Why You Can't Focus

Being able to devote your full attention to something is fundamental to thriving in any area of life, so why is it so hard?

In Cal Newport’s cult-favorite “Deep Work”, he says

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

For the most part, “Deep Work” is putting all of our energy into one task, to accomplish something that can’t easily be replicated. Think of the last time you had to write a term paper, study for a math exam, or complete a deliverable at work. If you’re anything like me, you probably remember the constant negotiation with yourself to actually work on the task at hand. I often find myself wanting to reach for my phone, grab a snack, water my succulent, honestly anything but what I’ve set out to do. Of course, guilt quickly follows. Does that make me a bad person/student/programmer?

No. Everyone experiences resistance to mentally or physically taxing labor to some extent.

Novel stimuli

The human brain is wired to seek out novel stimuli. It’s simply how we’ve stayed alive for so long. When a deer runs into the road while we’re driving, our attention instantly shifts to it, prompting us to act to avoid the danger. That same instinctual response to new and interesting things in our surroundings is what makes it so hard to get focused work done.

Your mind is always on the lookout for something more interesting than what it’s currently honed in on. The same thing that keeps you alive is to blame for most all procrastination.

Overcoming It

There’s a careful balance necessary between work that is too boring and work that is too hard. If you can convince yourself that you’re interested in something, and work enough to understand it, all that’s left to do is devote your attention to it.

Fortunately, there’s lots of things we can do to get into a flow state of hyper-focused attention easier. For me, it’s all about routine. When I set out to do truly deep work, I like to sit down with a drink (pop, tea, coffee, etc), put on some headphones, and get to work. I try not to sit at a desk with music and tea unless I’m doing work, so when I start that routine my mind already knows what’s about to happen.

As with any skill, practice works wonders. Think of the time you spend focusing as an investment in any future time you need to focus. Each time it get’s a little easier to fight off distractions for just a little longer.