physicalize

Remedy for Hyperfocus

Try a Refreshing Palette Cleanser

Ever get engrossed in a perfectly innocent activity—such as looking up whether or not all sloths are three-toed—and then two hours later realize that reading endless reviews of toenail clippers is keeping you from getting started on that presentation that’s due tomorrow?

The term hyperfocus refers to being riveted in an activity; so riveted that prying yourself away becomes a real challenge. When hyperfocusing on shopping for toenail clippers, for instance, you might think to yourself, I should stop this and work on my presentation for tomorrow. You know you’re hyperfocusing when you have that thought and yet continue clicking on all the color variations of this toenail clipper: light blue, hot pink, rainbow (different hues for different toes!). A few minutes later (5, perhaps, or 45…) you have the same thought again. And again. And again.… One of my clients described the state of hyperfocus as analogous to being paralyzed.

Hyperfocusing is the body’s way of saying I’m busy! I’m not listening! Have you had the experience of mentally poking, nagging, even yelling at yourself to stop what you’re doing so you can start the next activity, all the while completely ignoring yourself?

Part of the problem is that researching toenail clippers is an easy way to avoid working on that presentation; in other words, hyperfocusing is a super-effective avoidance tactic. Even if there’s no presentation to work on, making the next click on the current web page is an effortless way to avoid doing virtually anything else, including the very process of deciding what to do next, which might involve those “executive function” thingies.

So let’s make interrupting hyperfocus the easiest, lowest-commitment thing to do, something that you have no motive to avoid. As soon as you become aware that you might be hyperfocusing, take a palette cleanser moment.

I was introduced to the concept of palette cleansers on my thirtieth birthday. I was given the gift of a gourmet dinner at a restaurant called the DePuy Canal House in High Falls, NY. It was, like, nine courses, including—I kid you not—both rabbit- and venison-based appetizers. Between the rabbit and deer, my wife and I were each brought a tiny dish of sorbet. I asked if this were some abstruse European custom of inserting a proto-dessert before the main course (after all, Europeans eat salad after the entrée—and the Canal House had adopted this un-American sequence). I was informed that the sorbet1 was a “palette cleanser”: it would, in effect, rinse off my taste buds, so that the flavor—pardon me: flavour—of rabbit would be completely gone from my mouth, and the venison would be a full, untainted gustatory experience unto itself.

This is either genius or unsupportably bourgeois, but in any case we can make good use of it as a way out of hyperfocus. We can put a tiny, flavor-neutralizing activity in between a hyperfocused activity and the next activity we might be avoiding. Here’s how.

Palette Cleanser Technique

  1. When you feel like poking yourself to stop hyperfocusing, perform a benign physical action that involves the use of at least three limbs—for example:
    • standing and patting your head (two legs + one arm)
    • hopping while touching your chest and back at the same time (one leg + two arms)
    • a split with jazz hands (all four limbs)
  2. Choose what you want to do next (and what you were just hyperfocusing on must be a valid option!)

Notes

Make the palette cleanser activity both easy to do and completely non-functional; i.e. it should require no special effort, and shouldn’t be useful for accomplishing anything. Thus, doing ten push-ups is great exercise, but a risky palette cleanser. Marching in place while touching your nose (left-right, left-right, halt!) is more like it. Going to your mailbox to retrieve the mail is too useful; instead, just walk to the other side of the room and knock the wall with your pinky-knuckle. All a good palette cleanser requires is that you unseat yourself and move your limbs.

Your choice of what to do next must be unconditional. You must be able to choose anything feasible. Flying to Saturn is out of the question, but doing laundry, writing a report, eating ice cream, making dinner, ordering pizza, and going right back to what you were just doing all have to be chooseable. If you rule out any option, then whatever part of you would vote (consciously or unconsciously) for that forbidden path will work to avoid the palette cleanser activity in the first place. The palette cleanser can have no fetters. To be a neutral activity it must come with no strings attached.

