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Mark Nicol
Mark Nicol

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Notes on Hyperfocus

I picked up this book at the airport this week on my way to a meeting. It had a couple of ideas on how to focus better on complex tasks that I found quite useful.

Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More by Chris Bailey  
Paperback : 256 pages
Publisher : Macmillan
Language  : English
ISBN-13   : 978-1509866113

These are my condensed notes rather than a review. If the ideas sound useful the book is less than a tenner and even cheaper on kindle if you want to read it first hand.

We spend much of our life on Autopilot

The first challenge from the book is that we spend much or our life in what he calls Autopilot mode. When you stop to examine your thoughts what you are focusing on or thinking about has been selected by the environment or patterns of behavior rather than conscious choice.

Observation, and self distraction

The trick to stopping this happening as much is to start by observing what is going on. Stop, take a note of where your attention is and make a list of when you get distracted, what distracts you and if possible why.

The book talks about some of the sorts of self-distracting thoughts we have and the deep-rooted place they come from:

  • The tendency to relive past events and what went wrong would have served our ancestors well in improving performance, and so keeping them alive.

  • The tendency to establish automatic patterns helps us learn tasks it also is we end up going through the idle loop of checking our status updates.

  • Our mental aversion to difficult or hard tasks that cause discomfort, in favor of tasks like checking social media that give a quick dopamine hit of pleasure.

How attractive is this task

The next interesting shake-up was categorizing the work using something a bit different from the usual 4 quadrant chart.

The point here is to look at how much attention each type of work deserves. The level of attractiveness of the work is an indicator of something about the nature of the task. Unattractive work may need better defined, seem scary, or just be 'boring'. Boring is a sign that it isn't occupying your full attention.

Unattractive Attractive
Productive Necessary Purposeful
Unproductive Unnecessary Distracting
  • Necessary work: Is where you look carefully at how much attention you give it. Establishing routines or automating tasks, giving it limited time slots, defining very clear goals for what you want to achieve. Necessary and purposeful work can't be done out of habit. If can then that is a sign that we should be delegating minimizing effort or eliminating
  • Purposeful work: is where you want as much of your focus to be, but the key point here is that to give it focus you will need to remove distractions (see next section)
  • Unnecessary work: If it is both unproductive and you don't like it, then why are you doing it? Can this be delegated or ditched?
  • Distracting work: Is not bad. One of the points of hyperfocus is that it is tiring and it is important to take regular breaks. These are the sort of tasks that can be used as rewards.

Cherish your attention - it's a limited resource

The brain has a limited capacity for immediate attention. It is like a short-term working store.

As a general guide, there is an established limit of about seven items it can hold at one time. This explains the cultural preference for lists of 3 - 7 items, with most memorable lists having no more than 10 things on them.

This can be imagined as quite a small ellipse into which only so much stuff will fit:

Your Attention

  • Habitual tasks don't take conscious thought, or take very little (walking, driving, doing the dishes)
  • Some tasks take attention but not all our attention
  • Some tasks really require the whole of this space.

What this means for focus is that when we try to multitask - this space can hold :

  • A few small habitual tasks
  • 1 Habitual + 1 attention
  • 1 focused attention complex task

Task Switching and attention residue

Anything more than this and what the brain does is a task switch. Each task gets swapped in given some attention and then swapped out again. The brain is very efficient at this, but there is a fragmentation effect. Each time we swap tasks the area that can be used for focussed attention becomes smaller. It is like the brain is holding onto a little bit of the other tasks so that it can bring them back when needed. He calls this 'Attention Residue'.

This will happen naturally over time as we distract our selves or the mind drifts onto other topics, which is why it is important to check regularly what we are currently pay ing attention to. This has the fancy name 'metacognition' which just means thinking about our thinking.

There are a couple of counterintuitive points. These all follow from the idea that when we hyperfocus on a task it expands to fill the attention space available.

