Boost Productivity

The surprising reason it’s so hard to focus

If I had to describe the problems of our generation, the top 3 would include:

  1. Too many options (especially in dating)
  2. Changing cultural and gender roles
  3. An inability to focus

What else am I missing? Hit me up on Twitter.

Today, I want to talk about number 3: how hard it is to FOCUS.

God, it’s hard to focus today.

Just think about how many times you checked your phone (Instagram, Snapchat, text messages, email) in the last 24 hours. I do it. I know you do, too.

I used to read 2 books/week and I LOVED it. Now I have to fight to read one book a MONTH.

Last week, I asked you to share your story about how hard it is to focus. The response was overwhelming:

“Everything tugs at you at every moment, and all day. It’s very hard to concentrate. And at the end of the day it feels like you’ve been at a stair machine all day.” — Rafa

I started feeling ‘fuzzy’ – not the brain fog fuzzy – just difficulty in bringing things I know I know to mind.” — Elise

“I have talked myself out of doing an MBA because, despite the fact that I loved studyingr back in university and worked as an analyst, I feel like I am either not smart enough or not focused enough to do an MBA.” — Jamie

Notice how lack of focus on one task compounds into not moving anything forward.

This is like sitting down to a humongous to-do list, getting overwhelmed, then saying “SCREW IT” and typing www.netflix.com into Chrome.

In fact, focus has now become one of the superpowers of our generation. If you can sit down and work through a complex problem without getting distracted, you have a very rare (and valuable) skill.

The “quick, easy” fixes to focus more

Of course, this is where we start looking for magic bullets, easy solutions we “think” will solve our problem.

  • Maybe it’s just finding that perfect to-do app!
  • I need to use the Pomodoro Technique.
  • No, no…I know…I need to meditate.

It’s more “yeah, yeah” advice. Yeah, I should probably do it. No, I’m not going to actually do it.

Why is it that our natural tendency is to look for the “quick, easy” fix?

Answer: Because human beings are lazy and we want to do the minimum amount of work for maximum results. It’s natural. Deal with it. Once you accept it, you understand why people (1) don’t max their 401(k)s, (2) eat highly caloric foods, and (3) wear North Face sweaters when going out.

But you can overcome our default behavior and become way, way more focused.

The real answer is not “quick and easy.” I have zero interest in quick and easy.

The real answer to finding focus is much more effective. But it’s much, much harder.

The hard way to become more focused — which actually works

The real reason we can’t focus is a combination of two things:

  1. Devices that are literally engineered to capture our attention
  2. Ourselves

You can’t do anything about the devices — you’re going to use your cellphone, so let’s be honest about that.

But you can control yourself.

The answer to focus isn’t some “hack” — it’s looking deep into ourselves to find out why we’re resisting focus. That … gets uncomfortable fast.

Watch a rare video of me speaking here

In the video above…

Guy: “Hi, how do you deal with overwhelm and burnout?”

My response: “Almost every time I hear someone asking about overwhelm, and I dig in, I find out there’s an inability to set boundaries.”

Pay close attention here. No app will ever solve this for you.

It takes really hard work to be introspective and dig into yourself to understand why you’re not focusing. Is it…

  • “…I don’t know what to do next, so I’d rather scroll through Instagram and not think about it.”
  • “…I’m too scared to set boundaries because those around me will get mad and I can’t handle that.”
  • “…I can’t finish this because I’m afraid I’ll fail and people will judge me.”

It’s easier to check Twitter, flip on Netflix, or mindlessly browse Amazon than to dig deep — really deep — into our own attitudes to find out what’s really happening here.

Realize this stuff takes some reflection and honesty. Hey, I’ve been afraid to write something because it wasn’t good enough. Did I admit that crippling perfectionism was holding me back?

No. I told myself I needed to find a new productivity app.

Honesty with others is hard. Honesty with ourselves is extraordinarily hard. You and I want some secret about focus, but the real answer is something we don’t want to hear.

Here’s an example.

Remember how I said I don’t read any more? I was complaining to my friend Derek about it, he told me he had noticed the same thing. But then he told me how he’d solved it: He started to use his daily commute to the gym to fit in 20 minutes of reading.

“You should try it,” he said. “Ya, that’s a good idea,” I replied (knowing it was more “yeah, yeah” advice and I wouldn’t really do it).

But then Derek texted me the next day, right before I got on the train.

FullSizeRender 4

BOOM. I opened up my Kindle app, read 5 pages, and that night I got back into the book. Now my reading habit is back.

Now, I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass and tell you one text was all it took. Break down all the things that happened in this example:

  1. I actually want to read
  2. I found myself unable to focus on it
  3. I realized it was a problem and asked the right person for help
  4. They agreed and went above and beyond
  5. I actually followed his advice and built a new behavior

If you don’t have #1 — you actually want to do something — the rest is irrelevant. If you don’t do #5, follow through, nothing else matters.

This is hard stuff. I’m pretty good at discipline and focus and I need help all the time. This is a real thing, not just some millennial complaint. It’s not just you, it’s a new normal.

But that’s not an excuse. The people who acknowledge it’s hard to focus — and still build the behaviors to focus — will win at life. Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Otherwise, you’d be like everyone else.

That’s why I won’t ever give you apps or productivity “hacks.” I’d rather focus on making programs like Finisher’s Formula that help you remake the internal makeup that results in a lack of focus.

If you want to feel better about yourself, follow the latest productivity blog tips. But if you really want to learn to focus, look inside.

Now I want to hear from you. We know focus isn’t just about finding the right productivity app. What’s one deeper, internal reason you can’t focus? Leave a comment below.

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There Are 102 Comments

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What feels like competing priorities is realistically exactly what you describe, a need to set boundaries; however, it also seems as though a form of alert fatigue also plays a role on inability to focus. In general, there are waaaaaaay too many distractions – electronic and otherwise – vying for attention. Boundary-setting is key!

It’s hard to focus on reading and using material when it looks like this with all those extra things in it and I don’t know why they look like this.

