Regaining your focus

Hand holding a camera lens, bringing focus to a road ahead
Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

Lately, it’s been hard to focus.

Without meaning to, I find my mind wandering away from the task at hand and onto my emails or social media or what I’m going to do this evening. In the last few years, it’s gotten worse, but it hasn’t been great in a while. And I know that I’m not the only one feeling this way.

So what’s happening? Why is it so hard lately to focus our attention on the things we know are important?

According to Johan Hari’s research in the book “Stolen Focus,” this isn’t an isolated phenomenon that only some of us are grappling with.


There has been a decline in our ‘collective attention’ for the past 130 years!

If we’re all experiencing this decline in attention, what’s stopping us from focusing, why should we care, and how do we regain our ability to focus?

Why should we care?

What does it matter if it’s more difficult to focus on one thing for very long? Should we even be worried that we’re spending less and less time on any specific task? Isn’t it a fact of the modern world that multi-tasking is an important skill all successful people must possess?

Well, while our brain was designed to allow for distractions—without the ability to scan our environment and interrupt focused work, our ancestors would have been eaten by a lion—the modern world has placed more distractions in our path. Studies have shown that we’re getting more distracted, and that this is causing us to sacrifice the depth of our thinking in favour of quantity of thoughts.

This is an issue for a number of reasons.

First, our creativity suffers when we’re not giving ourselves the space to deeply think about things.

In order to come up with creative or novel ideas, the authors of The Innovators DNA explain that we need to do a form of thinking known as ‘associating’. This requires our brain to synthesize information that we’ve been exposed to and develop new connections. In order to do this thinking, though, we need time. We need to focus on one thing for an extended period of time and make sense of it. When we’re constantly trying to multi-task, this becomes impossible.

Second, our understanding of the world shifts.

When we’re constantly distracted, we seek out simpler information and avoid engaging with material that challenges us. This means that we spend more of our time hearing things that reinforce our current beliefs and less time contemplating alternate viewpoints. It also means we spend more time on the surface of topics instead of digging deep and developing a full understanding of them. When life becomes short soundbites that always reconfirm our existing beliefs, we lose perspective.

Finally, life just feels more stressful.

This is usually the sign for me that I need to slow down and start finding more space for focused thinking. Without the ability to process our thoughts, we can feel muddled and exhausted.

What prevents us from maintaining focus

black and white photo of a chain with a blurred background
Photo by lalesh aldarwish

So if focus is so important, what’s stopping us from giving our attention to the things that are important to us?

Information overload

One of the most obvious reasons is information overload.

We now all carry all the information available in the world in our pockets. It’s possible to learn everything about everything at any moment. Our devices are always buzzing with a notification of something new that we need to know.

But there is a limit to the amount of information that we can actually process and once we hit that limit, we will find that we have a decreased ability to focus. When our minds are overwhelmed by too much information, we start to seek our simpler ideas and shy away from complexity.

Attempts at multi-tasking

Another thing that affects our focus is the push to ‘multi-task’.

Unfortunately, humans don’t actually multi-task like computers do. We can only hold one or two thoughts in our conscious mind at any given time, so instead of multi-tasking, we’re actually switching rapidly between different tasks.

This hurts our focus by resulting in four effects:

  1. Switch Cost Effect, or the amount of time it takes your brain to reconfigure from one task to another, resulting in each task taking longer than if you’d simply focused on completing one at a time (or ‘mono-tasked’);
  2. Screw-up Effect, or the new errors you introduce by trying to remember where you were in each task when you switch back to it, which you then need to correct before you can continue on;
  3. Creativity Drain, the reduction in our creative thinking because of the extra energy expended to switch between tasks; and
  4. Diminished Memory Effect, the reduction in the amount we learn and remember as a result of the extra energy we’re expending switching between tasks.

These costs may not be a lot if we’re distracted only infrequently, but when you consider that the average worker is distracted once every 3 minutes, that can add up to a pretty big impact!


The final big reason for our splintered attention is stress.

According to the interviews conducted by Johan Hari for his book and research conducted by Dr. Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, our attention is made up of three layers or systems:

  1. The Orienting System (our flashlight or spotlight) which allows us to pay attention to our immediate actions and requires us to focus our attention down to a single thing;
  2. The Alerting System (our floodlight or starlight) which scans our environment, looking for things that may need attention and, expanding outside our immediate task, often locates the things that distract us; and
  3. Executive Control (our juggler or daylight) which ensures that our goals and behaviours are aligned and that we’re walking in the right direction to meet the goals we want to be achieving.

When we’re stressed, our Alerting System can get stuck in hyper-vigilance mode, constantly scanning for threats in our environment. This causes us to abandon our selective attention and lose focus on the task at hand.

When we feel safe, we can narrow our focus, but when we are in an unsafe environment, we evolved to avoid selective attention. This means more reactivity, less time doing deep work, and a decline in executive control. The perception of an unsafe environment can come from worries about deadlines or financial strain or just the barrage of notifications we get all day long.

How to find more focus

Photo by Aramudi on Unsplash

So maybe you’re seeing the effects of diminished focus on your life and now you know what kinds of things can cause this to happen. But, what do we do? How does one start to change how their brain is working?

Practice mono-tasking

One thing that can help is to start practicing mono-tasking.

Instead of rapidly switching between tasks all the time (remember: multi-tasking doesn’t exist), instead, work to spend more of your time mono-tasking. Mono-tasking is simply focusing on doing one thing at a time.

This is easier said than done.

After an extended period of time of being interrupted, whether by other people or by your technology, you will start to interrupt yourself. You may notice this if you sit down to read a book, but suddenly discover you need to check your emails quickly. Then make a coffee. Then check what’s happening on social media. Nothing external is actually interrupting you, but your habits are causing you to interrupt yourself.

