Scatterfocus: The Benefits of Letting Your Mind Wander

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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What is “scatterfocus”? What are the benefits of letting your mind be in the scatterfocus state?

“Scatterfocus” is intentional mind-wandering—letting your mind roam free without any point of focus. According to Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus, practicing “scatterfocus” can actually help you improve your ability to focus your attention.

Keep reading to learn about the benefits of intentional mind-wandering, why you resist it, and why you should do it anyway.

The Benefits of Scatterfocus

When you hyperfocus, you direct your attention to a cognitively demanding task that takes up most of your working memory. Bailey explains that in order to intentionally mind-wander, you do the opposite: You deliberately leave a lot of room in your working memory, which causes the mind to wander. 

Why Does Your Mind Wander? 

Bailey states that leaving room in your working memory gives your mind the space it needs to wander, but it’s unclear why your mind wanders when you give it that space. He does state that intentional mind-wandering “lights up your brain’s default network—the network it returns to when you’re not focused on something.” Research indicates that the default network is active when your mind wanders. So it’s possible that having spare working memory activates your brain’s default network and thus causes your mind to wander. 

But having spare working memory is also the reason you notice that your mind has wandered, which further complicates the relationship between spare working memory and mind-wandering. This may explain why Bailey skips the neuroscientific explanation and instead just states that the more working memory you have available, the more your mind wanders.

Why You Resist Intentional Mind-Wandering

We’ll cover Bailey’s specific techniques for intentional mind-wandering in the next section.

But first: why would you want to intentionally mind-wander? After all, you just spent several pages learning techniques to prevent your mind from wandering so that you could hyperfocus on your highest-impact tasks. Furthermore, you likely dislike the idea of intentional mind-wandering—a preference Bailey attributes to your biological tendencies.  

Bailey suggests that people resist the idea of intentional mind-wandering because they’re terrified of being left alone with their own thoughts. As we’ve discussed, your focus is naturally drawn to potential dangers—a disposition that kept us alive in primitive times. 

But in modern times, external dangers are few. Bailey posits that the biggest threats we encounter are our own fears and anxieties. Bailey argues that we avoid letting our minds wander because we assume that if we do, we’ll have to face these threats, aka our fears and anxieties—which we dislike doing because it’s unpleasant. And in the modern world, you never have to sit with your thoughts if you don’t want to. You always have access to something, like your smartphone, that can distract you from your own mind. (Shortform note: It’s possible that this reliance on our phones increases our resistance to intentional mind-wandering. If you never let your mind wander because it’s scary, you might mentally exaggerate how scary mind-wandering is—which causes you to avoid it even more.)

(Shortform note: Bailey doesn’t explicitly state this, but there are presumably two elements of mind-wandering that stress people out: The idea that we have to be totally alone with our thoughts, and the idea that we also can’t use our phones. If you struggle with being alone in general, this New York Times article has several suggestions—like starting small and realizing that excessive stress may be a sign you need professional support. If you’re intimidated by your own thoughts, it also suggests journaling as a method for processing those emotions.)

Why You Should Practice Intentional Mind-Wandering

However, Bailey argues, this resistance is unfounded: While our minds do ruminate on negative thoughts when they wander towards the past, they only wander towards the past 12% of the time. (Shortform note: Interestingly, the paper that found that people’s minds wander 47% of the time also found that mind-wandering decreases our mood no matter the topic. As we’ll see later, Bailey cites this portion of the study but argues that it decreases your mood only when the mind-wandering is involuntary. The study discusses only unintentional mind-wandering, so it’s not clear if the authors would agree with Bailey.)

More importantly, Bailey explains that mind-wandering isn’t inherently bad. Mind-wandering is only problematic during hyperfocus because it distracts you from your original intention and reduces your productivity. But mind-wandering has several benefits. 

#1: Mind-Wandering Helps You Plan for the Future

When our mind wanders, we spend 88% of this time thinking about either the present or the future. Both are essential for our success. We can’t simultaneously focus on and reflect on a task—so our wandering thoughts about the present allow us to reflect and consider alternate solutions to our problems. Conversely, our thoughts about the future allow us to think about our long-term goals and adjust our present circumstances so that we can achieve them.