It takes really hard work to be introspective and dig into yourself to understand why you’re not focusing. Is it…Â

“…I don’t know what to do next, so I’d rather scroll through Instagram and not think about it.”
“…I’m too scared to set boundaries because those around me will get mad and I can’t handle that.”
“…I can’t finish this because I’m afraid I’ll fail and people will judge me.”Â

Yes!!! Focus is super important! Deep Meditation and Prayer helps me with this !

Love and Blessings

Karmen

DAVID GODWIN EDIKAN

I feel people lack focus cos somehow they don’t know what they really want for themselves. When they see or hear of any business thriving, they would want to join in the business leaving the one they have been doing and not knowing that business that works for Mr A might not work for Mr B. When you are not certain of what you want, you will lack focus.

I’m typically very good at focusing, stress, no stress, want to do it, don’t want to do it, the only time I really have any issue focusing is when I’m tired and need to take a break. I’ve found this to be a good indicator of when I need to take 5-15 minutes to think about something unrelated or nothing at all and come back to my task. Typically after this, my task is no longer seems so difficult.

Michaela

I just want to say thank you thank you thank you! I’ve been subscribed for your emails for quite some time now…. But I’ve never really taken the actual time out to read them… Because I’ve never really had any free time that I’ve slotted to using after working and stressing… I am now unemployed and stuck in a rut…. My rent is well passed do and I might be evicted… But I am now aware of the issues I have with not being able to focus and I guess its something that I needed to hear and need to push me forward in the right direction! Thanks “I’m about to conquer this shiznit!!!

robert melater

All the things you say are true. Yet it all seems to be in the service of a new style, revised new age, MLM ‘learn to pitch courses about success’ scheme. What am i missing about the ultimate goal behind the paywalls?

Jonathan

There is nothing behind the paywall that you can’t find for yourself, on your own, or discover for yourself. I say this as someone who’s taken a number of online courses (including 5 of Ramit’s) and currently I’m working one on one with a coach. None of it is information you can’t find.

Buying a course for information is the worst thing you could ever do.

The good ones show you a path when you can’t find or build one yourself as easily. That’s it. If you value time, then a course (or coach or mastermind or whatever) should get you where you want to go much faster. If you don’t, you can spend significantly longer, possibly the rest of your life, trying to figure it out on your own. That’s all it is. No reason to buy, or not buy, a course other than understanding this simple idea and putting it in action in a way that suits you the best.

So right. After installing and uninstalling three different productivity apps after nil results, a thorough internal check provided the insight to my problem. ”Twas me all along- my procrastination due to laziness and my fear of failure. So giving in less to my fear now and being more hardworking.

Ramit… You just pressed my hot button!

I used to find it difficult to focus. Then, around 25 years ago, I found out I have ADHD and resolved to become more productive in spite of it.

Today, I’m super-productive and have written more than 80 books (iPhone For Dummies, macOS Sierra For Dummies, and Dr. Macintosh to name a few) and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles without missing a deadline.

Furthermore, after taking your Zero to Launch course, I came to realize that this is my passion — showing other Mac users how to work smarter.

My new eBook—Working Smarter for Mac Users—is chock full of tips, techniques, and tricks I’ve developed for getting and staying focused, using a Mac better, faster, and more elegantly than others; banishing procrastination forever; and doing more work in less time so you have more time for things you love.

So, to answer your original question, I do so many things to get and stay focused that I had to write a book about it. :-)

You can learn more at: http://www.workingsmarterformacusers.com.

Ramit definitely nailed my reason:

“I can’t finish this because I’m afraid I’ll fail and people will judge me.”

I find it hard to focus on the important big things until all of the not so important little things have been done. For instants, it’s difficult to focus on writing that book in an environment that’s out of order, like nobody’s done the dishes, I can’t see my dining room table because of the clutter, and the rabbit cage smells. Or I know I have 500 unread emails and I really need to reply to at least 20 of them today. I find myself completing these little tasks first so I can focus on the big task, but then there’s never any time for the big task.

For me it’s lack of boundaries and fear of failure. Reading this article made me look at my struggle in an honest light and I know it’s going to take serious work and some trial and error to push past this and focus on what I need to do. When you have multiple things you want to accomplish it’s easy to tell yourself it’s too much I’ll take a break from it all then starting it all up again once you “feel bad”enough and the whole cycle repeats itself. For me I need to start focusing on one thing at a time to completion. Even though I have a perpetual fear of never getting it all done this way. And i know it’s irrational to think this way.

For me, it’s FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m afraid to cut certain things out of my life because I’m afraid that I’ll need them, or I’m afraid that if I miss out on something. In reality, it would probably be better to focus on doing fewer things better than trying to switch gears all the time. This goes for people in my life, tactics for my business, or job opportunities.

Jennifer

Lack of focus is exceptionally problematic for me when I have a string of nights where I don’t get enough sleep. When I am well rested, I can stay on target and get things done. When I’m sleep deprived, I start acting like a poster child for ADD: 30 seconds on this, 3 minutes on that, 15 seconds on the next thing, and so on. A nap really, truly helps. :)

Focus…yes what all of human kind would like to do. I agree with you Ramit, the real struggle is inside. I already came to the conclusion that an app or a fancy notebook is not going to make me focus. For me, I have to make a decison then process how it will work and then write it down at least the day before I decide to implement it.

Probably one of my biggest blockades to focusing would be a plethora of irrational beliefs and thinking that carried over from when i was dropping the brunt of my old deptession. That there are certain things I must do as a person to be successful that had no real floor or basis. That there were magic tricks, hacks and bullets out there that would change me, drinks, teas, vitamins, and ideas that would suddenly turn around miserable feelings. My environment certainly doesnt help either. Going to one of the most competitive highschools in the nation and living in a city with millions of people certainly doesnt help with inputs. Too much stuff coming in, and too much internal frustration and miserable feelings to seperate wheat from chaff.