The client who described her hyperfocus as paralysis tried the stand-up-and-pat-head palette cleanser, and it worked. Most of the time she chose to start doing something else, often something productive. Sometimes she chose to return to the same thing she’d been doing, but found that she usually returned for a fixed period of time—say, another 15 minutes—and then stopped without needing a second standing pat on the head.

The palette cleanser technique works because it uses your body to interrupt itself. Hyperfocus is a human behavioral version of inertial motion,2 analogous to a runaway train: it can’t be stopped just by thinking about it; it needs physical brakes. Stopping the hyperfocused motion is the goal, even if only for a minute, even if you decide to go right back to it. The purpose and the benefit of the palette cleanser technique is not to get you to be productive, it’s to give you that vital space, that precious moment, in which you can choose freely. Stopping = Freedom.

A physical spoon of sorbet is a tasty, simple, and super-effective braking method.


  1. Wine is another commonly used palette cleanser. 

  2. The law of inertial motion: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” — Isaac Newton. “Axioms, or Laws of Motion.” Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1687. (Emphasis added.) 

Emotions in the Body

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, your chest, your face, your knees and your toes. According to a recent study, emotions are felt physically:

We propose that consciously felt emotions are associated with culturally universal, topographically distinct bodily sensations that may support the categorical experience of different emotions.1

In the study, happiness was found to be a full-body, warm, active experience, whereas depression was characterized by a notable inactivity in the heart and gut areas, with decreased inner sensation in the limbs.


The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) when feeling each emotion.

How are you feeling today—right now? Can you feel your emotion in your body? Try using your hands to sense where in your body your emotion feels alive. How does your posture feel? What expression are the muscles in your face forming?

If you are feeling emotion that is overwhelming or agitating, it can help to notice the sensations arising in your body. Noticing brings an observer’s perspective, which can be calming.

And if you are feeling emotion that is so delightful you can hardly contain yourself,2 embodying it fully is a fulfilling way of appreciating the moment.


  1. Bodily maps of emotions. Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 January 14; 111(2): 646–651. Published online 2013 December 30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111 

  2. Take a moment to contemplate what it physically feels like to hardly be able to contain yourself. 

What Is a Preposition? Let’s Go Inside and See

Prepositions—e.g. “over,” “under,” “before,” “after,” “in,” “on,” “of,” and dozens more in English—are words that denote relationship between things; things including people and places;—you know, nouns. When handling prepositions it’s especially important to remember that actual people, places, and things (including ideas and other non-material yet no less real things) are what we mean when we refer to “nouns.” When thinking about prepositions if we bring to mind the real things, places, and people that are in relationship, we can accomplish two things: (1) understand the meaning of the preposition we’re using, and (2) rediscover the living pulse of language.

But before we get into the woo woo stuff, let’s solidify what prepositions are and how they work. (For your reference, here is a handy list of prepositions.) It was first explained to me that prepositions are “Anything you can do with a mountain”1: you can go over a mountain, tunnel under a mountain, hammer your way through a mountain (if you’re John Henry), and so on. Over at the website Grammar Revolution, you can see a similar graphical representation of prepositions using an apple and a worm. So far these mountain and apple examples are showing relationships of space: if you’re under a mountain you’re either a skilled spelunker or you’re screwed (like Jonah, when he found himself buried under a mountain), but in either case the mountain is spatially above you and you are spatially below the mountain. But it’s also possible to use prepositions to show relationships of time, as in the question, “I wonder what was here before this mountain rose up from the earth?”

Indeed, the apple and the mountain might be prepositionally related in various ways. The apple could be of the mountain (or of a tree that is of the mountain). The mountain existed long before the apple (and yet, should a meteor suddenly flatten the mountain, it’s possible that the apple might continue to persist after the mountain is gone). The apple might be rolling down the mountain. The apple might be thrown at the mountain. The apple might be formerly of the mountain, have rolled down the mountain, been picked up by a girl who lives in a cave of the mountain, been rejected because it is wormy, and at this very moment be poised to be thrown at the mountain in disgust.

