in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #435: How to Achieve Hyperfocus

We all want to be more productive. And when we buckle down to do so, we typically try to figure out ways to better manage our time. My guest today, though, argues that focusing on managing your time is only part of the productivity picture. You also need to learn how to better manage your attention.

His name is Chris Bailey, and his latest book is Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction. Today on the show, Chris shares research-backed advice on how to improve your powers of concentration, and why doing so is more important than ever. We delve into why you need to be intentional about directing your attention, why multitasking actually causes you to be less productive, and the surprisingly long time it takes to get refocused when you get distracted. Chris then shares tactics you can start using today to become more focused. We then shift gears and discuss the importance of having periods of time when you’re NOT focused, especially when planning for the future. Chris shares how you can organize your day to get the benefits of being both focused and unfocused.

Show Highlights

  • The difference between productivity and focus  
  • The science of attention; what’s going on in our brain?
  • The truth about multitasking
  • How our ability to maintain attention wanes as we use it less
  • Why the quality of your attention matters
  • The 4 steps to actually getting focused 
  • The Rule of 3 and setting intentions
  • Distractions and validation 
  • Taming distractions 
  • How long can we actually stay focused at one time?
  • Are there downsides to being super focused all the time?
  • What is scatter focus? Why is it important to let your mind wander?
  • The effect of alcohol and caffeine on our attention 
  • Is there an idea schedule or hyper-focus routine?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "Hyper Focus" by Chris Bailey.

Connect With Chris

Chris on Twitter

A Life of Productivity website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. We all want to be more productive and we buckle down to do so. We typically try to figure out ways to better manage our time. My guest today though argues that focusing on managing your time is only part of the productivity picture. You also need to learn how to better manage your attention. His name is Chris Bailey, and his latest book is Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. Today on the show Chris shares research-backed advice on how to improve your powers of concentration and why doing so is more important than ever.

We delve into why you need to be more intentional about directing your attention, why multitasking actually causes you to be less productive and the surprisingly long time it takes to get refocused when you get distracted. Chris then shares tactics you can start using today to become more focused. We then shift gears and discuss the importance of having periods of time when you’re not focused, especially when you’re planning for the future. Chris shows how you can organize your day to get the benefits of being both focused and unfocused.

There’s lots of actual advice in this episode. After it’s over, check out the show notes at Chris joins me now via Chris Bailey, welcome back to the show.

Chris Bailey: Brett McKay, thank you so much for having me back.

Brett McKay: We had you on I think it might have been a few years ago. Time just bleeds together.

Chris Bailey: Is it that long?

Brett McKay: I think it might have been. Sometimes I’ll have a guest on, I’m like oh it was just last year. Then it was like no, it was three years ago.

Chris Bailey: Time flies, doesn’t it? Especially when you’re doing a lot of work and that’s fun that you’re totally focused on, immersed in.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s flow. We will talk about the flow state here. We had you on to talk about the Productivity Project. You write about productivity. You’re a quote/unquote, as you said, “productivity expert.” You got a new book out called Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. When people often think about productivity, they’re often thinking about well how do I beat distraction. You make a distinction between the two. There’s a difference between being productive and a difference between being focused. What are the differences?

Chris Bailey: Oh absolutely. It’s funny how your ideas evolve over time on different things. The definition that I use to define productivity has evolved too. I used to think of it as, especially when I first started exploring this whole productivity racket, I used to think about it as doing more and more and more, faster, faster, faster, but over time I’ve whittled away at the preconceived notions I had on the idea. I realized it’s basically just accomplishing what’s important. It’s not about how much we produce. Rather, it’s about how much we accomplish. What’s important changes depending on where we’re at.

If we’re at home diving deep into a conversation that we’re having with our wife, a loved one, that’s what’s important there. At work, on the other hand, maybe checking email and getting on top of that might be important. Maybe mentoring a new employee that joins our team is important. Maybe if we’re doing a podcast, helping people hopefully become more productive by the end of it is what’s important. I think when we’re focused, focus is essentially one part of productivity. I view productivity as this more holistic idea that everything contributes to, how we manage our time contributes to it. How we manage our energy contributes to it, but most of us are all right at managing those two aspects of our life.

We can keep a calendar. We know that we have more energy when we work out, but it’s that focus that is this third part of productivity, in addition to time and energy, where we become immersed in what is important hopefully instead of just becoming immersed in our phone. It’s a part of the bigger picture of productivity, but I think it’s the most important one today. You mentioned the subtitle of the book and it talks about living in a world of distraction. We are. We really are distracted more today, the studies around that are so fascinating, than we ever have been before.

Brett McKay: We’ll get into some of the research here because a lot about the book, and your previous book too, is that you dig into psychological studies, sociology to try to figure out what actually works. Going to that idea, the distinction between focused and productivity, I think it’s an important one you made because you can be focused at playing Tetris, but you’re not necessarily being productive at that moment.

