The Problem with Lack of Focus — and How to Fix It

Sep 21, 2022

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

These days it feels like the world is dead-set against our having focus. We’re bombarded with digital distractions. There are near-constant requests for our attention, many driven by algorithms that have cracked the code on hijacking it.

So we struggle with overload and are overwhelmed. Our concentration is fragmented. We check our phones constantly.

In such a hostile environment, it’s exceedingly difficult for us to focus. But that’s a disaster, not only for our work productivity but also for our quality of life.

Focus is a complex cognitive phenomenon.* For our purposes here, it entails two main abilities:

  1. our ability to concentrate on something in front of us (such as an article or a person talking), channeling our full attention to it without distraction
  2. our ability to concentrate attention or effort on the most pressing needs out of an array of possibilities (such as our top priorities)

Think of a laser. Is our effort focused like a laser on what truly matters, or getting dispersed into a random assortment of tasks?

In today’s world of digital distraction, both levels of focus are in jeopardy. We see it in the data.

Unfocused Leaders

According to a survey of more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies across 100-plus countries, 73% of them reported feeling distracted from their current task some or most of the time. What’s more, 67% of leaders described their minds as cluttered.

Distracted Cluttered Bar Chart

The biggest sources of distraction for these leaders were:

  • demands of other people (26%)
  • competing priorities (25%)
  • general distractions (13%)
  • too big of a workload (12%)

Nearly all the leaders surveyed (96%) indicated that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable to them. The researchers concluded:

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks—at the right time, in the right way—is the key to exceptional results. We have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement.
Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter**

According to research from Dr. Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, we pay a high price for the persistent interruptions and distractions we encounter. Here’s a summary of the findings written up in The Guardian:

Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a ten-point fall in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible while 21% admitted they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.

Harriet Griffey, “The Lost Art of Concentation,” The Guardian, October 14, 2018)

In our age of skimming, scrolling, and swiping, some of us may be losing the ability to read books or study articles for more than a few minutes. Isn’t technology supposed to enrich our lives, not degrade them? We must avoid the sorry fate of becoming slaves to our machines.

A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention. Attention is the basis of the most essential of leadership skills—emotional, organizational, and strategic intelligence. And never has it been under greater assault.

Daniel Goleman

The Problem with Lack of Focus

We pay a price for our diminished ability to concentrate on the things in front of us and to concentrate effort on our most pressing needs.

When we’re not focused, we’re:

  • reading something over and over but not absorbing it
  • listening to people but having our mind wander so we don’t take their words in
  • zoning out in meetings or lectures
  • more likely to fall behind, causing stress and anxiety
  • busy all the time—busy, busy, busy
  • stressed, with stress hormones like cortisol overwhelming calming and feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine
  • dealing with repetitive, intrusive thoughts that we struggle to let go
  • tired and depleted
  • overworked and overwhelmed
  • not making significant progress on our most important tasks
  • jumping from task to task, flying around frenetically
  • beholden to working on things that are other people’s priorities, whatever is easiest in the moment, or whatever appears before us as we check emails and respond
  • constantly putting out fires (which is exhausting for us and chaotic and frustrating for those around us)
  • frequently switching between tasks (a big problem, since our brains can’t transition seamlessly across tasks; there’s a major delay and a cost in terms of our energy)
  • working on things that should be done by others or that should be automated
  • doing things that shouldn’t be done at all (the worst of all)

The Benefits of Focus

Bruce Lee Quote

By contrast, there are many benefits when we cultivate our ability to focus and prioritize. Here are the most important benefits:

  1. better work quality
  2. higher productivity
  3. better decision-making
  4. enhanced ability to pursue goals intensely
  5. improved cognitive flexibility, allowing us to resist distractions and shift our focus away from unproductive things
  6. greater mental efficiency, since we’re not wasting valuable mental energy on distractions
  7. better time management
  8. full presence in the moment
  9. better capacity for learning
  10. enhanced creativity
  11. less stress
  12. help with managing harmful or unproductive thoughts and emotions
  13. improved ability to develop strong social relationships and empathize with others (by focusing on their point of view as well as our own)
  14. enhanced ability to remain calm under pressure and to recover from setbacks
  15. creation of mental stillness, allowing us to hear our inner voice and pay attention to our gut feelings, which can be critical in wise decision-making