Well, very recently, i’ve started working, hard, to reverse this with some good initial changes so far.
I’ve taken the progress I made by finding quiet times to explore, wander and reflect with and without company away from the noise of downtown- a major factor which i believe probably had a major affect in watering down my old depression.
But now, ive stopped procrastinating, and have started reading and practicing Rational Emotive Behavioral Theraphy from a book I’ve kept written by Albert Ellis, Ph.D on the topic, to invest effort in countering my lingering, not so helpful beliefs and thoughts.

In the past week, my inner voices have felt more relieved. I’m thinking about who I want to be and developing my “why’s” to kickstart myself again. And i’m putting things into the best practice I can.

Over the weekend, ive done some math and hard thinking, and it turns out my lack of focus has been chewing away 11 and a half hours of potential for meaningful growth and leisure. So today after school, I am going to read a couple more chapters of my self-therapy book, enjoy the new experience of exploring my city’s new ferry routes for the afternoon, go home, keep preparing for some upcoming exams by taking practices, reach out to my close and distant friends to check up on them (its been a little while), and hold myself accountable for how I spend my time.
Wish me well.

As a freelance opera singer, sometimes I really do focus. I hyper focus on my translations of operas or my dramatic breakdown of characters. I practice in front of a mirror or video record myself to see what gestures work (and don’t work) to get the drama across. I listen to recordings of my singing and practicing to isolate areas I can improve upon and then I do it. But I really only do this a fraction of the time. It is very all or nothing. I know I SHOULD be doing this type of work every night and if I’m unable to commit to the time I SHOULD give it, I feel guilty or like I’ve failed before I even started that practice session because I don’t have the time or energy resources to give this my all so I plop down on the couch to watch netflix instead. I know that in reality, I would get a benefit from doing something– even if I don’t have the full amount of time or energy I would want to give it, but if I’m not able to work to my full potential on the things I’m passionate about, whats the point?

I have trouble focusing when I have to work on something I’m not really interested in doing but I’m required to do it because someone else higher up says I have to.

You spoke a lot about people not knowing what to do, so they do what’s easy. But what about the situation where you DO know what you need to be doing, but you can’t focus because you just don’t WANT to do it! That’s where my focus problems lie…

LOL reading this and seeing 110 unread text messages showing on your phone screen shot! 😂

Definitely fear of failure. If I don’t succeed I can tell myself it’s because I didn’t try. Also insomnia so sometimes only an hour’s sleep. I can’t even count the amount of times I type ‘unable to focus’ into Google.

My near crippling lack of focus comes from fear of disapproval/people being mad at me. When I know that there’s something I need to do but it will involve people’s hurt feelings or negative judgments (e.g. turning people down, apologizing for being late — note that this one starts a vicious cycle, reading and responding to criticism of a project, etc.) I distract myself and avoid thinking about it. I do not know how to get over this, and it is probably the largest roadblock in my career. The only partial solution I’ve found is staying up really, really late, because the exhaustion somehow makes the anxiety of reading the disapproving email or sending the one I know will make people angry less (or possibly I just want to go to bed so badly that I’m willing to do anything, including checking off the task I said I had to do before I’d let myself sleep). Ramit, if you have a course that fixes this, perhaps by giving me tools to deal with this fear of disapproval/anger, I’ll sign up for it. Finisher’s Formula? Success Triggers? For those of you who’ve done these, which is most appropriate?

Because I know I want to be doing something else and could spend my energy doing something else but have to work the day job so it’s a battle of the mind focusing on day job versus thinking about passion projects.

Mine may be a different problem than others. I’m someone who can be very honest with myself (compared to being more honest to others over self). I have a great inner dialogue that usually tells me when I’m slacking off, making a poor choice, or procrastinating.

Instead, my issue is that when I was younger I wasn’t pushed to be “disciplined,” so I never grew the willpower muscle. It was perfectly acceptable that if something was too hard, that I could walk away from it. Was able to get by in high school with a near-photographic memory — but that doesn’t help so much in the workforce or for changing habits. So now, if anything requires effort, I usually shy away because I was never pushed (or I try for 2 minutes and if I encounter any resistance I walk away). Of course that’s the past, so it’s not an excuse to stop one from moving forward, but it certainly doesn’t help when you have so little “willpower capital.”

Example: Want to sit down and do a couple hours of work. Mind kicks in “but I’d rather watch TV.” Cue dialogue: “You’re literally creating an excuse not to do it. Sometimes you have to just do it.” “But it’s going to be difficult. Why do you want to do something difficult?” “Because it’ll be rewarding, just set some boundaries and do it.” “I know this is the wrong choice, but it’s so much easier.” This goes back and forth for 5 minutes before caving and watching TV. Talk about a literal angel and devil on the shoulder.

Jessica Feliciano

I start to lose focus when I’m learning something new and I start to get overwhelmed with information. Usually it’s too much to process in terms of complexity or volume. That’s when I know I need to either take a break or switch gears. If I let myself get too bogged down, my productivity diminishes.

But if I switch gears when I notice I’m getting bogged down, I’m able to stay focused on my tasks overall, instead of get tired and become unproductive.

Wow! Serious kick in the rear! Today I will plan my working day for tomorrow, wish me luck!

Spot on Ramit. My own laziness, coupled with a continuous fear of failure (even after multiple successes) is why I haven’t reached my peak production. It’s hard, and something that I’m sure most of us on this thread find to be true.

Maintaining focus when tackling something new or challenging requires effort. The fixed mindset is the great destroyer of focus because it abhors effort. In the words of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset:

“In [the fixed mindset], effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”

“From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies—if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you.”

Sadly, the fixed mindset is rampant among millennials (myself included). I’ve tried countless productivity systems and life hacks to improve my focus, and it all amounts to nothing unless I am actively working to overcome my fixed mindset.

