Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that “few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.”1
Why don’t we do what we know needs to get done? Why is it so hard to concentrate and finish what we start? In our digital age, is there any hope of “mustering enough energy” to stay focused on what really matters so we can live the lives we want?
In this article, you’ll learn tools and strategies to finally get, and stay, focused.
This guide is for people who want to harness the power of focus, but don’t have a lot of time. Over this 15-minute read, you’ll get answers to:
I can’t focus. Why?
Csikszentmihalyi argues that intense focus is possible only when a person has clear goals and the capacity to complete the tasks necessary to achieve them.2 Focus not only requires the ability to do the tasks at hand, but also the ability to deal with distractions that may take you off track. The trouble is, even though you may have the capacity to complete a task, you may not be able to avoid distraction and focus.
While endless smart phone checking is a symptom of the problem, it is not the root cause of why you find it hard to focus. You ultimately can’t blame your phone for that promotion you didn’t get or the fact you stayed in bed scrolling Instagram instead of going to the gym.
To learn how to focus, you must adopt new skills as well as understand the most common causes of distraction. There are several reasons why it’s hard to focus:
You’re Stuck in an Unhealthy Rut
In a University College London study, participants were asked to sit at a computer and direct a cloud of dots.3 They were instructed to move a lever to the right if a dot cloud was moving right and to the left if a dot cloud was moving left. Participants did this with accuracy. That is, until researchers added a weight to one side of the lever making it harder to move one way. The result? Participants began moving the lever in the wrong, yet easier, direction.
As the task became more difficult, participants subconsciously changed how they played the game. This study supports research from evolutionary biologists who argue humans have evolved to avoid energy consuming tasks by taking the path of least resistance.4
Doing what we know we should do is often hard. If we fall into a routine of avoiding discomfort by taking too many breaks, we learn it’s easier to break our focus than do what we know we should. As the dot study shows, we quickly learn how to avoid discomfort by changing the game.
Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” If checking email for a quick minute takes the pressure off having to think through a big assignment at work, you’ll keep clicking away if you don’t have the tools to realize and deal with the difficulty. If you don’t change your ways, you’ll soon carve a mental rut that teaches your brain to automatically escape hard work instead of working through it.
You Don’t Know How to Focus on Things You Dislike
If you like doing something, you are more likely to do it. If you enjoy shopping for instance, you’ll seek out opportunities for “retail therapy.” However, if you find shopping to be a burden, you will avoid it unless absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, many things you need to do in life aren’t particularly enjoyable. Few people enjoy doing their taxes, but they need to get it done nonetheless. When you don’t enjoy a task, you’re more likely to seek an escape and lose focus. How then, do you stay focused doing something you dislike?
Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech and a professional video game designer, argues that we have the power to reimagine tasks to make them more enjoyable.5 In his book, Play Anything, Bogost challenges readers to tackle everyday tasks with the same discipline and focus used to play a game. Bogost states that we should focus more intensely on the task at hand rather than concentrating on the end result or reward.
Bogost highlights this theory using his attempt to make lawn mowing more enjoyable. To learn to enjoy the job of cutting his grass, Bogost focused more intensely on it. He learned everything he could about the practice and challenge himself to find the variability in the activity. For instance, he sought to find the optimal path for cutting the grass or beating his previous time. By reimagining a task, you can make anything more enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding.
You’re Telling Yourself You “Don’t Have Time”
In a Monthly Labor Review study, participants who reported working between 65–74 hours a week overestimated their work week by approximately 20 hours.6 Too often, people confuse being productive with being busy.7 However, there is evidence to suggest that “being too busy” to work on your goals indicates a lack of focus, not a lack of time.
Henry Ford said, “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.” Everyday, we choose how to spend our time. Wake up early, or hit the snooze? Take that part-time course or leave it for next month? Put clothes away now, or let them pile up? If everyone has the same 24-hours in their day, why are some people able to accomplish so much more? Research shows that the secret to time-management might not such a secret after all.
Laura Vanderkam, time management and productivity author, has found that the most productive people are not time management wizards, rather, they are highly skilled at setting priorities.8 Highly productive people have a limited, focused list of what they want to accomplish and allocate time accordingly. She argues that the “I don’t have time excuse” is a passive way of admitting something “is not one of my priorities.”
In a 2018 study on the top productivity technique, researchers found that the number one secret to time management was deciding what you want to do and when you want to do it.9This method of time management is frequently referred to as “timeboxing.” By designated parts of your day for certain tasks, you become more likely to use your time the way you intended. You replace time that you’re likely to get distracted by with meaningful activities that propel you towards your goals. Effective timeboxing starts with allocating time for what matters most.
