Focus Is Hard to Come by These Days. Here's Why.

Even if you can't focus, here's one technique that will help you move forward.

Posted May 16, 2020

As COVID-19 lockdown continues in some places and is being eased up in others, it would seem that many of the focusing difficulties brought on by sheltering in place should soon be over. But while you may have had some problems concentrating during the lockdown months, it could be equally difficult—albeit in a different way—to buckle down and accomplish goals as we move into this next phase of response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Your days will probably not be less chaotic, especially if you are trying to homeschool your children, figure out how to get back to work, and keep the space you live in relatively neat and clean. Or if you live alone or with one other person, your time may suddenly feel like it’s not your own. What are you supposed to do? And what did you do with all of the time at your disposal over the last two months? What happened to those closets you were going to clean, the poetry you were going to write, the art you were going to create?

Let's talk about some of the reasons that you can't focus; and then let's look at one technique that will help you start to move forward, no matter how unfocused you might be! 

“Focus is hard to come by these days,” Suzi Banks Baum, a friend and talented artist and teacher, wrote in a recent newsletter to a group of more than 100 artists with whom she has worked virtually throughout the months of COVID-19 lockdown.

She said, “It takes me until about 4 p.m. to actually get work done. I look like I am working, but my mind is occupied with the news and then with digesting what bits of it I can. Reading the news feels like swallowing an elephant, which is why I read it only once a day. Any more than that I wind up stuck mid-thought on the staircase to my studio trying to recall what I was about to do.”

Reasons That You Can't Focus 

The things that make it hard to focus these past nine weeks will continue to make it hard to focus moving forward. On her blog on Medium, Paolo Bailey, a New York City-based psychologist, writes that there are five basic reasons for problems focusing: fatigue, stress, multi-tasking, boredom, and lack of challenge, and physical illness or injury. I would add that anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, and other powerful emotions, like the ones we’re experiencing these days in extra quantities, can also contribute to difficulty focusing.

Mathew Jones writes in an article for Inc. that we have a tendency to turn to medications as a solution to focusing problems, but instead, he suggests a set of actions to help you focus: Look to your mental and emotional well-being, repair your sleep hygiene, nurture your social life, eat well and exercise appropriately, and develop a meditation practice.

His suggestions are really important; but even though they make sense, they’re not always easy to follow. And especially right now they may be harder than ever to put into action. You might simply not have time to follow even the smartest suggestion in these chaotic days of confusing re-opening. But it's not just the lack of time, it's also the lack of true information about what’s safe and what’s not and the uncertainty about what’s happening tomorrow and in the long-term that all make it practically impossible to focus on—or follow—these ideas.

Sometimes none of these techniques work. When that happens, try this. 

This One Thing Can Help You Get Started

Partialize. What does this mean? Break the tasks you want to accomplish into small, bite-sized pieces. Specifically, it means to choose a small, easily accomplished part of some bigger project and to work toward completing that specific task.

You will have to recognize and accept that by doing this, you will not accomplish everything on your ever-present mental to-do list. But the very best way to learn to focus is to practice focusing. Each time you work on and accomplish a small, manageable task, you are building your focusing muscles. And each time you exercise those muscles makes it that much easier to focus the next time.

How might this look in your daily life?

My friend Helen has the best-organized home I have ever seen. I once asked her how she does it, and she told me she has one rule: She does things a little bit at a time. If she wants to clean out a bedroom, she starts with one drawer in one dresser. When that is organized to her satisfaction, she does another. And so on until the dresser is straightened to her satisfaction. Then she might move on to the closet, but she breaks that task down into small, manageable pieces as well. For instance, she focuses first on the belts, choosing to give some away, some to toss, and organizing the ones that are left. Then she focuses on one set of clothing items—blouses, for instance. Again, she decides what she wants to keep and what she wants to give away, and after that, she organizes the blouses.

123rf photo image 81163603 Kian Khoon Tan
Source: 123rf photo image 81163603 Kian Khoon Tan

I realize that this process can take longer than you’d like. And it’s hard to implement when you’re juggling so many tasks, as well as all of your feelings and concerns about the world as it is and as it is going to be. It’s difficult if you’ve been furloughed or laid off. It’s hard if you have moved back in with your parents. It’s challenging if you’re ill. And it’s even demanding when you have no obvious difficulties other than being afraid to go to the grocery store as more and more people abandon social distancing rules.

But here’s another good thing about partializing: It is a way of closing off all the noise in your head. Focusing on a specific, small, accomplishable task means that for just a little bit of time you don’t have to pay attention to anything else.

Of course, all of the other difficulties won’t go away. But those moments of focus, whether on cleaning out the bottom shelf of your fridge or meditating for 15 minutes, can create a brief period of peace. And those few moments can make a big difference in your state of mind. 

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