When 100% of your attention is directed to a single intention for longer than a few minutes – like completing a task, having a conversation, executing an exercise, reading a book, or watching an educational video – you achieve the peak productive state of “Hyperfocus.”
The mind is like a rambunctious Labrador Retriever that likes to seek out novelty and refuses to sit in one place. One can train the mind to sit in one place for long periods by bringing attention back to an intention, over and over, until the mind settles down.
“Productivity is not about cramming more into our days but about doing the right thing in each moment.” – Chris Bailey
Creativity, Personal Time Management, Success Self-Help, Productivity, Psychology, Personal Development, Business, Science, Leadership, Neurodiversity, ADHD
Every object in your environment you are tempted to use is like a villain in the Hyperfocus arcade game on the edge of the screen, using a rope and hook to pull your attention circle away from your intention. The mere presence of your phone, app icons on your computer, or a mess you feel compelled to clean will tug at your attention circle. Banish these villains and regain control of your attention by getting out of tempting environments or putting as many distracting items as possible out of sight or out of reach.
Even if you went to the extreme and worked in an all‐white room with just a desk and a chair, you still might find it hard to focus if you have too many open loops in your mind. If you’re worried about forgetting a task you need to do, a person you need to follow up with, or an issue you need to address, you won’t be able to settle your attention on an intention. You can find specific methods for capturing to‐dos and containing worries in my Getting Things Done by David Allen summary and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie summary.
The final factor that may increase the time it takes you to concentrate on an intention is how stimulated your mind is before a Hyperfocus session. If you’ve just finished scrolling through social media or a series of news headlines, your mind will be primed for novelty and resist focusing on any one thing the instant it’s bored.
Bring yourself down from an overstimulated state to a state of peak attentional control by performing the
following pre‐focus exercise for at least one minute:
Direct all your attention to a tiny point on the wall, computer screen, body, or in your body. The smaller the point, the better. Chris Bailey focuses on the tip of his nose. Research reveals that focusing on a point one inch behind your forehead is an effective pre‐focus point. As you focus your attention on something tiny, your mind will wander. Every time it wanders, bring it back to the tiny point.
You’ll find this process annoying and believe the exercise is a waste of time. But, if you stick with it for at least a minute, you will find that focusing on your intention afterward is relatively easy.
When you overcome external distractors and internal distractors and calm down an overstimulated mind to achieve Hyperfocus, see how long you can sustain your focus…but push your mind no longer than 90 minutes.
Our mental energy oscillates in 90‐minute waves. Just as the mind transitions from REM sleep to non‐REM deep sleep every 90‐minutes to achieve optimal sleep at night, we must transition from Hyperfocus to “Scatterfocus” at least every 90‐minutes to attain optimal productivity during the day. Scatterfocus is what Chris Bailey calls mindful mind‐wandering.
There is a big difference between mindful and mindless mind‐wandering. Mindless mind‐wandering occurs when you think about the past or future but don’t intend to. For example, you’re having a conversation with someone and realize that you didn’t hear a word they just said because your mind was replaying a conflict you had at work. Long stretches of mindless mind‐wandering tend to be frustrating and exhausting.
However, if you mindfully mind‐wander and intentionally let your mind roam free and explore random thoughts while you sit back and watch without judgment, you reduce stress and renew your ability to focus. It’s like letting a dog off a leash and letting it run around in the forest ‐ after a few minutes, the dog is calm and willing to obey your commands.
Mindful mind‐wandering also increases the quality of your Hyperfocus sessions because the creative insights you generate after a 15–30‐minute mindful mind‐wandering session provides solutions and strategies that will accelerate your progress. Research shows the most creative form of mindful mind‐wandering is mind‐wandering while doing low attention, highly habitual tasks – like folding laundry, going for a walk, or doing routine data entry.
About the author
Chris Bailey has been intensively researching and experimenting with productivity since he was a young teenager, in an effort to discover how to become as productive as humanly possible. To date, he has written hundreds of articles on the subject, and has garnered coverage in media as diverse as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine, Harvard Business Review, TED, Fast Company, and Lifehacker. The author of The Productivity Project, Chris lives in Kingston, Canada.