focus and pairing

Day 24 of 30. I was recently reading Hyperfocus, in which the author talks about two complementary modes of attention that are useful in modern knowledge work: hyperfocus and scatterfocus.

It should be noted that, as a concept, hyperfocus both predates this book and is in broader use as an aspect of neurodivergence:

‘Hyperfocus’ is a phenomenon that reflects one’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else. Hyperfocus is most often mentioned in the context of autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder...

As the book mentions, hyperfocus is quite valuable in a world that features both increasingly complex problems and increasingly persistent distractions. You may have seen it referred to as flow, or being in the zone. There's even more corporate-speak-ish terms for it: heads-down, deep work, focus time. But it's not just about setting aside the time to focus - it's about the right task, the right environment, the ability to defend that environment against intrusions, even for a short while.

Scatterfocus is in some sense the opposite: letting the mind wander, bringing those shower thoughts to the fore. This is a mode of creativity and openness, a space in which you can zoom out from the details, see connections between ideas that previously seemed completely disconnected, appreciate the big picture. Here, too, the time isn't enough - you need the right environment, maybe a shower, maybe a walk out in nature, a chair or hammock in just the right location, perhaps a notebook or whiteboard at hand for stray ideas.

The idea of the book is that you need both. Hyperfocus and scatterfocus: trees and forest, sprints and active rest.

I wonder, too, if this is an advantage of pair programming, where developers pair up to work together on a problem. When pairing, usually one person drives and one navigates. The driver has hands on keyboard, with their attention on detail and execution. The navigator sits next to them, and guides the pair towards the bigger-picture goal: maybe it's a particular feature, or bugfix, or a thorny technical problem.

This is the core benefit of working in teams: done properly, you assemble a toolbox that is both broader and deeper than any single person could reasonably have. Pairing is a microcosm of this dynamic - and in this case, you combine details with big picture, a bit of hyperfocus and a bit of scatterfocus. These two modes are different enough that no single person can hold them both in mind at once, but with two people you can work around this psychological limitation.

Of course, it doesn't always work in this idyllic manner. Chances are you've been on that road trip where driver and navigator don't quite agree on the destination, or where the navigator is overly critical, or the driver just a bit too careless, or there's someone in the backseat who just can't help but add to the conversation. Here, as in individual deep work, you need the right environment - and the ability to guard against distractions.