Thoughts on Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey and Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Patrick Collison in his recent podcast with Tim Ferris describes reader-book fit as one of the keys to getting value out of a book. I’ve long been a fan of productivity-related books and was deeply influenced by Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I was searching for books on productivity systems when I stumbled across Hyperfocus. The book’s pitch — “a practical guide for managing your attention — the most powerful resource you have to become more creative, get stuff done, and live a meaningful life” — drew me in and satisfied my desire for a book about optimizing attention span.

I was drawn to Cal Newport’s new book — Digital Minimalism — for the same reasons. Newport’s blog and books generally focus on minimizing distractions and maximizing meaningful work. Digital Minimalism dives deep into what it means for a technology to be useful. Newport argues that most web-based technologies are geared towards social interaction, which in and of itself may not be useful and possibly detrimental to deep work. The book explores practices that can help the reader change his or her relationship with technology in order to live more deliberately.

I strongly recommend both books because each has unique insights on achieving sustained focus in a hyper-connected world.

Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus is divided into two main sections — one on hyperfocus, and another on scatterfocus. Hyperfocus can be thought of as a left-brain dominated state (optimized for analytical and logical thinking) best suited for completing complex tasks. I think hyperfocus, the state many athletes call “The Zone” and what psychologists call “flow” are more or less interchangeable — each is a place where the brain has blocked out all distractions and is executing at (what feels like) peak efficiency.

Scatterfocus is the opposite of hyperfocus and is a right-brain dominated state where the mind can wander wherever it wants. Scatterfocus is important because it gives the mind the ability to sift through and connect ideas without the constraint of having to focus on one specific thing.

Importantly, scatterfocus and hyperfocus are harder states to come into when smartphones and browsers are constant companions. The reason for this is that a single glance at a smartphone or webpage redirects the mind’s attention.

Hyperfocus specifically is difficult to reach, and offering techniques to get there is perhaps the most valuable thing I got out of Hyperfocus. Writes Bailey:

Here is a fundamental truth about focus: your brain will invariably resist more complex tasks, especially when you’re first starting them — and when it does, you’ll look around for more novel and stimulating things to do instead.

As a result, Bailey advocates deliberate practices to gear oneself for scatterfocus and hyperfocus. Long walks, meditation, making intentions more specific by writing them out and more are among the techniques outlined in this book. There is too much great stuff to summarize here, but I’ve listed a few that particularly resonated with me below:

  • Bailey cites Getting Things Done as an influence for this book and discusses the daily practice of capturing thoughts and ideas with pen and paper in the context of preparing to focus. I’ve started taking a few minutes before hyperfocus sessions to get down thoughts and ideas, and have found it has a nice effect of de-cluttering the mind before working
  • This isn’t new in the focus / productivity literature, but I enjoyed the summary of blocking websites and even going totally offline to aid focus when working on a computer. As a side note, for software documentation, I have found Dash useful as an offline documentation source that makes coding offline more feasible
  • noticing that you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed is a great sign that you should check in to assess what’s occupying your attentional space,” writes Bailey. This book made me more aware that in both software and writing, having an emotional response to complexity (e.g. there’s a lot going on here) is usually a signal that taking a step back is a good idea. In both, I think sketching out a high level diagram of how different modules or paragraphs interact can help re-focus the mind. Baily later writes on the same subject, “When your attentional space is clear, you also feel clear. The tidier you keep your attentional space, the more clearly you think.” I consider outlining or making box and flow diagrams or any type of organizational sketching the equivalent of adding clarity to your attentional space

I’ve thought about this book constantly since I finished it and the principles inside it have made me pay more attention to deliberate focus. How focused you are according to Hyperfocus is very much a series of choices that a person can be very deliberate about. In the book’s words:

Whether at work or at home, the quality of your attention determines the quality of your life.

Digital Minimalism

I found Digital Minimalism to be a very necessary companion to Deep Work in that it offers a framework for thinking about technology that was not explored in Deep Work. Digital minimalism in the book is framed as a necessary response to a world where most digital tools are as capable of taking away value as adding value.

Importantly, constant distraction according to Newport may be a consequence of how our brains are wired. Newport discusses how braining imaging studies suggest the brain is primed by evolution to think about social life. Per these studies, the brain’s default path — when it’s not involved in completing tasks — is to focus on social life. Newport writes:

…intricate brain networks…evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters, and social groups were small and tribal. The past two decades, by contrast, are characterized by the spread of digital communication tools… which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect. Perhaps predictably, this clash of old neural systems with modern innovations has caused problems.

This insight I feel is especially important since most apps are built around social interaction. In fact, social interaction is practically required now as part of any SaaS business model — network effects mean more sales. Even if apps can be used for anything, there’s an argument to be made that our brains want to use them to socialize.

Like Bailey, Newport’s book contains techniques to realize his message. Becoming a digital minimalist starts with what Newport calls a digital de-cluterring, a 30 day opt-out period of all non-essential apps, where essential is tightly defined as serving a truly critical function. If you absolutely need it for your job or your loved ones, keep it; if not, throw it away.

Newport recommends a disciplined approach to leisure time as a way to combat distraction. He strongly advocates for planned leisure, where activities like web-surfing or news consumption is blocked off for a specific time. He also makes a distinction between high-quality and low-quality leisure, where high-quality comprises skill-building activities like learning to play guitar and low-quality is something like passive media consumption.

Newport further recommends pairing high-quality leisure with joining (real, in-person) groups. He cites F3 (which I actually was part of when I lived in Charlotte — his analysis is spot-on) and CrossFit as groups where members derive a huge social and skill (in this case, physical strength and endurance) benefit from joining. The idea here is that high-quality leisure is necessary to replace and improve upon the free time that comes with digital de-cluttering.

Interestingly, the joining groups idea reminds of the group effect well known in psychology research but that I first read about in How Bad Do You Want It by Matt Fitzgerald. The group effect basically says that a person will train harder in a group he or she respects and feels a close personal connection with as opposed to training alone. I definitely believe the group effect is real based on how much my own workouts have stepped up when I was part of F3 and various distance running clubs. I’ve felt the same group effect in great software teams.

In short, Digital Minimalism is a philosophy of and framework for optimizing technology use to enhance focus. The discussions on digital de-cluttering and leisure time I think are particularly good.

Why These Books Matter

I love to create useful stuff. Creating that stuff requires intense focus — not only for the creation itself, but learning how to create it. I continually find that being a creator requires balancing the two. With software especially, I believe the level of craftsmanship necessary to build things that keep working will only increase in the years to come.

Time is a finite resource, and the amount of stuff any one person or group of people can create is limited by time. To me, creating great stuff starts in the mind. These two books are really about the mind and how to insulate it against distraction and improve its ability to focus.

Like this post? Check out my blog, subscribe to my reading recommendation newsletter or let’s get in touch about consulting, pair programming, or anything tech-related on your mind. If you want more book recommendations like this, you can find my favorite books here and a list of books I’ve read over the years here.