“Why can’t I focus?” isa common, yet unsurprising, frustration a lot of us feel deep in our bones.
It’s a wonder anyone can get anything done in our hyper-distracted society.
Social media, emails, endless notifications. We’re trained like Pavlov’s dog to respond to the stream of notifications relentlessly dinging from our devices.
Corporate culture breeds distraction with pointless meetings, emails, and co-workers interrupting each other throughout the day. How much productive and focused work is really being done?
On top of that, you have a life to live. Errands. Family. Maybe even kids. And you likely want to squeeze in time for fun, spending time with people, healthy habits like exercise, and other hobbies you enjoy.
How the heck is anyone supposed to be focused in the world we live in today?
It’s impossible to rid yourself of distractions.
The good news? You don’t have to.
But you do need to carve out some time to be more focused. Your only goal should be to get a little bit more focused each day—instead of trying to overcome every single distraction, because that’s impossible.
Here are some tips that can help.
A simple two-step method for staying focused and getting important work done
No fancy calendars, productivity apps, or esoteric methods are necessary. When you’re structuring your days—whether it’s things you need to do for work, tasks for a personal project, or skills you want to develop—structure things in a way where you have a designated block of time for important work.
Next, figure out what is *actually* important.
This is where short to-do lists come in. Most people add way too much to their plate. This causes anxiety and keeps them from getting anything done. Super long to-do lists create these “open loops” in your brain. You’re left always thinking about the tasks you didn’t finish because your list was too long to complete.
My daily to-dos are three items long at most. Often, I just do one thing. I learned about this concept from a book called “The One Thing.” Basically, it says to reverse engineer success by figuring out one thing you need to do each day, week, month, year, etc., to build a life and career you love. My one thing is usually writing something every day. And I’ve done it pretty much every day for years.
My routine has remained the same, too. I block out time in the morning to write. When I had a day job, I blocked out an hour of writing time before I went to work. While I was at work, I blocked out the beginning part of my day to work on the most important tasks. I created very simple routines I repeated over and over again.
Don’t try to achieve a high level of focus all at once if you’re not used to it. This seems like simple advice, but most people fail because they bite off more than they can chew.
I teach people how to become writers. Most of my students struggle with staying focused and publishing consistently. I always tell them to shrink the time window they’re using to write.
If they attempt to write for an hour a day, I tell them to cut it down to a half-hour. If they’re still struggling, I tell them to just write for 10 minutes. Either that or just sit there and stare at the screen. But no getting up from the chair and no checking other tabs and social media.
The ones who block off focused time (the amount that works for them) end up becoming much more productive. The ones who think they need to write a lot, right away, continue struggling.
Humility is one of the most overlooked traits you need to build focus and be more productive. Start at whatever level is required for you to maintain a state of absolute focus. Once you’re able to do that, your window grows. Over time, you’re able to accomplish the holy grail of focus and productivity.
The holy grail of focus
Have you ever experienced a long period of time where you lost the sense of the outside world, where you were in the zone, where you’ve looked up to realize that hours have gone by without you noticing? That’s flow.
Here’s the definition provided by the author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
[Flow] is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Forcing yourself to focus for short periods of time eventually leads to focus that you don’t have to force. You hit a groove and all of a sudden you lose yourself in whatever you’re doing. The more often you enter flow states, the easier it is to do it over and over again.
I notice that flow happens when you put yourself in motion instead of thinking. Just start doing whatever the task at hand requires without judging yourself about the quality. Using writers as an example again, I often find it’s best to just start moving my fingers if I can’t think of something to write. Even if it’s gibberish.
You always feel the most resistance when you’re beginning a certain activity. So there’s no better piece of advice than this: Find a way to throw yourself into the task. Just start. It’ll be choppy at first. You might have entire sessions that are choppy. But eventually, you’ll hit flow states more quickly.
This creates a cascade of benefits that don’t just make you more productive but improve your entire life.
Benefits of flow states
You get a period of time where you get to escape from the everyday stresses of the world.
You understand that time spent doing an activity doesn’t matter as much as focus, so you’ll stop worrying about the need to be productive all the time. You’re not here to be a robot, you’re here to live life.
There’s a general spillover effect of finding moments of flow in your life. Once you’re able to find it in one activity, you can find it in others, which provides you with even more time of noise-free enjoyment.
Short and focused time blocks lead to larger time blocks. Larger time blocks lead to more flow. More flow leads to even larger time blocks and longer periods of flow. You can use these increasingly long periods to change your life by using them to get really good at something.
When it comes to distractions, prioritization is key
I may have buried the lede here, but the key to increased focus is figuring out something worth focusing on in the first place. Most people want to be focused and productive for the sake of it, but the point of productivity is to produce something.
It’s a means to an end, not the end itself. The most useful ends are things that bring meaning, joy, or purpose to your life. Everything else doesn’t need to be a huge priority in your life. You don’t need to achieve peak perfection and productivity. Find a few things that matter. Devote your focus to them and stop worrying about everything else.
Don’t waste your peak focus on these tasks
Managerial work like answering emails
Tasks you think are important but don’t actually move the needle in your life
Where you should devote time and effort to build peak focus
Anything that increases your physical or mental health like exercise and meditation
You only have so much mental bandwidth and it’s important where you use it. You can’t eliminate all of the petty annoyances and errands of your life, career, or business—but you can structure your days and life in a way that gets them done without robbing you of too much precious time.
Batch errands and managerial tasks after you’ve done your important work. If possible, delegate tasks you don’t need to do yourself. Learn to say no to obligations that aren’t worth your time.
Final thoughts: When you can’t focus, start small
Most of the advice in this post involves doing a few things really well instead of trying to do everything well. Carve out time in your day to focus in a distraction-free environment (instead of ridding yourself of all distractions).
You don’t need herculean efforts to move the needle. It’s all about consistency and the momentum you build from focused work repeated day after day. Distractions will creep into your life, but you don’t need to get rid of every last one of them to be productive—not even close.
Instead, focus on prioritizing important tasks and getting them done without fail. When you do that, other things start to fall in place. You’ll build a higher level of productivity and alleviate yourself from the anxiety about what you need to do next.
Keep it simple, grow your focus muscle, and watch your life become much more efficient one day at a time.