Why You Can’t Focus9 min read

Published by Zach on

I can’t think. I can’t pay attention. I can’t do it anymore. I just don’t want to. I don’t want to look at another page, another email. I don’t want to type another word. Where is my motivation? Why can’t I do this?

Does this sound familiar?

Sometimes, it feels impossible to start working. Opening the word document, doing the first practice problem. Both seem about as doable as pushing over a building. Only superman or the hulk could do this! Not me.

I wanted a magical ray of light to inspire me, to inspire me to start working. There must be something I can find or take to help me focus. Right? There must be a magical pill.

I never found the magical pill.

However, one day recently, I found a sliver of light—a sliver of hope. I had a return to the true, amazing, inspiring focus. And it wasn’t from where I expected it. I focused. I did get my work done. I was moving a wheelbarrow as opposed to an entire building.

How did I come back into focus? In this post, I’ll tell you how I figured it out. Unfortunately, what I discovered wasn’t a quick fix. These are not small changes, these are big tough changes. Here is why you can’t focus.

You Don’t Care


The number one reason I would lose focus is I didn’t care about what I was working on.

Normally, you just do things because you have to do them. However, “because you have to do them,” is unlikely to inspire laser focus. Whatever you are working on, you need to be that annoying kid to yourself; ask, “why?” Then ask “why?” again, and again, and again. Repeat it until you come up with an answer that makes sense to you.

Then, sometimes, the answer to one of the “whys” will be, “well, this isn’t really that important to me.” If that’s the case, I have an even more challenging question: why are you still doing it? What would happen if you stopped doing that thing? Can you quit?

I’ll give you an example of something that I should have asked myself “why” much sooner; I was studying Biomedical Engineering in college and was also on the “pre-med” track. At the same time, I committed many hours a week to benchwork in a lab. I continued that research for three years, I learned some things about basic research and got my name on some things, but I never asked, “why?”

If I asked myself that initially the answer would be, “Because other pre-med students do it”

The next “why?”: “So they can get into medical school.”

The next “why?”: “Because they want to go to medical school.”

And so on until I figured out that I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t care about appearing on papers or discovering the next scientific breakthrough. I wanted to interact with patients.

I should have done the “why” exercise much earlier. I didn’t need to do that research. I should have stayed for a couple of months to help with my medical school application but then quit.

What are you working on? What do you need to focus on? Why? Why? Why?

The Vampire Test

After answering “why,” the next step is to take careful note of what activities take energy away from you and what activities add energy; some people call it the vampire test.

What are the activities that drain you? What activities take energy away from you?

Be careful here; for example, finishing this post is hard work, but it gives me energy. Going for a run, a gym session, or playing soccer is physically tiring, but they give me energy.

Playing video games and watching TV are easy, but they take energy away from me. When I was a lifeguard, it was easy, but it drained me. I swam in high school, and even though it was good exercise, it drained me because I didn’t care about it at all. Sitting inside all day drains me. Being outside gives me energy.

What gives you energy? What takes it away?

Furthermore, net positive energy activities have a positive feedback loop, while net negative energy activities have a negative feedback loop. Keep doing the draining activities, and you will crumble to zero. Focus on the high-energy activities, and you will want to do more high-energy activities; you will go to infinity and beyond.

As a side note, this energy analysis tactic is an excellent way to figure out what to do in life, seriously. Pay close attention to your obsession; what are you a natural at? What do people tell you you are good at? What do you do after work?

When you can’t focus, it’s because you don’t care. Why are you doing this work? Does it drain you or build you up?

Have a good answer to “why” and pay attention to things that give you energy. The focus will follow.

Your Life is Out of Order

You can have the noblest goal, the highest energy activity, but still not be able to write a single word, flip a single flashcard, complete a single problem, still not be able to focus. Why? Your life is out of order.

The third law of thermodynamics states that entropy will always increase. Entropy is just a fancy word for randomness. Randomness, chaos, will always increase. A high amount of disorder is much more likely than a low one. It takes putting work into a system to decrease entropy, to decrease randomness, to decrease chaos, to decrease disorder, and to increase order.

You need to put work back into the system to increase order. I find it extremely hard to focus when my life is out of order.

Here are some things you must fix:

  • Medical Problems: this could be insomnia, a chest infection, or a clinical psychiatric disorder; you need to do everything you can, with the help of your doctor, to fix these things; one of the best ways to prevent poor health is precisely that, prevention. A regular health checkup could be exactly what you need. I know far too many people, many of whom are studying to become doctors, who haven’t seen a doctor in years.
  • Sleep Properly: 7+ hours is a good place to start.
  • Eat Properly: less junk, more veg, less soda, more water, that kind of stuff.
  • Exercise: regular exercise does countless things; get after it
  • Relationships: you know that expression “happy wife, happy life?” Yeah, that also applies to close family and friends. You are around these people so much that if those relationships are not good, they will have a negative impact on you.

Many of the above things are impossible to completely fix, but if you can improve upon them even slightly, it may be just the push you need so you can focus and get your work done. If I had rampant pneumonia, I don’t think I could study much.

Here are some (easier) things you should fix:

  • Mindfulness: meditation and a gratitude practice are good places to start
  • Clutter: that means a closet, fridge, pantry, car, bookshelf, computer, phone, wallet, email; you can probably get rid of or donate 80% of the “stuff.”
  • Social Media: the worst part of social media is comparing yourself to others
  • TV and Video Games: ok, I am definitely talking about myself here
  • Nature Time: being outside more has been the most significant noticeable change in my life recently
  • Finances
  • Books
  • Strict Working start and end times
  • Fun Time (for you)

You Don’t Know What to Do

More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

I think Tony Soprano also said this, and I agree. Not knowing what to do is the third primary reason you can’t focus.

What do you need to focus on? Now that you know why you are doing the work you are doing, and you’ve got your life more in order, you need to figure out where to apply this laser focus. Have you ever taken a magnifying glass outside on a sunny day? What the magnifying glass is doing is focusing the heat energy of the sun onto a single spot. You can literally start fires with focus. If the magnifying glass were malfunctioning, it would spread out the sun’s heat energy with no fire-starting ability. The magnifying glass is effective because it can direct the heat energy into a small, focused area.

Similar to the magnifying glass, you will only be able to focus if you know where to direct this focus. As specifically as possible, you need to plan what you will accomplish and how you will accomplish it.

If you don’t know what you will do, you won’t do it. Writing down on your calendar, “study biology” is one of the worst things you can possibly do. It results in indecision and procrastination, and bad stuff. “Study biology,” isn’t specific enough.

Additionally, your brain is amazingly good at creating artificial barriers to hard things. If you write, “study biology,” your brain can just say, “no, we can’t do that; we need to figure out what we will do. How can we figure out what to do right now? We need a clear head; let’s go watch an episode of Friends to clear up, and then, maybe, we can begin to plan what to do.”

Nope nope nope, the plan should have been finished weeks ago, not that day.

Some ways I like to plan:

  • Figure out everything you need to accomplish as specifically as possible; if it’s studying biology chapters, it might be chapters 1 through 12.
  • Figure out how much time you have to accomplish the task; if there is no deadline, create one for yourself
  • Divide the amount of work between those days so you have three days to study; maybe you would study chapters 1-4 on day one, 5-8 on day two, and 9-12 on day three.

The third reason you can’t focus is you don’t know what to do. Specific exactly what you need to focus on and get your work done.

All-in-all remember, to achieve great focus you need to answer three questions:

  1. Why are you doing it?
  2. Is your life in order?
  3. Do I know, specifically, what I need to accomplish?

Answer those questions, and the true, excellent focus is right around the corner.


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