Why Can’t I Focus?

By Nicole Beasley

Updated February 14, 2020

Reviewer Martha Furman, LPC, CAC

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Experts and doctors agree: America has an attention problem. It's harder than ever for us to stay focused on our work, check to-dos off our lists, and finish extended tasks that demand serious time and effort.

Have you ever sat down at your desk, determined to wrap up a project, and 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-before you know it, you have nothing to show for the whole afternoon.

A few years ago, researchers estimated that the average human attention span now hovers around 7-8 seconds, even shorter than a goldfish. Although this factoid was a bit of an exaggeration, it came to emblemize the frustration that many people feel. Our limited attention spans are 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 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 been struggling to pay 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 was fast, it could kill you. If it was new, it could be dangerous.

But 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 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 the ones that require the most intense concentration and single-minded attention. They require that we sit still, tuck away the distractions, and think quietly for long enough to dissect and address a complicated problem.

Put simply, the activities that 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. The only problem? That's just not our natural state, and our ancient brains still haven't fully adapted to that shift.

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Find An Accountability Partner

Your first step to better focus? Never underestimate the power of mutual responsibility. Find someone who can hold you accountable for your daily tasks, then make them your partner in productivity.

Try emailing your to-do list to a trusted friend at the beginning of the day, then email 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.

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

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'll be amazed at the immediate difference it makes.

In clinical trial after clinical trial, sleep researchers have found that sleep deprivation erodes alertness and destroys concentration. It is far more difficult to pay attention to important executive tasks-think to pull together a budget or to compose 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 cease to exist.

If the phrase "sleep deprivation" sounds more like a form of exotic torture than something we deal with every day, remember that 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.

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So don't treat venti lattes and midafternoon sweet treats as a substitute for rest. Tuck in early and get out of bed the moment that you wake up. Establish consistent, stable sleep patterns, and don't deviate from them unless you have a good reason to do so. You'll notice almost immediately that it is much easier to stay motivated, focused, and productive throughout the workday.

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. 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 process, but its ultimate goal is not to stifle all mental activity.

Instead, a healthy meditation practice focuses on a single object or sensation. This target is usually 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. Experiment with a few different target sensations. You will 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 gently but firmly direct your mind back 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.

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Organize Your Working Environment

Humans are naturally self-centered, so 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 are 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 your parents and kids.

You don't need to ditch your laptop and retreat to the wilderness to leave all these distractions behind. You already have almost complete control of your environment. All you need to do is eliminate the peskiest distractions and set up some sensible boundaries for your thought patterns.

Here are some easy, practical steps you can take 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.

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Squeeze Out Your Stress

When you're trying to focus, however, stillness and quiet aren't always the best policy. Some of us are naturally kinetic, movement-oriented thinkers, who work most productively when their 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 a 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

Everyone knows that procrastination is the enemy of productivity, but sometimes this damaging mental habit feels impossible to escape. Sometimes this procrastination 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. 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 might be; 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 is not difficult to summon up the concentration for a longer project.

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Don't try to beat this system: use it to your advantage! Inserting 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 large, complicated projects because we haven't defined or divided them intelligently. We 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 tackling such a monumental task often seems impossible. Most big projects can't be finished in one sitting, but we treat slow and steady progress like a failure.

One quick and effortless way to mitigate this issue is to take Henry Ford's old advice: divide the broader task up into discrete, approachable steps. 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 will ever know what they are. If you are still tempted to put off a task or turn to a distraction, then just 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 won't 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 will help you strengthen your concentration muscles and rebuild productive habits. It will take time, but the rewards will be immensely satisfying. Just imagine how awesome it will feel to cross that huge project off your checklist!

Talk To An Expert

If you're still struggling to stay on task throughout the day, don't be afraid to reach out and get help. Nobody knows habits and behaviors better than a psychologist. A mental health professional can help you evaluate your daily routine, eliminate unhealthy patterns, and develop the motivation and concentration you need to succeed.

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The experienced web counselors at BetterHelp also have the tools and training to help you build healthier habits at work and home. It may take some searching and experimenting, but a more productive, pleasurable work experience is possible. Before you hit today's to-do list, take the time to evaluate the way you work seriously. You won't regret it.

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