Why Can't I Focus?
We all know the familiar adage, “you must focus to achieve your goals.” Indeed, almost every great success story we hear involves someone staying focused on a dream or a goal until they achieved it.
Unfortunately, focus doesn’t come easily for everyone and, for some, it can be a daily struggle to concentrate on what’s most important.
But don’t worry: If you have a list of big and small things you want to accomplish but find yourself watching random YouTube videos instead of achieving them, you’re not alone.
The reality is that it’s never been harder to focus than in today’s world, and there is a myriad of reasons why. In this article, we'll cover some of the more common obstacles to focusing and look at some proven real-world solutions to help you focus and thrive in your daily life.
The Struggle is Real
In Stolen Focus - Why You Can't Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, bestselling author Johann Hari outlines how college students in the US can only muster 65 seconds of continued focus. When it comes to office workers, that number is only three minutes long.
He presents evidence to support his argument that it's not that we've stopped paying attention and that something is suddenly wrong with us. Rather, human attention has been hijacked by the smart folks in Silicon Valley who create algorithms to steal our focus and cause maximum distraction.
Our collective attention span has been commandeered. Pervasive social media and other elements of this busy modern life have resulted in a general societal malaise. If we want to learn how to improve focus, Hari emphasizes, we need first to reclaim our minds.
Common Focus Disruptors
Here are some of the most common reasons you might be struggling to focus.
Constant digital distractions
Nearly 65% of our global village is online – over 5 billion people staying connected via social media, text messages, notifications, and video calls.
All of those communication portals add up, leaving us feeling obligated to answer, reply, comment, and 'like' the comments of the people trying to engage with us. Not only can that get overwhelming in terms of the time it demands, but it often distracts us from the task at hand.
For example, most text messages get read and responded to in less than five minutes. That's great in an emergency, but it’s less ideal when you're on a work deadline or studying for an exam.
Another study found that people receive an average of 63.5 mobile notifications per day and check their emails an average of 11 times per hour. While checking email or looking at a notification might only take a few seconds, research shows that it can take up to 23 minutes to fully regain focus on the task we were working on.
Lack of sleep
Getting adequate sleep is high on the agenda of wellness and longevity these days. The Sleep Foundation provides plenty of scientific research showing how poor sleep affects our concentration ability.
If even mundane tasks seem too hard to complete, you may not be getting enough quality sleep. This can be exacerbated by staring at a computer or phone screen before bedtime and getting too much blue light. In the visible light spectrum, it’s the blue wavelengths that suppress melatonin, wake us up, and let our bodies know it’s time to get going. So, that big dose of bluelight you take in from your cellphone before bed can lead to a restless night of poor sleep.
The less you sleep, the more easily you are confused. This impairs your judgment and will limit your ability to carry out tasks that require reasoning and logic.
Finally, your reaction time slows as your ability to concentrate declines. Therefore, a lack of sleep will result in you responding more slowly to signals in your environment and can put you in a dangerous situation (think: red traffic lights and oncoming cars).
An overwhelming workload is the main reason we skip breaks. We often give in too easily to the notion that skipping a break to meet a work or study deadline will increase our productivity.
But this is not necessarily the case, as research shows that taking purposeful breaks can increase your ability to focus by boosting your energy.
The trick here is to make your break purposeful, which rules out scrolling through social media. Taking the right kind of break can reduce stress, improve creativity, ease your body's aches and pains, and give you time to reevaluate your goals ahead of your next work session.
Allowing the mind time to refocus on a break by moving your body, taking deep breaths, and engaging in an activity that will allow you to zone out, are all key to improving focus and getting the most out of breaks.
Mental health challenges
Thoughts and feelings associated with stress, depression, sadness, alienation, anxiety, PTSD, and even addictive behavior can all cloud your mind when you're knuckling down to work. Here are some of the most common mental health conditions that disrupt our ability to focus:
- ADHD is one of the most common focus-disrupting disorders. ADHD can make it hard to focus in two different ways. The more common challenge is that it makes it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time and stick with it. However, it can also mean you tend to hyperfocus on one thing and lose sight of everything else.
- Depression slows down your cognitive abilities and creates brain fog, making it incredibly difficult to zero in on a task. Additionally, focusing takes significant mental energy and depression is a decidedly low-energy state; even the smallest mental exertions will seem like too much.
- OCD and anxiety disorders can make you obsess over one worry or fear, leaving little room to focus on anything else. Once an anxiety sufferer starts spiraling with worry, it can prove nearly impossible to work or do anything productive.
- With PTSD, your focus is often held hostage because you are constantly looking for danger. PTSD trauma can keep your brain in fight-or-flight mode, and research shows that when the fight-or-flight response kicks in, the focusing and problem-solving part of our brain shuts down.
Don’t attempt to self-diagnose if you are struggling with your mental health and "fuzzy thinking". Rather, reach out to a licensed health professional. They can properly assess you and provide a host of solutions to help manage your symptoms and improve your concentration.
The Roman poet Juvenal wrote, ‘You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.'
So if you've already addressed your digital distractions and mental health, audited your sleep, and added regular breaks to your schedule, your physical health should be next on the checklist.
Eating fatty or sugary foods can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and crash, resulting in low blood sugar levels that can wreak havoc on your ability to focus. Our brain is our body's most demanding organ; too much sugar can cause it to atrophy and even shrink, dramatically impairing our ability to focus.
