Why You Struggle To Focus And What To Do About It

by Karl Rohde — Get free updates of new posts here. Photo Credit: Karl Rohde

A subscriber to WorkLikeAnArtist.com reached out and asked me if I had any thoughts on getting focused. It got me thinking about how well I focus and how consistent I am at getting important and meaningful things done and what I could say of value on the topic.

The reality for me is that I’m pretty good at initiating ideas and getting something started but quite often I find myself caught up in the busy-ness of work and life. From there I lose track, get distracted and then find myself procrastinating. Days can go by where I am very busy but really get very little done and then other days I can clear my desk, zero out my inbox and smash through a mountain of important things.

Does this sound familiar? How about you?

This got me thinking about why we struggle to focus and more importantly how we can overcome ourselves, get clear, get in gear and do the things that matter.

Why Focusing is a Monster Challenge

  1. We don't know what is really important to us. The big picture of your career and or life is missing. We often just take the next step in front of us without much idea of where we’ll end up in say 500 steps time.
  2. We are immersed in technology. Oh how we love technology and the dopamine fix it brings to our lives. First it was TV draining our time and now we have smartphones and tablets. We are so amazing we can watch TV and our smartphone at the same time - ha ha. We all know we should be watching less TV but in reality the TV has mutated and now we have streams of media coming at us non-stop and on-demand; even our babies and kids are addicted. In general technology is pretty cool these days and we can't seem to get enough. This thing we love is making it increasingly harder to focus.
  3. You’re in denial that you’re bored, uninspired, resigned to your lot in life. I see this all the time. People have lost their sense of curiosity and interest in their work. But…..they’re busy. Todd Henry, best selling author of Die Empty, suggests the problem is that many people succumb to the numbness of boredom, and instead of taking it as a cue to stoke the fires of their curiosity, they fill the lull with entertainment or something that gives them a ping and stays the boredom. These are people he calls the “busily bored”. They are very active, but they aren’t asking good questions or pursuing their natural curiosity.
  4. People around you are stuck in a mental rut and are going nowhere and it gives you a smidge of comfort because you realise you're not alone. You won't really admit it but you’ve got a tribe so it’s OK to keep the party-in-the-rut going.
  5. You’re too comfortable. As author of the Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss says: Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. When you're privileged to have comfort there is little pressure externally to drive you. Without external threats all you face is yourself and this is way tougher as this means control of your very being.
  6. You’re relying on your subconscious. Like driving a car, most us are unconsciously competent in our our jobs. KNOW THIS: All great things happen with a conscious thought. When you don't have time to think intentionally you become predictable as your trusty subconscious mind takes over and runs your life. Your subconscious won’t change unless your conscious mind engages and creates new patterns for it to follow.
  7. We’re in a vicious cycle of chaos. The late Stephen Covey coined the terms "constant white water", and "the thick of thin things" to describe how our lives are jam packed with pressures, demands and the constant call of unimportant yet urgent things.
  8. You can’t identify a higher purpose to your work. It’s just a job you reason. You're there for the money. You hang out for Friday and the weekend and dread Mondays.
  9. You have massive to-do lists. Initially it was a good idea to get organised but you lacked the motivation to actually do the work and now you have a to-do list that is a reminder what a loser you are….so you just look at it and say…."OK I’ll get onto that tomorrow."
  10. You’re in the habit of passing time as quickly as you can. To do something that matters is so overwhelming you figure it’s better to be busy with anything to feel like you’re being useful. Another meeting, some more emails, a quick snack, a few more chats, a play on the iPhone, a few websites, a cup of tea. This is classic procrastination that Robin Sharma refers to as our inner saboteur. Ryan Holiday, author of, The Obstacle is the Way, aptly points out that "Distractions are a relief that you seek from boring, excruciating work."
  11. You don’t know what it is but the office is not quite working out for you. As the clever people at Teamgantt.com say: The modern office is full of distractions and we don’t get long chunks of focus time.

