How to Kick Into Gear When You Can't Focus

A cozy office with a desk and a white rug

Here’s something that happens to all of us: you have to finish a task but you just can’t seem to focus.

You want to respond to a client’s email but you’re distracted by your Instagram DMs.

You want to write 1,000 words of your novel but you’re overwhelmed by the blank page.

You want to work on your presentation but you’re not sure what to work on first.

You want to apply to a new job but you can’t bring yourself to write that cover letter. 

You’re not alone. Many of us have struggled to focus and shut off distractions—both external and internal—and get to work. 

When it comes to kicking into gear and getting started, it’s about making small, but necessary adjustments to your routine. Here are ways that you can get started on something right now as well as tips on how you can strengthen your focus and willpower over time. 

How to get focused right now

These are the solutions and strategies to use when you need to get started on something right now. 

Write down three things you want to finish today

You have a million things to do and don’t know where to start. Begin by writing down three things that you’d love to finish or get started on today.

Ask yourself:

What would be a big relief if I worked on it today?

What would make my life so much better if I finished it today?

Maybe it’s finally making that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off. Or sending that work email that’s been sitting in your drafts folder. Or sitting down and writing a draft of a chapter. 

These three priorities will give shape and focus to your day. You can try knocking them off in one fell swoop. Or do one priority in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night.

Avoid email and texts before 9 a.m.

Has this happened to you? You’re all set to have a productive morning only to open a new message that ends up throwing off your entire day. Maybe it’s a last minute work assignment or a personal request that puts you in a foul mood. 

That’s why it’s smart to wait until after you’ve finished your morning task before checking your messages.

 But wait, you might ask, what if I miss out on an important or urgent message? 

Here’s the thing about email: it will still be there regardless if you check it at 8 a.m. or 2 p.m. Would you rather that an email disrupt your morning and potentially ruin your entire day? Or would you rather at least wait until you’ve put a dent in your work before checking?

Maybe you work in a fast-paced office and need to check emails first thing. Then at least try to do 15-20 minutes of something that’s just for you before checking email. 

Doing something that’s just for you can look like:

  • Working on one of your priorities
  • Writing in your journal
  • Going for a morning walk
  • Making a list of things you are grateful for

Set a timer for 10 minutes

Sometimes a “sprint” is better than a marathon.

If you don’t think you have the mental stamina to work for an entire afternoon or even an hour, then try doing something for only 10 minutes. 

When you only have ten minutes, you won’t have time to complain about the work being too hard. 

When you only have ten minutes, you will have time to get started and do as much as you can—all without listening to your inner critic or perfectionist. 

Pick one task that you’ve been meaning to do. Set a timer for 10 minutes and get started on…

  • Tidying your workspace
  • Updating your calendar
  • Creating and submitting an invoice
  • Shooting off responses to emails and texts

Even if the rest of your day ends up being unproductive, you will always have those 10 minutes in which you can get stuff done.

How to build your focus muscles for the long term

In addition to short-term solutions to help you get started right now, you can also work on building good habits to develop your focus over time. 

Have a regular exercise routine

If you find yourself easily distracted by social media or tempted to check your emails, then you might want to implement a regular exercise routine. 

But what does exercising have to do with distractions? Turns out, a lot. 

Petr Ludwig, the author of The End of Procrastination, says that a daily exercise routine can build the area of your brain that is responsible for will power and self-regulation. 

So not only would you be doing something good for your health, but you'd also be strengthening your ability to concentrate. And the best part? Even a five minute exercise routine is enough to get the full benefits. 

It doesn’t matter if you do 20 pushups a day or go for a five minute run. What’s important is that you try to make exercise a part of your daily routine. 

Create a positive association with your task 

Oftentimes, we drag our heels on a project or task not because of environmental distractions like noisy neighbors or phone notifications, but because of our own internal chatter. 

We’re afraid that the task is going to be too hard, too complicated, too boring, or all of the above. 

We fear that we’re not good enough, we’ll come up short, and we’ll disappoint others. 

There are a million explanations for why we form these internal barriers. Maybe you had a parent who was disorganized. Or a teacher once called you lazy and you got stuck with that label. Or maybe you were always praised for your work and now you have perfectionist tendencies. 

One way that you can overcome these emotional obstacles is to create a positive association with your task.

  • Do you enjoy starting your day with a cup of coffee? Then combine it with writing your novel.
  • Do you enjoy using colorful pens and markers? Then break them out to take notes during a call with your insurance company.
  • Do you enjoy the pleasant scent of your candle? Then light it before starting your work assignment.

      By connecting a task with a routine or activity that evokes a positive feeling, you will begin to view that task in a more favorable light. 

      Written by JiJi Lee
      Share Pin it
      Back to blog