Why can’t I focus?

Why can’t I focus?
Paul Klee: Rich Harbor (Picture of a Journey) (1938)

Being able to focus, to do deep, meaningful work is a key skill for engineering leaders. Yet, oftentimes it seems hard to maintain a sustained high concentration level. I thought about my experiences when I struggled with this, and listed a few reasons I might have had trouble maintaining focus.

Multitasking and distractions

I grouped these two because I believe multitasking is essentially a self-imposed distraction. Doing more than one thing at a time, regardless of voluntarily or not, means having to maintain and switch between different contexts. Just like a CPU implementing multitasking via time-sharing has to save registers, the program counter, various pointers, and all the other information describing a task’s context to memory and load the next one’s back, humans need significant brainwork when juggling different tasks at the same time. But unlike for CPUs, for us, this process is error-prone and exhaustive when done on the long term.

I used to be that guy who set up two external monitors, having chat on one, real-time charts on another, editors in the center, feeling like a pilot. Now I’m writing on a single display, in a fullscreen application, menu bar and dock hidden, notifications turned off. Staying in one application helps me to remain in context. Doing so is especially hard nowadays, when our brains are addicted to micro-stimulants, from TikTok videos to neverending social media feeds, so I need all the tools to help me remain focused.

What to do about it?

Embrace single-tasking. Signal your availability clearly (via a Slack status message, or a blocked focus time “event” in your calendar) to minimize interruptions. Mute your notifications, quit chat and email. Set a schedule to check for new messages a few times per day, and let people know ahead of how you can be reached in case of an emergency.

Take this approach with you outside of work: when you are with friends, put away your phone. When on a walk, focus on your surroundings. When doing the dishes, do the dishes. Resist mental multitasking, so you can gain resilience. (Yes, this is essentially mindfulness - practicing it helped me resist the temptation to multitask during work, and therefore increase my focus.)


I used to find myself saying “I just have too many things going on now”. And it was true, to some extent — but in reality, the root causes of spreading my attention too thin across multiple areas often laid within me. The urge to do a good job, please stakeholders and avoid conflicts can lead to overcommitting. As a result of having multiple parallel projects, all became at risk of being late.

This situation made focusing hard, not just as a result of necessary context switches, but also because of this general cloud of stress that came from setting myself up for failure.

What to do about it?

Recognizing my limits and saying no to most of the things I could be doing, to be able to deliver on the few most important ones is hard — because the things I’m saying “no” to are often similarly important, impactful, or just interesting projects. Yet, it’s the only way to do meaningful, focused work on key areas.

When planning my time, I learned to aim for a sustainable series of projects delivered, replacing the need to parallelize everything. By sustainable I mean planning with some slack, understanding the inherent optimism of estimations, and concentrating on completion, with timeboxing if needed, to maintain efficiency. Explicit daily and weekly goals make this process easier.

The Shiny New Thing Syndrome

Doing long, deep meaningful work is hard. It requires concentration and persistence. There are moments of flow, when progress feels natural and effortless, but in between those, stretches of seemingly neverending mental struggle. In those moments, it’s easy to get distracted by an attractive idea. “I need a good quote here, let me ask ChatGPT!”, or “There must be a tool to automate what I’m doing now”, or “I wonder if I can bind custom functions to hotkeys in my editor that would speed up navigating within my article”… This procrastination is the path of least resistance: discovering something new is easier than continuing to get to the bottom of what you were working on.

What to do about it?

It sounds absurd but practice being bored. Waiting for a bus, in a queue at the market, arriving earlier to a meeting… resist taking out your phone, and just sit still, doing nothing. On one hand, this is building resilience for those situations where you will need to focus without any stimulation (think about meetings, presentations, reading long documents, etc.) — and on the other hand, letting your brain wander is great for coming up with novel ideas. This resilience and creativity will be useful when you need to avoid the temptation of the next mental Shiny New Toy.

Another tool that can help avoid chasing ideas down rabbit holes and staying on the topic at hand is to have a process for the immediate capture of new ideas. In the Getting Things Done methodology, an "inbox" serves as a central collection point for capturing all incoming tasks, ideas, and commitments. The purpose of this is to prevent mental clutter by providing a designated, trusted, always available space to capture incoming information. I found that having an open notebook next to me at all times and being disciplined to capture attractive ideas immediately to offload from my brain and consider later is a great help to focus.

Unclear Goals

A lack of clear goals and priorities can blur focus too. If I don’t know exactly what I want to achieve with the activity I'm doing, it’s easier to get lost in a rabbit hole, wondering at the end how I got there. Similarly, without the guidance of clear goals, it’s easy to stay busy all day, yet struggle at the end to figure out what exactly I have to show.

What to do about it?

Capture what you want to do and why, with a clear outcome spelled out. As you’re working on it, keep checking back to validate that you’re still working towards that goal. Having all these written helps clarity, accountability, and motivation too. It’s great to look back at the end of a week at all the things you’ve done. And if something doesn’t work out as planned, make sure that you also add the reasons, so you don’t miss the learning in a failure.

Low Health

To be clear, I don’t mean conditions like ADHD, various anxiety disorders, depression, or any chronic mental health issue. I'm sorry, but I just don’t know nearly enough about these to be able to contribute anything meaningful. My only point is that regardless of any condition, sustained mental work is exhausting, and ignoring this fact can easily lead to low focus, amongst other mental health issues. In this sense, the brain is similar to a muscle in the body: it can be overworked but is capable of increasingly higher performance with proper training, which is only efficient if it includes regular, structured recovery sessions.

What to do about it

Take pauses to increase mental resilience.

I found that if I don't force myself for hours of concentration, but set up short sprints of dedicated focus and then allow time for guiltless rest to recharge, I can be more efficient (and have more fun doing so). This is behind the Pomodoro technique too: you go into sessions of half an hour or so of deep focus with a clear outcome to achieve, then take time to recharge in between them.

This works on a bigger level too: having a proper lunch break or starting the day with a walk outside can help being more resilient, and able to focus better when needed. Similarly, a level lower: sitting back, taking a breath, and thinking for a second before a reply; collecting your thoughts for a minute before a meeting can help you get back on track about what you’re doing, and more importantly, why.

The team context

Interestingly, most of these observations are also relevant in an engineering team context. One person’s multitasking is like a team’s too many Work in Progress items. Someone overcommitting is the team being too ambitious in planning. Unclear goals can lead to the team doing invisible work. Team resilience can similarly deteriorate without regular breaks.

The solutions can be twofold: besides the individuals in the team working on protecting and improving their focus, Engineering Managers can set up processes for helping the team: hard limits to WIP items, adding some slack in planning, capturing all kinds of work to make it visible, and creating opportunities for the team to relax.

Food for thought

According to Ghost, this article takes about 6 minutes to read. How long did it take for you? Did you do anything else between starting and finishing it? Was it hard to keep focusing on reading? Did it get boring to a point where there was something more interesting coming up that you couldn’t resist? If you were not just scanning but at one point decided to commit to reading from beginning to end, were you successful in doing so? If not, what do you think made you fail?

Or is it too early to tell, because the tab is still open somewhere amongst the hundreds of other “I want to read this when I have some time” ones? How much effort do you think your brain needs to keep the context of a half-finished article in mind, ready to pick up when you eventually get there, if ever? How do you think this overhead impacts your focusing skills?

I write about Engineering Leadership topics similar to this one. Sign up here to receive my future articles by email.

Update: We've discussed this article with Jeremy on our weekly podcast The Retrospective, adding thoughts on the topic. Check out the episode here, the segment discussing Focus starts around 11:50.

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