How to Find Your Focus

  1. Everyday, write down on paper 1-2 things that are really important to you for the day and drill that. To find out your purpose in life is a noble endeavour worth pursuing but beware; it's fraught with danger as it can lead you down paths that end up in mass time destruction. To keep focused stick to a shortlist of tasks limited to the day ahead.
  2. Know your priorities. “The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.” ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
  3. Don’t wait to get inspired. You could be waiting for a very long time. Be a professional and do the work. Stop trying to question the meaning in everything as this can create paralysis and become an intelligent form of procrastination. As painter Chuck Close said: Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.
  4. Take stock of your technology addiction. Be sure you control it instead of it controlling you.
  5. Be sure to start your day with a plan. Top business coach, Robin Sharma, is a big proponent of using the first hour of your day with intentional thought and visualisation, without technology. Get a journal and start your day with a clear outline. Review the things that define your life - goals, vision, mission health, family, etc. This is akin to setting the rudder and sail of your day. Avoid jumping straight into the whirlpool of chaos like you may have done yesterday.
  6. Get the balance right between work and the rest of your life. It can’t be all about working more and longer. Identify things outside of your work that recharge you and work them into your routine.
  7. Burn your current to-do list. If it really mattered you would have done whatever it was on your list. Start a new one and find a system that works for you. Be sure to capture everything you need to do in one place. Check out how I use WorkFlowy. I’m also finding much joy using the Kanban system which you can adapt to most tools. Frank Degenaar from the Productivity Mashup Blog put me onto another neat tool called TeuxDeux. Or try a quirky approach to an emotional version of your to-do list. Finding a tool and a system will be a keystone moment in your life as most productivity enthusiasts will attest. For me it was GTD and the Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.
  8. Be conscious about what you are doing. Ask yourself repeatedly throughout the day: Am I doing something that matters or am I just being busy?
  9. Identify people who can challenge you and engage with them. Conversely identify those who are just like you, who have a problem with focusing, and reduce contact. Remember this wise counsel from Jim Rohn: You are the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with.
  10. Make arrangements to work from home or move to a quiet room where you can steal chunks of silence to have pure distraction free zones. "It’s true the creatives among us who make ideas happen have a remarkable ability to ignore distractions. But being creative and productive requires long stretches of focus, a commodity that is shrinking in the face of present shock. --Scott McDowell."
  11. Identify what makes you come alive. Do things that excite and inspire you. If your job does not directly buzz you, find a way to blend what does buzz you into your work. I'm a firm believer in walking to the beat of your own drum as it’s our uniqueness that adds the most value to the world. It’s hard to focus on boring things so make sure you have something that pulls you on a stimulating level. Do the thing you can't not do, if that makes sense.
  12. Establish hard edges in your day. Set a start time and a finish time for your workday—even if you work alone. Dedicate different times of day to different activities: creative work, meetings, correspondence, administrative work, and so on. These hard edges keep tasks from taking longer than they need to and encroaching on your other important work. They also help you avoid workaholism, which is far less productive than it looks.
  13. Make time to focus. It won’t happen on its own. You must make space for the seeds of small steps to amass into giant leaps of success.

To unleash your best work, you must be aware of your deeper questions, and dedicate time and resources in your life to pursuing them. This is a key way that great contributors become even more skilled, more valuable in the workplace, and more satisfied with their own work. --Todd Henry, the Accidental Creative.

If there is a simple message you take away I hope it’s this: Focus is all about clarity of purpose, so get clear on outcomes. Getting clear is all about control so be decisive about what you do with your time. We need headspace to join the varied dots in our life, so like Ghandi and Einstein stop and find quiet time to let your mind distil the events in your life. Whatever you do keep it simple and make it fun.

Thanks for reading another WorkLikeAnArtist.com article.

Question: What are your thoughts and insights on finding your focus? Leave a comment in the box below. If you liked this post please share on your social networks, email to a few friends or reply to this to email me. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn