Why Can’t I Focus?

Medically reviewed by Kayce Bragg, LPCS, LAC, LCPC, LPC, NCC
Updated March 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever sat down at your desk, determined to wrap up a project, and then stood up two hours later with no idea where the time went? Half an hour scrolling through Facebook, a couple of minutes here and there to check your email, a few daydreaming sessions—and before you know it, you have nothing to show for the whole afternoon.

Experts and doctors agree that attention has become a major problem for many people. It’s harder than ever for many of us to stay focused on our work, check to-do's off our lists, and finish extended tasks in daily life that demand serious time and effort.

A few years ago, researchers estimated that the average human attention span now hovers around 7-8 seconds. Although this factoid was a bit of an exaggeration, it came to emblemize the frustration that many people feel. Our limited attention spans may be impairing our ability to engage with the world around us in deep, satisfying ways. Many adults report difficulty with extended, intensely focal tasks like reading a book or cooking a fancy meal.

In the perpetually connected world of smartphones, endless social media posts, hyperactive video games, 24-hour news cycles, and web articles full of hyperlinks, staying focused on a single task can feel almost impossible. Along with this wealth of information comes poverty of attention.

If you struggle to stay on task, there are ways to improve your concentration and cultivate a more productive lifestyle. Read on to learn some practical, concrete strategies that will help you eliminate distractions, build efficient habits, and know how to focus on what matters most to you.

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Why is it so hard to focus?

While it’s easy to blame technology for all our modern problems, human beings have had issues paying attention for as long as there have been boring books and drowsy university lectures. To understand our modern concentration woes, it’s important to pay some attention to the ways that our brains have changed over the past few millennia.

For survival purposes, our ancient ancestors needed to pay close attention to anything that moved quickly or seemed unfamiliar. The reasons for this concentration were simple: if something were fast, it could kill you. If it were new, it could be dangerous.

In today’s breakneck world of technology and information, each day exposes us to thousands of distractions that meet both of those criteria. Think about all the things that arrest your attention every day: the engaging animations on a television commercial, the burst of loud conversation in a restaurant, the constant alerts lighting up your mobile phone screen. All these things are new, and most of them move quickly. In the past, they would have been exciting and engaging to our brains. Now, they’re often just another blip on our mental radar.

Human beings apply different levels of attention and concentration depending on the situation at hand. Our most fulfilling, enjoyable tasks are usually the ones that require the most intense concentration and single-minded attention. They often require that we sit still, tuck away the distractions, and think quietly for long enough to dissect and address a complicated problem.

Some of us also deal with difficulty concentrating due to underlying conditions that affect focus, both mental and medical conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), low blood sugar, or hormonal imbalance. If you suspect you may have a condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it’s worth speaking to your primary care provider about your symptoms. 

Put simply, the activities that may offer the most rewards - activities like digesting a complex memo at work, navigating a difficult personal conversation, or solving a tricky equation - demand absolute focus. That’s just not our natural state, and our ancient brains still haven’t fully adapted to that shift.

So, here are some ways you can help your brain adapt to this societal shift and improve focus.

Find an accountability partner

Never underestimate the power of mutual responsibility; try finding someone who can hold you accountable for your daily tasks, and then make them your partner in productivity.

You might try emailing your to-do list to a trusted friend at the beginning of the day, then emailing them at the end of the day to let them know what you have finished. Or just talk through your workday with your spouse over breakfast, then review everything you managed to complete while you set the table for dinner.

Some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder use a strategy known as body doubling. A body double is someone who will sit in the same space as you and whose presence can help keep you on track. The Attention Deficit Disorder Association recommends choosing someone who can work quietly and independently near you without engaging you. For some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or who have trouble focusing, however, a physical presence may not be possible. You may also be able to recruit someone to body double with you virtually through FaceTime or video chat. 

Knowing that you will need to account for your activities at the end of the day can give you the motivation to push through challenging tasks, even when they seem fruitless.

Get enough sleep

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This can’t be emphasized enough: if you want to feel and perform your best, then you need to spend plenty of time between the sheets. You might be amazed at the immediate difference it makes in your mental energy and cognitive function. 

In clinical trial after clinical trial, sleep researchers have found that sleep deprivation can erode alertness and destroy concentration. It is usually far more difficult to pay attention to important executive tasks - think pulling together a budget or composing a presentation - when you’re struggling to keep your eyes open and remember whether you unplugged the toaster oven. Advanced logical reasoning and problem-solving become increasingly difficult with sleep deprivation, as it can actually slow down brain cells and their communication with each other.

The average American adult gets around 6 hours of rest each night, significantly less than the 7 to 9 hours that most experts recommend. Those daily lost hours add up to hundreds of missed opportunities, and can impact mental and physical health. Poor sleep can lead to trouble concentrating, brain fog, difficulty remembering, and even increased risk for health conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. 

To get enough rest, you might try to tuck in early and get out of bed the moment you wake up. Establish consistent, stable sleep patterns, and don’t deviate from them unless you have a good reason to do so. You may notice almost immediately that with more sleep, it is much easier to stay motivated, focused, and productive throughout the workday. Not only can getting more sleep help improve concentration, but research shows it may reduce stress and improve overall brain health. 

Focus on a single thing

If you’ve ever complained about a lack of focus in public, you have probably been told to try meditation. Studies have shown that meditation can help treat the inattention associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, so even if you don’t have the condition you could benefit from the effects of meditation. Many people try this ancient mental practice but quickly become discouraged by its perceived difficulty. This misconception usually arises because we have an incomplete or improper understanding of what this powerful habit genuinely looks like.

At some point, you have probably heard that meditating means “emptying the mind” or “just not thinking about anything.” This is only partially true; meditation does require practitioners to clear away distractions and streamline their thought processes, but its ultimate goal is not to stifle all mental activity.

Instead, a healthy meditation practice usually focuses on a single object or sensation. This target is often quite simple: a repetitive mantra, a style of breathing, a physical motion, or even a short musical tune. Try focusing on that single mental image or action for one minute, then five minutes, then fifteen. Some may even be able to take that time to a half hour or more. Experiment with a few different target sensations. You may be surprised how naturally and instinctively the habit develops once you find the right direction.

Notice your mind wandering? Don’t give up immediately or assume that your session was a failure. Temporary distraction is simply a signal to direct your mind back gently but firmly to the object of your meditation. Let the new thought pass through your mind, but don’t follow it. You’ll be able to return to it later when your mind is refreshed and ready to take on new tasks.

Organize your working environment

It can be tempting to assume that all our strengths and weaknesses lie within ourselves. Fortunately, that is not always the case. A decision as simple as simplifying your atmosphere can completely revolutionize your workflow.

“Simplifying your atmosphere” doesn’t just mean removing all the clutter from your desk, although physical distractions can be a huge impediment to concentration. When psychologists talk about work distractions, they are usually referring to all types of sensory clutter. That includes eardrum-blasting music in your headphones, loud conversations at the table next to yours, tantalizing smells from the deli down the street, text message alerts on your smartphone, and panicky calls from people in your life.

If you’re having trouble staying focused, you don’t need to ditch your laptop and retreat to the wilderness to leave all these distractions behind. You can simply try to eliminate the peskiest distractions and set up some sensible boundaries for your thought patterns.

Here are some easy, practical steps you can take in the next hour:

  • Invest in noise-canceling headphones
  • Download app- or website-blocking software for your mobile devices and computers
  • Remove all stray papers and objects from the places where you work
  • Conduct a thorough, deep clean of your personal spaces, like the bedroom, bathroom, study, and work desk

Once you have removed all that sensory clutter, you might be pleasantly surprised by how much cleaner and more spacious your mental landscape feels.

Squeeze out your stress

When you’re trying to focus, stillness and quiet aren’t always the best policy. Some of us are naturally kinetic, movement-oriented thinkers, who work most productively when our bodies are active and engaged.

This is one of the reasons why fidget toys have recently become so popular. Fortunately, they’re not just for kids in the classroom. Many adults benefit from routine physical motion, which can anchor your thoughts and keep your mind from straying away from your task.

Whether you use a fidget cube or a spinner, a squishy stress ball, a tube of Silly Putty or Play-Doh, or some other pleasingly tactile object, be sure to choose something that won’t make loud noises or distract the other people around you. If you’re working at home, sitting on an exercise ball, taking frequent “pace breaks,” or doing yoga poses between tasks can help break up the monotony and stimulate your creative juices.

Put off procrastination

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Procrastination is often labeled as the enemy of productivity; sometimes this mental habit can feel impossible to escape or can even seem productive. Have you ever resorted to cleaning the bathroom or organizing a long-neglected file folder to avoid an ominous deadline?

To understand procrastination, you need to understand mental gratification. Typically, whenever you cross a finish line or check off a to-do, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. It doesn’t matter how big or small the task, the same feel-good chemical rushes through your body.

Finishing a complex, challenging task might feel great, but so does marking down smaller milestones like checking your email or flicking through the daily news. If you can get a quick and easy mental “high” from completing those little tasks, then it may not be as difficult to summon up the concentration for a longer project.

Don’t try to beat this system: use it to your advantage! Trying to insert regular, planned break times into your routine will give you something to look forward to and help you stay on task.

Break down your tasks

All these years later, it turns out that Henry Ford might have known the secret to extended focus. When speaking about his iconic automobile assembly lines, Ford was famously quoted as saying: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”

Many of us struggle with giving our attention to large, complicated projects, and it may be because we haven’t defined or divided them. We may fall into the mental trap, believing that it’s useless to dedicate time to a task if we are not able to finish it.

For example, imagine that you are trying to tackle a difficult academic assignment. If the note in your planner just says, “Write Paper,” “Finish Worksheet” or “Solve Problem,” then the thought of tackling such a monumental task may fill your brain with anxiety. Most big projects can’t be finished in one sitting, but we treat slow and steady progress like a failure.

One quick way to mitigate this issue is to take Henry Ford’s old advice: divide the broader task up into discrete, approachable steps that you can complete in a smaller portion of time. Make these steps as small as you need them to be, and don’t worry about how ridiculous or absurd they seem. Remember: no one else ever needs to know what they are. If you are still tempted to put off a task or turn to a distraction, then break it down into even tinier steps.

Need to go to the gym? Start by digging your tennis shoes out of the closet. Need to get ahead before a big meeting? You may not start anything unless you turn on your computer. Need to compose a difficult letter? Sharpen your pencil before you even think about writing a single word.

Devoting your mind to these minute tasks in a singular, simplified fashion can help you strengthen your concentration muscles and rebuild productive habits. It will take time, but the rewards can be immensely satisfying. Just imagine how awesome it will feel to cross that huge project off your checklist!

Takeaway

If you still have trouble focusing and are struggling to stay on task and avoid careless mistakes throughout the day, don’t be afraid to reach out and get help. Nobody knows habits and behaviors better than a mental health professional. A mental health professional can help you evaluate your daily routine, eliminate unhealthy patterns, and develop the motivation and concentration you need to succeed in life. This is especially true when you consider online therapy; not only has it been proven to be just as effective as in-person therapy, but it has also been shown to drastically help in cases of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is often used to help those with attention issues or who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The experienced web counselors at BetterHelp also have the tools and training to help you build healthier habits at work and at home. You can be matched with a counselor who directly meets your needs and begin working with them in as little as 48 hours. You can also message your therapist at any time to mark down achievements or relay questions about your workload in real time.

It may take some searching and experimenting, but a more productive, pleasurable work experience is possible. The mind wanders at times, but it is possible to improve your ability to concentrate. Before you hit today’s to-do list, take the time to evaluate the way you work seriously.

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