Too much caffeine can also affect our work performance by causing unnecessary anxiety and jitters. You may think that having an energy drink will help you focus, but the comedown after the caffeine (and sugar) kick wears off simply isn't worth it.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to cut out everything altogether or all at once. Rather, you can start gently by monitoring your nutritional input — what you feed your body — to get an idea of what it will take to get and stay razor sharp.
Start keeping track of how much caffeine and sugar you take in and monitor how well you can focus after consuming them. You will soon get a realistic appraisal of whether your diet is part of the problem.
Also consider adding healthier, focus-boosting foods to your diet, such as blueberries, leafy vegetables, nuts, eggs, fatty fish, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate.
What are the Consequences of a Lack of Focus?
A lack of focus can affect many areas of our life, all of which can impact our overall well-being. The real-world fallout from a lack of focus might include:
- Doing poorly in your studies
- Poor job performance
- Losing your job
- Poor personal relationships
- Feeling hopeless and unworthy
Furthermore, as productivity levels drop and our stress levels rise, we can get caught in a vicious cycle that can be challenging to measure in terms of consequences.
So how do we quantify opportunity cost? As in, how do we measure the things we don't do because of low focus? For example, what about the career we never entirely created for ourselves because of the university degree we never got because of the high school exams we never studied hard enough for?
Students from Carnegie Mellon University took part in a test where some received periodic text messages while they were studying, and some did not. Overall, the students who received text messages fared 20% worse in what is known as the "switch-cost effect."
Finally, not being able to focus means you'll likely procrastinate and put off tasks until later. Procrastination sets you up for a harmful spiral, as you feel increasingly guilty and overwhelmed about the growing list of things you're avoiding.
In sum, there are several serious consequences of poor focus. So let’s look at what we can do to improve it.
How to Improve Focus
In our perpetually connected world, you'll be in for a hard time if you depend on willpower to stay focused, rather than designing an environment conducive to focusing. Fortunately, there are a variety of tools available to help you master the art of focusing deeply.
1. Try Productivity Techniques
The Pomodoro Technique is a standout example where, using a Pomodoro timer, you work on tasks in 25-minute increments ('pomodoros') followed by five-minute breaks. You then continue the cycle 4 or 5 times before taking a longer break.
It’s much easier (and less intimidating) to commit to 25 minutes of focusing at a time, and that commitment keeps on track with single-tasking and avoiding distractions while you work.
Eat The Frog is another popular technique where you tackle the most challenging task first (the thing you dread doing the most). This is a great way to use your focusing abilities wisely: dispatching the most mentally demanding task at the beginning of the day when you have the most energy, and saving things that require less focus for later.
Whichever method you start with, being strategic about how you manage tasks is essential to improving your focus. You’ll accomplish more and revel in the completion of a goal. Tick that box (even if it's just in a notebook) to mark the task complete and marvel at your increased sense of self-worth and pride in accomplishment. It will become increasingly easy to focus as you reap the benefits of your discipline and hard work.
2. Use Productivity Apps
There are many tools that we can utilize to fight digital distraction, regain our focus, and take back the time that has been stolen from us. Ironically, some of those tools are apps themselves.
For example, Insight Timer is a free app for coping with stress and anxiety and getting better sleep (all contributing factors to focus levels). It primarily focuses on meditation while offering users a wide range of diverse content.
The Kōno app is a more comprehensive productivity solution and is another fantastic example of using modern technology to solve contemporary problems. It allows you to set a timer and create the parameters you need to achieve more focus: you can choose to block some or all of the calls, notifications, social media apps, and websites that typically distract you while you work.
Using productivity apps can give you a healthier overview of how you allocate your time, as well as a more realistic idea of how much time it takes to complete various tasks.
Working with productivity apps can also create lasting behavioral change that will bolster your confidence and enhance your focusing ability.
3. Try Meditation
Overcoming distractions is something we can manage through meditation. Start by focusing your mind on nothing but your breath. Then, try to exhale for as long as possible while drawing breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Even just a few minutes of mindful breathing can increase your focus by helping you to relax. All you have to do is focus on your breath.
A single focus on something as simple as taking in the oxygen that keeps us alive can train our minds to tackle other tasks that require deep focus.
In the realm of meditation, you can also try visualization techniques where you mentally role-play the act of performing a task successfully and imagining the positive feelings you will have upon completing the task.
This is a common technique among professional athletes (imagining themselves winning the trophy and going over the steps to get there). A mental rehearsal like this will positively impact your self-confidence and help keep you laser-focused on the goal you want to achieve.
4. Try Single-Tasking
The data is in: heavy media multitaskers "are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and irrelevant representations in memory" than light multitaskers.
This is according to Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, in his study 'Cognitive control in media multitaskers'. Co-author Eyal Ophir makes the point that multitaskers "couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing."
Single-tasking involves reducing potential interruptions until a task is finished or a significant period of time has elapsed. Also known as single-tasking, it's about dedicating yourself to one thing at a time.
The Ball is in Your Court
Hopefully, this article has helped you consider an area of your life where you can become more mindful to improve your focus.
As distractions in the form of pings, notifications, and messages come in, you may be more aware of how they affect your focus and mental state.
From cutting out sugar and caffeine to limiting screen time before bed for better sleep, these small, incremental changes can make a big difference in your ability to focus and your overall well-being.
You’re only ever a few good choices away from saying goodbye to brain fog and hello to heightened focus and productivity.