Chris Bailey: Yeah, if you’re not focused on what’s actually important, then what’s the point of being focused, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Chris Bailey: This is something that I keep finding, that I keep rediscovering in my own behavior and other peoples behavior in the research, is that what lies at the heart of us becoming more productive is this deliberateness, this intentionality, which absolutely has to precede whatever it is that we do. In any moment of any day, we’re either working with intention. There’s intention behind what we’re doing. We choose what we do, what we focus on before we focus or do it, or we’re working on autopilot mode just in response to what comes out way. I think our productivity can be pegged to the breakdown of how much of our time we spend with intention.

Attention without intention is essentially just wasted energy in that way.

Brett McKay: Let’s get into the science of attention. What happens, what’s going on in our brain whenever we pay attention to something. Are there certain parts that fire up or light up on your MRIs or whatever?

Chris Bailey: Usually most of our brain is aligned, our task positive network is what it’s called in research, is active when we’re focused on something, which involves the logical centers of our brain, it involves even the perceptual centers of our brain. In research, it’s known as being perceptually coupled, so all of our senses are coupled with what we’re doing, and same with our thoughts which are like our sixth sense. I like to think of it in those terms. Our mind and body are both in sync with what we’re doing.

There’s fascinating research on this too. We even blink in accordance with what we’re focused on. If you’re listening to this podcast and there’s a pause after something we say, you might take a blink. Same with in an audio book. Same with if you’re watching a TED talk or a speaker or you’re having a conversation. We blink I think every 15 to 20 seconds or so. We do so in accordance with our attention. It’s this fascinating idea where we’re essentially immersed in something.

Brett McKay: I think one of the things you highlight in the book is that we have this idea that we can multitask, and there’s certain things we can multitask, but for the most part we can only attend to one thing at a time really. It’s not like we’re doing both at the same time. We were switching our attention between all these different things really fast.

Chris Bailey: This is I think, a lot of people mention multitasking but without really working from the same definition. What we say, what we refer to when we’re saying multitasking is really, like you said, just task switching, moving our attentional spotlight from one thing to another. When we do this, things take about 50% longer. It takes us that much longer to read a passage, to finish a task. Multitasking is when we try to pay attention to things concurrently, which there are also a lot of misconceptions out there about.

Brett McKay: Okay, what is … how can we do that? How can we multitask? Is it possible to multitask? I’ve read different things. Like, “Oh it is possible.” Then, “Oh no, it is impossible to multitask.” Is it possible?

Chris Bailey: It is, but we can’t do it very well. We can’t actively focus on more than one thing at one time, but there are some things that we can do that don’t take any focus. Maybe you’re deep in the conversation with somebody as you’re walking down the street, and you’re focused completely on that conversation. You’re totally immersed in this state of total immersion that I like to call hyperfocus. You’re really not thinking about the walking that you’re doing. You’re really not thinking about the hand gestures, the gesticulation that you’re doing. You’re really not thinking about maybe the gum that you were chewing.

We can do a lot of things out of habit. When we do something out of habit, it doesn’t occupy our working memory, essentially just our very short term memory, like the tasks that we do. Where we run into trouble and where our attention begins to become overwhelmed is when we try to focus on more than one complex thing at one time. Because we only have so much attention to give to the world around us in one moment, I believe we have about 40 bits that we can tend to in any one moment, but yet there are so many things that we can focus on in our environment.

Because our attention is constrained in this way, we can only process so much in the moment, and especially when a task is complex, it requires and it asks more of our attention by default. That’s where we begin to run into troubles. If you are trying to carry on a conversation with two people at once, you would very quickly notice that you don’t have the capacity to do so, but you do have the capacity to attend to a few habits while you do something complex. We can run on a treadmill while we listen to music, while we look at the TV that’s up in front of us and process that a little bit.

Any more than that, and once you try to do something more complex at the same time, that’s really when you run into trouble.

Brett McKay: Right. As you point out, we have so much competing for our attention. You might be in your inbox one moment and then you go to Twitter the next and then you’re to a website and you’re back to your inbox. All that switching, talk about how it leaves attentional residue. Let’s say you’re working on a report, and you go over to your inbox really quick because you got a notification. You check it and then you go back. You talk about how there’s still a bit of attention lingering on that inbox. It takes a while for us to get back into focus on the report that we’re writing.

Chris Bailey: This is I think the biggest cost of constantly switching between things is if we could totally switch from one thing to the next to the next without any fragments of the previous task operating this working memory that we have, I like to call this working memory capacity our attentional space in the book. There are fragments of the previous thing. If you finish up a call that’s very heated with somebody of you’re in this argument, and then you try to answer email, you’re going to be less efficient at doing that.

Certain things help you become a better custodian of this attentional space. The meditation is a very good example of one where it’s been shown to lead us to have less attentional residue as we switch from one thing to another, but there are always these fragments, which is not only do we have to shift from one context to another when we switch from one task to another, but we also are not able to bring our full attention to it at the start. One of the most fascinating studies that I had the chance to uncover was that when we’re doing work in front of a computer, we can only focus or on average we only focus on one thing for 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else.

