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How to focus on one single goddamn thing

Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction, explains.

A person holding up a pen stands with their back to the camera and faces a wall of lists, Post-its, and papers.
The author of Hyperfocus wants us to know that it’s not our fault we can’t pay attention to anything.
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

In general, I find any advice on how to be more productive both insulting and somewhat morally repugnant, as though every message we’ve received in late 20th and early 21st century American society isn’t already about how to squeeze as much monetizable output in as little time as possible from every single living person.

But that isn’t really the subject of the 2018 book Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction, written by productivity expert Chris Bailey. Which is good, because the title gave me a great deal of anxiety: Not only does it sound like a book my high school teachers would passive-aggressively assign after giving me report cards that said “easily distracted” every single semester, but it is also a book that contains a series of horrifying facts, such as that people in one study who went without email for just one week were so much less stressed that their heart rate variability changed.

Instead, Bailey’s overarching thesis is that tech companies are really, really good at getting you to stop whatever most important thing you’re doing and spend time on whatever dumb app or website they’re making gargantuan sums of money on, and therefore our brains are constantly overstimulated. It’s part of an ongoing discourse about mindfulness in an era where your attention is for sale, perhaps most famously in Jenny Odell’s recent book How to Do Nothing. By learning to live with more boredom, Bailey argues, it’s easier to feel present in every aspect of our lives: work, relationships, and whatever else you want to do with your time that isn’t watching Instagram stories.

Before our phone call, I was concerned that Bailey would be one of those people who would suggest I do things like spreadsheets and bullet journaling in order to make myself more productive. In reality, he’s just a guy who considers himself pretty lazy and who just wants to binge-watch Hell’s Kitchen all the time, to which I related very much.

Hyperfocus was published in paperback on August 27; the following interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you realize that you were a productive person who should write about productivity?

Both my parents are psychologists, which is why I’m kind of weird and messed up. That got me curious about why we are the way we are.

I think the definition that you use for “productivity” matters quite a bit, because when a lot of people hear the word, they think of something that’s so cold and corporate and all about efficiency and becoming a robot.

I see it a bit differently, which is that the best productivity advice out there allows us to accomplish everything we want to do in a smaller amount of time, so we have more time for what’s actually meaningful to us. By being able to focus on things, we see more meaning in them. We experience things with greater depth. Like, no cheeseburger will be as delicious as the one you focus on with 100 percent of your attention.

Two of the terms you come back to in the book are “hyperfocus,” which is directing your attention outward, and “scatterfocus,” which is directing your attention inward. Can you quickly explain those two terms?

Hyperfocus is the most productive mode of our mind and scatterfocus is the most creative mode of our mind. Hyperfocus is when one task fills our full attention and scatterfocus is when we deliberately let our mind wander. If you think back to when your best, most brilliant creative insight strikes you, you’re probably not focused on anything.

When our minds wander, we actually think about the future 48 percent of the time, which allows us to be thoughtful about what we spend our time on in the first place. It also reflects on the meaning in our life, which is such an important thing to do.

I was very stressed out by some of the information in your book: That we’re distracted every 40 seconds and it takes 26 minutes to resume that focus. And that people who live on blocks with trees will live longer. What do you say to people like me who read this and immediately despair?

It’s not your fault! We’re wired for distraction. And because of that fact, we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves. We should be kind to ourselves, because it’s not our fault that our mind craves anything that’s new and novel.

There’s a mechanism embedded within our mind’s prefrontal cortex called the novelty bias, whereby, for every new, novel thing we direct our attention at, our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine, the same chemical that gets released when we eat an extra large pizza from Domino’s or make love.

If you lived here, you’d live longer.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Every 40 seconds, we switch to doing something else because the world around us is so stimulating. We wake up in the morning and we launch Instagram. Then we get a hit of dopamine, because Instagram is new and novel. We bounce over to email 40 seconds later and get another hit. Then Facebook, then Twitter.

Evolution rewarded us for focusing on what’s new and novel in our environment, because instead of hyperfocusing on building a fire, we noticed the rustling of the trees off to our side. We dealt with that threat, which maybe was a saber-tooth tiger.