Why You Must Mind-Wander to Think About the Future

You may argue that you can reflect on your current tasks and think about the future without necessarily letting your mind wander—you could, for example, hyperfocus on discovering what’s wrong with your current approach or thinking up how you’ll increase your finances by 10% next year.

For reasons that are unclear, Bailey appears to think this is impossible, arguing that you must “step back” to “consider alternative approaches to the task,” and that “without entering scatterfocus mode, you never think about the future.” 

#2: Mind-Wandering Increases Our Creativity

Creativity involves making connections between disparate fields in our brain. When we let our minds wander, we give ourselves the mental space we need to make these connections. (Shortform note: We’ll elaborate more on this in our discussion about creativity, in Chapters 8-9.)

#3: Mind-Wandering Lets Us Rest

Previously, we discussed how regulating our behavior exhausts our brain. When you let your mind roam free, you stop regulating your behavior. So mind-wandering gives your brain a break and helps you recharge. (Shortform note: We’ll elaborate more on this in our discussion about rest, in Chapter 7.)

The Benefits of Intentional Mind-Wandering 

Technically, you can experience the benefits of mind-wandering whether it’s intentional or not. But mind-wandering intentionally maximizes the benefits of mind-wandering. 

Firstly, Bailey explains that in order to experience the full benefits of mind-wandering, you need to remember what you thought of—which you can do better if you’re mind-wandering intentionally. As we’ll see, a common thread in Bailey’s intentional mind-wandering techniques is to pay attention to and write down the thoughts you have so you don’t forget them. For example, a creative insight you gain while mind-wandering is useless if you can’t remember what it was. But if your mind wanders unintentionally, you may not even notice that your mind has wandered—so you’re far less likely to remember any creative insights you have.

Why Memory Techniques Don’t Work When Mind-Wandering

You might assume that you can increase the likelihood that you’ll remember what you think of when your mind wanders by improving your memory more generally. But most memory techniques—like the ones Moonwalking with Einstein describes—involve transforming information into a form your brain is naturally inclined to remember.

To do this, you must focus on the piece of information, which will stop your mind from wandering. Of course, writing down the thoughts you have also forces you to focus momentarily. But writing down the thoughts you have is easy and likely disrupts your mind-wandering less, whereas trying to transform your thoughts in order to remember them presumably requires more mental energy and is thus more disruptive.

Secondly, intentional mind-wandering allows you to experience only the benefits of mind-wandering and avoid its potentially unpleasant effects. For example, Bailey notes that some things that cause mind-wandering have unpleasant side effects: Namely, boredom makes your mind wander but also makes you feel anxious. If you mind-wander intentionally, you can experience only the benefits of mind-wandering and avoid feeling anxious. (Shortform note: If you ever feel bored again, reframe your perspective to reduce your anxiety: Think of it as the ideal moment to try intentionally mind-wandering.)

Similarly, unintentional mind-wandering is a major source of distraction during hyperfocus, which makes it a type of double-edged sword. On the one hand, if your mind wanders unintentionally during a hyperfocus session, you might be happy if—for example—you gain a creative insight. On the other hand, since your mind is wandering, your hyperfocus session isn’t as productive as you want it to be. Intentional mind-wandering allows you to avoid this quandary altogether: You focus when you need to focus and let your mind wander when you want it to wander. 

Bailey also notes that involuntary mind-wandering worsens your mood—and even if you’re thinking about a positive topic, mind-wandering doesn’t significantly boost your mood. He posits that intentional mind-wandering doesn’t worsen your mood because your mind is doing what you want it to so you don’t feel stressed or guilty about it. (Shortform note: Unintentional mind-wandering normally worsens your mood, but not always: One study found that unintentional mind-wandering about something interesting is associated with a more positive mood.)  

Therefore, in order to access the benefits of mind-wandering, Bailey recommends intentional mind-wandering.

Scatterfocus: The Benefits of Letting Your Mind Wander

———End of Preview———

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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