I don’t focus. I seek perfection. A book I have written still isn’t published because I can’t decide on a cover.
It is time to look within and deal with the fear of imperfection.
Thank you Ramit. :)

Toward the end of something, especially the end of something I have been working on for awhile and or something I’m really looking forward to finishing, the belief creeps in that “If I finish this thing, there won’t be anything left to do.” I usually have to remind myself that there is always plenty to do, so that I can complete thing one. This belief also ties back into a larger fear of success: “If I do something and it is successful, then I will have to maintain it.” Setting timers and working on just the step in front of me for that time period has helped immensely, and the first fear of running out of things to do, doesn’t come up nearly as much, because my job is only to focus on this step right here.

My deeper reason for not focusing…
– if I focus on this thing I should be focusing on, I have to admit that I screwed up/failed by not focusing on it soon, make amends, actually do it (which I avoided in the first place for all the reasons you list above [not knowing what to do next, fear of failure, bad boundaries]), and that sounds hard and scary because I’ll have to acknowledge to someone I messed up and they will be mad at me. Woah.

I really needed exactly this reminder today. Thank you.

Lorraine

Real reason I don’t look inside and focus is I am scared of what I will have to face up to if I do deep thinking. Silly excuses, cowardliness, laziness, maybe even fear of mortality.

I have a hard time with overwhelm because I love to help people and I have a really hard time saying no. There are so many things I can do for people that I love to say yes. Then I get all panicked because I’ve now loaded up my plate with too many things to do. Then I just want to go bury my head into the sand. I have to learn to set boundaries and keep myself from saying “Hey – I can help you with that because I know X (software, process, store, etc).”

I like Charles Duhigg’s concept of Keystone Habits. When I went back to school I was reading a LOT. Sometimes I would read a book in ONE day on top of other assignments. Recently I have read one book in the past 6 months. Pathetic. But recently I starting reading in the morning while I was having my coffee for 10 minutes instead of checking my email and wasting time on my phone. This small keystone habit is making it easier to gain momentum into deeper and longer reading.

Jessica Dupuis

One of the biggest reasons I can’t focus right now is because my work life is so boring. If I focus and knock out everything I have to do, I’ll have only worked half an hour. And it holds no interest for me: it’s incredibly simple, monotonous, boring tasks that are way simple for my experience. I have a job to pay the bills, and that’s basically all it is. So, being emotionally unconnected and unchallenged plays a huge part in it.

It varies – sometimes it’s because I’m too overwhelmed. Other days it’s because I have no motivation to keep doing the boring tasks I am responsible for, and I find other stuff to do (like clean my keyboard because – geez! Look how dirty!). Sometimes it’s because I am afraid the report (or letter template, procedure, etc.) will be poorly received, and I don’t want to deal with that because I spend a large portion of my time every week dealing with people complaining about some part of their job they don’t like (or they just ignore it and let us do the clean up).
I will say though that you are completely wrong about meditation – it’s not easy, and it’s not a magical, quick fix. It takes practice and persistence. If I had a very challenging interaction (or task), taking 10 minutes to do deep breathing or some other meditative technique has helped me to regain focus. But it’s certainly not locked in for good (but it means I don’t spend as much time swirling about whatever just happened).

Chantel Dahl

How do you stay relevant socially, but turn off from social media? Do you turn off, build up content and then come back in? I haven’t figured out this balance and every time I sit down to accomplish something it’s magically 1am and I’m exhausted. Do I delete my apps and turn off my phone for a month to recharge? Do I focus on building an audience on one app first? Help.

Context is a big thing that stops me from focusing on things that are new or hard for me. If I am working from home, I will procrastinate until the last minute by doing any and all useful or useless other things.
Turning off internet connectivity helps me focus. Actually sitting at a desk, with a closed door, late at night when everyone else is asleep, is a time I can focus.
DEADLINES make me focus most of all…

Jonathan

It’s related to FOMO – more like the fear of missing something important. Part of me drifts waiting for the next ping. The next email, text, messenger, chat, update… whatever it is, my mind will say to me, “Where is that next interruption? Because IT’S IMPORTANT.”

The one thing I struggle with the most is email. I can shut off my phone, or at least put it on night mode so the only texts or calls that come through are from my family. It’s hard to shut off email at work. It’s hard to think that next email won’t require my immediate attention (even though that happens a few times per week, at most). When it happens it’s gratifying. Someone needs ME.

At home the challenge is different. What’s easier is that I spend quite a bit of time thinking about what my priorities are, along with the order I should tackle them in, and my default if I can’t decide is to do something so I can check anything important off my list. The hard part is that I can finally relax and unwind at home. Even though I take breaks at work they aren’t the same kind of breaks I can take at home. Those breaks have a huge appeal for me. I don’t get lost in them all the time, or even every day, I just know they exist and can steal away significant chunks of time.

I get around this by not using a smartphone. It doesn’t help when I’m at my laptop, but it means that when I’m out and about, I’m not spinning my wheels and wearing my focus energy down checking apps and mail and stuff. I can get back and be more ready to do good work.

I appreciate reading the insightful comments here. I think that major transitional periods add a unique stress regarding the ability to focus. From recent college grads to “empty nesters” to new parents to the unemployed to dealing with an illness — the list goes on. So many factors to integrate. Important to bring awareness to the ways we can resist change in our lives, and knowing what’s in our control. Flipping the script on perceived negatives helps me. For example, I truly feel wiser as I get older, and yet we live in a 24/7 culture that values youth. One way to keep focus is not be triggered by the messages that are disempowering – a daily battle!

Basically I am my own enemy I can’t focus because when I allot time out and focus on myself I end up putting so much pressure on myself all at once that it ends being too much for me to the point where I have to tell myself okay it’s time to step away and come back to this issue and lately for me it’s been this cycle of stepping away then coming back …. it’s destress then stress and destress and stress. I realize it’s an on going battle in my head, since I’m an overthinker. My focus for the past two months has just been so off.

Radek Hecl

One reason I found recently…
I was working on some small changes at my work while keep asking questions like ‘why I am doing this?’, ‘who is actually going to care about such changes?’. It took me a way longer to finish these comparing to the type of work which I am truly excited to do. And yes, I spent a lot more time by browsing the internet than usually.
That means for me it is hard to concentrate when the work is meaningless.

