Have You Ever Tried Scatterfocus?

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Well, hello again! After the month-long February podcast-athon, even a few days away from the podcast felt like ages! And we’re back to our regular schedule of Wednesdays, with bonus episodes for subscribers every other Friday.

Today I want to talk about an interesting idea called Scatterfocus.

Do you ever feel like you are too distracted to sit down and focus on a project? Creative work can be notoriously slow. Sometimes it’s tedious. It might be quiet and it might be harder to focus on than, say, the alerts going off on your phone. Thanks to modern technology (which I love, don’t get me wrong), but thanks to modern technology, our brains are trained to need different or new stimulation every 40 seconds or so. Which means that we’re now people who are constantly looking for the next stimulating thing. The next adorable puppy video, the next beautiful picture of sourdough, the next crocheter quickly moving their hook to reveal a new design, the next intricate cookie design being piped into place by a skilled cookie artisan.

And I love all of this as much as the next person. It’s inspiring, it’s fun, and it’s a great way to just mentally unwind.

But. There’s always a but.

Sometimes we are more inclined to watch other people do the thing, than we are to do it for ourselves.

Watching someone paint a gorgeous loose watercolor floral is satisfying, because it probably looks beautiful. Watching it come together right before your eyes is tantalizing. And it might inspire you get your paints out. But more than likely, it won’t.

According to market researcher Dscout, Americans, on average, touch their phones an astounding 2,617 times a day.

According to recent data, the average person spends 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phone every day. And 1 in 5 users spends as much as 4.5 hours on average on their phones every day.

We might think we’re looking for inspiration, but what we might be doing is just distracting ourselves.

If you ever feel like you a) don’t have time to pursue your creative passion, or b) can’t focus enough to make progress, then maybe Scatterfocus is what you need.

“Scatterfocus” is intentionally letting your mind wander. Which – in today’s instant-information landscape – is pretty hard to do. Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus, says that practicing “scatterfocus” can actually help you improve your ability to focus your attention. And it all starts with your phone.

In his Ted Talk, Chris Bailey talks about the origin of this idea: it started when he realized he was spending an unbelievable amount of time every day on his devices. Sometimes he had four devices alerting him at once. But the worst offender was his phone. So he did an experiment – for a month he cut down his phone time to just 30 minutes a day. Now I should say here that I would not be willing to do this – and I’m not suggesting that you would have to – but there is a lesson here in what he learned when he was able to reduce his baseline of distraction and embrace a lower level of mental stimulation throughout the day.

Chris said it took about a week to adjust, and when he did he noticed three significant changes:

First, his attention span had seemed to grow.

Second, He had more ideas.

Third, He had more plans and thoughts about the future.

When he noticed these benefits, it led him on a research journey to learn more, but more specifically he wanted to understandhow technology is affecting our ability to focus. He described that he used this new level of focus and longer attention span to begin researching everything he could about how our attention and focus are impacted. He flew around the world to meet with experts. He read research papers. He described his office as looking like a detective’s murder board with all of these different studies, newspaper clippings and articles pinned on the wall with strings attaching one to the other. He was all in.

His research led him to discover that when we’re working in front of a computer with a phone nearby, the data suggests that we will be distracted or lose focus about every 40 seconds. And I wish this weren’t true for me, but as I was working on this outline, I literally stopped mid-sentence and checked my phone. I fear he may be right.

But here’s what’s interesting – we assume that the issue is that our brains are distracted. When in fact, the issue is: our brains are overstimulated. We crave distraction and so we are distracted. When I just picked up my phone a few minutes ago, it wasn’t even giving me an alert. I just picked it up out of sheer habit, because my brain wanted a distraction.

And did you know that we get a little hit of dopamine every time we respond to a social media distraction, so of course our brains nudge us to do it.

So we’re all moving around through life in this state of hyperstimulation – and while I recognize that this doesn’t sound like we’re talking about creativity today, but stick with me, because this applies to us and why we’re probably not making the progress on our creative goals that we’d like to. So we’re going to circle back to that. But we’re moving around through life in this state of hyperstimulation and the alternative is…. BOREDOM.

