Boost Your Attention Through Hyperfocus and Scatter Focus

Boost Your Attention Through Hyperfocus and Scatter Focus

April 10, 2024


You’re reading this sentence, but are you also checking your phone or thinking about what’s for dinner? It’s not just you. Attention is shifting faster than ever.

Twenty years ago, people would shift their focus from one screen to another every 150 seconds. Today, it’s down to 47 seconds, reports CBS News.

The good news is you’re still getting things done amid these fast-paced shifts. The problem is that the competition for attention can diminish your health and performance. Research from the University of California, Irvine suggests frequent shifts in focus can:

  • Make us more prone to mistakes
  • Reduce our efficiency
  • Increase our stress response and blood pressure

To combat these effects, it helps to understand two types of focus: hyperfocus and scatter focus. It’s also important to know when to use them to achieve different goals.

Hyperfocus occurs when you’re so productive you lose track of time while finishing your task. This level of engagement tends to come and go at different points of the day, depending on your internal rhythms. But there are strategies to harness hyperfocus and increase your ability to concentrate. Doing so can help you get more done, more quickly.

Scatter focus emerges when you let your mind wander and perform its work in the background. It’s a natural complement to hyperfocus because it doesn’t require the same sustained effort. Scatter focus helps with innovation, creativity and planning for the future.

Hyperfocus

To make the most of your time in hyperfocus:

  • Avoid multitasking.
  • Notice your triggers and redirect.
  • Reduce distractions.

Avoid multitasking

With hyperfocus, you focus on one task and sustain your attention until it’s completed. You might choose to research data, write a report, read industry news or listen to a colleague’s presentation. During your selected task, avoid checking email, looking at your phone or thinking about other items on your to-do list.

Here’s why building your ability to concentrate is critical: On average, people switch tasks every minute. But when you switch your attention, it takes up to 23 minutes to refocus.

Jumping between assignments may provide short-term gains, but the end result is mental exhaustion and reduced performance and efficiency.

Single-tasking also lets you focus more deeply. Deep focus helps you learn complicated materials more quickly and produce higher-quality work, according to the performance management company Full Focus.

Notice your triggers and redirect

At first, you’ll likely find your mind wandering even when you’ve chosen a single task for your attention. Learning about what tends to distract you and redirecting your focus back to the task at hand will strengthen your ability to concentrate for extended periods.

Start by noticing common interruptions, both internal and external. Internal distractions include daydreaming and thinking about the past, the future or other tasks. External factors include text messages, social media and email notifications, and news feeds.

Once you become aware of a distraction, write it down. For example, say you catch yourself thinking about lunch during a colleague’s work presentation. Jot down where you want to go or what you want to eat, and then redirect your attention back to the presentation. Or make a tally of every time you leave a task to check your email.

At the end of the day, look over your most common interruptions. Noting patterns of distraction can help you minimize them.

Reduce distractions

It’s impossible to eliminate all distractions, but try to reduce them. Examine your environment for barriers to deep focus. Common distractions include:

  • Social media platforms
  • News and entertainment websites
  • Apps and games
  • Phone notifications
  • Email notifications

It’s better to block a distraction preemptively than attempt to ignore it. Take smartphones as an example. Regardless of whether you check your phone, notifications disrupt your thought process and reduce your focus. Even when you switch your smartphone off, its mere presence can lower your reasoning abilities and emotional intelligence, according to the LinkedIn Learning course Building Better Digital Habits for Focus and Well-Being.

Tips to reduce interruptions include:

  • Put your smartphone out of sight.
  • Use your phone’s focus or airplane setting to silence notifications.
  • Check your phone once an hour to avoid picking it up mindlessly.
  • Remove social media apps from your phone to make them harder to access.
  • Block news and entertainment websites on your laptop or desktop computer.

Email represents another major impediment to hyperfocus. Knowledge workers tackle more than 125 emails on an average day. And 70% of those emails are read within six seconds of their arrival, according to Substack’s Beyond Productivity newsletter.

Instead of checking emails as they arrive, schedule times during the day for reading and responding. For example, you might check emails at 8 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. The rest of the day, close your emails to avoid notifications and the temptation to check them.

If you’re worried about missing important emails, create an automatic reply alerting colleagues and clients to your system. Provide a phone number for people to reach you for urgent communications.

Scatter focus

The sustained attention of hyperfocus is powerful. But it has its limits. Your mind also needs periods of rest. Choose moments throughout your day to let your brain recover without technology. Examples include stepping away from your computer and phone while eating lunch, taking coffee breaks and chatting with colleagues.

Just because your brain is resting doesn’t mean it isn’t working. That’s where scatter focus comes in. Instead of directing your attention, let your mind loose. When you daydream or purposely allow your thoughts to wander, your brain is still processing information.

For tasks requiring innovation, originality, creativity and planning for the future, turn to scatter focus instead of hyperfocus. A wandering mind thinks of the future nearly 50% of the time, according to the LinkedIn Learning course Hyperfocus.

Scatter focus includes three modes of thinking:

  • Capture mode — Notice what’s on your mind as it jumps around. Write down your thoughts as they come. These thoughts may include chores, work assignments, social outings, people you need to contact, etc. Capturing these thoughts frees your mind for later moments of hyperfocus.
  • Problem-crunching mode — Loosely think about a single issue and let your mind search for new ideas and solutions. A classic example of this mode is having a breakthrough idea in the shower.
  • Habitual mode — When you perform a simple and repetitive task, your brain can work on other thoughts. Habitual mode lets you generate ideas while washing the dishes or vacuuming.

The thoughts and images arising during scatter focus can connect disparate ideas to form solutions. To encourage this process, write down your ongoing challenges. Regularly review your list. Doing so will keep unresolved issues in your mind and increase your chances of making productive connections.

Another way to increase the odds is to be selective about what you pay attention to. Seek high-quality resources on important topics to your personal or work life. Exploring indirect but closely related issues can also lead to new insights. Books, podcasts and online courses can enhance your ability to make novel connections and generate solutions.

Harness both types of focus

Learn your attentional rhythms. These are the times of day when you naturally have a greater ability to enter hyperfocus or scatter focus.

Practice hyperfocus to increase performance and efficiency. Use scatter focus to foster creativity and innovation.

Both types of focus are beneficial. By balancing the two, you can learn to manage distractions and get more done in less time.