This post was updated on March 21, 2022
The inability to focus—to concentrate on the task at hand—seems to be a common problem in our modern, always-connected world. But can you train your brain to focus better?
Train your brain to focus and concentrate on your most meaningful tasks by learning to manage your attention. Practicing attention management helps increase focus and concentration, while helping reduce distractions that come from the environment, technology, and your own thoughts.
In this article, I’ll explore the symptoms of an unfocused mind, the consequences of poor concentration, and how to implement attention management to restore focus and achieve more of what’s important to you.
And if you want to take my online training course, Empowered Productivity, which is based in attention management, get on the waitlist here. You’ll be the first to know when registration opens!
Signs your Brain is Unfocused
Focus is the ability to maintain control over your thoughts and actions. Your brain gives you signs when it needs help focusing.
Distraction and the inability to focus can be characterized by feelings of being overworked, stressed, over-stimulated, and overtired.
The health information site Healthline notes that symptoms of being unable to concentrate include an inability to make decisions, being unable to remember things that happened recently, and making careless mistakes.
Lack of Focus Can Lead to Burnout
In the world of business, an inability to focus can also be a sign of burnout. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Evaluating your own state of burnout (or that of your team members) is important because, if left untreated, the consequences can be serious. It leads to job dissatisfaction, lower productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.
According to the Gallup report State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report, the vast majority of workers in the US and Canada are disengaged, and nearly half of American workers are actively looking for work or watching for job opportunities.
Distraction and burnout result in expensive consequences to businesses. Studies show that workers are switching tasks more than they are on task, which can lead to as much as 44% more mistakes.
The Gallup report finds that replacing workers often costs the equivalent of their annual salary, just in hard costs. This doesn’t include lost knowledge, relationships, and the costs involved in bringing a new employee up to speed. Even if an employee doesn’t leave, the Gallup report says that it costs about $9,000 extra per year to keep an employee with a salary of $50,000, and the costs increase at higher levels in the organization.
If you suspect burnout in yourself or others, be sure to read my Burnout Recovery Plan to Regain Balance.
What Causes Lack of Concentration?
Our concentration is hijacked by a variety of sources. These include the environment, technology, and our own thoughts.
Distractions from the Environment
Distractions are constant, and they’re often a result of our environment. Working in an open office allows for near-constant interruptions from colleagues.
Switching from in-office work to remote work during the pandemic often increased distraction for some, especially those with children.
Distractions from Technology
But perhaps the biggest cause of distraction for workers is the constant dinging and buzzing of our technology. There are text messages, emails, chat, and the ever-present draw of social media and games.
According to Adobe’s email usage study, consumers spend about half their day checking work email, and that doesn’t count text, chat, phone, and social media. While communication is an important part of business, this near-constant communication crowds out the opportunity to get important work done. Very few team members are hired for how many emails they can answer in a day.
Distractions from Our Own Thoughts
Because most employees don’t have an efficient way to manage their work, interruptions from internal thoughts about things they want to do, need to do, are trying to remember to do, are a big challenge to focus. Many people’s internal chatter is based on running down a mental to-do list throughout the day.
How a Focused Mind Will Change Your Life
If you think time management is the path to productivity, it’s time to change your thinking!
In our modern, technology-driven world of work, time management no longer works. It’s not flexible enough to accommodate all the disruptions to concentration in our daily lives.
Instead, we need to learn to manage our attention.
When you learn to practice attention management, you can recognize when your attention is being stolen. You can also make smarter decisions about your focus and your actions. You’ll feel more in control, and you’ll be more intentional and less reactive.
In other words, with attention management training, you can teach your brain to focus, and achieve more of what’s important to you.
How to Train your Brain to Focus with Attention Management
My work as a trainer, researcher, and speaker on productivity has shown me that when my clients learn to manage their attention, they achieve more of the results that are most significant to them—the very definition of being productive.
The first step in building attention management skills is to recognize that there are different types of attention that we use throughout the day.
For so long, we’ve learned to focus on how we manage our time, so this new approach can be a radical switch for some people. To help you make the mental shift to attention management, I’ve created a four-quadrant model.
The Four Quadrants of Attention Management
The four quadrants of attention management are based on the amount of control you exert over your attention. Each quadrant explains the state of your attention produced by that effort. I discuss the four quadrants of attention management in more detail in my book, Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day.
Attention management is the practice of intentionally engaging the most optimal brain state to achieve the best results in the moment. Learning attention management gives you the ability to:
- Recognize which quadrant will best serve you in which situation.