When you start incorporating more mono-tasking, be patient with yourself. Pick a short period of time—say 10 minutes—during which you won’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything else. Then, you can work your way up from there, and will soon find yourself able to focus on a single task for longer periods of time.

Tips for mono-tasking:

  1. Set a timer: once you’ve picked your desired length of focus time, set the timer and put it somewhere out of sight. Now, work until the timer goes off. This saves you from checking the clock to see if it’s time to take a break yet, and I find it helps me to stay focused.
  2. Find flow: it’s easier to focus when you enter a state of flow. This is when you get “so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away.” There are likely some tasks you really enjoy that can get you into this state; give yourself time to explore those activities to practice doing one thing at a time.
  3. Keep a notepad: have something nearby to write distractions on to deal with later. I find I’m often distracted by ideas or other thoughts while I’m meant to be working. My habit before was to pause what I was doing to go pursue that other thought, which often resulted in me abandoning my initial task or else switching multiple times. Now, I simply jot the thought down on a notepad that I keep nearby and get back to work. This allows me to remain focused on the task at hand, knowing that I can follow up on that idea later.

Change your media consumption habits

Another thing that can help is to adjust what media you’re regularly consuming.

A lot of our media consumption now encourages us to go fast and focus on only surface information. Apps like TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter encourage us to consider completely new information every 15-30 seconds and only ever engage with a few surface thoughts on the topic. Seeing the world in fragments and having constant notifications to interrupt us leads us to focus less and to consider ideas less deeply.

While you don’t have to phase out these media completely, spend some time with slower forms of information consumption. Regularly pausing to read a book or a newspaper, or to watch a full-length movie or play, can allow our brains to practice focusing on a single topic for a longer period of time. That is, if you don’t interrupt yourself!

Tips to change media consumption habits:

  1. Set a timer: most phones offer the ability to set timers on apps. Pick the ones you spend the most time on and choose to turn the app off after you’ve spent a certain amount of time on it. Then, go do something slower.
  2. Delete the worst offenders: if you find you can’t control how much time you’re spending on an app—for example, TikTok was too addicting for me to use responsibly—consider deleting the app from your phone.
  3. Make a new routine: find a new routine that helps you slow down. Use changes in your environment or other external triggers to remind you of your new habit. For example, I have a separate chair for reading. When I sit in that chair, I know that I’m there to focus, not scroll. Or when I take my dog for a walk and leave my phone at home, I know that I am going to be paying attention to my surroundings.

Control your environment

We also need to consider our environment when trying to make a change.

Although we often credit willpower for our successes or failures, our environment plays a big role in how successful we are at incorporating new habits into our lives. All our good intentions can fall apart if we aren’t also thinking about how our environment supports or hurts our ability to change.

And since our brain reacts to environments that feel unsafe by switching from our Orienting System (focusing on one thing) to our Alerting System (scanning our environment for threats), ensuring we’re in an environment conducive to completing focused work is important.

Consider what in your environment is causing you to focus less. Give some thought to how you can adjust those things to support your focus. Also consider how the people around you are behaving. Is it possible to find others who will support your aim to increase your focus?

Tips to adjust your environment

  1. Identify and remove distractions: pay attention to what typically distracts you and understand how it breaks your focus. Then, make a shift to remove that distraction from your workspace. For example, my phone is a distraction for me, so I turn it to silent and put it in a drawer when I’m working.
  2. Understand when your mind feels calm: understand what factors help your mind to feel calm to focus. How much background noise do you need? What temperature should your room be at? Should you be alone or with others? I used to think that I focused better with music, but I realized that I actually focus best with white noise, so I made that shift. I also can’t focus if I’m cold so now I always work with a blanket on my lap and a cozy sweater. Small things can make a big difference.
  3. Look for community: find others in your circle who are also seeking to improve their focus. Use them to help reinforce your new habits and build in accountability.

Consider mindfulness practice

Finally, it can help to train your brain using mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness meditation is a practice of focusing on ‘the now’ and is meant to help train your mind to be more aware of your awareness. Doing this practice regularly can help you to recognize when you’re distracted and bring your attention back to what you were trying to focus on.

You won’t ever stop your brain from being distracted. As I mentioned above, we’re just not wired that way. We can, though, learn to recognize our distraction and return to focus.

Tips for mindfulness:

  1. Start small: you don’t need to meditate for hours to get the benefits of a mindfulness practice. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes can be enough to see positive effects! I often fall out of practice, so when I’m restarting again, I start with just 3 or 4 minutes at first. This stops me from getting frustrated and quitting, and it’s easy to slowly work my way up from there.
  2. Get some support: you can take a class or find any number of guided recordings online. Don’t think you have to figure it out on your own. Lean on the resources available to you.
  3. Find what works for you: we’re all unique and we need to find the method that works best for us. I can sometimes commit to a seated meditation practice, but not always. Instead, I find ways to bring mindfulness to other tasks, such as walking my dog or cleaning my house, to still get the benefits.

Change can be difficult, but the benefits of finding more focus are worth the effort. By focusing on your focus, you can reconnect with your creativity and peacefulness.

Are you working to improve your focus lately? What’s worked for you? What doesn’t work?

Beard, A., & Jha, A. (2021, October 26). Find Focus in a Chaotic World. HBR Ideacast. Ep. 825. Retrieved from

Hardy, B. (2019). Willpower doesn’t work: Discover the hidden keys to success. Piatkus.

Hari, J. (2022). Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Honoré, C. (2004). In praise of slowness: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. HarperSanFrancisco.

Zeratsky, J. (2019, January 11). To get more done, focus on environment, expectations, and examples. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 2, 2023, from

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