How to Develop Our Focus: Strategies and Approaches

So how do we develop our focus? Here are 24 actionable strategies and approaches:

  1. Observe our daily rhythms, including best and worst times for focused work as well as energy levels at different times and on different tasks. Then design our work and schedule to capture our greatest attention, energy, and focus.
  2. Take regular breaks, recognizing that our brains can’t focus all the time and that we need to toggle between focus and rest. (When we do so, we’re able to focus much better when we return from rest, according to the research.)
  3. Practice self-care, including good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, caffeine and device curfews, etc.), eating and hydration habits, and exercise habits to reduce stress and produce energy.
  4. Minimize interruptions and eliminate distractions. (Tip: turn off smartphone notifications and place the device outside the room when working.)
  5. Develop simple rules to maximize time in deep work (e.g., never check email before noon or another time that works for you).
  6. Engage our senses when we’re doing deep work (e.g., lighting a scented candle, playing classical music in the background, or working in a room with a beautiful design or view).
  7. Focus on one task at a time and avoid frequent task-switching, since we waste time regrouping and trying to recover our original flow when we switch tasks.
  8. Design our work for “flow.”
  9. Practice doing things that require concentration, such as reading books or playing games that requires mental focus.
  10. Engage in deep breathing and practice meditation.
  11. Reduce anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk.
  12. Develop clarity on what’s most important.
  13. Determine which tasks will make the highest possible contribution toward our most important aims.
  14. Clear the decks so we can focus on our most essential task for extended periods.
  15. Reduce or eliminate non-essential tasks. (Consider using a “stop doing list” or a “drop list.”)
  16. Schedule the most important tasks and impose deadlines on them. (Tip: be generous in the amount of time given for completion, as we tend to underestimate the time it will take, causing unhelpful stress.)
  17. Learn how to say “no” more often and more easily, especially to things that don’t fit with our top priorities.***
  18. Avoid “sunk cost bias” by asking if we weren’t invested in this already, how much would we invest in it now (with time, resources, etc.)—and considering what else could be done with our time or money.
  19. Get better at cutting our losses, recognizing that it’s a necessary and important part of life
  20. Systematically measure our progress on our most important tasks. (Getting feedback on progress helps maintain our attention.)
  21. Stop focusing so much on results and focus more on deep engagement with the process of doing things that matter (e.g., less focus on our target weight and more focus on the strategies we can learn for healthy eating, sleeping, moving, etc.).
  22. Experiment with different schedules that help us focus better (e.g., themed days, such as a Monday planning day, Tuesday prospecting day, Wednesday writing day, etc.). Or half-days.
  23. Be more disciplined in committing to one thing at a time, as opposed to having to divide our attention across multiple things.
  24. Make a “Done for the Day” list each morning—a list of what would constitute essential progress and that’s reasonable for a single day. (Source: Greg McKeown in Effortless.)


Tools that Can Help with Focus

Beyond the strategies and approaches noted above, there are also many tools and frameworks that can help with focus and prioritization. Below are several of them:

1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

Eisenhower Decision Matrix

2. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that larger list, and then only focus on the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

Warren Buffet Two Lists

3. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.

Ivy Lee Method

4. Brian Tracy’s “Eat the Frog” method: identify one challenging and important task (the metaphorical frog) and complete it first thing in the morning. The logic:

The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place. Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue. The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex. But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.
Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy Eat That Frog

By Gregg Vanourek

* Mental processes related to focus include:

  • cognitive control (placing our attention where we want it and keeping it there despite distractions or temptations to focus elsewhere)

  • selective attention (focusing on certain stimuli selectively when several occur simultaneously, such as focusing on one person’s voice in a crowded room)

  • open awareness (our attention is open and remains aware of everything that’s happening around us, instead of concentrating on one thing)

** Source: Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, “Are You Having Trouble Focusing? These Simple Strategies Will Help,” Harvard Business Blogs, December 26, 2017.

*** McKeown suggests saying “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities we encounter, in part by using rigorous criteria for giving assent, such as whether the opportunity is exactly what we’re looking for. If it’s not a clear “yes,” it becomes a clear “no.”