day
  • Recharge

Scatterfocus: the power of intentional mind wandering and directing your attention inward

The 3 Styles of Scatterfocus:

  • Capture
  • Problem-Crunching
  • Habitual

Use scatterfocus to become more creative by connecting more dots and collecting more valuable dots.

The more valuable the dots we collect, the more we have to connect. Our focus is always filtered through what we already know.

Why Focus Matters

We are always focused on something, even when lost in our internal thoughts.

To foster creativity and productivity, learn how to unfocus. Let your mind wander and you’ll connect ideas better and come up with new ones.

Hyperfocus: focusing deeply on one important thing at a time

Attention is the most important skill to become more productive, creative, and happy.

Part I: Hyperfocus

Chapter 1: Switching Off Autopilot Mode

We do most actions on autopilot without conscious deliberation.

Attention is our most limited and constrained resource. Manage it with intention to become more focused, productive, and creative.

Directing your attention toward the most important object of your choosing — and then sustaining that attention — is the most consequential decision we will make throughout the day. We are what we pay attention to.

There are 4 types of tasks:

Image for post
Image for post

Purposeful work is the productivity sweet spot. These are the tasks we’re most engaged in and with which we make the largest impact.

Chapter 2: The Limits of Your Attention

Attentional Space: the amount of mental capacity we have available to focus on and process things in the moment

Tasks take different amounts of attentional space depending on their complexity:

  1. Habits require minimal attentional space
  2. Complex tasks can be done well only with dedicated focus

The 3 combinations of tasks that fit comfortably within your attentional space:

  1. A few small, habitual tasks. We’re able to breathe while we run, pay attention to our heart rate, and enjoy music — all at the same time
  2. A task that requires most of our focus + a habitual task. Listening to a podcast while doing maintenance tasks
  3. One complex task. The more time and attention you spend on these tasks, the more productive you become

Intention enables us to prioritize so we don’t overload our attentional space.

When we continually switch between tasks, our work takes 50% longer.

Attention Residue: the fragments of the previous task that remain in our attentional space after we shift to another activity

How to focus with intention:

  • Set intentions more often
  • Modify your environment to be less distracting
  • Overcome the mental resistance you have to certain tasks
  • Eliminate distractions before they derail you
  • Clear the distractions inside your own head

Chapter 3: The Power of Hyperfocus

When it comes to your most important tasks, the fewer things you pay attention to, the more productive you become.

Image for post
Image for post

You enter into hyperfocus when you engage both your thoughts and your external environment and direct them at one thing intentionally.

The 4 Stages of Hyperfocus:

  1. Choose a productive or meaningful object of attention
  2. Eliminate external and internal distractions
  3. Focus on that chosen object of attention
  4. Continually draw your focus back to your object of attention

To hyperfocus is to keep one important, complex object of attention in your awareness as you work.

The 3 daily intention-setting rituals:

  1. The Rule of 3. At the start of each day, choose the 3 things you want to have accomplished by day’s end. Also works for weekly and daily personal intentions
  2. Your Most Consequential Tasks. More than just the immediate consequences of an activity, also consider the second- and third-order consequences
  3. The Hourly Awareness Chime. Set an hourly timer and reflect on whether you’re focusing on what’s important and consequential or whether you’ve slipped into autopilot mode

Use “implementation intentions” to set stronger intentions. Make a detailed plan on how you want to achieve what you want to achieve. “Go to the gym” becomes “Schedule and go to the gym on my lunch break.”

Chapter 4: Taming Distractions

The 4 types of distractions:

Image for post
Image for post

How to deal with each type:

Image for post
Image for post

How to do focus work:

  • Use a distraction-blocking app on your computer
  • Put your computer and phone in “do not disturb” mode
  • Put on noise-canceling headphones

Phone:

  • Delete apps on which you waste too much time and attention
  • Disable notifications
  • Switch airplane mode between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m
  • Put it in your bag
  • Resist the urge to tap use it during small breaks
  • Create a “Mindless” folder with the apps you use on autopilot mode

Email:

  • Limit notifications
  • Only check if you have the time, attention, and energy to deal with it
  • Pre-decide when you’ll check it
  • Set a timer for 20 min and blow through as many emails as you can
  • Delete the email app on your phone
  • Keep an external to-do list
  • Use two accounts: one for public and one for private
  • Take an “email holiday”. Set up an autoresponder and ask to be reached by phone or in person for urgent requests
  • Keep emails to 5 sentences or less (add this on a note in your signature). If you need to write more, call instead
  • Wait before sending important messages

Meetings:

  • Never attend a meeting without an agenda
  • Question every recurring meeting
  • Challenge the attendance list

How to create a productive environment:

  • Eliminate objects that can derail your focus
  • Introduce more productive cues into your environment (e.g. plants and whiteboards)
  • Tidy your physical and digital spaces when you’re done with them
  • Listen to simple and familiar music (see focus music)

How to clear your mind:

  • Use a list to turn internal distractions into external cues
  • Capture unresolved commitments and ideas as they come up and revisit them at a set time later

Chapter 5: Making Hyperfocus a Habit

To enter a hyperfocused state:

  • Make your tasks more complex
  • Take on more complex tasks

Challenge of a task vs Our Ability:

  • When Challenge = Ability, we become totally immersed in the task
  • If Ability > Challenge, we feel bored
  • If Challenge > Task, we feel anxious

If you find it difficult to become immersed in your work throughout the day, it’s worth questioning whether your tasks are difficult and complex enough.

