How to Focus When You Just Can’t

Tips for Building a More Disciplined Mind in a Distracted World

Source: Elena Taranenko on Unsplash

What Focus Is

The term “focus” likely brings some imagery to mind — a meditation cushion surrounded by glowing candles, glasses perched upon a searching face, the lamp icon on the Spotify playlist…

While these may point to some strategies for focus, none of them explicitly tell us what focus is.

Some research suggests that focus is related to a person’s ability to filter unwanted distractions by toggling between two circuits in the brain: the default mode circuit and the central executive system.

According to Peter Pressman, MD, the default mode network — or DMN — is a neural network most active when your brain is at rest, and inactive when you’re at work. “When the brain is directed towards a task or goal, the default network deactivates,” Dr. Pressman writes. The central executive system, by contract, manages our working memories, processes and stores visual input, and handles decision making.

Interestingly, what we call focus isn’t one of these single systems at work. Rather, our ability to focus lies in our ability to “switch” between one system and the other — or, between directed neural action and a lack thereof.

In other words, growing our focus may simply come down to the classic advice of working smarter, not harder.

So — want to strengthen your ability to make that streamlined, focused switch?

Already fear-sweating at the thought of needing to makeover your whole life?

Don’t panic.

Instead, give yourself a few calming breaths — to tap into that default mode network — and recruit your best problem solver — the central executive system, of course — to determine the strategies that work best for you.


Unplug. Really.

We are living in a tech-addled world. We use devices for work, play, romance, and finding lost pets. You probably don’t need to read this study published in The University of Chicago Press — the one that says the mere presence of a smartphone can decrease cognitive capacity — to know that devices can be outrageously distracting.

The abundance of apps available to help curb the time spent on your phoneindicate that going overboard on screen time is a very real, common problem.

Next time you’re working on a project or diving into some quality time with a loved one, actually turn your phone off. Unless you’re a surgeon or an on-call emergency worker, you can spare a few hours.

Still feel the urge?

Put your phone in a box or cupboard, preferably one with a lock.

Write yourself a note about what you’d rather do than be on your phone, and post it on the outside.

Then wrap it in several layers of duct tape.

Secure a large rock or brick to it.

Drop the whole thing in a lake.

Or something.

Value Organizational Time

I’m the type of person that often springs out of bed in the morning.

Within minutes, I’m thinking through a long list of goals, projects and daydreams.

The energy of a fresh day coursing through me, I simply can’t wait to get cracking. I jump into the first task — and thirty minutes later, feel both way behind schedule and completely overwhelmed.

Diving in head first is a great strategy for entering cold water, but a terrible technique for productivity.

By spending a portion of your time creating an action plan — breaking tasks down into smaller, quicker action items — you’re more likely to be successful in your project. One explanation is that making decisions about what tasks to prioritize and how to go about them, you can save more of your limited cognitive function for actually doing the work.

Remind Yourself Why It Matters

Multiple times a day, I might find myself scrolling through Facebook or Instagram for minutes before wondering — why am I on this app?

Distractions, by their very nature, are often mindless. An obvious antidote might then be to bring our minds back into the picture and ask ourselves — why am I here? Why am I in this task?Connecting to a sense of purpose or a longer-term goal may give you helpful perspective.

Are you working on a project because you’re hoping to prove yourself to a supervisor, or support your team, or because you believe in the power of the work you’re doing?

Are you writing in the middle of the night because you’ve always dreamed of publishing a novel?

Working on a research paper because you’re only a year away from graduation and have dreams of a bright and satisfying career?

When working on a project and finding yourself prone to distraction, try creating a statement of purpose or even a mantra of some kind — something to look to when the urge to pick up a phone or watch some tv strikes you.

Be Honest With Yourself About Your Habits

Are you a continual social media checker?

A frequent snacker?

A compulsive Googler?

Rather than shaming yourself for the habits that sap your productivity, get honest and find a way to hold yourself accountable.

If the thought of checking your Screen Time app or your browser history makes you cringe, that’s a pretty solid indication that you’re living out of line with your values. One 2018 poll in the UK found that most adults spend 24 hours a week online. Chances are, most of us wouldn’t boast about a stat like that.

Try actually monitoring the way you spend your time, and if what you see shocks you, make that your motivation to make a change that’s a better fit for you.

Do Something Better

If you’re really having trouble focusing on a task, you might need a better one.

According to Udemy’s 2018 In Depth Workplace Distraction report, 54% of employees believe they would be more engaged at work if they could try new things or expand their roles. These respondents aren’t slacking off because they disliked their work. They were merely bored, and would have gladly accepted greater challenge and responsibility.

While it would be impractical to drop unpleasant tasks at work or avoid boring chores and errands, perhaps you can find a way to better suit those things that need to be done to your interests.

Can you listen to music or stand-up comedy while mindlessly entering data?

Or set yourself a time limit, and make a game of racing the clock?

Give yourself a break as a “reward” every 90 minutes?

Ask to take a different angle on your work, or collaborate on it with a teammate?

If you find yourself zoning out of a task because of boredom, maybe there’s a better one for you — more suited to your passions and skills. If it’s something you’ve simply got to go, look for something interesting, compelling or fun to infuse into that time.


Congratulations! You just focused your way through several paragraphs. You’re on your way!

There is a lot to see, do, accomplish, and retweet in this world. Distraction happens. But if you crave a more deliberate, more present walk through your daily life, then do yourself a favor and make time to grow your focus.

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