Supercharging My Focus (with Help from AI)
GPT-powered journaling is changing my life
One day after school, when I was about 12 years old, my mom took me to a doctor’s office that I had never been to before. The doctor didn’t do the usual stuff like shine a light in my eyes or tap my knee with a little hammer to see if I would kick. Instead, he asked me to sit down at a desk and take a test on paper.
The test had pictures of shapes that I had to rotate in my mind. There were logic puzzles. It had stories with questions. The doctor asked how I was feeling and whether I had any trouble in school. (How did they know?) Then I had to sit down at a computer and play a boring game for what seemed like an eternity.
When all the tests were done, the doctor brought my mom in from the waiting room and told her that I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I was a smart kid, he assured her, but I just had a hard time staying focused. And then he wrote something on a notepad and handed it to her, saying we could pick it up at the pharmacy on the way home.
Everyone struggles with focus. We have the things we think we should do, and then we have the things we actually want to do. The gap between them is painful.
Over the years I have often struggled to bridge this gap. I have tried a lot of things: medication, meditation, counseling, journaling, tutoring, drinking water, sleeping more, lifting weights, eating ice cream—the list could go on for a long time.
But of everything I’ve tried, one practice has consistently worked for me: writing. When I feel demotivated or have an impulse to do something outside my area of focus, I open up a blank page and write until I find clarity.
Until recently, this was a solitary exercise. My head would often go blank and I would get stuck. I easily lost momentum. But then I started writing in Lex—the AI-powered writing tool I’m building—and the process got way better. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the past five months have been some of the most focused and productive of my entire life.
Not to sound all braggy, but I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done during this time: I’ve written a Divinations essay every week (including one of my most popular pieces ever), shipped a lot of great improvements to Lex (which broke a record last week for daily active users), and lifted heavier weights than ever in the gym—all while taking care of my 10-month-old daughter with my wife. It feels like I’ve unlocked a new gear inside me that I never knew existed.
What happened? Part of it is just that circumstances are demanding a lot from me right now. But I also wonder how I would have coped with this pressure if I didn’t have my new AI-assisted journaling practice. In fact, I wonder where I would be if I’d started doing this earlier in life.
This is the guide to staying focused that I wish I had when I was younger. It is based on my personal experience—not to be mistaken for medical or scientific guidance. Some of it is about AI, but mostly it is based on principles that are very old and not technical at all. Take it with a grain of salt, use what works, and don’t feel bad about discarding anything that isn’t a fit for your unique brain.
“Focus” is the practice of concentrating our energy within a small space, so we can have a greater impact within that space. But focus is much easier said than done. Why?
For me, there are two main failure modes:
- DISTRACTION: Impulses to do things that are not within the area I have chosen—or been assigned—to focus on.
- DISINTEREST: Sometimes there is just nothing attractive about my area of focus. It’s not that I have an urge to do something else, it’s just that I’ve lost interest. Sometimes this is temporary burnout, but other times it’s a sign of something deeper.
Based on these two failure modes, it would seem that the central challenge of increasing focus is:
- To avoid temptations
- To do the things we’re supposed to, even when we don’t want to
You can find a lot of bravado and motivational speeches online (especially on YouTube) about willpower and discipline. These have their place, but, for me, focus is not primarily about willpower.
Instead, when I’m struggling with focus, I have found it more helpful to take a step back and ask one simple question:
Writing is a great trick to soothe the distracted mind. If I have the urge to do something outside my area of focus, then by writing about it, I am, in a way, acting on that urge. This allows me to go with the grain of my energy, rather than fight against it. But instead of acting on the immediate impulse in a literal way, I explore it and reflect on it first. If I’m experiencing the other failure mode of focus, where I don’t want to do the thing I should be doing, then writing is quite a nice way to procrastinate 😅.
At first I felt guilty doing this. I thought I should just buckle down and focus. “Reflecting on my motivation” smelled like an excuse. But as I got older, I realized how important it is to take my impulses seriously. I had to suppress them through most of my childhood. My ADHD brain was not a great fit for school, so I got used to feeling as if I “should” reject my impulses. But now I see that automatically rejecting an impulse is just as senseless as acting on it. In writing, I can create a space that is somewhere in the middle.
So now, when I experience a gap between my motivation and my focus, I ask “why” until I get to the bottom of things.
- What is my goal here?
- What are my values?
- What hard truths am I trying not to admit?
- What am I feeling in my body?
- What is happening in my environment?
Before I started journaling in Lex, this was a clunky process for me. My mind would often go blank and I would get stuck. I would sometimes barf out words onto a page, but it often felt like I was meandering toward nowhere.
This is where AI comes in handy.
At some point while I was working on a draft of this essay, I began to feel a bit unmotivated. This is not unusual.