First, as a single dad, I would totally buy a parenting course from you.

As someone who loves to learn and read, the internet is beyond amazing. However, it is a double-edged sword because there can be too much information which is especially true for popular topics. I am starting a blog, getting into affiliate marketing, and working on writing books to self-publish and the amount of information available is crazy and of course, I signed up for 50email subscriptions which flooded my inbox everyday. I finally decided to pick 5 sites/influencers to follow in that space and stick to their content and just their content. Now, I am working on applying those boundaries to other sites I follow and other email subscriptions. I think I am about down to Tim Ferriss, Peter Diamantis, Mr. Altucher, Seth Godin, and of course, Ramit. Not only does that group not have a high email rate but what they usually send is quality and rarely is trying to sell anything.

Outside of that, I have a couple of fitness sites and my favorite sports teams and I try to blacklist everything else including reddit and Quora which are two huge weaknesses for me. Fortunately, I have grown to despise Facebook and never understood the allure of Twitter or Snapchat (only 140 characters and deleting my shit so I cant see it? WTF?) However, I still go to the former for research because the amount of information and help there is unparalleled to anything. Being that Quora can help people with SEO, you can usually get a precise and accurate response from someone in a particular space so I highly recommend it.

Emergency! Everyone is always bringing their emergency and loading it into my back. How do you tell your boss (politely), “Hey, that’s not my job,” when he’s staring at you with a mission-critical emergency? And yes, I’m still responsible for my own deadlines and emergencies on the back end. And no, I don’t get paid extra for saving the day. So need help with boundaries.

One of the reasons I can’t focus is because digital tools make it easy to clutter my days with things to do. Also, because it is easy to move things around in the virtual world, there is not much pain from letting things linger around for too long. Anyhow, a recent email from Cal Newport introduced me to the Bullet Journal System. I’m giving that a try the rest of this month. Finally, the other reason I can’t focus is that I don’t make it a priority to meditate. Meditation is a great tool to practice being present—a key attribute to stay focused.

I run a small company and day after day, my hardest task is managing myself and keeping myself focused. I’ve lost a lot of days to lack of focus. Sometimes it’s because the task is unfamiliar and I am nervous about starting and other times it’s because the task is boring and unstimulating.

One thing that helps (but don’t entirely solve) my problems with focus is to go through my to-do list and think “If I waste the entire day and only get one thing done from the list, what do I want that thing to be?” I do it every night or morning before I go to work and it usually starts me off on the right path for a productive day. If I don’t do it, I usually get my easy and unnecessary tasks done first and I stress about the big stuff all day, sometimes never getting them done.

Fear of missing out. “What if someone comments on FB, and I miss it because I’m doing something else?????”

Couldn’t agree more re: focus. I do not consider myself an addictive personality but am certain I am addicted to the internet/twitter/insta etc… It will take hard work to fix but am trying to start by not allowing myself to give into the urge I always get when driving and stopped at red lights to immediately look at my phone.

Hoping this works as a starting point to start breaking that dopamine urge I get for my phone anytime I am not occupied, not to mention protect myself from being the idiot who gets into a fender bender or worse while staring at his phone. Can’t let my main source of dopamine be from checking my phone. That seems like a sad life and its all too common.

Good to hear others like you are thinking about this. Thanks Ramit.

Udeagha egbe

We never work with the fact that we have maximum of 168hours per week to assign and actualize all our business and social activities for each week of the year. We allow avoidable distractions to come between our set objectives for the various timelines as we take life as fun and not serious business.

When I’m struggling to focus and execute its usually because of one of these reasons
* I don’t appreciate the value of what I’m doing – important valuable work is very easy to focus on. Looking for that can fix it
* I’m not busy enough. Paradoxically for me if I’m not under pressure I can be a bit lazy. Being loaded up helps me to execute because I MUST.
* I’m tired – sometimes lack of focus is a message from the body to stop working for a bit and reenergise

I had a tough time focusing on just this article alone. I must have left the article 3 or 4 times to check email or some frivolous other things. I now know that I need to look deeper and find out why I cannot focus. I really think it is a mix between:

“…I don’t know what to do next, so I’d rather scroll through Instagram and not think about it.”
“…I can’t finish this because I’m afraid I’ll fail and people will judge me.”

I know that with focus my life will change drastically and that scares me right now.

Christine Feaster

Boundaries are my Achilles heel. I’m a people pleaser, so I say yes to anything asked of me. I don’t carve out time for my goals or breaks, I instead dedicate leftover time at the end of the day toward those endeavours; by then I’m tired or another demand has encroached! Worst yet, when I’m feeling burnt out then I steal pockets of productivity time to do fun time-wasting things, which I have to pay back by working later.

I used to have real problems focusing and couldn’t get through more than 20 minutes of work before checking Facebook or watching a Youtube video. Now I don’t have that problem anymore, at least not right now. I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and set my schedule every day for the things that I want to get done. Scheduling your creative time where Facebook, YouTube and Netflix are expressly prohibited is amazing and I’ve gotten all of my work done handily in under 4 hours per day since I started building this habit. Fantastic book, must read for change-makers and linchpins around the world.

2 things.

– Definitely that fear of diving deep because of fear of failure. Or something is challenging and instead of sitting with it and thinking, I am scrolling through my IG feed and I don’t even know how I got there the behavior was so unconscious and really. thumb swipes are so damn quick you don’t even realize what’s happening.

– Energy levels. I have a few health issues that make focus hard because my brain can’t even get “online” because I’m just too tired.

Everything you wrote in this post described exactly what I’m dealing with. Because I’m starting a new online business with no experience I tend to run after and grab at every shiny object because I’m afraid I’ll miss the important ingredient that will propel my success. Then after exhausting myself dividing my attention to all these, I realize that none of them really moved me forward that much. Maybe they could if I focused on accomplishing one at a time. I’m not good at setting boundaries. Many people demand my time and energy and it seems all-important at the time. But when I think about my goals I really haven’t moved forward enough. There is a Zen quote that I have never forgotten because I am hoping I will figure out how to apply it: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Getting clear on desire has helped me a lot.
When you own your desire – it makes prioritizing really easy ( and boundaries come naturally ).

