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.

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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.