Diagnosing Lack of Mental Focus

“Focus! I need to focus!” I’m sure you’ve said that to yourself on more than one occasion—whether silently, muttered, or in a frantic yell. I know I have. While driving one of my sons back to college after the Thanksgiving holiday, I asked him, “Alex, how can I pray for you over the next few weeks leading into finals.” With little hesitation, he said “Focus.” I instantly knew what he was talking about.

I deal with the same challenge many (most?) days. Over the years, I’ve learned what destroys focus and a few ways to trick myself into focus. There are many distractions that destroy focus: smartphone notifications, chat windows, desktop email notifiers, a cluttered desk, lack of a plan for the day, and so on. I’ve also learned a few tricks to create focus: mini rewards for work completed, setting a timer (I guess “pomodoro timers” have become quite a big thing.), and leveraging looming deadlines (not a good technique).

As I thought more about Alex’s prayer request, and my own struggle with focus, interspersed with mental wanderings about whether I’m mildly ADD, followed by my curiosity about why Prince Philip isn’t King Philip (like I said—I struggle with focus), I thought it might help me to understand the problem by breaking mental focus down into component parts. I came up with the following five (unscientific) phases of focus.

AwarenessAm I aware of the issue requiring my focus? This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be a real problem. There are indeed times when people are perceived to not be focusing on a problem when in fact they aren’t even aware of the problem.

MotivationAm I motivated to do something about it? Human motivation is an extremely complex subject. Suffice it to say, for this short article, that if I am not motivated to solve a problem and complete a task, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be focused on it.

KnowledgeDo I have the knowledge required to solve the problem? There have been times when I’ve been aware of a problem and motivated to fix it, but didn’t know what I needed to know to do anything about it. The simultaneous presence of motivation and lack of knowledge often leads to frustration. If knowledge can’t be acquired, focus will wane and turn elsewhere.

AbilityAssuming I have the knowledge required, do I have the ability? If yes, there’s a chance focus can be maintained. If I realize that I possess the knowledge, but not the ability to act on the knowledge my focus will again turn elsewhere.

ActionWill I exercise my ability and take action? Assuming a lack of distraction and a good plan for execution, focus is likely to be maintained and action will follow.

As I thought through each of these phases it became clear to me that the further down the list I got, the less focus was really the issue. The fulcrum of focus really seems to be motivation and perhaps knowledge.

It makes sense that I would highlight motivation as a key issue for focus, but why knowledge?

It’s my observation that people, often in a new job, have difficulty staying focused on a problem because they do not yet possess the task-specific knowledge required to forge a good plan to move forward. The individual has awareness of the issue. They care and are motivated to address it. If they do not, though, have the knowledge required to organize facts of the issue and determine proper procedures to act, their mental focus is scattered into problem solving of the problem solving. It becomes a focus-destroying loop.

The next time you find yourself losing focus, think through the five phases and ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I aware of the issue requiring my focus?
  • Am I motivated to do something about it?
  • Do I have the knowledge required to solve the problem?
  • Do I have the ability to solve the problem?
  • Will I exercise my ability and take action?

Wherever you stop answering in the positive, pause to reflect on why and determine how to fix that. Once resolved, you’ll be able to move forward to focus and ultimately action.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Redd Angelo. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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