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

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.

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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But I also noticed that my attention span expanded. I was able to focus even more effortlessly because I wasn’t surrounded by fewer distractions. But my mind was so much less stimulated that it did not seek the distraction in the first place.

But the fun part were these ideas and plans that struck me that didn’t before. And the reason that this is the case is because my mind had a chance to wander more often.

There’s a great quote that I love that you might be familiar with from J. R. R. Tolkien where he says that:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

And the exact same thing is true, it turns out, with regard to our focus, with regard to our attention.

If you think back to when your best most brilliant ideas strike you, you rarely focused on something. Maybe this morning you were taking a shower, or maybe some morning in the past and then your mind had a chance to connect several of the constellations of ideas that were swirling around in your mind to create an idea that would never have materialized otherwise if you were focused on something else, on your phone, for example.


This is a mode especially when we do this deliberately. When we deliberately let our mind wander, I call this mode scatter focus and the research shows that it lets our mind come up with ideas, it lets our mind plan because of where our mind wanders to. This is fascinating.

It turns out that when we just let our attention rest, it goes to three main places. We think about the past; we think about the present; and we think about the future. But we think about the past less than we might think. Only about 12% of the time and often the time we’re recalling ideas in these thought wandering episodes.

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But the present which is a much more productive place to wander, we wander to think about the present 28% of the time. And so this is — it’s as simple as you’re typing up an email and you can’t find a way to phrase something because it’s very delicate, maybe it’s political. You go and walk to another room. You go to another room of the house, of the office the solution hits you because your mind had a chance to approach it and prod at that problem from different directions.

But here’s the thing: Our minds wander to think about the future more than the past and the present combined. Whenever our mind is wandering we think about the future 48% of the time. This is why when we’re taking a shower, we plan out our entire day even though it hasn’t started yet. This is called our mind’s prospective bias, and it occurs when our mind wanders.

If you’re good with math or maths, I should say, not in Canada anymore. These numbers don’t add up to 100 it’s because the rest of the time our mind is dull, it’s blank or it doesn’t have an idea inside of it that is rooted in time.

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