It’s a different way to look at responsibility.
Responsibility is really about finding that core set of desires and then striping away anything which doesn’t support it.
When focus becomes hard – a few moments of introspection can help dig out the problem.

It’s a process, not a goal – I’ll be following this for the rest of my life.

I’m finishing a lab report right now so I just came here to say, nice try at getting me to lose my focus by telling me to read all the comments. It’s very tempting! But I’m off now, stuff to do. See ya!

Stephen Gillespie

Ramit,

Tyranny of the Urgent. This is the top deeper reason I choose not to focus most of the time. As soon as I start reading a book, a flood of things that appear to be urgent and more important start the deluge of distraction.

But it’s like you said in the video, it’s really about saying “no” and discovering what requires my “yes.”

I’m deeply grateful for you taking the time to write and help keep me on the track of what I really need to say yes too.

I HAVE NOOOO IDEA!! I used to be able to focus but now its almost impossible. I have complete brain overload and try to get too many things done at once. I have a long commute and started to listen to books on Audible and still find myself thinking about all the other things I forgot to do that I miss most of the book – URGHHHH!!! (P.S. – I love reading your e-mails and find them part of my distractions)

I find my mind quickly switches between things and it takes a great amount of energy to maintain a single thought for longer than a few seconds, so it creates a struggle to focus, but it’s been years of brain training to I overcome such an obstacle, aware intentional focus is the key in achieving overall focus.

I want to do so many things at once, from reading more often to creating a blog but social media gets in the way. A few days ago I uninstalled the social media apps that I use and I can already see a big difference.Also, when I run, I clear my mind and set up my priorities.

For me, inability to focus is definitely related to both lack of prioritization. All these things are competing for my attention! It’s too much work to figure out which is most important and what happens if I mess it up so ooh, let me see what Game of Thrones character I am on this Buzzfeed quiz.

I find that this is made worse by technology. Those dopamine hits you get when you check Instagram/Facebook/Email are very addictive.

For reading in particular, I find I don’t read the same way I used to before the internet. I skim much more, even when I am reading for pleasure, and jump around in the book for something interesting.

For me it’s that I get bored easily. There are many things which I am curious about but very few serious. Much like what we were taught in Dream Job, I can articulate more things I don’t like/ don’t want than what I do want. Over the years, i’ve prioritized cooking and eating healthy and working out daily. Now I’m shoehorning finding a new job, starting an online business, possibly returning to school, and trying to maximize my investments somewhere in between. For what it’s worth, I still find a way to read 60-80 books a year on a variety of topics and occasionally find some nuggets that help me.

howard Harrison

I recently got an iPhone – The first thing that tried to steal my attention was notifications – Disable every notification that is not IMPORTANT, like the phone ringing, and maybe one messaging app, kill off Facebook, Twitter and all the other crap that grabs your attention every minute of the day — You’ll be happy you did it!
I religiously use Audible during my long commute, Learning while commuting is the best use of that otherwise useless time.

I’ve pondered this at length for the last few years, especially from a creative/idea-generating point of view. When I was a kid (in the 90s), I was a prolific writer and musician. Why? Because if I wanted something, I often had to create it for myself. In the last 10-15 years, the internet has made so many of the things I imagine(d) available, I’ve largely lost that burning drive to create, because I know most things are only a google search away.

Is this an innate party of the human condition? I mean, some people create because they “can’t not”, but for a lot of us, necessity is the mother of invention. When necessity goes by the wayside…

I still WANT to create, but when Spotify or Pandora can suggest artists for the sounds my ears crave, fanfiction spits out hundreds of “what happens next” scenarios for my favourite fictional characters, and the kindle store has piles of original fiction on offer, it’s like being given the choice of an endless buffet or a kitchen with a pile of raw ingredients. Why cook when it’s right there waiting?

I feel like I need to spend ages in a place with absolutely no internet access to restart the creative process. Remove all viable alternatives – it’s about the only thing I haven’t tried…

Oh, also, it seems to only be a problem for me with things that are kind of intangible or difficult to measure. Setting up savings/investment targets? Calculate what I need, factor it into my weekly budget – sorted. Improving my diet? Create clear guidelines about what, how much, and when I can eat and I’m good to go. Exercise? Plan the “what”, schedule the “when” – done. I’m pretty good with rigid structure and planning.

After i get a small task done (usually always after my work day, or after a busy week, or after running a couple of errands), I tell myself, “I worked hard today, I deserve a lil Netflix break” and there goes the rest of my day.

Manish DHRUv

It is not knowing what I want to do? Not knowing the smaller Tasks that I would like to do today to achieve my broader long terms goals. And then waiting for the next distraction to come my way that helps pass the day without doing anything.
It is easy to understand intellectually, but hard to implement.

I have a couple of ideas on how I want to live my life. Only one has been the dream since I was 12, but I developed back-up alternatives just in case. Because the dream is really hard to reach – which is becoming a sought-after writer living in California, in a city close to LA or in LA. But I don’t live in the US. And there are many ways I can live a more fufilled life, and all ways include too many factors that are out of my hands. So in between trying to make enough money to make that dream a reality and making sure I’m happy with the work I do while trying to earn that money and trying to become a better writer and blogger and learn to be a better salesperson…..Distraction and overwhelm ensue.

Clement Okai

For me ,it’s hard to focus because I feel like I am not doing what I am (divinely ) called to do.
“I should be doing something more important rather than wasting time on this useless project ”
“Will this project be successful, will it not only be a time wasting? ” “Let me do something else instead of this .” This is how I end up not being fucus

Esmeralda

An uncomfortable truth to one of the reasons why I have trouble focusing is whenever I face something challenging. If I feel like it’s too hard I lose focus immediately because I’m afraid to tackle that challenge and find out I can’t do it. My brain then directs me to something else that I should do instead of facing the problem – like playing computer games.