- Understand which quadrant you’re in at any given moment.
- Make intentional shifts throughout the day into the most appropriate quadrant as the situation requires.
Quadrant 1: Reactive and Distracted
If you find yourself exerting little or no control over your attention, you are in the quadrant that I call “Reactive and Distracted.” In this quadrant, you are scattered and reacting to both internal and external stimuli. Also, as interruptions bombard you, you are switching your attention from task to task every few minutes.
When your attention becomes fractured in this way, you may not realize just how scattered you are. You may not be aware of how much this undermines your ability to do your best work in the most efficient manner.
Too much time in the Reactive and Distracted Quandrant leads to days that feel busy, but are tiring and unfulfilling. If you’re like the majority of my clients, this state dominates your workdays.
Picture a time when you are working on some task—let’s say a spreadsheet—and notification of a new email or text catches your attention. You shift to see what it is and who it’s from. If you determine that you can handle it quickly, you begin to address it. Here’s what’s likely to happen next:
- Someone drops by your desk and asks, “Got a minute?”
- That conversation leads you to open your browser to a web page.
- Once your colleague leaves, you turn back to the web page.
- Then you find yourself clicking on a link to a related article or video.
- Your calendar alerts you that it’s time to leave for a meeting.
- When you come back from the meeting, you see that you’ve received three new emails.
- You open the first one, realize you need to think about it, and then open the next one.
At this point, you have several browser windows open. You’ve started several email responses but haven’t finished any of them. Plus, that spreadsheet you began hours ago is still woefully incomplete.
Does this scenario sound like your typical day? This manner of work makes it difficult for you to give your full attention to anything for more than a few minutes. Every new email, every ping of your device, and every coworker who walks by your desk steals your attention.
The result is that this constant distraction becomes a habit. You get used to getting distracted every few minutes, and all day long the habit is reinforced. You become so accustomed to getting distracted that it chips away at your attention span, and activities that require you to focus for more than a few minutes start to feel impossible.
Once you leave work for the day, it’s hard to break the habit of responding to distractions. Even without the work interruptions, you end up distracting yourself. How? You engage with your device every few minutes. In 2016, Apple reported that iPhone users unlocked their phones 80 times per day! My experience leads me to believe that number has increased significantly in the years since.
Quadrant 2: Daydreaming
Daydreaming used to happen in the “in-between” moments. When you walked from your office to your car, rode an elevator, or waited in line, you were able to relax your mind. The Daydreaming Quadrant requires a similar state of mind. You know that you are in this quadrant when you’re unfocused and aren’t distracted by lots of stimuli.
Before smartphones, we had many of these in-between moments throughout our day. But these days, they’ve been almost completely eliminated. Now, during any pause of activity, we are conditioned to reach for our phones.
That’s why I view this quadrant as “low attention” but “high control.” These days, quiet moments without our smartphones feel boring, unproductive, and like we aren’t “doing” anything.
Yet this is a misconception and a damaging habit. Sure it’s hard to resist pulling out our devices in these situations. But our minds need to wander to generate insights and “aha!” moments. If you’ve ever had a great idea in the shower, you understand the benefits of this quadrant of attention!
This is why attention management doesn’t just mean “focusing” on something. It also means giving your brain the restorative, unfocused opportunity that it needs to reflect, process, and consolidate information.
Quadrant 3: Focused and Mindful
The third quadrant is one that many people wish they could move to more often. It’s the “Focused and Mindful Quadrant,” and getting there requires real effort. We all have times when we want to focus. At these times, we need to direct our attention to a single task or activity for an extended period of time. This quadrant necessitates an environment free from distraction.
Go ahead and take the steps required in this quadrant:
- Close your office door if you have one.
- Put on noise-canceling headphones if you don’t have an office door.
- Give your co-workers a clear signal that you prefer not to be interrupted.
- Then silence, turn off, or put away your communication and information apps/devices/software that you aren’t using.
This is difficult. We’re so used to distractions that we tend to get antsy when we don’t have them! When we need to focus and think deeply, often we don’t really want to, anymore. Deep focus is contrary to our current habits, and we’ve become rather bad at it.
But it is possible to retrain your brain. One way is by cultivating mindfulness.
That could mean regularly meditating. Or it could simply mean building the habit of centering yourself in the present moment and calling attention to your physical state. Doing this regularly helps rebuild your attention span and makes it easier to focus. You’ll be better able to recognize when you’ve become distracted, and more easily able to refocus on the task at hand.
