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Key Notes

Chapter 0: Why focus matters

More devices make us more distracted

Focus Tactics

Put your phone out of sight

Whenever we resist a task, could just a little bit, we would rather focus on something else. Our phones with Infinity pools TK of distractions and bottomless scrolling always provide something new, using our Novelity Bias against us.

Think about your environment

We can modify our environment in a way that less distractions pop up at all. Then we don’t need to exhibit self-control but are able to focus on the task at hand. That’s why working in libraries and coffee shops, or on a long flight, is so productive.

Part I: Hyperfocus

It is worth to make what we focus on a deliberate decision

How often do I think about what I focus on? How often do I ask myself what I am thinking about currently? How often do I choose what I want to focus on?

The Attractive-Productive Matrix

ProductiveNecessary WorkPurposeful Work
UnproductiveUnnecessary WorkDistracting work

  • Necessary: Team Meetings, Calls, Dishes
  • Unnecessary: Rearranging the papers on the table, files on computer
  • Distracting: Instagram, Facebook scrolling, off-topic chats
  • Purposeful: “Productivity Sweet Spot”, looks different for everyone

Dividing up tasks in the Attractive-Productive Matrix gives an awareness of which work is important

Do the important things, not the urgent ones

Our attentional space is limited

There is a finite amount of things we can focus on.

That limit is lower than we estimate. We can hold four pieces of information at one point in our temporary memory.

”Attentional Space” is the mental capacity to focus and process

Attentional space Researchers usually refer to this as our “Working memory capacity”.

Reading takes up almost all attentional space

As in Books, that’s why I like 04 Reading. It forces focus.

The mind wanders 47 percent of the time

So often, we don’t have the awareness of what we actually think about

To many things in the attentional space lead to overwhelm

Watching a series while checking a recipe while chopping the capsicum while making sure the onions don’t burn - and that under time pressure: This leads to overwhelm.

Habitual tasks take up little attentional space

This makes it possible to multitask on habitual tasks while not compromising their quality. I can chew bubblegum and walk and listen to a podcast at the same time. Multitasking is totally good on habitual tasks. A practical application:

Every Sunday I like to lump my personal, relatively rote “maintenance tasks” together—tasks that help me maintain who I am, like preparing meals, trimming my nails, and cleaning the house—and do them all in an allotted period of time while listening to podcasts or an audiobook.

When the tasks use different senses it works together even better: doing the dishes is a motor sense while listening to a podcast taps into the auditory sense.

Complex tasks take up the majority of our attentional space

Complex tasks are also often the most productive and rewarding tasks. Watching Netflix is easier on our attentional space than grabbing dinner with a friend. It is less rewarding though.

[Y]our most necessary and purposeful tasks can’t be done out of habit. This is exactly what makes these tasks so productive.

Novelity Bias:

Continually seeking novel stimuli makes us feel more productive—after all, we’re doing more in each moment.

Paying attention to a thing makes us more likely to remember it

Paying attention to a thing makes us more likely to remember it It takes attentional space for our mind to encode memories to remember them. In a way, this is the essence of studying: Paying attention to an information multiple times makes it more likely to stick.

Learning while multitasking makes us rely on the Basal ganglia which is responsible for habits and skills. When we learn while focusing, we store the information in the Hippocampus where we are able to store and recall the information.

That’s why you should pay attention to things you often forget. Like the car keys …

Life with focus is richer living

To that previous point: What is life if not memory? Being able to recall more memories from our lives makes life fuller.

On average, focus in front of a computer lasts 40 seconds

After 40 seconds, we let ourselves get distracted.

”Hyperfocus” means to let one task fill the entire attentional space

To hyperfocus, you must

  1. choose a productive or meaningful object of attention;
  2. eliminate as many external and internal distractions as you can;
  3. focus on that chosen object of attention;
  4. and continually draw your focus back to that one object of attention.

Bailey, Chris. Hyperfocus (p. 56). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The fewer things you focus on, the more productive you are

Task switching makes work last 50% longer

One study found that when switching tasks it takes 50% longer for a project to be completed rather than just working through it start to finish.

It takes 22 minutes to resume working on a task after we’re interrupted

That’s on average. Even worse, when we interrupt ourselves, it takes 29 minutes to re-focus on our task.

Habitual tasks get worse by focusing on them

Studies found that when skilled typists brought more focus to their typing they got slower. A fun example of that is to focus with all your effort on walking like a totally normal human being. It is surely going to look awkward.

Choosing three items to focus on for a day might be a productive practice

You choose what is important and also what is not important. Throughout the day when other urgent tasks prop up, it remind you to focus on what you value as important.

When setting the three items it might be a good metric to consider what is consequential.

An hourly awareness chime might be a good practice for focus

To have a small alarm or chime go off every hour. During that alarm, ask yourself: What am I focusing on right now? Is it important?

Setting specific intentions can triple the odds of success

Making a very specific plan on how to achieve what you want to achieve like “Schedule and go to the gym on my lunch break” rather than “Go to the gym”.

In a study, the group with a specific implementation intention followed through 62% of the time. The group without a specific intention and plan only followed through 22% of the time.