Remember boredom? I remember being a kid and being bored. I’m a GenXer and my mom would literally lock us out of the house in the summer and wish us luck. So we would wander around outside, climb trees, read books on the back porch, drink out of the hose (which I have learned is a shocking fact to today’s youth who cannot imagine such a horrible thing). But I remember that feeling of being bored. And being bored is something that few of us experience anymore. I remember having sleepovers with friends and we would stay up so late that the TV turned to static. That’s how we knew we might as well go to bed, because there was nothing else left to watch. There was no such thing as unlimited information or unlimited stimulation like there is today.

So author Chris Bailey took his personal challenge to the next level – he decided to make himself be bored for one hour a day. He asked his blog readers for ideas on the most boring things they could think of to give him some ideas. On day one, he read the iTunes Terms & Conditions for one hour. On day four, he waited on hold with Air Canada’s baggage claim department. Can you imagine? I don’t think he even had a baggage claim issue – he was just choosing to be bored. On day 10 he spent an hour counting the zeroes in pi. (You know 3.14159 etc… pi). On day 24 he watched a clock for an hour.

These sound like an absolutely ridiculous waste of time. But this experiment had a similar effect on his attention – just like the smart phone experiment. After about a week he noticed that his brain had adjusted again to a lower level of stimulation. Meaning: it didn’t crave distraction as frequently.

I don’t know if you remember the episode where I talked about the art professor who assigns her students the task of going to an art gallery and sitting in front of one piece of art for 3 hours without looking at their phones or without moving around (other than trips to the bathroom). It’s the same idea that Mr. Bailey is talking about here.

When we intentionally remove the option of distraction, we give our brains an opportunity to reduce their need for hyperstimulation. And the impact goes beyond just that moment – the benefits stay with you.

Your attention span will grow. And it gets easier to focus. Your need for constant distraction will reduce because your brain doesn’t require as much constant stimulation.

Chris Bailey said that not only did he experience focus more easily and a longer attention span, but that he suddenly began to have so many more ideas and those ideas turned into plans. And this is all because he gave his mind the opportunity to wander.

How often are you giving your own mind the opportunity to wander? I often refer to this as “white space” which is something that I know really helps me and gives me the ability to think bigger, more interesting thoughts and come up with ideas that I would have never had otherwise. Chris Bailey calls this Scatterfocus, and it’s an intentional approach to deliberately leaving extra room in our working memory which will allow the mind to wander.

Now, some of us may resist this idea because it can be a little worrisome to be left alone with your own thoughts, which might be why we seek distraction in the first place. In today’s modern world, we really never have to be alone with our thoughts if we don’t want to be. But the benefits of letting our minds wander far outweigh any risk of sitting alone with our own thoughts.

#1: Scatterfocus – or letting your mind wander – Helps You Plan for the Future

When our mind wanders, we spend 88% of this time thinking about either the present or the future. This gives us an opportunity to think about our goals and how we want to achieve them, and the progress that we’re making in the areas that matter to us.

#2: Scatterfocus Increases Our Creativity

Creativity involves making connections between different parts of our brain. When we let our minds wander, we give ourselves the mental space we need to make these connections. New connections and new ideas will be triggered because we’re giving our brain the opportunity to do its thing without an outside distraction.

#3: Scatterfocus also allows us to rest

When you let your mind wander, you don’t have to spend as much mental energy regulating your behavior. It gives your brain a break and allows you to recharge.

By intentionally letting your mind wander, you are inviting the creative muse to visit. If you feel like you are too distracted or don’t have time to put your creative ideas into action, or if you feel like you just don’t have the ideas you need to move forward, maybe the answer is boredom. Challenge yourself to make time – 30 minutes or an hour a day where you are intentionally unplugging and letting your mind wander. Keep a notebook nearby so that you can scribble down any ideas if they happen. And remember, it’ll be pretty uncomfortable at first, but if you make this a regular part of your day, it will get easier and easier. And you will begin to see the benefits unfold.

Until next time my friend, you’ve got this.

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