How ‘scatterfocus’ can improve focus and attention span


You have read two sentences of this article without getting distracted.

And now three. And now four. And now five. And now, according to a study in The Journal of Science and Healing, your mind is ready to find something pleasurable, threatening, and novel to focus on right about now.

It’s not your fault. Nor mine, apparently.

Our brains just crave pleasure, threatening, and novel things, and we go where our brains go. So, drool drips down our chin as the YouTube autoplay keeps auto-playing, and our eyeballs develop a thin, invisible plaque over them as we endlessly click on Instagram hashtags without blinking.

So, what do we do about it?

Well, you are 12 sentences in right now and you’re still here. That means you’re committed. That means you know that attention is the battleground of the moment. And it means you want to win.

Enter my friend, Chris Bailey, who just wrote a great book to help us help ourselves. It’s called Hyperfocus: How to be More Productive in a World of Distraction, and, according to Chris, there are three ways to increase focus and improve attention span:

1. Simplify your physical environment

Look around you right now and what do you see?

Researchers found when working in front of a computer, participants only worked on one task for an average of 40 seconds before switching to another task. And if you used instant messaging apps such as Slack, it dropped to 35 seconds.

In his book, Chris argues you can increase your attention span by simplifying your physical environment. Shackle your cellphone to a loved one. Take a one-day vacation from email. Clean your desk. Dump the comic strips and candy jars and get simple. Less distractions means greater attention spans.

And if you’re feeling really brave, you could even take an Untouchable Day once or twice a week like I do. Go on Airplane Mode all day. Turn your cellphone off. Insert yourself into a bulletproof car, free from all devices. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings, texts, and alerts bounce off the windshield. Less access to outside, more work done inside.

2. Improve focus by unfocusing

What? Really. Remember J.R.R. Tolkien: Not all those who wander are lost.

The same can be said about your attention. Let your attention wander. Let it run off and run wild into the depths of your mind.

Chris calls this “scatterfocus.” When we let our mind wander, when we truly allow it to be free, and it can lead us to some incredibly productive places. Research suggests that engaging in effortless, habitual tasks leads to a greater number of creative insights.

Our best ideas rarely come when we’re sitting at our desks or in a stuffy boardroom that smells like printer toner with someone at the front encouraging us to do “a brainstorm.” No, ideas come when we’re walking in nature, daydreaming in the shower, and doing what we love.

Chris argues that scatterfocusing has three main benefits: replenishes mental energy, helps identify and accomplish goals, and provides you with space to dream up your most brilliant and rare ideas.

3. Quality is as important as quantity

We always talk about how long our attention spans are. That’s quantity. But what about quality? According to research Chris cites from journal Consciousness and Cognition, the more control we have over our attention, the more we remember, the more we feel in control of our lives, and the more we accept ourselves.

Sounds peachy! But how? Three steps:

1. Tame problem distractions up front. Chris suggests downloading “distraction blocks” such as Freedom or Cold Turkey. I personally switch my phone to Airplane Mode while I work.

2. Create an hourly “awareness timer” to remind yourself to check what you’re doing and get back on track. I use the free Momentum dashboard for this. Whenever I open a new browser tab, it clicks back to my daily goal.

3. Set intentions more often. You need to have clear goals in order to know where you want your attention to go. I use my journal 2 Minute Mornings for this exact purpose. Every morning, I spend two minutes writing down something I’m going to let go of, a few things I’m grateful for, and importantly, what my focus will be for the day.

So, does it sound easy? We all know it’s not. This is a war, and in many ways, it’s just beginning. Everyone’s trying to squeeze every last dime from your wallet and they will employ whatever singing potato chip cans and detergent bottles to pop up at you from every single app, tool, site, podcast, or piece of content you love just to get it.

The content is a sugar coating on the little nail they’re trying to fire in your head.

So, beware of the game. Put on a helmet. And I’ll see you in the trenches.

Neil Pasricha is the bestselling author of The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Equation. His new podcast 3 Books is a Top 100 Ranked iTunes Podcast where each chapter uncovers and discusses the three most formative books of inspiring individuals. Check it out at