Why it’s so hard to focus on priorities when you’re stressed

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Stay Present

Why is it so hard to focus?

Turns out the answer is based in neurobiology, stemming from the sneaky side of stress.

Stress is a complicated function. On the upside, stress can motivate us to achieve great things. But too much or prolonged stress can flood your system, leaving you drowning in feelings of overwhelm or reactivity.

Distraction, shiny object syndrome, avoidance; you’ll do anything to stop the looming clouds of anxiety even if the relief is short-lived.

If this describes you, be sure to meet that feeling with more grace than judgment.

Leadership experts explain we’re living through a unique time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity known as VUCA. Feeling distracted and overwhelmed are normal responses to VUCA.

Stress is your body’s natural defense function, priming your system to stay on high alert scanning for threats in the face of the unknown. Stress can make you feel alert and energized in the short term. But when you’re stressed for prolonged periods, it accumulates to the point that it’s hard to concentrate or focus on big-picture goals. As your system becomes overloaded everything seems like a problem you need to solve, now!

This is not a pleasant feeling, it shows up as overwhelmed, restlessness, or even hopelessness, and usually leads to a bad mood.

According to Peak Mind author Dr. Amishi Jha’s research, poor mood, stress, and threat are the 3 factors that lead to distraction, or an inability to focus or concentrate on your big-picture goals. And this distraction trifecta often leads to a vicious cycle from which it can be hard to break free.

Let’s say you need to update your resume or write your business plan or begin a mindfulness practice, but every time to sit down to start, you get distracted. Now you start asking yourself why you can’t focus, what’s wrong with you? Now add this feeling of self-judgment to your already overwhelmed emotional state and begin spinning that same old story of stuckness. I never have time to do the things that matter, because I simply can’t set boundaries around my time or focus long enough to get started.

I just described my morning. I was planning to shoot the video for my new program, but it’s a big undertaking for me and my inner judge was on overdrive. I really wanted to get started but I was facing so much inner resistance.

I had already removed most time-suck distractions from my to-do list – writing, pitching, and online networking could all wait.

It was just me, and the dark eye of the camera. Soon I began listing every reason not to get going, including what’s the point, it’s not going to make a difference, I’m so bad at this, I’m too old, and I just can’t get going.

But instead of letting myself off the hook, I took a step back and surveyed the big picture. My voices of resistance are not reality, they’re defense-driven mind tricks. And I wasn’t going to let them take me down.

I revisited the big audacious goal of launching my new 6-week program with 6 different daily micro-challenges. I’m so excited about the program, but all of the moving parts in between are overwhelming.

And when you’re working with self-imposed deadlines and relying on your own council and motivation, it’s hard to stay focused, even under the best of circumstances.

Luckily when I stepped back to what Dr. Jha referred to as the bird’s eye view, or in my words, the big picture, I recognize what was going on and leaned into untangling myself from the vicious cycle of the distraction trifecta.

Here are some of my favorite exercises for unwinding and recalibrating, so you can approach your priority goals with a fresh perspective, energy, and focus.

1. Get a present. Tune into your body’s stress response and take a moment to recognize this natural tendency we all have to avoid stress, and how our neurochemistry turns it into a whole-body feeling. It’s not due to something you’re lacking or missing, it’s your body working normally to keep you safe from physical or emotional harm.

2. Realize that thoughts aren’t reality, they’re opinions biased by things like mood, sensory information, and environment. But most frequently, our thoughts are repeats of our most common reaction patterns.

3. Notice the story. If you go straight to “poor me” when things go wrong, your brain stays geared up to go there first, keeping your victim story alive and in the sequel. What story are you defaulting to? Is it true? Are you sure?

4. Downregulate your stress response. Use a mindful breathing practice and end with a focus on self-compassion.

5. Reexamine the problem. For me, the list of deliverables for this project was overwhelming. So I had to break it down into smaller pieces AND rely on my accountability partner, my coach, to help to stay motivated. These are common strategies we’re all familiar with, but it’s hard to arrive at them when you’re in a stressful state….because our biology skews it that way.

Finally – meet this process and your response to it with the utmost compassion. Beating yourself up drives the stress process harder.

Productivity and goal-setting hacks are great, but the key to changing behavior patterns like this always begins with awareness. Simple as it sounds, when we’re stressed we get caught up in reliving past regrets as proof of our negative predictions or worrying about the future. Neither of these options leaves space for present-moment awareness, where the most accurate and current information lives.

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