If there’s one big misconception about focus, it’s that the problem is distraction. The problem is that our minds are overstimulated. There is so much dopamine coursing through our minds, and we want to maintain that equilibrium. We constantly try to feed our mind new hits of distraction when really we should be lowering how overstimulated our mind is. That’s when our attention span grows.

You do this experiment in the book where you intentionally make yourself bored. It sounded awful. What did you learn?

I learned that Air Canada’s hold times are quite long. That experiment was absolutely hell, because boredom is not a comfortable emotion. But after that amount of time, my mind settled down into a new, lower level of stimulation, well beyond 40 seconds. I found that I had more of an attention span for whatever was in front of me. I had more plans and ideas for the future, because my mind actually had a chance to wander a little bit. It showed me that the problem is overstimulation.

What’s most stimulating in our environment usually doesn’t make us the happiest. A simple example of this is you’re out at a restaurant with your partner or your best friend, and you’re trying to have a meaningful conversation, but behind them a TV with cable news is on and it’s showing some novel thing that happens to be threatening and maybe pleasurable at the same time. You can’t help but let your attention gravitate to what’s behind them.

Ban notifications!
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Someone comes to you and they’re finding it really hard to focus on anything, and they spend all their free time getting little hits of distraction without it really making them happy. What’s the first thing you tell them to do?

I encourage people, for a period of two weeks, to make their minds less simulated. Delete the unnecessary social media apps on your phone. Download a distraction blocker for your computer, like Freedom, to enable as you work throughout the day. Put your phone in another room as you’re working, if that’s at all possible. If you’re out with your wife or husband at the bar, swap phones so you have something to take pictures with but you don’t have a personalized world of distraction.

You’ll feel restless. But on the other side of restlessness is focus. You don’t have to do this forever, but try it for two weeks. Notice how many thoughts you have about the future, because your mind has the chance wander a bit more.

The book is mostly about individual things people can do to be more focused. Have you ever thought about any structural changes that would need to be made for the world to be less distracted?

Social media companies are just so good at predicting our behavior and what we want to do with our time, and they present us with the most prescient thing in that moment. I think there is a point at which we begin to lose control of our behaviors, especially when they hijack the mechanisms of our mind and cater to our basal desire for novelty and pleasure and threat.

As a society, we need to be very concerned, because companies such as Google and Facebook and Twitter are making money off of the fact that we lose control of our behavior when we use their applications. Our attention is theirs.

Penguin Random House

You would think that a book about hyperfocusing in order to be productive would be at odds with Jenny Odell’s book, which came out earlier this year, called How to Do Nothing. But your points are basically the same: Get rid of unnecessary distractions that are making you unhappy so you can focus on the things that matter. What’s your take on that?

The distinction that I would make is between being intentionally and unintentionally unproductive. I think it’s one of the best things in the world to be unproductive. You don’t always work all the time. I think we’re perfectly productive when we accomplish what we intend to do. An intention for a day could be to write 2,000 words. And if we accomplish that, we’re perfectly productive. An intention for a day could also be to watch five episodes of Hell’s Kitchen and just relax with a few friends. If we accomplish that, I would argue that we’re perfectly productive then as well.

I think doing nothing is ironically one of the best ways to be productive, because when you do nothing, you rest your mind. You recharge. You think about your future. We think about our goals 14 times as often when our mind is at rest and doing nothing versus when we’re focused on something.

And is it really so bad to be unproductive?

I don’t want to be known as the guy who just harps on trashy information. Yesterday, for example, I watched four episodes of Hell’s Kitchen in a row. There is no more beautiful thing in the world than setting an intention to binge-watch an entire show on Netflix and then doing it. But I think the key is that we do so with intention. This, by the way, eliminates the guilt that we feel when we binge-watch something.

It also is worth moving up that curve and [decide to] consume things that are a bit more useful. Maybe instead of watching Hell’s Kitchen you could watch a nature documentary. That might be asking a bit too much. But maybe something that allows you to learn something. Not to bash on Hell’s Kitchen, which is a fantastic show.

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