Honing a Hyperfocusing Habit

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Looking at a landscape through a camera lens - upsidedown and backwards

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If you didn’t read my last blog post on hyperfocusing, you’ll want to do that first. There I delved into what hyperfocusing is and is not. Here I would like to address the chaotic nature of hyperfocusing with some practical advice.

If you did read that post, you know that the trouble isn’t hyperfocusing per se, but the challenges it poses because it’s potent. Potent things are full of both promise and risk. Hyperfocusing can be hazardous to the daily management of life if not managed. My best attempt at managing it is this:

  1. Drop the shame. This is easier said than done because hyperfocusing behavior has been largely stigmatized, especially in traditional school settings. But that may be more of a reflection of our culture than anything else. We live in a demanding, fast-paced, complex society that competes for our attention and requires us to shift our focus rapidly from one task to the next throughout the day. Although hyperfocusing is touted as THE method for getting a tremendous amount of work done in one sitting, it can actually have a negative impact on one’s efficiency in completing daily activities because shifting gears consumes more energy when you’re hyperfocusing. To better understand this, please take a look at a familiar movie clip that can serve as a metaphor for hyperfocusing: Focus Dude. Entering and exiting the oceanic current poses challenges. Similarly, launching into hyperfocusing may not be difficult for someone who does so often, but it still takes energy, a lot of energy. It can even be a bit dizzying (literally) to enter a furious brainstorm. But what is particularly tough, is stopping. Downshifting is hard work, and sometimes you really do need an “exit buddy” to pull you out of it. The more someone hyperfocuses, the more he will have difficulty keeping up with the frequent transitions of modern daily life. So if this is you, the next time you lose or forget something, instead of berating yourself for not “having it all together,” show yourself a little grace.
  2. Create some rules of engagement. Hyperfocusing, by nature, is sort of wild. It is an “all in,” immersive activity. It lacks a certain amount of control, but you can put controls AROUND it. For example, a person can decide when it’s inappropriate to hyperfocus, such as when you are getting ready in the morning. The key is to catch it at the onset. It takes practice, but, I believe even a child can get better control eventually. At first, it’s difficult to even recognize when your mind is in hot pursuit; it just feels like you fell down a rabbit hole. However, I have, with some success, been able to train my mind to stay on course, in a similar way you might train a dog to heel. My mind still wants to divert, (especially if it spots a squirrel or something equally interesting) but it’s definitely an improvement. Another control is to not only plan specific times to hyperfocus but to prepare methods to exit the hyperfocusing session. An alarm may do it or, better yet, a friend or family member can “call in” at a certain time (an exit buddy). More than anything, simple routines for daily tasks are the hyperfocuser’s best friend. As long as it is simple (fewer tasks = fewer transitions), routine enables the basic tasks of the day to be somewhat mindless, which accommodates for a mind focused elsewhere. It also establishes some self-discipline, balance and rhythm.  
  3. Don’t put it off altogether. Although it is a good idea to put off hyperfocusing when the timing is bad, it can’t be put off forever. I have fallen for that ruse.  It’s a surefire way to cause established routines to spiral out of existence because a mind with “wonderlust,” will not stay in line forever. It will scan until it finds something to latch on, pull apart, and “consume.”  In past efforts to discipline myself and prioritize daily tasks, I have unintentionally made them monumental. A simple email, for example, would become a new subject on which to hyperfocus, which meant it was altogether consuming. If you have a questioning, probing mind, plan time for it to do what it does well. A LOT of time. Some suggest planning two hour chunks for creative projects. Even that doesn’t feel long enough to me. The endurance rate of one’s attention for any given project will depend on the work and on the person, but the point is, thirty minutes to hyperfocus is not going to cut it. Personally, I think it’s best to give yourself enough time to get exhausted because that is the easiest way to stop hyperfocusing. The work of hyperfocusing is never finished. Inside every box is another. There is always more to unravel, more to improve…and who likes leaving a job undone? Who washes only half the dishes in the sink? Leonardo Da Vinci is reported to have said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I think that’s true of any creative or abstract work. It’s much easier to abandon, though, if you’re completely spent. Regardless, the idea is to be intentional with hyperfocusing, to HARNESS that energy on something you truly value, rather than to stifle it.  
  4. Value “shifting focus.” If your tendency is to hyperfocus, that can become the preferred mode of paying attention. However, I’ve observed friends who have a talent for something I call  “shifting focus.” It’s not multitasking because I don’t think it’s possible to focus on many things at once; it’s oxymoronic if you think about it. Shifting focus is the ability to easily shift one’s focus from one activity to the next and thereby work down a task list. I’ve thought about this a lot (ok I hyperfocused on it), and it seems to me that to shift attention easily, you must have some distance from the task. It’s like having one foot in rather than being completely immersed. From that vantage, you can have a supervisory role. Rather than focusing completely on the work itself, you will focus on yourself doing the work, making it easier to manage the time tasks take and to prioritize them as well. How incredibly useful! I wish I could do this easily, but it’s a struggle for me and most “hyperfocusers.” However, it shouldn’t be ignored as a result; it should be practiced. While some people must discipline themselves to focus in order to become more productive, others must discipline themselves to zoom out, for the same purpose. I think it’s a great exercise to choose a few basic activities to complete consecutively while also staying mindful of the time.  It’s even helpful to talk yourself through the work as you go, in the same manner a parent or a supervisor would.
  5. Make allowance for downtime.  If we expect the mind to perform at attention, especially hyperfocused attention, we must put it at ease regularly. Without ample cognitive rest, people get frazzled, and it’s reflected in their work.  Scheduling a nap or a walk without a purpose can do wonders. It is necessary to balance hyperfocusing with disengagement. There’s a waxing and waning rhythm to it. Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, calls this disengagement, “scatterfocus.” It’s not a mind void of thought, but a meandering mind without any particular aim. It’s also useful to allow for extended time for activities that can be “mindless,” such as folding clothes. In other words, allow yourself to move slowly at times. Not only is it stabilizing, but this downtime is the breeding ground for more focus sessions. It’s when the mind is permitted to leisurely wander that it often stumbles upon something interesting.

I hope this was helpful. These guidelines came from the short course I created at our center called, Becoming Self-Driven, which is designed particularly for kids who tend to work in a nonlinear process. I am repeating the course this semester for any members at our center needing help directing their attention and their work.

[Photo Credit: Max Pixel,  Creative Commons Zero – CC0 ]