We’re in other words, very productive doing an Excel sheet or writing a report in Word, whatever it might be, but then for seemingly no reason we go over to checking Instagram on our phone. We check an email notification in the corner of the screen. This technology that we use, it brings with it all of this distraction that is really quite costly. Attentional residue is one of the costs, but working with less focus, always having this diluted attention and not being able to remember as much because we process things with a different part of our brain when we multitask. All of these are costs that add up when we don’t manage our attention properly.

Brett McKay: I thought one of the big takeaways for me that really opened up my eyes or surprised me was whenever we are, say, working on a report or an Excel spreadsheet or reading or something, we’re focused. We switch over to email, and then we switch back thinking, “Oh I can just get right back in the groove because I was already in the groove.” It takes like 26 minutes to get back into that focused state again.

Chris Bailey: Oh yeah. It depends on, there’s curious research on that too, where it depends whether you’re interrupted by an external source or an internal source. We have this attention mechanism in our brain that is drawn to anything that is one of three things. It’s drawn to anything that is pleasurable, it’s drawn to anything that is threatening and it’s drawn to anything that is novel. We even have a novelty bias in our brain where our brain releases more dopamine, which is one of the pleasure chemicals, whenever we focus on something that’s shiny or new and novel, like an email notification or scrolling through a bunch of fitness feeds on Instagram.

When we have this novelty seeking behavior where we seek out something that is novel and pleasurable, we even seek out threats, that’s why so many of us are glued to the news. It takes us 29 minutes, 26 is the average between the internal distractions and the external distractions, which are roughly even. We distract ourselves as much as we’re distracted from other people. It’s actually about a 50/50 split. When we’re distracted by something we do, it takes us 29 minutes to get back on track and before we resume doing that task, we tend to, I believe it’s 2.26 other tasks before resuming. We don’t just tend to one thing and then go back to the Excel sheet or whatever it is that we were doing before.

We work on two other things before resuming that task if we’re interrupted by somebody external to us. A notification that comes in, whatever it might be. Co-workers stopping by our office to ask how our weekend was. It takes us 23 minutes to get back on track after that point. We fare a bit better, but still the costs are pretty great. If you don’t believe that 29 minute figure, I had my doubts at first, so I started to try to observe this in my own behavior and my own life before figuring out what I could do about it and in the lives of other people. I saw this when I woke up in the morning. I’d wake up and my phone would wake me up and so I would bounce over to Instagram because I got two notifications overnight.

I found that I got two emails overnight, and so I tended to those. I bounced around between a loop of five or six apps, and before I knew it, 26 minutes had gone by. We can observe this pattern in our own behavior. Not only does it take a long time to get back on track when we’re distracted or interrupted completely, but we shift around our attention quite a bit every 40 seconds. All of these figures, figures aren’t too compelling. The statistics are never too motivating, but I think when you take all of this stuff together, we are in a state of divided attention when we work, every 40 seconds we switch, and we don’t really have purpose. We don’t have that attention behind what we’re doing because we’re drawn to anything that’s novel, that’s pleasurable, that’s threatening.

We really have to get ahead of ourselves in this way.

Brett McKay: To the point where our attention’s divided. It takes a long time for us to get refocused after we distract ourselves or we are distracted. We might think we’re getting a lot done by doing all this task switching, but it slows you down. It actually makes you less, you actually get less done. You might think you’re getting a lot done but you’re actually getting less done because you’re not in that focused state anymore.

Chris Bailey: That’s the thing with our attention is we look at how busy we are as a proxy for how productive we are because when we do knowledge work for a living and we do brain work, it’s impossible to measure. Most of us don’t work on a assembly line anymore where we can measure our output in widgets every day, so we made 20 widgets today instead of 10 widgets yesterday, so we were twice as productive. We look at how busy we are as a proxy for how productive we are. The more emails we answer, the busier we think we are, the more productive we think we are. The more tweets we respond to and read, the more times we refresh CNN or the New York Times, the busier we are, the more productive we think we are, but really so often the opposite is the case.

That’s kind of the state of our attention to is we’ve never been so busy but have accomplished so little to tie it back to that original definition of productivity, accomplishing what’s important. That’s how we should use our attention.

Brett McKay: We live in a distracted world because we have all this stuff, smart phones, a computer in our pocket at any moment where anybody can reach us or if we’re curious about something, we can find it. Have these devices shrunk? You talk about we have this attentional space. Has this stuff shrunk our attentional space because we don’t use our attention as much or we do a poor job of using it?

