Hello Guys! If you’re someone who really wants to know how to focus on your work for longer periods of time or how to concentrate then you’ve come to the right place.
Every second we’re awake, we’re taking in unfathomably large amounts of information. Together, our five senses process 11 million bits of it every second. But while the unconscious mind continuously gathers these millions of bits, the conscious mind can only handle about 40 of them at any given moment, just a tiny fraction of what we take in.
This is just one of the reasons that we so often find it difficult to focus on our work. There are severe limits to how much we’re able to focus on at once. And keeping the spotlight on the 40 most important bits is hard when the other 10.9 million usually contain more than a few temptations.
So in my constant quest to improve my own ability to focus on my work, I recently picked up the book “Hyper Focus” by Chris Bailey to see if it had any new focus-boosting tricks that I could hide up my sleeves, which are honestly kind of short so I’m not sure how many tricks are gonna fit up there.
But for me, this book was a great deep dive into many topics surrounding focus and concentration. But in this article, I want to share and summarize three of the most important ideas that I took away from the book that will help you focus on your work.
1. Meta Awareness skill to focus on your work
Let’s start with the skill of meta-awareness to focus on your work, the state of knowing what you’re thinking about. Our minds love to wander, and they do it a lot, by some estimates half the time we’re awake. And when your mind is wandering, you’re not really aware of what it’s focused on.
And sometimes this is okay but when you’re trying to focus on your work, you wanna reduce the time your mind spends wandering, and meta-awareness is the tool you use to do that.
When you’re aware of where your mind is, you can consciously guide it back to where it needs to be after you catch it wandering.
“Hyper Focus” spends a lot of time talking about ways you can improve this meta-awareness skill. But here’s one of the most important tips that I took away from the book. Create some kind of regular reminder to simply check in on the state of your thoughts and the state of your mind.
Bailey’s suggestion is to create what he calls an hourly awareness chime using a timer or maybe an alarm on your phone.
When it goes off, you ask yourself where is my mind right now? Over the past hour, have I been focused or has my mind been wandering freely? Have I been working with intention or maybe just jumping from task to task on autopilot, as I get bored of one task and then another? And over the last hour, have I been working on the most important thing that I should have been working on?
And by using this external chime and external system to help govern your internal self-discipline, by using this over time, you get better and better at continuously exercising this meta-awareness as you work.
However, sometimes it’s actually a good thing to let your mind wander.
2. Hyperfocus and Scatterfocus
Throughout the book, Bailey refers to two opposing states, hyperfocus, and Scatterfocus. As you can probably guess, during hyperfocus you block out everything except for one singular object of attention.
As you’re probably well aware, hyperfocus is a difficult state to maintain over a long period of time, especially if you’re feeling bored or stressed or in a distracting environment.
This is why it’s very important to try to go into your work sessions in a positive state of mind, but also to create a distraction-free work environment. By pushing out everything else that could be a distraction, you enable yourself to focus on those most important 40 bits.
Hyperfocus isn’t the best state for every purpose. Not only is it taxing after a while, but because it leans so heavily on your brain’s prefrontal cortex, it’s also a state where you’re less creative.
So to get the most from it, you need to slip out of it from time to time in exchange for its exact opposite, scatterfocus, a state where you intentionally let your mind wander.
This mode of thought is often terrible for what we tend to narrowly define as productivity, immediate work output, but it’s great for creativity.
And if we look at a longer timescale than the five seconds your boss catches you not typing on your keyboard, we can probably agree that creativity and productivity go hand in hand, you can’t have one without the other, and scatter focus lets your mind wander around different thoughts more creatively, finding new connections between them.
In the book, Bailey is very clear about one thing.
Scatterfocus is not the same thing as unconscious mind wandering, the type of mind-wandering that we usually engage in. The key difference here is intentionality.
In scatterfocus, you intentionally let your mind wander in one of three different modes to focus on your work.
a) Capture mode.
In this mode, Bailey says you get out a piece of paper, or you open up a new note on your computer, and then you just let your mind wander freely for 10 or 15 minutes, writing down observations and thoughts as they come.
And by the end of the capture mode session you might find yourself with a list of projects you wanna check in on, or people you wanna reconnect with, maybe just a list of random ideas. When I do this, I know personally I always end up with more than a few different content ideas.
b) Problem crunching mode.