  • The more complex task demands we have on our time more important it is to do them one at a time. The productivity outweighs the seemingly more efficient switching between tasks.

  • Based on studies of people doing complex tasks the level to which task switching harms our attention is that tasks take 50% longer if done in parallel than if they are tackled one at a time. There is also evidence that it impacts how well information is stored and remembered. That task not given our full attention are not as well remembered or recalled later.

  • Hyperfocus is best reserved for most complex tasks or new tasks trying to learn. Performance actually suffers if we pay too much attention to a habitual task that the brain has automated. It can take you back from being unconsciously competent at a task to the level of a beginner struggling to learn how to do the skill.

  • If you spend most of your day doing busy but unproductive work take on more focused tasks. Work expands to fill the time so use that to your advantage by giving the busy work less time.

How to Hyperfocus

  • Chose something for attention and make a clear intention to focus on it. Making an intention specific triples the chance of success. It has to be something you care about. The harder the task the more important it is to have a specific goal.
  • Eliminate internal and external distractions (see below)
  • Focus on the object of attention and keep drawing the mind back to the task in hand
  • Keep the task simple - have no more than three things on the active list at any point in time.
  • Pick the most consequential tasks for setting priorities for the day
  • Hourly chime to check. Is your attention wandering? is mental space overloaded or on autopilot? Am I working on a productive task and is it the most consequential thing to do right now?

Start to feel how long makes sense for Hyperfocus session. You can start to see if it is working by tracking how much time spend intentionally. How long can you hold focus on one task and how long mind wanders before catching it.

Beyond that, the advice is to do it as often as possible, especially when need to work on a complex task. One interesting thought is that if you find you are resisting focusing on a task to reduce the time until the point where that resistance disappears. Complex tasks will require multiple slots.

Avoiding Distraction

The first bit of advice is to clear as many possible distractions as possible in advance, so to schedule focused times taking into account any existing time commitments or constraints of the job. It seems like common advice that switching off likely distractions (apps, email notifications etc) is worthwhile.

  • Apps and the internetPrune or hide the apps you tend to spend time on when trying to be productive. If you want to be in the moment, but still have access to features like a phone camera consider swapping phones with someone else (or having a second basic phone with all the distracting apps disabled).

Mind the gaps while waiting as these are the sort of times when there will be a tendency to idly browse. Instead, use that time to reflect on either the last or the next activity.

  • Email Start by monitoring how often you check email. Keep a tally during the day. Try to narrow it down to a few key time slots during which hyperfocus on the email. Keep your to-do list separate from your email, so that you're not tempted to check or answer emails while looking for your next task.

Practice writing 5 sentence emails in reply and drafting emails (with the recipient's name removed so you don't accidentally send it) and then waiting before sending it. This gives the brain a chance both to remember things you might have forgotten to say or to calm down and not saying the things you would regret saying.

  • Meetings no meetings without an agenda. Question any recurring meeting. Challenge who is included to keep the attendance at any meeting as small as possible. Most importantly if you do go hyperfocus on the meeting while you are there.

In general be thoughtful about the cues that surround you. Remove the ones that are likely to distract, but you can also surround yourself with cues that keep you on track such as having a fruit bowl by the desk if you want to eat more healthily.

In a noisy or open environment headphones and music work for many people - as long as the music is comfortably familiar enough that it doesn't itself act as a distraction.

I've previously seen similar advice presented as avoid triggering stimuli. What is presented as just as important is that we seek distraction.

Novelty bias drives us towards these things, rather than to concentrate on the task in hand. If we are trying to stop the mind actively slipping into a pattern of habit moving them further away helps.

What is also different is looking at interruptions in two dimensions. How annoying is the interruption vs how much control you have over when and where it happens.

  • If you have control then it is something that can be dealt with ahead of time so that it doesn't interfere with your focused time.
  • If it is annoying and you have no control over it then you deal with and get back to work
  • Most importantly, if it is fun and you have no control over it happening, then go with it and enjoy it.