Chris Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. We have less attention to give to the world around us. The more deliberately we learn to manage our attention … This is the curious thing. There’s a lot of brain training apps out there, but research shows that they don’t really work over time. Once you stop doing them, you kind of lose all the gains that you made on them. You can actually grow the amount of attention you have to give to the world around you. You can grow your working memory capacity, this attentional space. You’re able to dive deeper into more complex ideas in the moment.

The more distracted you are, the less you’re able to delve deep into what’s actually complex on a daily basis. One proven way of doing that is meditation. Meditation is a brain training technique where you train your ability to give focus to what’s in front of you in the present moment as opposed to wherever your attention wants to go, to whatever’s novel, pleasurable or threatening. It totally is possible to not only make your attention bigger and not only be able to take on things that are more complex, but it’s possible that your attention can almost wither over time. It decreases as your energy levels falter, for example. It decreases the more distracted you are, with your distractibility level.

It really does orbit around these different ideas. There is one kind of thing that I mention in the book, and it’s the quality of our attention. The research points to three measures that we can use to measure our progress with how focused we’re able to become in the moment. The first is how long we can focus on one thing for, and so passed that 40 second mark. If you think back to your last most productive day where you became immersed in conversations and what you were writing, you probably held your focus for more than 40 seconds. The second measure is how long your mind wanders for before you’re able to catch it. That’s kind of a measure of how aware you are of your thoughts.

The third is how much of your time you spend with intention. How long you can focus for, how long your mind wanders for before you catch it, and how much of your time you spend with intention. I think the better the quality of your attention, the better quality of your life because you can focus for longer and delve deeper into experiences. You can notice when your mind wanders away from maybe a meaningful conversation with your partner at the pub. You can notice when you’re not working with intention. You can spend your time with greater intentionality behind what you’re doing so that you can do things with purpose and not on this autopilot mode.

The more distracted we are, the lower the quality of our attention, and the lower the quality of our life because really when you look at a life, it’s an accumulation of moments. If each moment of your life you’re distracted, you’re going to be living a distracted life and maybe burn through years of time not really accomplishing anything productive or meaningful.

Brett McKay: That was a big takeaway. What you’re saying is our existence is what we pay attention to.

Chris Bailey: Yes. What we pay attention to, that’s our reality. If you pay attention to what you’re angry about, you’re going to become angry and become an angry person over time as those moments accumulated, but the same is true if you pay attention to what’s productive and focus on that and do that. Then you become a productive person. If you focus on what’s meaningful at home and your life by practicing things like gratitude, you become a gracious person. You become somebody who’s deserved of their success. Your life is enriched with meaning because of that. There’s more fascinating science behind simply the depths of our relationships around how we manage our attention.

You know how people put their phone face down on the table when they’re with somebody? There was this team of researchers that went out and looked at people at coffee shops. What they observed in these coffee shop patrons was that on average when somebody had their phone face down on the table in front of them, they had a good intention, an intention of focusing on what was there, which was the person that they were with, but on average they checked their phone every three to five minutes. When they surveyed people who checked their phone so often, you know when their partner went up to go to the washroom, when there was a lull in the conversation, when they wanted to take a picture, whatever it was, they found that those people rated their connection with the person and the quality of their relationship and how close they felt to the person as significantly lower than people who put their phones away.

Speaking of the quality of our attention, this impacts almost every element of our life and more research needs to be conducted on this. The less control we have over attention, the research shows that we feel less autonomous with the work that we do because it’s kind of natural. We work more often on autopilot. We have lower levels of self-acceptance, so we don’t accept ourselves and try to compensate for our insecurities. We have lower levels of happiness, and even life satisfaction when we have less control over our tension. This starts when we’re young, which is it gives more concern to kids, how distracted kids are.

The more text messages that a kid sends, the less they rate the quality of their relationships, which is kind of ironic because why are they sending the text messages in the first place? The less control a kid has over her attention, the less they feel like they can accept themselves or the less they feel like they have control over their life. By managing our attention, we really can reclaim this big part of us that affects everything we experience.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how we can get to this hyperfocused state. It is possible to increase your attentional space.

Chris Bailey: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Again, we should focus first probably on the quality of our attention. You’ve mentioned this throughout our conversation so far, but the first step is just being intentional about your attention, knowing what you’re going to pay attention to.

Chris Bailey: Exactly. Essentially there’s the four steps. There’s choosing an object to focus, that’s number one. Number two is taming the distractions around us. Number three is simply focusing because we’ve cleared all the brush out of the way in taming the distraction. The fourth is to bring our mind back to that object of intention when we notice that it’s wandered to think of something else. The first idea, the idea behind this is of course intention is at the heart of productivity. By setting intentions more often, we can work more deliberately and with intention.

The rule of three, I think we talked about the rule of three last time, right? It’s a very sticky rule, and our mind is wired to think in threes. When we set three intentions at the start of the day, we ask our self by the time that this day is done what three main things will I want to have accomplished? It’s a very simple rule, but essentially gives us something to focus on that’s important throughout the day. In the moment, we can also do this. One of my favorite rituals, I don’t do it as often as I do anymore, but it’s setting an hourly awareness chime. You set a timer on your phone for an hour or so, and when it goes off ask yourself, “Was I focusing on what I had set an intention for to do? How long was I focusing on it for? Was my mind wandering?” You can kind of check up on the quality of your attention at that point.

