How to Maintain Focus: Taming Your Wandering Mind

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Hyperfocus" by Chris Bailey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does your mind often get off track when you’re trying to focus? What are some strategies to help you keep your mind from wandering and get it to stay on task?

If your mind wanders when you work, you might be bored or anxious. If you’re hyperfocusing, your mind might wander during the extra time that has been freed up by your productivity. Productivity expert Chris Bailey offers two strategies for keeping your mind from wandering: 1) matching your tasks to your skill level and 2) increasing the number of high-impact tasks you do.

Read more to learn how to maintain focus by preventing your mind from wandering.

Taming Your Wandering Mind

There are two parts to maintaining focus: 1) redirecting your attention to your task when you become distracted, and 2) preventing your mind from wandering. In Step 3 of his hyperfocus system, he recommends using mindfulness and meditation to redirect your attention. Here, we’ll discuss Bailey’s two main strategies for the second piece of maintaining focus—preventing your mind from wandering. If you want to learn how to maintain focus in this way, match your tasks to your skill level and increase how many high-impact tasks you do.

#1: Match Your Tasks to Your Skill Level

If your mind wanders a lot as you focus on various tasks, you might be bored or anxious. 

Citing Flow, Bailey explains that boredom occurs when your tasks are too easy, and stress occurs when your tasks are too difficult. Both are known causes of mind-wandering. Therefore, excessive mind wandering may be a sign that your current job is too easy or too hard. Reduce mind-wandering by adjusting your daily tasks to your current skill level.

(Shortform note: Even if you find that your job is not matching your skill level, you don’t have to quit. One Harvard Business Review article suggests having two careers can make you happier and more fulfilled.)

#2: Increase the Number of High-Impact Tasks You Do

When you hyperfocus, you reduce the time you spend on tasks. As such, you might find yourself with a lot of free time.

But if you’re regularly hyperfocusing and just as busy as you were before, Bailey suggests that you may be a victim of Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time you have to complete it. So if you suddenly don’t have enough work to do thanks to your newfound productivity, you might start trying to fill your time with unimportant tasks or distractions.  

As Bailey notes, your mind wanders whenever you’re unsure if your current task is the highest-impact option. So this lack of important work may also increase how frequently your mind wanders. 

Therefore, Bailey suggests evaluating how much time you spend doing low- to zero-impact tasks. If it’s higher than you like, increase the number of high-impact tasks on your plate.

Why You Should Regularly Recreate the Attention Management Matrix 

How do you know if you’re filling your time with unimportant tasks or distractions? And how do you know what tasks to do instead? Bailey doesn’t specify—but one option is to regularly recreate the attention management matrix, when you divide your tasks based on whether they’re productive and whether you like doing them. By, for example, categorizing your tasks on a quarterly basis, you ensure you’re maintaining an acceptable level of productivity—and you always have a list of high-impact tasks to focus on.

Bailey’s strategies for overcoming Parkinson’s law revolve around re-evaluating your work, but you can also overcome it by adjusting the time you have to complete your work. One article suggests shortening your workday to maximize your productivity.

Bailey also notes that following some of the strategies mentioned in Chapter 4 will reduce how often your mind wanders. When you capture all your thoughts in a list, you reduce how much working memory your personal issues take up, so your mind doesn’t wander toward them. (Shortform note: Similarly, As A Man Thinketh also suggests that having a purpose for your life reduces the chances of your mind wandering to fears, doubts, and self-pity because it gives you a positive, productive place to center your thoughts.) And when you reduce external distractions, your environment is calmer so your brain doesn’t wander towards it. (Shortform note: This isn’t always positive depending on your purposeworking in messy environments can increase creativity.)

How to Maintain Focus: Taming Your Wandering Mind

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Bailey's "Hyperfocus" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Hyperfocus summary:

  • Why it's just as important to learn how to manage your attention, along with your time
  • Why you still feel tired no matter how many breaks you take
  • Strategies for managing your attention for better productivity and creativity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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