In the next sections, we’ll dive into how to get and stay focused. Before we do, if you find yourself enjoying this guide, you’ll likely enjoy my other writing. I frequently share new research on the science of behavioral design through my free email newsletter.
How to Get (and Stay) Focused
Now that you have a clear picture of what causes people to lose focus, it’s time to learn the tools to overcome distraction. Here’s how to make the most out of your time and your life:
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 author, Dr. Travis Bradberry, argues that frequent complaining is a detrimental habit that can — and should — be broken. Complaining releases the stress hormone cortisol which negatively affects mood, reduces energy levels, and can ironically lead to more of the uncomfortable emotions we seek to escape through distractions.10
It’s time to learn how to complain better. Instead of complaining by focusing on the problem, Bradberry suggests adopting a “solution-oriented” approach.
Next time you feel the urge to complain about a looming deadline or difficult task, stop to consider the real source of the problem. For instance, ask yourself whether a solution to the problem of not wanting to do a task can be found in changing your perception of the work. If so, changing your mind proves much easier and healthier than trying to avoid it. A little self awareness through introspection can go a long way.
Schedule Your Indulgences
In a 1992 study, researchers found that participants who cited being unable to lose weight despite dieting underestimated their daily caloric intake by 47%.11 These same participants overestimated their daily activity level by 51%. This study suggests that we have a tendency to overestimate behaviors we know to be good for us — how much we exercise, how healthy we eat, how often we clean our homes. We do the opposite when it comes to behaviors we know have detrimental effects — alcohol consumption, sugar intake, and monthly entertainment spending.12 While frivolous indulgences are satisfying in the short-term, they tend to move us away from what we really want.
An episode of TV can feel relaxing and satisfying. But what happens after one, two, three…? One episode feels good. A whole series can fill you with regret. When it comes to indulgences, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself. However, the key to moderation is intent.
By setting aside time for the things likely to distract you, you ensure to control them instead of letting them control you. Instead of watching television or scrolling social media whenever the urge strikes, put that activity on your calendar, just as you would timebox any task. By planning ahead, you give yourself the peace of mind knowing you’ll soon have time for something fun, without being taken off track when you want to stay focused.
Master Your Triggers
In a George Mason University study, researchers found that distractions have a negative impact on the quantity and quality of our work.13 During the study, 54 participants were asked to outline and write essays on three different topics. Researchers found that interruptions negatively affected both the quality and quantity of work produced.
This study supports research that distractions eat up time as well as decrease quality of work. According to one University of California study, it takes approximately twenty-three minutes to get back on track after being distracted.14
Triggers to distraction come in two categories — Internal Triggers and External Triggers. Getting and staying focused requires understanding and mastering both.
Triggers prompt both traction and distraction.
Cellphones, work colleagues, and even our kids, can all take us off track when we planned to focus. These triggers in our environment are called “external triggers.”
External triggers are relatively easy to control — turn your phone off, logout of social media, put a sign on your computer monitor telling colleagues you’re busy, and so on. Internal triggers, on the other hand, are more difficult to recognize and correct.
Internal triggers come from within. They are uncomfortable emotional states you seek to escape. Understanding the internal triggers driving you to distraction is critical to staying focused.
When do you feel the urge to check your phone? Do you check it when you feel lonely? Bored? Anxious? Overwhelmed? If so, what’s the source of these negative emotions? Reflecting on why you get distracted and learning healthier ways to respond is an integral part of developing sustained focus.
While you may be unable to control what you feel, you are able to put practices in place to help guide what you do in response to the desire to escape into distraction. Is your habit of falling out of focus when you feel a negative emotion helping or hampering your ability to stay focused? If you are honest about why you become distracted and understand your negative emotions, you can respond in a healthier way in line with your values and goals.
Becoming indistractable requires an understanding of why you lose focus and learning the skills to do as you say. Establishing healthy habits, breaking out of your unproductive routines, and making time for what matters help you stay focused. By learning not to complain, scheduling indulgences, and understanding your internal triggers, you can harness the power to stay focused.
Nir’s Note: This article was written in collaboration with theNirAndFar.com team.
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Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and blogs at NirAndFar.com. For more insights on using psychology to change behavior, join his newsletter and receive Nir’s free list of research-backed tips and tricks to increase your personal productivity.