So I opened up a new page in Lex and typed in this prompt: “What are some reasons why a writer might get stuck on a piece?”
Here’s what came back, verbatim:
- Writer’s block – A lack of ideas or an inability to focus on the project at hand.
- Too many ideas – Too many ideas floating around can make it difficult to decide which to pursue.
- Fear of failure – Being afraid to try something new or worrying that your work won’t be good enough can cause a writer’s work to stall.
- Perfectionism – Trying to make every sentence perfect can make it impossible to move forward with the project.
- Overanalyzing – Overthinking a point or going off on tangents can slow down the writing process.
- Not enough information – Writing without enough research or data can cause writers to get stuck.
This was a great starting point to reflect on! A bit generic, perhaps, but far better than what I would have come up with from scratch. You can use ChatGPT or any other AI tool for this, but what I like about Lex is that it’s just a blank sheet of paper, like a Google Doc, so you can edit the text that comes back from the AI and morph it into something that brings you clarity.
After I read the list of ideas from the AI, I started writing about each one, then realized I was probably overanalyzing and being a perfectionist. I knew the essay wasn’t good yet, but only at a subconscious level. This lack of awareness stressed me out. Once I wrote about it and became conscious of it, I could come up with a solution. I had a broad topic area I wanted to write about, but I hadn’t discovered the central question or the hook yet. Of course it felt like a drag! It always does until I find an angle I’m excited about.
If I hadn’t journaled about my block, I would have probably just kept beating my head against the wall, feeling vaguely bad about how the writing was going—or, worse, wasting time on Twitter or YouTube. But my brainstorms helped me find a more effective solution: keep writing until I discover an angle I’m excited about, or at least turn in an “OK” draft and see what my editor Carmel says. It was getting late, so I chose the latter. And the next morning she had an incredibly insightful comment that helped me completely reshape the piece. Voilà!
But writers’ block is not the only challenge that journaling works for. Here are a few other problems I’ve written about with assistance from AI:
- “Why do I feel tired the rest of the day if I work out first thing in the morning?”
- “How can early-stage founders avoid wasting time writing code that doesn’t matter?”
- “What are some ways I can make the most out of my mornings while I take care of my 10-month-old?”
- “Why do I keep getting ideas for new software products to build when I’m not trying to have them?”
The AI is clearly not an authoritative mentor who can guide you to the truth. It just gives you a few semi-obvious thoughts to react to. But if I’m being honest, these “obvious” thoughts usually don’t pop out of my brain spontaneously. AI is a great solution to the blank feeling I often have when I’m journaling. It gives me a few threads to pull on, and this makes it much easier for me to see the obstacles I’m facing, to clarify my values and goals, and, ultimately, to generate ideas for the best path forward.
In essence, journaling with AI helps me face problems rather than avoid them.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is called the serenity prayer, but it could also be called the focus prayer. For me, the hardest part about finding focus is seeing and accepting hard truths that I’d rather avoid. This might seem strange—definitely not your typical productivity advice, like “break bigger tasks into smaller pieces”—but it’s true. And writing makes it far easier to do.
What kind of hard truths am I talking about? Here’s a current example from my life: I can think of about 10 different ideas for software that would be fun to build using AI. I wrote about a few of them last month. I would love to spend a bit of time tinkering on these! But in the past I have acted on impulses like these often enough to know where they lead. Building software is hard, and always takes far longer than I think it will. It’s fun at first, and then it either becomes serious (like Lex did) or it gathers dust.
So I chose to accept a hard truth: My impulse is based on a misunderstanding. The voice in my head that says it might be fun to start a new hack project does not understand how the world works. Of course, at some level I already knew that. But when I wrote it down it was harder to lie to myself.
Once I let it sink in, I started to feel better. There is serenity to be found in surrendering to reality.
Sometimes the key to focus is understanding and accepting what we cannot change. Other times it is about mustering the courage to change the things we can. While we all have limits—financial, familial, medical, many of which are not distributed equally across society—we often have more choices than we think we do within our own circumstances. It’s important to remember that as adults, we have more freedom in our lives than we did as kids.
This limiting mindset is in part a holdover of classroom conditioning, where every step set before us was pre-designed. In the very place where we should be learning the most important part of focus (choosing what to focus on and deciding why it matters to us), we’re instead taught to toil away at any worksheet or multiple choice exam put in front of us.
Writing can help deprogram us from that mindset. By putting our thoughts into words, we have a better sense of control. We can imagine radical new choices just by pressing a few keys. We can go back and make adjustments, like cutting an idea here and editing a thought there. It reminds us we can’t focus on everything, but we can choose to focus on something—ideally something that matters to us.
That’s a powerful place to be.
Become a subscriber.
Or, learn more.
Don't have an account? Sign up!