It’s easier to meet other people’s demands – I get emails every day telling me exactly what projects need to be done and changes need to be made. So I do those first because it means meeting my clients expectations and getting paid. I also have a book I’m writing that needs editing (the suggestions have already been done) and I haven’t got to it in 2 months. Why? Because it’s just for me.

Simple and sad but true. Going deep inside oneself to find the hidden reasons is difficult, but unfortunately I find it to be only the start. I know my lack of focus comes from fair of failure, which can be paralysing at times. When I give it all and still fail, I can’t tell myself that I could still do it if I’d just work harder. This thought has been in my subconscious for as long as I can remember, but I haven’t figured out how to solve it yet. Trying to not think about it and following schedules keeps me working, but I feel that it is way to circumvent the problem, not deal with it…

Krystian

I’ve distractors turned on (cellphone, outlook) and whenever I get new message I swich from my boring tasks to something more interesting.

One reason–I’m afraid of relying on other people even though I know I’ll need help and mentorship for some of my projects. Even asking for help is a big problem–it’s easier when the person is a professional and I can pay for services, but I definitely always find myself lacking for failure to seek help.

Greg kitchen

I’m afraid of failing in the smallest way that I sometimes never get started or I transfer my energy mid-activity to an instant gratification activity (e.g., checking Facebook or Instagram).

At a seminar by @Neil Strauss recommendations included using an app like Freedom to lock your phone from Internet access for certain blocks of time you’ve committed for productivity.

Another idea is to use the greyscale setting in your phone to make it less “shiny.” On my iPhone the setting is linked to my Home key. Pressing it three times toggles between the normal display and greyscale.

Also, recording where you spend your time, or waste it, is an important exercise. Knowledge is power. Then you can decide on what to delete, delegate or do.

I spend a lot of time playing games just to unwind and relax, constantly telling myself “Soon I am ready to start working”. I know it is idiotic and get angry with myself which just makes it harder to get to “relaxed”. In the end, I wonder how I come off calling anyone an idiot when I see myself avoiding work to get ready for work!!

Read this excerpt from an article by M. Muller and I think it’s super relevant here: “If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness, a terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode and destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done — anything to fill the time, the empty space. … Thus do our unspoken fears and sadnesses speed up our lives. We are terrified of the painful grief that is hot to touch, sharp and piercing, so we keep moving, faster and faster, so we will not feel how sad we are, how much we have lost in this life: strength, youthful playfulness, so many friends and lovers, dreams that did not come true, all that have passed away. When we stop for even a moment, we can feel the burning, empty hole in our belly. So we keep moving, afraid the empty fire of loss will consume us.”

Lots of great comments about different fears and mind games we play with ourselves. I would caution not to blame technology for sensory overload. One of the boundaries we can create is the power button on our technology of choice. I am astonished at how much time can be wasted without really being aware. The technology definitely facilitates avoidance or escapism. Own your technology by the choices you make. Do not let it own you.

Biggest problem with saying focussed is I want to do so many more things than I have hours in the day to do (I have a massive “someday” list). So it’s not so much getting distracted as the pain of having to pick knowing other things must get left out.

For tech distraction I found it helpful getting off the apps and BACK to old-school filofax. Basically adhering to GTD at it’s core. It’s hard to over-do it when you have to write everything down on paper. It used to be I was using Things/Evernote/iCal etc and recording EVERY thought and webpage etc that popped into my brain or across my screen. There is no point taking notes if you have no time to review them so I just started mass deleting. Also I use a separate email address for mailing lists and only check it weekly. This cuts down on the amount of webinars etc you sign up for because of everyone’s “scarcity opportunity” marketing strategies, the offers are over before I read them… “only 24 hours left to sign up”… oh well (i.e.: who cares).

Now, I print my daily routine check-lists every day – used to be in Evernote. (Ex: My AM Routine: 500ml warm water, Teeth Brushed, Floss, Dry Brush, Pill, Sun Salutations, Morning Pages, Gym, Monthly Workout Challenge, Shower, Face (Wash & Moisturise), Feet, Meditation, Dressed, Make-Up, Hair, Language Practice) I know that seems NUTS but since I work for myself there IS a tendency to get lazy and stop brushing your hair & getting properly dressed. I also have checklists for evening routines, fasting/eating schedule, weight check, house cleaning, etc, etc… and of course I use similar for work. Reviewing everything is way easier, I don’t have to remember which app etc I wrote/bookmarked what in, and anything that doesn’t merit getting hand written goes out or gets delegated. Also that morning routine takes me from 6AM to 10AM and in that 4 hours “check email” is NOWHERE… I no listen do podcasts at the gym though (Altucher & Ferriss,… how Ramit got onto my radar).

Of course I DO use apps (Base Camp, contacts, etc) but with checking all my small tasks OFF the phone, I’m much less tempted to be in it 100 times a day.

Also I go to school 3 nights a week studying German (part of my wish list – I have 1 more language to go after this one – then I’m on to instruments) – so being that busy helps keep focus too.

Mimi Ghosh

I struggle with depression, fears and worries of the future. My mind is like a huge library with many books open at the same time, and I jump from book to book; constantly jumping from thought to idea to concern to curiosity. To be honest, often this is a way of procrastinating, a failure to regulate my emotions.

Also, in this day and age it almost feels like a tacit agreement that we *should* always be doing everything for everyone all the time. If a text isn’t answered, a call isn’t picked up, an email isn’t replied to, it feels like someone will demand to know why. I often unplug from technology in the evenings or over the weekend, or even during a difficult period when I need to stop the chatter and images coming through the various glowing, blue screens. I’ve also learned not to apologize to others for doing this. I simply state that I was unplugged for the weekend, and now I’m back and able to communicate. I’ve learned to be fiercely protective over my unplugged time.— If I wouldn’t leave my front door unlocked and let people walk in and out of my home as they please, then I won’t let people demand communication during my self-care time.