There are a lot of different ways, I cover many of them in the book, like the rule of three, like this hourly awareness chime, like finding our most consequently task. The ones that have the … they’re the equivalent of the first domino in a line of 100 that once you tip it over it sets off this cascading effect. Things like mentoring a new employee, for example, is infinitely more productive because it lets you accomplish what’s important by making your team more productive and efficient, whereas something else, like just checking email might not have that same effect even though you’re dealing with what’s latest and loudest.

That really is the first step. Intention has to precede attention.

Brett McKay: I think that’s an important thing because if you don’t have an intention, you’re going to let anything distract you, right?

Chris Bailey: Exactly.

Brett McKay: I tend to be very … this becomes a concern for me when I’m working on something that’s particularly boring. Super boring, because that’s when I know I’m going to be most distracted and most I want to go check whatever. Usually that boring stuff, you said, it’s the important thing that will allow me to get more done down the road. Mentoring the new employee, it’s super boring, it’s super time consuming, but you want to be super focused on it because it’s going to pay dividends down the road.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. If you look at, this is the odd thing about this second step, taming distractions. If you look at the most important aspects of your work, they’re usually not as fun as checking Facebook or Twitter, that so many of the distractions that I face provide me with some source of validation in my life. Going to Amazon to check my book ranking, checking my website analytics. All of these things, they provide us essentially with the three things that our mind is drawn to by default. Either they’re pleasurable or they’re threatening or they’re novel. There are always more of those three things than what we ought to be doing.

Facebook in the moment will always be a more attractive object of attention than what we truly ought to be accomplishing. The TV behind our wife or our girlfriend at the pub will always be a more attractive object of attention because it’s more novel, it’s more pleasurable, it’s more threatening than the conversation. If we’re in a fight though, we might focus on that instead. An email notification that comes in in the corner from somebody important, or not important. Even if it’s from Amazon announcing what Alexa features came out that week, is always more attractive than the report that’s in front of us.

This is where taming distractions really comes into play. Right now I’m doing probably the most aversive thing in my work, and I’m developing new speaking topics so that I do some public speaking and you have these topics. I hate defining them because it’s boring, like you said. It’s frustrating, it’s difficult, it’s ambiguous, it’s unstructured, which are all triggers of procrastination as well and task aversion. Earlier this day, I printed out the outlines to them and I went to a coffee shop here in this small town in Canada that I live in. I got a coffee, I left my phone at home, I left my laptop at home. I left every bit to technology that I have at home except for my noise canceling headphones. I couldn’t connect them to anything but sometimes people have loud conversations, and I just brought a pen.

I had no choice but to work on what was important. This is the key I think when it comes to taming distractions, especially with the work that we find the most aversive, which are often our most productive things, is when we eliminate every single potential object of attention that is more attractive in the moment than what we truly want to be doing, like truly want to be doing in the moment we want something else, we give ourselves no choice but to focus on what is actually important, on what we intend to accomplish.

For this reason, taming distractions, it’s more of a necessary tactic when we’re doing something that we find our mind is resisting, but it just makes it so much more valuable because we’re able to get into this hyperfocused state where we’re totally immersed in what we’re doing. We can focus on anything, right? We can focus on anything for 40 seconds, for example. When we focus on something for longer than that point and become totally immersed in it, hyperfocus in this way is kind of this state that leads to flow, which you mentioned off the top I think, where we’re totally immersed in what we’re doing.

I think it’s one of the most essential parts of managing our attention is taming the distractions that will derail us in the moment.

Brett McKay: I think I’m a big proponent of taming your distractions, getting rid of them completely, doing the Odysseus method, tying yourself to the mast so it’s not even an option to look at the thing. I think a lot of the times, people are like, “Well I’ll just restrain myself. I’ll use my self-discipline to not check it, check Twitter,” or whatever. It’s like well just block Twitter. You talk about different methods you can do to tame distractions. One thing I’ve done is I’ve taken Instagram off of my phone, Twitter. I don’t even have email on my phone anymore.

My phone is just, I can check a few things on the web and take phone calls and text messages, but that’s about it. There’s lots of apps. I think you mentioned a few in the book and we’ll link to some on the site, where you can block certain websites for certain periods of time, that’s something I do. I find that more useful than trying to just use my grit and self-discipline to not look at those things.

Chris Bailey: Oh yeah, because in the moment we have very little of that. This is what I found as a “productivity expert” is I fell into the same pitfalls even though I research this stuff for a living, of tending to my smart phone too often, of tending to email too often, of meetings even expanding to fit how much time I have. Taming them ahead of time really is the best way to get out of this state of distractions because in the moment we will be attracted by other things, and so we have to get ahead of ourselves. It’s just the way our brain is wired.