Most of the prepositions in the previous paragraph show relationships of space, and a couple show relationships of time. The preposition “of” (and some others, depending on context) shows a different kind of relationship: a familial or genetic one. Think of the prepositional phrase that concludes the first paragraph of this post: “the living pulse of language.” There is a necessary connotation of oneness: the pulse and the language that the pulse is of participate the same existence; the pulse being spoken of is orphaned without the language that it is of.2 In the phrase “the Queen of England,” the Queen does not belong to England as a possession so much as she is inseparably related to the land of that country; she can only be the Queen of England and of no other land, just as she can only be the daughter of her mother and the mother of her children. What’s important here is the nature of the relationship per se, not whether the relationship between the Queen and England is more like the relationship between a daughter and a mother or more like that between a mother and a child. The essence of the preposition is in the relationship that exists between the two related things.

In this respect, the preposition “between” might be the queen of prepositions. For the relational meaning of any preposition is neither the one thing being brought into relationship nor the other; that is, the meaning of “of” belongs neither to the Queen nor to England, but is something else in itself. But what? How can we best grasp the meanings of prepositions? This might sound like a daft question not worth asking, but many English teachers have surely begun to notice a marked deterioration in the use of prepositions by their students in recent years, including my favorite pet peeve, the oxymoronic “based off of.”3

One of the most effective ways to choose the right preposition is to gesture with your hands. Try it. Use your hands to place one thing in another. No, really, don’t just imagine it in your mind; physically use your hands to do it. Prepositions are physical. When you walk alongside a fence, for instance, you are walking a long sidealong the side ofalong beside that fence. Gesture “alongside” with your hands. Gesture “this is for you” with your hands.

Physicalizing prepositions can help us understand them deeply. You can use your hands to gesture “between.” You can also stand in a doorway for a full minute—neither on one side nor on the other side—but right between. Try it with the outside door of your house or apartment building or dorm. Stand in the doorway between inside and outside. What is that experience of between-ness like? The doorway is analogous to the preposition: it establishes a certain relationship between the space on one side and the space on the other. There could be a quite different relationship between those two spaces; there could be a wall between them; there could be a partial wall that ends, and where the wall ends the two spaces that were separated then come together and become the same space.

Using our hands doesn’t work as well for prepositions of time. The only gesture we can make to show “before” is a spatial one, as in the lyric from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

That’s a spatial “before.” But to experience the sense of time in “before” as well as in “after,” we must employ memory. Without resorting to photographic records, compare the way a place appears before and after. Before and after what? you may ask. Try thinking about “before” as before after, and “after” as after before, in pure relationship to each other. You might recall a room that was painted, or a field that recently was snow-covered but now is beginning to bud with early spring. Contemplate the experience of the place changing from before to after; the relationship between the before and after appearance of the place. Try to hover temporally in between the two different appearances of the place, which, like photographs, are static. The in-between time relationships of the prepositions “before” and “after” themselves are not static: “before” moves from later to earlier, while “after” moves from earlier to later.

If you sit meditatively with prepositions, they begin to pulse with living meanings, meanings that inspire the kind of understanding that comes from lived experience.

Here are some mind-bending prepositional gedankenexperiments to take with you. For most interesting results, contemplate one for two uninterrupted minutes per day for several days, before moving on to try another. Focus matters here.

  • Pick a preposition, any preposition, and contemplate its meaning in and of itself.
  • I’m not sure why, but a whole class of mine once got freaked out by this preposition in particular; so consider yourself warned. Contemplate the meaning of the preposition “in.” (Is it scary? Really?)
  • There’s a spatial sense of being with a friend (as opposed to being apart), but when you reassure your friend that you are with him or her, what more than bare proximity do you mean?
  • Contemplate the relational meaning of the preposition “because.”
  • When you say you are thinking of a number from one to ten, what does it mean to think of something?

  1. Dr. Scott McPartland 

  2. In preemptive retort to grammar tyrants who will brook no prepositions at the ends of sentences, I quote Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 

  3. Think about it: based and off of are contradictories. 

Go Fish in
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