“Working Memory Capacity”: how many pieces of data you can hold in your mind simultaneously (usually about four chunks of information)

To increase your working memory capacity, practice meditation.

How to battle your initial resistance to hyperfocus:

  • Shrink your desired hyperfocus period until you no longer feel resistance to the ritual
  • Notice when you “don’t have time” for something. You always have time — you just spend it on other things
  • Practice hyperfocus every day. Incorporate at least one hyperfocus interval each day
  • Recharge. Resisting the ritual can also be a sign you need to recharge

Part II: Scatterfocus

Chapter 6: Your Brain’s Hidden Creative Mode

Scatterfocus: the power of intentional mind wandering and directing your attention inward. It’s the brain’s most creative mode and immensely potent when our intention is to solve problems, think more creatively, brainstorm new ideas, or recharge

Hyperfocus is about focusing on one thing; scatterfocus is about focusing on nothing in particular. With hyperfocus you direct your attention outward; with scatterfocus you direct your attention inward. One is about attention; the other is about inattention.

When your mind wanders, it visits three main places: the past, the present, and the future.

Image for post
Image for post

Our mind wanders to think about the future more than our past and present thinking combined. We usually think about the immediate future. Most of this time is spent planning. Because of this, scatterfocus enables us to act more intelligently and more intentionally.

The 3 Styles of Scatterfocus:

  • Capture. Identify what’s on your mind by letting your mind roam freely and writing down whatever comes up
  • Problem-Crunching. Mull over a specific problem or idea by holding a problem in your mind and let your thoughts wander around it, turn it over, and explore it from different angles
  • Habitual. Engage in a simple task like going for a walk and capture the valuable ideas and plans that rise to the surface while doing it

Chapter 7: Recharging Your Attention

The more often we scatterfocus to replenish our mental energy, the more energy we have for our most important tasks.

The 3 characteristics of a refreshing work break:

  • It should be low-effort and habitual
  • Something you actually want to do
  • Something that isn’t a chore

Our breaks should involve something that’s pleasurably effortless.

Examples:

  • Going on a nature walk
  • Reading something fun and not work-related
  • Listening to music, a podcast, or an audiobook
  • Spending time with coworkers or friends

The more you need to regulate your behavior — to resist distractions and temptations or push yourself to get things done — the more often you’ll need to recharge.

The 2 rules of breaks:

  • Take a break at least every 90 min
  • Break for roughly 15 min for each hour of work you do

Chapter 8: Connecting Dots

Use scatterfocus to become more creative by:

  1. Connecting more dots
  2. Collecting more valuable dots

When we’re in habitual scatterfocus mode, potential insight triggers come from two places: our wandering minds themselves and the external environment.

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

How to connect more dots:

  1. Get into richer environments. Immerse yourself in a setting that contains potential insight triggers, like walking through a bookstore or people-watching at a diner
  2. Write down your problems. This helps your mind continue to process them in the background
  3. Sleep on a problem. Dreaming is scatterfocus on steroids: while you’re sleeping, your mind continues to connect dots
  4. Step back. Purposefully delaying creative decisions — as long as you don’t face an impending deadline — lets you continue to make potentially more valuable connections
  5. Intentionally leave tasks unfinished. The more abruptly you stop working on a creative task, the more you’ll think about it when you switch to another
  6. Consume more valuable dots. We are what we consume. Consuming new dots exposes a wealth of new information and triggers that you can use to solve complex problems

Chapter 9: Collecting Dots

The more valuable the dots we collect, the more we have to connect. Our focus is always filtered through what we already know.

The 4 types of dots:

  1. Useful
  2. Balanced
  3. Entertaining
  4. Trashy

As a rule, we should consume more useful information, especially when we have the energy to process something more dense; consume balanced information when we have less energy; consume entertaining information with intention or when we’re running low on energy and need to recharge; and consume less trashy information.

How to up the quality of information you collect:

  1. Take stock of everything you consume
  2. Intentionally consume more valuable information

How to consume more valuable information:

  • Double down on developing the skills and knowledge that you find entertaining
  • Opt for the medium you prefer
  • Swap trash and for valuable things
  • Notice what you consume on autopilot mode
  • Reevaluate what you’re consuming as you’re consuming it
  • View the descriptions of content as a pitch for your time and attention
  • Consume challenging things outside the boundaries of your expertise
  • Double down on what’s valuable

How to make scatterfocus a habit:

  • Disconnect from the internet between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.
  • Use an alarm clock so you’re not immediately distracted by your phone when you wake up
  • Take an extra-long shower
  • Make yourself bored for five minutes and notice what thoughts run through your head
  • Tame distractions and simplify your environment to make sure your attention doesn’t overflow the next time you do a creative hobby
  • Work out without music or a podcast

Chapter 10: Working Together

To work smarter, schedule tasks that require focused attention during your biological prime time and tasks that require more creativity during your creative prime time. Block time for these tasks in your calendar.

Use a focus ritual to plan your week. Schedule it for every Sunday evening or Monday morning. Decide on your three weekly intentions and assess how much I’ll need to hyperfocus and scatterfocus in the days ahead.

Written by

Productivity and personal development. Sign up to my 5-Bullet Monday Newsletter: http://DanSilvestre.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store