This aided our chances at survival by the way, instead of becoming totally immersed in a fire that we were creating for the tribe we were living in at the time and neglecting the saber tooth tiger that was encroaching in on our environment, we noticed the rustling in the trees. This distractibility actually aided our chances at survival. We noticed the tiger approaching, and so we survived to see another day. Evolution rewards distraction. We notice ourselves gravitating to the pleasures too. If you ever take a walk through nature, your mind naturally focuses on the berries on a tree instead of on the leaves, because we evolve to look at the pleasure in our environment.

When somebody who’s beautiful walks by, we notice ourselves paying attention to them, but these days the nearest tigers are at the zoo and food is far and plentiful. We tend to the distractions. The same evolution that’s built into our brain that has aided our chances at survival, compromises our focus and our productivity today. It really is an impulse. If we can regain control over that by taming them ahead of time, we can really get ahead of it.

Brett McKay: Tame distractions. Just get rid of stuff that’s distracting. I think this requires you to do an audit of yourself. There’s websites, there is apps that can help you figure out what you spend most of your time on, and then just eliminate those. You mentioned, okay, stay focused, and one thing you can do is set that chime every hour to make sure that you are still focused on the thing you intended to focus on. How long is it possible to stay in this focused state? Is it something you can do an hour, two hours? What does the science say?

Chris Bailey: The science is curious about that, and it shows that the deeper we care about what we’re doing, the easier focus becomes because we kind of deplete our focus whenever we have to exercise control over it. If you never have to exercise control over your attention, because you care about the work you’re doing so much and it’s pleasurable, it’s novel, it’s threatening when the challenge of doing it is roughly equal to your skill level, so it’s a challenge and it asks more of you, then we can focus on something for quite a long time.

Sometimes we have no choice. If you’re launching a satellite into space, for example, you might use up all of this mental energy because you have to exercise control, especially after the course of a few hours, but it’s pleasurable or it’s threatening, it’s novel, it’s challenging. We need fewer breaks when we do. This is why I think one of the best pieces of productivity advice out there, people sometimes are drawn to productivity advice in my work I find, for the wrong reasons because sometimes somebody finds that they don’t care about the work that they’re doing, and then they try to come up with 20 hacks for becoming more productive every day.

Really the root problem is that they don’t care, and they’re not naturally intrinsically motivated by what they’re doing. When we care about what we’re doing, we’re able to focus on something for much, much longer. This is why there’s no statistic out there that says that this is how much attention you have for something. There are some studies that say, “Yeah, we can focus on something for around 20 minutes and then need a break,” so the Pomodoro Technique where we focus essentially in intervals for 25 minutes on something, then let our attention rest for five, then 25, then five, then 25, then a longer break eventually after one of those 25 minute sessions.

This is why TED talks are about 18 to 20 minutes long, because that’s kind of one soft limit to our attention, but it really depends on what we’re doing.

Brett McKay: The takeaway here is first know what you’re going to focus on, eliminate distractions, because if you’re distracted in switching between these different tasks, you’re going to have attentional residue. You’re going to take longer to get focused again. Make sure you’re focused. I think most people are like, “Yeah, I want to get focused. If I’m focused, I’m going to get so much done. It’s going to be great. Life’s going to be amazing.” In the book, you’re like there’s some downsides to being intently focused on something all the time.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. That is we want to be focused on stuff all the time, but we can’t do it. We need to rest our attention. We need to recharge our attention because like I was saying, we deplete our attention whenever we exercise control over it. The more you need to exercise control over your focus in your life, the more you’ll find yourself having to realign to what’s actually important every day. That’s I think a big downside is we simply don’t have the energy to focus and then we burn out. Then we have less energy to approach our work with later on.

Working these crazy hours, it sometimes helps us in the short run, but in the long run it’s a recipe for just a productivity rut.

Brett McKay: Also on the flip side, when you’re focused, you’re missing out on the benefits of not being focused.

Chris Bailey: Yes.

Brett McKay: People don’t think about that. That was the second half of the book was you talk about the benefits of what you call scatter focus. What is scatter focus, and what are the benefits of letting your mind wander all the time?

Chris Bailey: There is this mode of our brain, and it’s a default mode, and it’s whenever we rest our attention we activate what is called the default mode network. It’s a nicely named network because it’s what we default to. The beautiful part about this network is it is scattered across our mind, and so you’ve probably noticed this the last time you let your mind be, whether you’re taking a shower, whether you are waking up and your phone was in the other room, which is a marvelous thing to do. Just get an old fashioned alarm clock, have your wrist watch wake you up, whatever it is. Get your phone the hell out of your bedroom, because you will activate this resting mode of your mind.

