Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.
While Chris Bailey’s Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distractions (originally and less accurately subtitled How To Work Less To Achieve More) spends chapters explaining hyperfocus, a term borrowed from ADHD that means focusing on a single task in one’s “attentional space”, the title describes only part of its subject matter. The back half is dedicated to what Bailey calls scatterfocus, the opposite of hyperfocus in which the mind intentionally wanders. The two combine like the yin and yang; hyperfocus is all about short-term productivity sessions while scatterfocus helps enhance longer-term creative problem solving and ultimately leads to better focus.
In terms of visualization aids, Bailey describes and has shared two 2×2 grids. The first helps you sort out your tasks by whether they’re attractive and productive while the second helps sort distractions by whether they are fun and controllable. There’s less formality around sorting out scatterfocus modes, but he describes three: capture mode (letting your mind roam freely), problem-crunching mode (letting your mind wander around a particular problem) and habitual mode (engaging in a simple task and capturing the ideas and plans bubble to the surface). Bailey describes the last mode as the most productive and says it has generated reams of creative ideas.
When it comes to the distraction of tech, you’ll find many of the common ideas for stripping down your PC and smartphone to remove social media and even email. And while distraction-free or minimalist subsets of products are a favorite topic of Control-Break, Bailey suggests creating the opposite: a tablet that includes all the fun distractions for when you want to indulge in them. Bailey focuses a lot on intent. e.g., letting your mind wander is great, even desirable, when you’ve specifically engaged in one of three scatterfocus modes. He also alludes to the power of awareness, particularly in a discussion at the end of the book that would be better integrated earlier
One element of Bailey’s research I like is that he has engaged in personal interviews with some of the leading researchers in the space as opposed to just citing their academic papers or books. A few of my favorite discussions in the book revolve around specifics in the role of music in helping focus as well as the roles of media consumption and happiness in helping focus. Bailey is also not shy about suggesting caffeine and even alcohol as a way to enhance focus or creativity although he devotes far more attention earlier in the book to the drug-free benefits of meditation. There’s also a humorous gem of a section where Bailey relays a list of reader-submitted boring tasks that he took on as an experiment. (Spoiler: C-Span does not ignite the senses.)
When compared with Nir Eyal’s more recent Indistactable (reviewed here), Bailey, like Eyal, thinks about distraction as something that takes you away from your goal task, regardless of whether that task is “productive” in the traditional work sense. Unlike Eyal, Bailey seems to buy into the idea of fatigue and the limits of willpower (although he doesn’t dwell on it). Hyperfocus also leans a bit more toward the conceptual than practical execution than Indistractable; Bailey could offer more specific advice about how to enter the mental modes he describes.
Hyperfocus‘s paradox is that what separates it from other productivity books is the discussion of scatterfocus, which is hidden until you’re halfway through the book. But the real nut of the value comes from understanding and applying the interplay of hyperfocus and scatterfocus. If you come away with a technique to master these modes, that will make up for what the book lacks in hyperfocus insights alone.