Quadrant 4: Flow
The last of the four quadrants of attention management is the Flow Quadrant, and you may already be familiar with it. Flow has become one of the most fascinating and influential ideas in business, thanks to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian–American psychologist.
Csikszentmihalyi and others describe flow as a state of heightened focus and immersion.
In this state, you become so engrossed in your work or other activity that time seems to fly by. In the end, you feel a sense of satisfaction—like you have really accomplished something. The flow state illustrates that demanding tasks don’t have to be “hard” or unpleasant.
You can’t just decide to enter the Flow Quadrant at will. But if the conditions are right, and if you intentionally focus for long enough, you might tip over into flow. It happens when a specific part of the brain disengages and your sense of self falls away.
Control isn’t necessary, because when you enter flow, focusing becomes effortless. You are fully attentive and absorbed in the task at hand. And unlike the other quadrants, flow isn’t a behavior; it’s a state your brain enters on its own when the right conditions are present.
Use the Four Quadrants of Attention Management to Live a Life of Choice
Attention management involves shifting from one quadrant to another, as needed. You need to know what level of attention and control a given task, moment, or experience requires.
To begin increasing your ability to manage your attention, consider how much time you spend in each quadrant on a given day, and how well this percentage split serves you. Your answers may depend on the nature of your work and your priorities for your life.
No matter what the right mix is for you, the practice of attention management and an awareness of these four quadrants can help you regain control over your attention, be more present in your experiences, and fully “unleash your genius.”
And most rewarding, you’ll be able to live a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction.
How to Motivate Yourself to Focus on Boring Work
In addition to building your attention management muscle, there are several strategies you can implement right away to support your focus, even when your work is boring.
These strategies are helpful for people who tend to procrastinate when they have to concentrate on tedious tasks.
If this is you, you’re far from alone. About 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. And almost all of us struggle with procrastination at one time or another.
Procrastination can feel good in the moment. That’s why people do it. But there’s a high long-term cost for that short-term mood boost when we put something off. It takes a toll on our finances, our physical and emotional health, and, of course, our productivity.
6 Strategies to Help You Focus — Even When Work is Boring
Here are some effective strategies to help you stop procrastinating and learn to keep your focus on the task at hand:
1. Break down big tasks.
When you give your brain clear, specific directions, it’s a lot more willing to spring into action for you. Doing this will help you avoid procrastination, because you’ve made it easier to take action. The key is to make the important tasks you want to do as easy as possible to get started.
2. Take advantage of “activation energy.”
Once you’ve started doing something, you’re more likely to keep going. But you have to invest a certain amount of energy in the starting. So set a time for seven minutes and promise yourself you’ll do the thing you’ve been avoiding just for that amount of time.
3. Set cues.
Commit to engaging in your desired behavior whenever you receive a certain cue. For example, when my alarm clock goes off, I’ll do a guided meditation to start the day. Pairing the action you want to take with something you do automatically makes you less dependent on your willpower and discipline.
4. Reward yourself.
Reward yourself regularly as you progress toward your goal. Even small rewards in the moment can be helpful like, “I’ll go out in the sunshine and take a walk as soon as I complete this one task.”
5. Enlist the help of others.
If you’ve been putting off a task you don’t enjoy, and that doesn’t seem like the best use of your time, enlist another person. Plan to exercise with a friend, hire someone to help you get started (an hour with a professional organizer can help you make real progress on cleaning out the garage once and for all!). Or just open a Zoom meeting and set a goal with the other person to work (independently) on one important task during the meeting. After a set amount of time, report back to each other about your progress.
6. Honor your mood and energy levels.
It’s great to block time in your day to get important work done, but don’t assign a specific task to a specific time. Instead, call the block you’ve set aside on your calendar “proactive time.” During that time, just work from your to-do list, based on how you’re feeling in that moment.
For much more detail on how to use these strategies to train your brain, read my post How to Stop Procrastinating and Improve Productivity.
Focus Your Brain: Put Attention Management Skills Into Action!
You can’t give your attention simultaneously to everything that demands it all at the same time.
Attention management means you decide where to focus your attention, rather than letting outside demands decide for you.
For some quick exercises that will help you start to build attention management skills, see my post 10 Strategies to Improve Focus in the Workplace.
Remember, the ability to maintain control over your thoughts and actions is your defense against the damage our fast-paced, technology-driven environment does to our minds and bodies.
You can lead a life of intention and choice—rather than a life of reaction and distraction! Use the strategies in this article to get started today!
Fill out the form below to get notified when my online productivity training course is open for registration. The beating heart of this course is attention management. In just 10 minutes a day, you can transform your life.