The case against fighting to stay focused at work

How often do you find yourself in this situation: With a pressing deadline, you sit down at your desk and tell yourself you’re not going to get up until the task is finished. Focus, we assume, is what we need in order to be successful. But what if what we really need is to allow ourselves to be distracted?

Dr. Srini Pillay, author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlocking the Power of the Unfocused Mind, says while we all need a little time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to put our heads down too much. “Too much focus can actually hurt us,” he says. Here’s why focusing too hard may actually be damaging your productivity.


Do you notice that spending the whole day working on a project leaves you depleted at the end of the day? “If you spend too much time focusing, your brain starts to lose energy,” says Pillay. If you find that you’re going through the day exhausted and downing one coffee after another just to stay awake, you may have exhausted your brain’s capacity to focus.


Being too focused on one task can cause you to become oblivious to other things going on around you. “An Wang, the founder of the word processor, was busy focusing on version 2 of his creation, and in the process missed a competitor, the PC,” says Pillay. Without being able to see what’s going on in the periphery, you can lose track of the bigger picture and may miss something big that’s coming up in the future.


Creativity requires a mashup of ideas. Focusing solely on one thought or idea too closely doesn’t leave any space for other thoughts to creep in and for creativity to happen.

So, if focus isn’t enough on its own for success, how can we activate the unfocused brain and use the wandering mind to its advantage? Pillay suggests three ways.