There is however a balance to be struck between focus and collaborative work. Most work is a social activity. come at Focus time can have an associated social cost. Be thoughtful, and find a balance that doesn't under (or over) estimate it.

Thing to monitoring while doing

  • How frequently seek out a new object of attention
  • How often habitually overload
  • How frequently attention derailed by interruption and distractions
  • How many unresolved tasks in head
  • How frequently practice meta-attention

Final tips for fitting focused work into a routine

  • Balance working in complete distraction-free, hyperfocus mode with working with fewer general distractions for the rest of the time. Try to work at a slower more purposeful pace
  • Use both modes to train the brain
  • Simplify working environment to reduce the level of distraction and help focus
  • Clear head of open loops - have a place to capture tasks and commitments as they come up
  • Continually practice
  • Recharge

Advice on recharging

This goes back to the fragmentation effect. Taking regular rest is more productive in long run. The ideal balance is at least one good break in every 90 mins. Or alternatively 15 mins for every hour of work.

Refreshing work breaks are doing a low effort and habitual something you want to do. The should be something that isn't a chore. Something that you find pleasurably effortless.

Depending on who you are examples might include Taking a walk, running, reading, going to the gym, listening to music or podcast, or having a conversation with friends. Sleep is one of the best mental defragmentation techniques. Get more sleep.


The opposite of hyper-focus is scatterfocus. This is essentially letting your mind wander and see what thoughts emerge. It can also an important and useful mode. Scatterfocus allows us to:

  • Generate new ideas, set intentions and plan for the future
  • Recharge after periods of focused activity
  • helps foster creativity

In general, we are averse to letting the mind wander. It is seen as unproductive. Instead, we are more likely to seek a short term pleasure hit or try and do something focused because we see it as unproductive. There are three ways to try to foster it:

  • Capture mode. Deliberately scatter attention in a rich and stimulating environment. For instance wandering around the house with a notebook, taking notes of all the jobs or tasks that occur.
  • Problem focus mode. Trying to solve a particular problem, so write it down and keep writing as long as thoughts occur. Try going to sleep on a problem and letting the mind mull it over overnight. Stepping back from the block and leave a rough edge
  • Habitual mode. Do a repetitive task and see what creative thoughts emerge. Boredom gives us space to defrag our thoughts them and for So try to avoid jumping into the next activity or adding a distraction to fill up the attention.

The information we consume

The information we consume sits on a line. At one end is useful practical information and at the other is fun entertainment with low content. The suggestion here is to match the consumption of information to the energy available.

When you have high energy focus on the most useful. Save the fun and entertaining stuff for times when you have low energy. It is OK to veg out intentionally.

Consume information about things you care about especially if few others do. Eliminate some trash. Choose a few valuable things to read to focus on. Notice what things we consume on autopilot. Reevaluate what you are consuming as you are consuming it.

When working out what to consume, imagine that each one has to bid for your attention. Zoom out the timeframe and consider how it will make you feel in the future and whether it will matter. Invest in serendipity - and when you find something that works or is of value, double down on it.


I hope some of these ideas are helpful. This advice all seemed interesting and I'm looking forward to trying some of these out on my own tasks and seeing how well it works in the real world?

I'm interested what are other peoples tips for keeping focus?

Top comments (2)

swfisher profile image
Sam Fisher

Great Read! This parallels many of the themes of Barbara Oakley's "A Mind for Numbers" and "Learning how to Learn", with a bit of Cal Newport's "Deep Work" as well.

Thanks for writing this up.

mark_nicol profile image
Mark Nicol

Thank you very much.

I know what you mean about A Mind For Numbers. It is a book I've been meaning to reread it since it came up in conversation a few days ago. I remember it as a book with some interesting and helpful ideas about learning things. I think it may well be where i first learnt about spaced repetition.

I've not yet read Deep Work but a couple of people have recommended it.