It’s scattered across your mind, and as such the activity we experience whenever we’re in this mode is very, very random. You’ll find yourself thinking about things you know, the knowledge you accumulated when you were studying yesterday, your past experiences, your fantasies, what you’ll do after listening to this podcast. What I found in the research is not only is this mode random that helps us rest and recharge, but it also has two other benefits in addition to letting us rest up our attention because the more we need to regulate our attention, the more we need to rest our attention.

In addition to letting us rest, because we deplete our attention whenever we exercise control over it, the second beautiful part about this mode, I personally can’t get enough of this mode right now because I’m in this long term planning stage with my work, with my speaking topics, with the books and stuff like that. What the research shows is that we plan for the future a ton when we are letting our mind rest and just be. Whenever we’re letting our mind rest, maybe in the shower for example, we think about the future and we plan for the future 48% of the time. In research, this is called our mind’s prospective bias because we’re setting intentions for what we’ll do later that day in the office when we’re taking the shower.

We’ll set intentions for what we want to eat for dinner that day. We’ll set intentions for what we’re going to do at the gym, how many dead lifts we’re going to do that day. We’ll take charge over our attention because we let our mind rest. In that 48%, if you break it down now, I love the numbers behind this, we think about the immediate future just later on in that day 44% of the time. We think about the next day 40% of the time, so we’re usually planning, we’re setting intentions, we’re taking charge. We think we think about the past quite a bit in this mode. The research shows that this isn’t really the case. We only think about the past 12% of the time. The rest of the time we’re thinking about the present, 28% of the time, and the rest of the time we’re thinking about ideas.

We plan when we’re in this mode. If we talk about working with greater intention, it is impossible to set an intention or nearly impossible when you’re focused on what it is that you’re doing. In this way, so much of productivity’s about taking this step back from what we have to do over the course of the day. The third idea is that we are able to connect ideas whenever we’re in this mode, so we get to rest our attention, we plan, and we connect ideas. When our mind bounces from the past to the present, to the future, we are able to connect all three. In the shower, we think about how we resolved a dispute at work two years ago and then we think about a dispute that we’re having at work later that day and how we’re going to solve it the same way.

We think about the ideas, the book that we were reading the day before and connect that to a conversation we’re going to have with our spouse later on that day. We’re able to connect the past to the present to the future, which let’s us unearth these marvelous ideas that we would never get when we’re doing something else.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah. It’s funny, all my good ideas come when I’m not trying to get good ideas. When you’re trying to, okay … I think that’s why brainstorming sessions are so ineffective because it’s like all right guys, come up with a good idea. You’re so focused on coming up with a good idea that you don’t see yourself, all the other options out there when you’re in a wandering, scatter focused state.

Chris Bailey: Yeah. One of the best things, if you are doing a brainstorming meeting is to ask people not to have coffee beforehand, and to have it first thing in the morning. The reason for that is because coffee kind of narrows in our attention. It’s easier to focus when we consumer caffeine. First thing in the morning is usually when people are kind of easing into the day, they have less energy, they’re still waking up. After we wake up is when our mind is the least inhibited. It’s when our prefrontal cortex, which generates the ideas in our mind, is the least inhibited. We fire up this default mode of our brain. Maybe if your team is full of morning birds, for example, and you find that everybody has a lot of energy and likes their coffee in the morning, have a drink or two after work if that’s a ritual that you guys enjoy.

Alcohol has some weird effect over our attention. It makes us less aware that our mind is wandering and it makes our mind wander more often, but it also lets down the guard of our attention, which lets our mind wander more frantically and all over the place to not focus on anything in particular. There are fascinating ways. Also, have the meeting in a messy room because these serve as powerful cues that we should connect disparate ideas. It’s a weird one, but the worst place you could have a brainstorming meeting is in a clean office or a meeting room because that sense of order actually affects our focus as well.

Brett McKay: Right, so maybe have two places, like you have your focus place where it’s clean, it looks like an Apple ad, right?

Chris Bailey: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Right, you have your creative place, which is just a mess and you go there. Another thing that I’ve seen research on that helps get you into that default mode and gets you more creative is staying up all night. Getting less sleep can do that. I’ve done it before. I’ve pulled all night, every now and then. I don’t do it all that frequently. Sometimes when I’m having a hard time with an article or something I’m working on, I’ll stay up all night. The benefits of that, first there’s no distractions because everyone’s asleep. No one’s sending you emails. No one’s tweeting. No one’s doing anything.

The other thing is it’s just like your brain goes to mush a little bit and you start getting some great ideas. Of course, it’s not focused, it’s not organized, but I can get it down and then the next day or I guess two days later, I’ve caught up on sleep. Clean it up and get it focused.

Chris Bailey: Yeah, you got to climb out of that rut. I think it was Edison that fell asleep with a handful of marbles over a metal plate. The idea was that when he fell asleep and his mind started wandering, because this is the fascinating part about sleep, is the same regions of your brain that are activated when you’re letting your attention rest, if you’re letting your attention rest purposefully I call that scatter focus when you activate this default mode with intention, the same regions of your brain are activated then as when you’re sleeping, only they’re activated with fire and fury whenever you’re sleeping.