Other reasons for being unfocused include, but aren’t limited to: being overwhelmed and not knowing what to do next or how to do it; reacting emotionally to a duty, but not yet having the clarity to formulate my fears and emotions into questions and then asking for help to resolve them; plain and simple immaturity or a lack of personal/emotional development to deal with the situation at hand, so I freak out, procrastinate, and obsessively try to develop myself to the state where I will be able to deal with the situation.

Also, EXERCISE! Sometimes your mind, body, and spirit just need some damn exercise and nature to help you focus!

I find that everything gets boring. Like, I spend a few months digging into something, and I like it because it’s new, but ultimately I get bored – probably because I do not truly care about anything. What works to get me up to speed on anything is a threat of public shaming – as I recently discovered – so I might try that. Positive reinforcement doesn’t seem to work for me. As soon as I almost figure something out I get bored and demotivated. I don’t think it is fear of anything, rather lack of interest in a real 9-5 career. Right now the money seems good enough and the time off work seems okay. As soon as one of these parameters shifts into the negative, or when I’m dying from exhaustion, this perspective will shift and I’ll kick my own ass. I’ll be definitely thinking more about this – perhaps there are other buttons in me I haven’t manipulated yet.

The hardest part about focusing for me is the crippling perfectionism. If my work isn’t good enough, I tell myself I need to take a break to ponder how to make it better or to study to the works of others. This creates an endless cycle of me using “betterment” as a security blanket that protects me from ever having to follow through and face the potential of failure. in other words, I convince myself I’m being productive when I’m not.

I have (and have had for a long time) a fear of success. I know I can be successful once, but I don’t know that I can sustain it. It feels like the inevitable failure will be worse because I’ve been so successful in the past. Instead, I self sabotage by not focusing and not completing tasks so that I can “control” my failure rather than having it happen to me.

Very recognisable the reading of books or rather missing the feeling of reading as much as we did before the internet era it seems… Rather than always grabbing a book before sleeping or always having a book in your bag, my phone silently took over that place (with the latest newsletters, blog articles, podcasts, online communities to follow and making you feel guilty for not commenting) and it seems I forgot that book habit as well. Not something to be proud of and what’s more, I miss the calmness that a book brings rather than your iPhone. In any case, to listen to Audible books is still a nice solution, especially when travelling.

It’s definitely to do in my case with being afraid to fail and to be judged for that and for sure also with setting boundaries. Not so much with Netflix or Instagram temptations actually…
I noticed that to actually put boundaries in place is not as easy as simply saying ‘no’ to invitations for instance.

It is actually the whole mission of putting in place systems everywhere that is daunting and frustrating it takes so long (including the change of your mindset that goes with it): from hiring a VA, testing a few, putting in place a schedule like when will you write content, how often, for what purpose and what about, how and will when you do outreach, how and when will you do exercise, how will you fit in reading a book, staying on top of online information, how and where to find your clients and refine your market, how and where to fit in cooking and meeting like-minded people in person, etc – everything is linked.
The boundary-setting is quite an exercise and comes down to how you want to lead your life as a whole in fact. So, perhaps it’s normal this is not an easy task that I sometimes think it should be.

The last Growthlab article is very nice in this respect. The simple examples of people taking Fridays off on purpose or working from 9 – 5pm and seeing how they strictly adhere to that is admirable. Thank you for that.

My own reasons for lack of focus… I think it comes down to “I don’t know what to do next”, or more specifically, I have too many options and I want to do them all, which I believes partially fits under fear of failure- that if I do one thing now I won’t be able to another thing later. It also reminds me of something that I read either here or somewhere else, which i think was Warren Buffet’s advice to someone with their bucket list items: Pick one item off your bucket list (maybe this applies to all other lists too!), and ignore all the rest until that one item is complete.

It is very hard to focus. Right now the tv is on, my cellphone is next to me, and I am on the internet. I also have 5 different tabs open to 5 different things thats on my mind. It like juggling so many things on my mind and then they all fall down. I definitely have a fear of failure. Fear of choosing the wrong course of action, which leads to inaction. I usually end up watching tv just to quiet the noise in my head.

My problem that obstructs my focus is drinking after work. I enjoy my job, but while I’m at my job, I have ideas for the things i want to do and create outside of work, but the second I get out of work, I just want to have a beer and relax(which turns into too many, admittedly), and all those ideas fall by the wayside. I don’t have a community of like-minded individuals to push me to create new work, or people around me who make me want to make and show new work. I love living in NYC now, but i guess the same creative block I had before, followed me to the east coast.

Dominic Teoh

It’s hard to focus because there are so many things I want/have to do: work, the dream job course, time with my girlfriend, time with family, time with friends, model making, exercise, practicing stand up comedy, actually going out and performing at stand up gigs, tutoring, resting, eating; and, with all these tasks it’s so much easier to just browse the net. When I do get around to working on my to do lists the tasks take longer than I assign to meet standards, my schedule gets derailed and it’s back to the net.
A logical look at it tells me I’m likely biting off more than I can chew, but I don’t want to give up any of these activities.

Michelle

It’s too easy to think I’m interested in this and that and the other, and so I don’t choose one thing to focus on and do as I’m too scared of losing the others

Maharishi, (founder of TM) once said an interesting thing. He said before Enlightenment-no time for anything, after Enlightenment – all time for everything. So its an internal thing, and Ramit’s point of finding focus is of course what one needs to do. But not so easy is it? I find it really difficult to set boundaries. And I must admit I don’t know why – except of course perhaps lack of Enlightenment- which I am working on. Like right now, I’m wondering whether writing this comment is taking me toward my goals. One thing that really works for me is hard deadlines – I find it incredible how much I can plough through in the week before a long trip, for example. So I guess we will continue to set goals and objectives – Ed Dale has a super little system using a whiteboard and stickies. Trello is also useful.

I tend to try and do too many different things at once instead of concentrating on one; time-management and prioritization are lacking I guess.

I spend 1hr every day on the 1 thing that I want to see succeed in my life.

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