The Two Ways We Lose Focus at Work

Why we need both task focus and project focus to stay productive

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You have lots to do, so you’ve carved out the time to do it. You wake up early, you eat your breakfast. You sip your coffee and dress like someone who has stuff to do. You’re doing everything a productive person should.

But when you sit down, you spend the day flitting around the internet, and accomplish only a miniscule amount of what you set out to do. Why can’t you just sit down and start banging out tasks? Or maybe you even have just one thing to do, and you can’t bring yourself to do it. Just what is the matter with you, you lazy no-goodnik?

Well, what happened is that concentration—the oldest and dearest friend of good, honest creative work—has suddenly turned against you.

Before you panic, remember that not all lapses in concentration are created equal. There are two distinct ways we lose focus at work, and it’s important to know the difference. Decide which one of these you’re going up against, and act accordingly.


Task Focus

Sometimes, we’re losing focus in the moment, at the task level. This is when we’ve decided exactly what we’re going to work on, but we just can’t bring ourselves to get it done. This is a loss of task focus.

We often blame ourselves for losing task focus, and in most cases, we are completely correct. It’s also somewhat easy to combat: we figure out a way to improve our concentration or motivate ourselves, and we return to the task.

Within task focus, there are two types of attention that you need to be aware of. There’s top-down attention (or, if you’re all science-y, overt orienting), which is goal-oriented—and likely what you’re diving into when you pick your task, or studying, or picking up your pen to write. It’s also known as voluntary focus.

Top-down attention’s archenemy is the other type of attention, known as bottom-up attention (science-y: covert orienting). This type of attention is kicked into gear by your cat scratching you unexpectedly, or a loud car-horn outside of your window. It’s what kills task focus.

When viewed this way, task focus’s enemy is quite simple (uh, and endlessly complex): the distractions of covert orienting. Slay the distraction(s), and get task focus.

The other type of focus, though, is much more insidious, and doesn’t have quite as clear of an enemy—so you need to be more tactical to keep it sharp.


Project Focus

If lost task focus is the inability to hunker down and complete a task, lost project focus is the inability to even pick that task. It’s you getting to work in the morning, sitting at your desk, and clicking around between the emails you need to answer, your to-dos you need to do, and your ongoing discussions that you need to push forward... and not being able to make a judgment on what most needs your time.

Good project focus is being able to take stock of all the potential paths you could go down at any given time, and selecting the single most important or pressing task without hesitation.

When project focus wanders, it quickly becomes a blocker, since we need some semblance of project focus before we can even consider task focus. If we can’t decide what to do, how can we overt-orient our way to getting anything done?

In a way, keeping project focus is like writing a novel: it’s not a single act of concentration, but several of them working in concert. It’s weaving together all the plotlines and characters of our worklife into something with forward momentum, and using that momentum to make smart decisions about what we do next. And by the way, writing a novel is hard. David Foster Wallace, one of the titans of modern literature, said in 1997 of his future plans: “I will probably write an hour a day, and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.”

If losing task focus permits us to blame a singular distraction, then bad project focus gives us free reign to blame everyone and everything around us. It creates real worry. And while most of us aren’t writing 1,000 page novels, we can all relate, because we all know the feeling of having an expansive task list but a sudden inability to move forward.

When we lose project focus, we need to be smart about what we do to ensure that our project (which might be a novel!) has its conclusion. For those moments when we’re stopped dead in our tracks and unsure how to return to project focus (paving the path to the glory of task focus), here’s what we can do.

1. Stop analyzing and start planning

What you’re really feeling right now is a bastardized form of analysis paralysis. In this case, you’re waiting for the single most important task to come out and bonk you on the head, so you can dig into task focus. Sadly, that won’t happen. Very sadly.

The only way to defeat analysis paralysis is to be truly decisive, and you can start by mapping out all the different courses your attention could potentially take. When everything you need to do within a project is plotted out and not just floating around in browsers and apps, you may find that the next step is more obvious than you originally thought.

Most importantly, though, you’ll have stopped the analytical cycle of worry, and reoriented back towards getting to work.

2. Knock down the easiest tasks

GTD enthusiasts will recognize David Allen’s two-minute rule: if you can do it in two minutes, do it now. As James Clear writes:

It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on.”

When you start your planning to get your project focus back, you might notice there are a lot of tasks piled up that you can knock off quickly, like easy emails, or some mechanical work that’s been assigned to you (i.e., something that doesn’t require a ton of thought). Do these immediately, and you can quickly reduce the sheer number of things on your list—and your list is reduced to stuff that actually requires task focus.  

Remember, your biggest enemy right now is task overload; your goal is to get your “stuff I’ve gotta do in this project” number to as close to one as possible. It’s only when your list is small that you can get back to the beauty of task focus.

3. Start working on anything

One of the many culprits of lost project focus could be a simple fear that the next step forward in the project might be the wrong one—and ultimately, the only way to determine that is get to work.

Much like the only way to cure writer’s block is by writing, the best way to regain project focus could be to just pick the most obvious-seeming task. Choose the work on your plate that excites you most or sparks the most ideas.

The worst-case scenario is that you spend a little time working on the wrong thing—but at the very least, you’ve broken out of your Han Solo-frozen-in-carbonite working state. And the best-case scenario is that you can get some task focus out of it.

4. If all else fails, ask for clearer priorities

Losing project focus is frustrating on a personal level (nobody likes to waste time), but you certainly shouldn’t assume it’s your fault that you don’t know which step to take next. If a project’s next steps aren’t clear, don’t suffer in silence.

However, asking for help has a certain stigma attached to it. Writer Jennifer Winter quipped that during her corporate career, she started to believe that “help” was one of the nasty four-letter words—not the nice warm and comforting word it ought to be.

Realistically, though, a loss of project focus is very likely to be a project management issue. Maybe the project goals aren’t as clear as they could be, and the finish line is blurred. Maybe the team hasn’t gotten a good update on the progress of the project in a while. Especially in cases where a project manager isn’t present, the important high-level details of a project can easily fall by the wayside (by the way—this is why we built Project Notes), leaving everyone to wonder how they can best contribute right in that moment.

So swallow your pride, and ask straight-up for clearer priorities. If things aren’t feeling clear to you, odds are they’re foggy to everyone else, too.

This is all a reminder to say: Having lots of work to do is great, but there’s work that goes into work.

There’s maintaining your concentration on a single task with task focus. And to keep those tasks coming in steadily and dependably, you need project focus.

It takes work to keep both types of focus sharp, but when you do, you’ll have more time to devote to the stuff you do best.

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-Illustrations: Bully

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