Schedule times of Hyperfocus

When it comes to times of hyperfocus, schedule times of deep focus ahead of time. Time blocking

Anticipate obstacles ahead of time

In that, have a look at your calendar and anticipate obstacles.

Practical: Weekly Review

This could be an addition to my version of The weekly review. Schedule as many times as your work allows and for as long as you feel comfortable with.

The less you want to do a task, the more important it is to be focused

When we don’t want to do a task, we are prone to distractions, trying to do busy work to not focus on what we ought to. Therefore when being faced with an important task that you don’t want to do, tame distractions ahead of time.

The Control/Fun Distractions Matrix

  • Annoying & No Control: Deal with those distractions and get back on track
  • Fun & No Control: Enjoy!
  • Annoying or Fun and Control: Deal with ahead of time

We interrupt ourselves as often as other’s interrupt us

Since we often distract ourselves, blaming others for the lack of focus is not efficient. Interruptions from ourselves also make it harder to come back into work.

We alternate between focus work and collaborative work

Focus work needs to be the only object of our attention to be the most fruitful. In collaborative work, we need to be available for others.

Which breakdown does my job have roughly?

It makes sense to have two modes:

  1. A distraction-free “Hyperfocus” mode
  2. A regular, distraction-reduced mode

Practical tools to help launching into Hyperfocus

  • Put the computer in do not disturb
  • Put the phone out of the room

Seeing the phone as a powerful, more annoying computer

Over time, I’ve changed my relationship with my phone—instead of seeing it as a device that should stay attached to my hip for the entire day, I’ve started to regard it as a powerful, more annoying computer.

Resist the urge to check your phone whenever life pauses

In the bathroom, waiting in the line … resist the urge to tap around on the phone. Rather, use the time to breathe, pause and reflect.

To avoid unnecessary purchases of gadgets, ask which job you hire this tool for

We “hire” devices and objects to do a certain “job” for us: A paper tissue to blow our nose, pages to create a document, a kindle to read books. When thinking about buying a new gadget, think about which “job” you “hire” this tool for. Do I really need an iPad when my Macbook fulfills all of the jobs just as good?

Check for new messages only if you have the time, attention, and energy to deal with whatever might have come in.

This is a simple trigger that lets you make sure you can actually deal with new messages, instead of getting stressed by the new stuff to which you have to respond.

The five sentence rule

In order to save time and respect the time of the recipient of the message, limit yourself to only five sentences.

The most productive music sounds familiar and is relatively simple

Since productive music sounds familiar, different music works for everyone. It should be fairly simple as well, not requiring you to spend focus on it.

Silence trumps music

Since music always fills up the attentional space, silence makes deeper focus possible. What is important is that this is relative. We don’t often find ourselves completely in silence. Music is less distracting than the babble in the coffeeshop for example.

Part II: Scatterfocus

Scatterfocus is deliberate mind-wandering

Whenever there is free room in the attentional space, we enter a mode of scatterfocus. When an activity doesn’t consume our whole range of focus, our brain wanders.

With scatterfocus, we make better plans

It is valuable to have gaps of attention because we use these gaps to examine ourselves and think about future plans.

Rest when you can’t focus

We cannot focus indefinitely. When it is hard for you to focus on one thing or to comprehend what you are reading, take a break. Ironically, the busier you are, the more you need to rest.

Good break activities are low-effort and fun

Research shows that effective breaks are

  • low-effort,
  • something you want to do and
  • not a chore (unless you really enjoy the chore)

Some examples would be to go for a walk or to read something fun and not work-related. Leave your phone in the office and give your brain a real chance to unwind.

Uncompleted projects weigh heavy on our mind

This is called the Zeigarnik effect. Uncompleted projects or tasks weigh heavier on our minds than projects we have completed. Our mind keeps returning to those “open loops”.

Having our mind wander allows for insights from our environment

When we actually pay attention to our environment we allow it to trigger insights to problems we’ve been churning over. As legend has it, Archimedes figured out how to calculate the volume of an irregular object when he noticed his bathwater overflowing. Newton came up with his theory of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree.

Scatterfocus engages the same brain regions as sleep

On a neurological level, dreaming is scatterfocus on steroids. Sleep makes you remember well and connects memories.

So does scatterfocus. Since Sleep is very important, taking a break and letting your mind rest is equally vital for well-being and focus.

Scatterfocus dissolves emotional reactions

We dream to dissolve the emotional charge of experiences. Similarly, Pausing dissolves emotionality.

Forcing yourself to think positively backfires

”Positive thinking” does not make you happier or more productive. Researchers conducting a study found, the more an overweight woman imagined themselves being skinny, the less weight she lost over a year. In another study, people who recently had an operation imagined their took longer time to improve their condition. In other studies, fantasizing positively about the future made participants do worse on test, lowered their odds of entering a romantic relationship, made them perform worse in everyday life and even led them to contribute less to charity.

Why is that, I wonder?

In the morning, we can focus better

Usually we have more focus in the morning. Therefore it is beneficial to do the tasks that require a lot of energy in the morning.

In the afternoons, we think more creatively

While we have more energy in the morning, we have less energy as the day proceeds. Having less energy is actually beneficial to creative insight. One study found that we solve 27.3% more creative problems during the time of the day when we are more tired.