In this mode, instead of letting your mind wander completely free, you pick an object of focus, maybe a problem that you’re stuck on and you let your mind wander around that in a sort of nonlinear, relaxed fashion as you maybe go for a walk or a bike ride, which I try to do pretty much every day.
This is actually very similar to the walking meditations that Cal Newport talks about in his book, “Deep Work” or the diffused mode style of thinking and problem solving that Barbara Oakley talks about in her book, “A Mind for Numbers” that sort of a lot of common threads around here.
And what’s really great about this mode is that you are thinking about the problem you were working on during hyperfocus, but you’re thinking about it in a much more relaxed state, allowing your entire brain to sort of mull over the problem.
The illustration that Barbara Oakley gives in “A Mind for Numbers” is of a pinball table. If you’re using that hyperfocus mode, it’s almost like a tightly gripped cluster, those bouncers, that keeps the ball bouncing around in one very specific area of the table.
Whereas in the diffused mode or Scatterfocus, using the entire table, it’s like a very loosely grouped, spaced out group of those bouncers so the ball can go basically wherever it needs to go. And in these modes, you often find that new insights come that wouldn’t have come during hyperfocus.
c) Habitual mode.
In this mode you, again, let your mind wander freely but you do so well doing the dishes, or doing something that doesn’t take a whole lot of mental effort.
Personally, on a pretty much daily basis, I tend to combine capture mode and habitual mode, often go for a walk or I’ll go for a bike ride, not really doing problem country mode and only thinking about a specific thing most of the time, but when thoughts come to me, I’ve got the voice memos app on my watch or my phone so I can record the thoughts and insights that come to me.
And I find that again when I’m out on these walks and I’m out of these bike rides, I often get ideas that I would have never gotten if I was just sitting at my desk trying to write.
And that’s really the purpose of this Scatterfocus state. Because you’re more relaxed, you think less linearly and you get more ideas as a result.
And then when you switch back to hyperfocus, you can take action on those ideas, especially if you can learn how to set stronger intentions at the outset of a hyperfocus session, this is my third big takeaway from this book.
3. Intention-setting skill to focus on your work
One of my friends stressed that intentionality is the most important element to deliberate practice, setting strong and specific intentions is also a key element to actually getting well, really any work done.
So what makes an intention a good one? Well, for me there is one key question to ask here. When you sit down to work, ask yourself if the intention that you’ve set is specific enough to make your next action an obvious one.
Here are a few examples, write a video script. I literally did this just this morning. Well, that’s actually not a very good intention because it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and writing a video script might be a multi-day process.
So instead I could rephrase that as write a rough draft of the first main body point of this script. Again, it’s a multi-day process, so if I know I’m writing on one point, I’m much more likely to get started quickly.
And additionally, this might even be more important, I know that I’m writing a rough draft, that’s my intention. And that’s gonna stop me from making edits which will slow down the initial writing process. Edits are much better made during a second pass-through after I’ve already gotten the rough draft onto the page.
A second example, go to the gym. Again, a lot of room for interpretation there. So things are gonna be a lot better if I know what I’m gonna do when I get to the gym.
I know which exercises I’m gonna do, what order I’m going to do them in, how many sets, and how many intended reps. This is actually part of the reason why I work with an online coach who sets that programming for me ahead of time. But even if I wasn’t, I would always make sure to go into the gym with a plan.
Now for me, the absolute most important element to getting my work done is still interest, care, wanting to do the work that is in front of me. But the reality is, all of us have things that we sometimes have to do that we don’t wanna do, and this applies to people who overall their job.
Personally, I love being a blogger, I love being a content creator. There’s a lot of freedom involved, there’s a lot of creativity involved but still, there are small parts of the job that I still just don’t wanna do sometimes.
Or sometimes my brain wants to put my main job on the back burner because of some other current obsession. Also, this is where intentionality really shines because when you get specific, you make your next actions completely obvious.
And when you tailor your environment for focus, that’s when your self-discipline comes in and allows you to get your work done, even if it’s not exactly what you wanna do at the moment. And that is the crux, the main part of this lesson that I took from this book.
Now, one thing that can really help you set these intentions when working is to have a well-maintained productivity system. As David Allen famously put it, “our brains are for having ideas not for holding them” which is why you wanna have a well-maintained, organized external system, a single source of truth, if you will, for recording the details of all of your tasks, your events and your ideas.
It’s the system that allows you to make sure nothing ever slips through the cracks in your life. I call this a productivity system.
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