Writing 2018-09-09

Book Notes – Hyperfocus, Chapter 6

Scatterfocus

Hyperfocus is the most productive mode of the brain, but scatterfocus is the most creative. It can get in the way of productive thinking, but excels in coming up with solution to problems. In addition, when we need to focus, daydreaming can be very destructive. When we need to be creative, solve problems, brainstorm or just recharge our mental energies, however, daydreaming can be very potent. This is the “Scatterfocus” mode of the brain.

Entering Scatterfocus is very easy. Just let the mind wander. This accomplishes three things:

  1. Set intentions and plan for the future
  2. Rebuild mental endurance for the next Hyperfocus session
  3. Fosters creativity

Most people are actually averse to Scatterfocus. A study suggested that as much as 83 percent of responding Americans didn’t spend any time relaxing or thinking in the 24-hour period before being surveyed. This is in part because humans are wired to constantly survey the environment for threats. This causes us to be absorbed in an email or social media post and makes tasks feel more urgent than they actually are. In addition, wandering minds inevitably fall into ruminations of money issues, work and so on, which just increases the feeling of threat. That said, properly harnessed, the use of Scatterfocus can give access to profound creativity and be used to regain control of one’s life by complementing Hyperfocus to live and work more intentionally.

Where the Mind Goes

When the mind wanders, it generally goes to the past, present and future to connect what is currently happening with the goals one might want to achieve. In addition, it will go to memories of past threats in one form or another. Harsh memories will suddenly appear and occupy our mind for any given length of time. The most important way to harness this is learn how to switch between focusing on something and reflecting on it. The reflection part (Scatterfocus) helps in choosing and accomplishing tasks more deliberately instead of just doing things like a robot while the mind wanders uncontrollably.

Here is a list of how Scatterfocus can help when working on a project or task:

  • Become more self-aware
  • Incubate new ideas more deeply
  • Remember and process ideas and meaningful experiences more effectively
  • Reflect on the meaning of an experience
  • Show greater empathy by imagining life through the point of view of another
  • As an addendum to the previous point, be more compassionate

Three Styles of Scatterfocus

We can spend almost half the day with our mind wandering, but the difference with Scatterfocus is that it is intentional. There are three ways to engage Scatterfocus:

  1. Capture Mode. Let the mind roam freely and capture whatever comes up
  2. Problem-Crunching Mode. Hold a problem loosely in the mind and let thoughts wander around it
  3. Habitual Mode. Work on a simple task and capture ideas and plans that pop into the mind while working on that task

Capture mode is the best for identifying what is going on with current thoughts. Problem-crunching mode is best for resolving a specific issue and Habitual mode is best for recharging the mind and connecting the greatest number of ideas.

Capture Mode

Schedule one or more 15-minute chunks of time each week to let the mind wander freely. This can be as simple as sitting at a coffee shop with a pen and paper. Write whatever comes to mind whatever it is. The result should be something like a list of tasks, ideas about this or that, people to get back in touch with, etc. The process should result in a re-energizing of the mind because the mind has been given license to stop spending energy focusing on something (or anything).

This is especially useful for unresolved tasks, projects and commitments. This is because knowing they are unresolved means that the mind views them as a threat, or at least a negative weight. Capture mode externalizes this so that the mind doesn’t have to think about it. Also, this creates a list to act on later.

Problem-Crunching Mode

For this mode, go somewhere quiet and with few distractions and consider some specific problem or issue. Let the mind wander around this idea, exploring it from different angles. If it wanders off the subject, however, or if the mind gets stuck on a particular point, try to reorient focus back to the main idea being explored. Problem-crunching mode should be used sparingly and on the larger problems that one faces. Much of the work in Problem-crunching mode can be replicated on smaller problems in Habitual mode. Some example scenarios for Problem-Crunching would be:

  • Pondering a job offer versus staying with the current one
  • Crafting a thoughtful email to company leadership or team leader
  • Considering a difficult relationship decision
  • Brainstorming on how to expand a business
  • Deciding which home to buy (or if to buy one)
  • Choosing who to hire for your team

It’s helpful to review the problem as much as possible before entering Problem-crunching mode. During this Scatterfocus period, take a walk, listen to music or otherwise go somewhere quiet for about an hour. This gives the mind the space and freedom to make large leaps in thinking without encouraging too much wandering.

Habitual Mode

The most powerful and most recommended of the three Scatterfocus modes. This is the most entertaining mode because it relies on performing some enjoyable (or at least non-stressful) habitual task. The mind then wanders in a positive state. The happier a person is in Scatterfocus, the benefit emerge. Habitual tasks yield the greatest number of insights as opposed to a focused or demanding task which orients the brain towards one point. It is also easier to stay aware of thoughts because the mind uses less resources on habitual behavior leaving more resources to maintain the intention of being aware of thought patterns. The repetitive behavior of habitual tasks also encourage the mind to wander since so many resources have been freed up. The task ends up acting as a constant point around which the mind can wander and come back to as needed.

To practice this form of Scatterfocus, pick a simple task that is enjoyable to do and the let the mind wander. The simpler the task, the better. Go for a walk, listen to music, read a book. As long as there is brainpower to spare, ideas will rise to the surface. Should the mind wander somewhere unproductive, just let it be and continue on. Habitual mode can also be practiced with routine and unengaging tasks at work, so long as they are repetitive enough to do without engaging very much of the brain’s resources.

The key to Habitual mode is to frequently check in on the thoughts and ideas occupying the mind at a given point while it is wandering. Not doing this removes the benefits of this form of Scatterfocus because nothing is being recorded or tracked for later evaluation. Make sure there is a notepad nearby or some way or recording down whatever comes to mind.

How Hyperfocus aids Scatter Focus

Hyperfocus and Scatterfocus reinforce each other. In Hyperfocus, one works to fill the attention space of the mind with a particular task. Scatterfocus engages that same space to fill up with new ideas and think about or plan the future. This deliberate management of attention allows more information to be remembered. The brain might be said to be an organ that takes information from the past and present to predict (or create) the future. Memory would be the system by which to use past events to predict future events.

This leads to an interesting conclusion: people are whatever information is consumed. This means it is important to develop an awareness of what one’s thoughts are at any given time and track what information is being absorbed into the mind. The more this happens, the more productive Hyperfocus and Scatterfocus sessions will be.

Rethinking Boredom

Boredom is what happens when we’re stimulated at a certain level and then forced to drop to a lower level of stimulation. We seek to re-acquire that higher level, usually through mind-occupying but time-wasting activities. These are also mind-wasting activities. The mind is wired to constantly seek out new stimulation. This is what leads to uncontrolled and unproductive wandering. The less stimulated the mind is, the more it can think. The trick is to create that initial low-level stimulation environment, then take advantage of it for the purpose of Hyperfocus or Scatterfocus.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.