When you fall into that deeper state of sleep and the idea behind what Edison did was the handful of marbles fell, he lost control over his motor system, that woke him up and he captured whatever ideas were on his mind at the time. It was this fascinating strategy that he used and that other people … So many ideas come to us in our sleep. Sometimes we wake up because something is so powerful, but we’re usually not aware of them. It’s definitely not a long term recipe, but if you have the freedom and flexibility to do so, sometimes you will become more creative after that state.

Brett McKay: Salvador Dali did that too.

Chris Bailey: Yeah, that’s who it was. Yeah.

Brett McKay: We wrote an article about that.

Chris Bailey: He would have the keys dangling over metal and then fall asleep I think.

Brett McKay: Yeah, like a pie pan or something. We have these two stages we can be in. We can be in hyperfocused, scatter focused, and so you make the case like you need to be strategic about using these. There’s a time to be focused but there’s also a time you need to allow your mind to wander so you can get these new ideas, you can plan for the future. I mean what would a schedule look like? Are you alternating between the two? Are there certain times of the day when you should do hyperfocus, scatter focus? What would a day look like for somebody, an average person?

Chris Bailey: For sure. I think it begins with setting an intention. The way I recommend it is over the course of a week. What I personally like to do, what I find works really well is at the start of the week, I ask myself, “How much will I need to be productive this week? How much do I have to focus on? How much do I have to write, for example? How much creativity will I need this week as well?” That kind of dictates, I’d be lying if I said I overthought this. It’s a thought that I have when I’m setting my three intentions for the start of every week because this is what allows me to accomplish what’s important.

I probably spend five minutes looking at my schedule while I’m setting these intentions, and thinking, “Okay, how much focus will I need this week? How much creativity will I need this week?” Depending on that balance, I’ll schedule bouts of time for entering into a state of total immersion where I tame the distractions ahead of time. Also finding a few things to do if I need the creativity, which I usually do because not only do we get the creativity, we also get the planning stage, which helps us work more deliberately. We get the resting stage. The best tip that I could give, that I offer up in the book and that I’ll offer up now for entering into this intentional state of mind wandering, is to do something habitual at the same time that you do it.

Maybe you can let your mind wander a little bit, which is good for capturing what’s on your mind, or if you’re chewing over a specific problem it’s nice to keep a problem center of mind and chew it over as you go for a walk. When we do something habitual at the same time that we scatter our attention, so when we take an extra long shower, when we swim laps at the pool without any music in our ears, or maybe a simple bit of music because when music is simple and it sounds familiar to us, it leads to greater focus. Side note on that, one of the fascinating people, maybe one of the most fascinating people out of the many that I talked to in writing this book, his name is Jerry Martin and he’s composed music that hundreds of millions of people have consumed and bought but yet nobody knows his name.

It’s because he designs video game music. He designed the soundtrack for Sims and Sims City. When I interviewed him he said that the music that’s most conducive to focus is simple, and so there are very few elements, and it’s familiar. When we listen to music, when we’re doing something habitual, it lets us focus on what we’re doing. Doing something habitual curiously in research, it leads to the greatest number of creative insights. It’s fun. We’re able to rest while we scatter our attention because we’re doing something that we love, while we periodically check up on what’s on our minds so we can capture these ideas.

When you start the week, I would recommend asking, “Okay, how much focus will I need this week? What distractions will come up that I haven’t tamed? Can I create a distraction free mode in which I can become totally immersed in what I’m doing? Are there more opportunities than usual to let my mind wander? Is there a place I can go to focus deeply on a project?” Then don’t overthink it, but structure your week a bit around that idea where you can get ahead of your attention. That’s kind of a theme that courses through the book I think, is we have to get ahead of our attention. We have to tame distractions ahead of time. We have to think about our week ahead of time. We have to think about what we’re doing throughout the day ahead of time, but by doing that we can become a lot more productive as well as creative.

Brett McKay: One of my favorite mindless tasks to get you into that sort of scatter focus mode is walking. Immanuel Kant, I know people could set their watches for the time he went walking. He just used that time, and he probably came with ideas. Theroux did that. Nietzsche, Darwin. A lot of these greats, they would work really hard in the morning and then they would take a break and walk for an hour or two and then they’d come back and work a little bit more.

Hey, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?

Chris Bailey: The book is called Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. It’s available in bookstores everywhere. Support your local bookstores, I like to say, because I know many of them and they’re all fun people who love books, as I’m sure the folks listening do too. It’s available in eCopy, it’s available on Amazon, wherever books are sold. Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: Chris Bailey. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Chris Bailey: Yeah, it’s been fun.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Chris Bailey. He’s the author of the book Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also check out his blog, where you can find more information about his work. Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at and if you enjoyed this show, you got something out of it, appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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