5 Reasons You Can’t Focus And What To Do About It

Feel like you can never focus deeply? You’re probably not meeting these needs for continued attention. How to get your quality work back:

5 Reasons You Can’t Focus And What To Do About It
[Photo: Flickr user Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu]

You know the problem–swarms of distractions, constant interruptions, various tones chiming all around, rampant “screen sucking,” texting under the table during meetings, the overloading of mental circuits, and frequent feelings of frustration at trying to get everything done well and on time. This is the modern context in which most of us work. Whether the workplace itself or the numerous demands on your time drive you to distraction, the end result is the same. You can’t focus on anything anymore at work, and it’s taking its toll on your performance and your sense of well being.


Our current problem, the ongoing mental traffic jam–if not gridlock–in which it’s always rush hour, grew out of our most spectacular successes, the amazing inventions that define our era. We created the laborsaving devices that catalyzed the unplanned explosion within which we live today. But as enlightened managers everywhere are learning, we can learn to manage what we created. When we learn how to take back controls that we’ve given away, we can get better at managing our attention and not surrendering it to every distraction.

[Related: Chill With The Adderall: Four Non-Chemical Brain Hacks To Help You Focus]

Below are five elements of a broad basic plan for managing your attention more generally, with techniques for developing habits to help you consistently find focus and achieve your goals. Additional examples and specific tips for each can be found in Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive (January 2015).

1. Energy

You–especially your brain–can’t focus without energy, and plenty of it. As your supply of energy gets low, you start to fade. Taking steps to monitor your brain’s energy supply is as basic and essential as keeping your car’s tank full of gas. Most people ignore or take for granted this fundamental necessity, as if the supply was infinite, and they do not monitor carefully how they spend their energy, thus wasting great quantities of it on trivial tasks. But when you invest your energy wisely and see to it that energy tank is always full, you become able to feel positive emotion.

2. Emotion

Emotion is the on-off switch for learning and for peak performance. Often ignored or taken for granted, your emotional state drives the quality of your focus and thus the results you can achieve. If you work in a fear-driven organization that is low on trust, your performance will necessarily suffer. It’s a neurological fact. But if you work in a group that is high on trust and low on fear, then you can achieve at your best.

The better you understand yourself, your personal psychology, and your emotional hot buttons, the better able you will be to hold yourself in the right emotional state for focus, while steering clear of the negative states that render sharp focus impossible. Positive emotion, in turn, galvanizes engagement.


3. Engagement

You must be interested in order to pay close attention. You must also be motivated. Interest and motivation equal engagement. Such engagement develops naturally when you work in your “sweet spot,” the overlap of three spheres: what you love to do, what you are very good at doing, and what advances the mission of the group or what someone will pay you to do.

[Related: What Happens In Your Brain When You Lose Focus]

In addition, there should be some novelty in what you’re doing and some room for creative input on your part to hold your attention. Lack of novelty leads to boredom, which leads to loss of focus. But beware, too much novelty and too much creative input will cause you to wander all over and grow confused, which is why you also need structure.

4. Structure

Such a simple word, but such a magnificent tool when used creatively and wisely. Tim Armstrong’s “10% Think Time” (AOL’s CEO requires his executives to spend at least four hours a week thinking) is a perfect example of structure. Structure refers to how you shape your day, how you spend your time, what boundaries you create, what rules you follow, which assistants you employ, what filing system you use, what hours you keep, what breaks you take, what priorities you set up, which tasks you take on and which you farm out, what plans you make, and what flexibility you create. Without structure, focus is impossible. Chaos reigns. In order to create, preserve, and promote your own best structures, you need to take control.

5. Control

In today’s world, if you don’t take your time, it will be taken from you. Most people exert less control over how they use their time than they should. Take back control. The fact is, most people give away great gobs of their time and attention every day without meaning to and usually without being aware that they are. They surrender their attention to the onslaught of modern life without putting up much of a fight, as if they were overmatched. No one would dump $150 into the garbage every day, but most of us flush at least a 150 minutes every day without even noticing we’re doing it.

These five elements–energy, emotion, engagement, structure, and control–combine to create a plan that will allow you to perform at your best without feeling frazzled, frantic, and feckless. You need to individualize your own plan, based on your situation and your own personality and emotional makeup, but the basic elements of this plan will work for everyone.


To help you sort out where you should put most of your efforts, you can take this assessment. This will give you a weighted score, showing you which of the syndromes most apply to you. With this knowledge in hand, this book will help you get started on combating the distractions you most commonly deal with and developing your plan to regain focus at work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted and Adapted from Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive. Copyright 2015 Edward M. Hallowell, MD. All rights reserved.

Edward M. Hallowell, MD, runs the Hallowell Centers in Sudbury, Mass., New York City, and San Francisco, all specializing in training attention in people of all ages.


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