How to beat your focus-robbers

One of the symptoms of feeling overwhelmed is not being able to see the wood for the trees. We need to recognise how and why we lose focus, then put in place strategies to find it again. Here’s how to banish a few focus-robbers today


How to beat your focus-robbers

Victim mentality

We know that, sometimes, the only thing for it is a good moan: ‘I’m so busy/my life is so stressful.’ But such negative thinking only exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed. Perceiving our own lives as a threat means our bodies release cortisol, which puts us into unproductive ‘headless chicken’ mode.

Even when things go well, we fixate on how we now have more to do, rather than on the fact that things are going well. If you’re frazzled, keep a log to see where time is going and how you might carve out more – because whatever life you choose, we are all stressed some of the time. The important thing is to notice the upsides of your choices. Make a daily gratitude list of three good things that happened today. After a while, you will find you start to look for them.


We like to have high standards, but if you let ‘everything needs to be perfect’ tendencies take hold, they can rob you of your focus and stop you doing what’s really important. You start to procrastinate: ‘I can’t start work until my desk is perfectly set up’, or ‘I can’t play Lego with you because I’m making you pesto from scratch.’ If this sounds familiar, it could be that your high standards are to blame for feelings of being constantly busy.

You feel like you can’t keep up with the demands of  your life. But who is setting these demands? You might feel you have to live in a spotless house, for example, but is someone else demanding this from you – or is it just you? 

Telling yourself untruths

It’s very easy when we are stressed, hurt or overwhelmed to make up stories in our heads. This is our way of trying to make sense of things – literally giving problems a beginning, middle and end. But these stories we tell ourselves are often not true and can even be damaging – especially to our focus.

When Laura Vanderkam wrote I Know How She Does It (Portfolio Penguin, £9.99), she interviewed hundreds of women and asked them to keep a time log. She also heard the stories they told themselves about their lives. What she found was that these often weren’t true: ‘I met women who worked full-time in demanding jobs and felt permanently guilty about how much time they spent seeing their kids,’ she explains.

‘They’d say, “I never see my kids”, but when they wrote their time logs, they saw they spent 35 hours a week with their kids. If you spent 35 hours in the office, you wouldn’t be saying “I never see the office”.’ These stories we tell ourselves can damage our self-esteem and set us back. Beware of looking for evidence to support your claims.  “I feel like I never see my kids’’ becomes hunting for evidence that your children are suffering, for example. Challenge the stories you tell yourself.’

Trying to do everything yourself

‘Could you imagine Steve Jobs worrying about parking or stationery? No. He played to his strengths and let everybody else do the stuff they’re good at,’ comments Sháá Wasmund, speaker, entrepreneur and author. It may be tempting to think, ‘It’ll only get done if I do it’, but this is another form of overcommitting, not to mention bad management. Know your strengths, and devote your time to stuff only you can do. If you spread yourself too thin, you risk failing to do the one thing you are employed to do. Do the things only you are truly good at; leave the rest to people who do those things better.

Not taking breaks

You have lots on and a deadline to meet, so you’re working flat out, right? Actually, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that says we’re more productive after a break. When we work the brain, it burns through
glucose and, if we don’t give it a chance to recover, we get depleted fast. The brain is like any other part of the body – it becomes fatigued and needs a rest before it can recover to run at optimum
levels. Try working in 90-minute pulses.

Not scheduling things that need to happen

We all do it: ‘Oh we must meet up for lunch!’ Two years later, we still haven’t. If you don’t make a firm commitment to do something, chances are it won’t happen. And this doesn’t have to mean just work-related stuff. Not scheduling things we want to do in our leisure time ensures they don’t happen either. Then we just fritter away time, doing lots of energy-sapping activities, like browsing the internet.

If you keep making promises to have lunch with someone who matters to you and it never happens, call them today and don’t come off the phone until you’ve scheduled it! Worried your friends might think you’re treating them like a business client by ‘scheduling’ them in? Think again. ‘Tell them, I’m not treating you as a business client,’ says Wasmund, ‘I’m treating you like you’re important.’ Call a friend you’ve been meaning to see for ages today, and schedule a catch-up.


Often, the reason we don’t manage to spend time with the people who really matter is because we’re too busy trying to please those who don’t; going for coffee with someone because we ‘should’, promising to help that person with their job search when they’re not giving anything in return. Wasmund suggests the 20/80 rule: decide who makes up the top 20 per cent of people who matter in your life and schedule them in.

This doesn’t mean you should never see the other 80 per cent: just prioritise the 20 per cent first. Dr Tamara Russell also suggests dropping the ‘should’ monkey. ‘If you find yourself saying “I really should do this, or should see that person” – take a rain check. Do you really have to?’ Prioritise the people who matter; learn to say no to those who don’t.

Adapted from Psychologies' second book, ‘Real Focus’ (Wiley, £9.99), out now.

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Photograph: iStock