How to Get Your Brain to Focus: Chris Bailey (Full Transcript)

Chris Bailey at TEDxManchester

Best quote for this talk:

 “If there’s one thing that I have found to be true after doing this deep dive into this world on how we focus, it’s that the state of our attention is what determines the state of our lives.” – Chris Bailey

In this talk at TEDxManchester, Chris Bailey, author of the recent book Hyperfocus, talks about how our ability to focus is the key to productivity, creativity, and living a meaningful life.

Following is the full transcript of this talk titled “How to Get Your Brain to Focus”.


Chris Bailey – Author

A few years ago, I began to observe something in my own behavior that made me a bit uncomfortable. And that was that from the moment that I woke up to the morning — to the end of the day, my life was a series of screens.

I started the day with the thing that woke me up first thing in the morning: my phone. And so I sat there in bed, watching various cooking videos on Instagram and bouncing around between a bunch of different applications.

But then it was time to get out of bed and cook breakfast. And so the thing that I focused then on, in addition to the omelette in the pan, was the iPad that was right next to the oven and then it was time to do some work. And so I went to a different screen which was attached to another screen itself, all the while this little devil on my wrist was tapping and beeping and blooping and distracting me as I was trying to get important stuff done.

But there was one particular offender out of all of these different devices that I wasted more time on than anything else. That was this dastardly thing: my phone. I could spend hours on this thing every single day.

And so I decided to essentially for all intents and purposes get rid of the thing for a month. As an experiment, I thought I’m going to live on this thing for just 30 minutes every single day at a maximum. And so this is the amount of time I have for maps. This is the amount of time to call my mother. This is the amount of time that I have for everything that I could possibly want to do: to listen to music; to listen to podcasts.

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And I observed what happened during this time.

It took about a week to adjust downward into a new lower level of stimulation. But once I did, I noticed that three curious things began to happen.

First, my attention span grew. It was like I could focus on things, not effortlessly but with much more ease than I could before this experiment started.

In addition to this, though, as I was going about the world and especially when my mind wandered a bit, I had more ideas that my mind arrived at. And on top of this, I had more plans and thoughts about the future. Getting rid of one simple device led to these three effects.


Noticing this a few years back led me on this long journey to get to the bottom of what it takes to focus in a world of distraction. I pored over hundreds of research papers from front to back in my office. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched one of those crime shows where somebody’s solving a murder and so they have this big bristol board and there’s string attached to papers attached to memos attached to newspaper clippings. This is like what the state of my office was.

I flew out to meet experts around the world who study focus. I conducted more experiments on myself, and tell the point. I had 25,000 words of research notes about why this is the case.

How does technology influence our attention and our ability to focus?

I want to start with the attention spans that we have. This is how we pay attention to the world around us and how much control we have over our focus.

The research around this particular area is fascinating. It turns out that when we too work in front of a computer especially when our phone is nearby, we focus on one thing for just 40 seconds before we switch to doing something else. And when we have things like slack open as we’re doing some work, this lowers to 35 seconds.

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But the reason that this is the case is not what we might think after looking at the research. We think the problem is that our brains are distracted.

But after looking at the research, this is what I’ve come to know as a symptom for the deeper problem which runs much more deeply; it’s the root cause of this distraction. It’s not that we’re distracted; it’s that our brains are over stimulated. It’s that we crave distraction in the first place. Our brains love these tiny little nuggets of information and social media and email and these things that we do over the course of the day.


There’s even a mechanism in our mind called the novelty bias by which our mind rewards us with a hit of dopamine, one of those wonderful pleasure chemicals, the same one that we get when we eat and order a whole medium pizza from Domino’s, the same one that we get when we make love. We get that same stimulation when we check Facebook. We get this dopamine coursing through our mind. And so we not only crave distraction but our mind rewards us for seeking out and finding distraction in the first place.

So this is the state of our minds today. We’re at this hyper-stimulated state where we bounce around between these bunch of different objects of attention that are very very stimulating for our mind.

And so I thought okay, if the phone had this impact on my attention span, what if I lowered how stimulated I was even more still.


And so I’ve — this feeling that we experience when we go from being in a state of high stimulation into a state of low stimulation, it has a name. That name is called boredom. You know this is restlessness that we feel when we have this super busy week and then we’re lying on the couch on a Sunday afternoon thinking what am I doing.

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So I challenged — I put out a call to the readers of my website and I asked them what is the most boring thing that you can think of doing? I’m going to make myself bored for an hour a day for a month.

And so I did some stuff that I still upset about from my readers to this day.

Day 1: I read the iTunes terms and conditions for one hour. It’s actually shorter and more readable than you might think.

Day 4: I waited on hold with Air Canada’s baggage claims department. It’s very easy. This is the trick if you want to make yourself bored, don’t call the reservations department, call the baggage claim people because you’re going to wait for hours if you ever get through it all.

Day 19: I counted all the zeros that I could in the first 10,000 digits of pi.

Day 24: I watched a clock. Tick… tick… for one hour.

And 27 other activities this month. Geez, I still think back.

But curiously I noticed the exact same effects as I did during the smartphone experiment. It took about a week for my mind to adjust downward into a newer lower level of stimulation. And this maps curiously on top of research that shows that it takes our mind about eight days to fully calm down and rest like when we’re on the vacation as an example. Our vacations need to be longer than they are today.

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