Why Can’t I Focus?

How To Identify Barriers To Better Attention (And What To Do About Them)

A crucial part of managing your time well is the ability to focus and manage your attention. It is all well and good scheduling your day and allocating time dedicated to specific activities, but when it comes to taking action and actually getting it done if you can’t focus on the task at hand, all of those great intentions will come to nothing.

Although it could be argued that the world we live in today is far more distracting than it has ever been, apparently humans have never been particularly good at focusing attention for extended periods of time. And that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Think about it: back in your cave days, you’re not going to last long of you’re so focused on starting your fire that you fail to hear that sabre-toothed tiger creeping up behind you on a mission to secure lunch.

However, in today’s world, this evolutionary advantage can make focusing on finishing that report all the more difficult.

So, maybe you can blame your DNA.

But it’s really not a great defence for turning in a paper late or missing a deadline, is it?

The good news is that if you’re struggling to focus, there are quite a few things we can try to help.

And the first step is to identify why you can’t focus, because if you can do that, then you stand a greater chance of being able to do something about it. Many of the main culprits may overlap and it is likely that more than one element will be affecting your ability to focus at any one time.

I’ve tried to keep this as concise as possible, as if you’re struggling to focus, the last thing you’re going to want to do is read a great long wall of text!

So, here are my top dozen of the most common reasons why you can’t focus.

1. Medical reasons

If you’re finding the ability to concentrate a persistently difficult challenge, a good place to start is with your current health.

There are all kinds of medical conditions that can affect your attention, from concussion to pain to depression to chronic fatigue syndrome and numerous other underlying illnesses or conditions.

Another possible culprit is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is one of the most common neuro-developmental disorders of childhood according to the CDC and is said to be prevalent in around 5% of adults, many of whom have never been officially diagnosed.

Actually diagnosing it seems to be a bit of a grey area, but there are evaluation processes that healthcare professionals use to do so.

What to do about it?

  • Go get yourself checked out by a doctor and eliminate medical reasons as a cause before looking at other possible reasons.

2. The “Big Four “

My “Big Four” distractions are:

  1. Social media
  2. Email
  3. Phone calls
  4. Other people

Until these are managed well, maintaining focus will continue to be a major problem.

What to do about it?

Too stresssed to focus / Image by Andrea Piacquadio

3. Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety is a common component of modern-day life. Worries about money, relationships, health and work will all make it difficult to focus not he task at hand.

What to do about it?

  • This is one of the trickier elements to deal with. If you’re getting stressed and anxious due to an unfinished task, deal with it or at least schedule time to deal with it so that it is off your mind
  • If you can identify the source of your stress and worry, take action to try and deal with it

4. Boredom

If you’re not engaged with a task, completing it quickly and efficiently just got harder. Nobody likes doing stuff that bores them, but unfortunately, work often involves many tasks that fall into that category.

What to do about it?

  • Break boring tasks down into the smallest possible chunks
  • Delegate when you can
  • Stay focused on the bigger picture
  • Try listening to music while you’re working
Unfinished Business
Unfinished tasks will occupy your mind / Image by Ann H

5. Unfinished business

In David Allen’s Getting Things Done work-life management system, one of the core objectives is to capture all the things that need to get done into “a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind.”

If stuff is on your mind, it means it is unfinished and it will distract you from the tasks you’re currently trying to focus on. Allen refers to these incomplete tasks on our mind as “open loops” and this phenomenon is supported in psychology circles by something known as the Zeigarnik Effect, which you can read more about here if you’re interested.

What to do about it?

  • Be methodical about dealing with your tasks
  • Write down everything you need and want to do, either on paper or digitally and have a system in place that allows you to deal with them accordingly

6. Lack of self-care

There’s a reason why “eat well, sleep well and exercise” is universal advice for human beings. And that’s because it is almost certainly good advice!

A lack of exercise, poor sleep and nutrition will affect your ability to focus and to concentrate, so don’t overlook this form of self-care.

What to do about it?

  • Schedule time to exercise each day
  • Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and less “junk” food
  • Build an evening routine that will help you get a better night’s sleep

Check out this TED Talk by Wendy Suzuki on the brain-changing benefits of exercise.

7. Lack of breaks

Being able to focus on a tasks for an extended period of time is not something that comes naturally to the majority of us. It takes practice. But the more you work on it, the better you become.

What to do about it?

Food and drink
Keep a well-fuelled body / Image by Dan Gold

8. Dehydrated / Hungry

Your body is great at telling you what it needs, but your body is not always that great at listening!

Being hungry and thirsty will create an internal distraction that will make it tough to focus. But it’s probably one of the easiest to fix.

What to do about it?

  • Eat (healthy) snacks throughout the day if you find yourself getting hungry between meals
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day
  • Don’t skip lunch

9. Noise

I personally find noise to be one of my biggest barriers to focus. It doesn’t really matter what the source is – it could be roadworks, crying babies, a buzzing fridge, other people talking – if I become too aware of it, it makes it very difficult for me to concentrate on deep work.

Some noise works well for me, for example, my choice of music, but I find the sound of a TV on in the background terribly distracting.

What to do about it?

Actions you can take will depend on your circumstances. Try some of these:

  • Move to a quieter location
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones
  • Listen to music to block out all other noise
  • Put a do not disturb sign on your door
  • Schedule your deep work at quieter times (early morning or late at night)
Messy desk
Working in a sh*thole / Image by Promote365

10. Clutter

I’ve read studies that suggest that an untidy environment limits the brain’s ability to process information and makes it more difficult to sustain attention.

Take a look at your environment. Are you surrounded by piles of paper and stuff that is unrelated to your work? Are there dirty coffee mugs and sweet wrappers all over the place?

What to do about it?

  • Tidy up your workstation, yer slob! Don’t try to kid yourself that a messy desk is a sign of genius – that’s just something said by messy people who can’t keep their crap in order.

11. Too hot / cold

Another cause of internal distraction, but usually very simple to fix.

What to do about it?

  • Wear more or fewer clothes
  • Adjust the temperature of the air con / heating

12. No structure

Having no plan, no method and no schedule when it comes to working on your tasks will always make things more difficult.

There are sometimes of day that your mind is much more able to focus than others and so you need to find those times and schedule work accordingly.

What to do about it?

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

There’s no doubt that the modern world, with all of its distractions, makes concentration more difficult than ever, but it is also likely that our ability as humans to focus our attention on one thing for any great length of time was never that great to begin with!

Regardless of your innate abilities, if you can manage the twelve common barriers I have outlined in this post, you’ll be well on the road to better focus and attention.

More reading

Time Management Tips For Working From Home

How To Achieve A Work-Life Balance

10 Time Management Tips For Entrepreneurs

How To Prioritize Your Tasks

How To Stop Wasting Time

[Featured image credit: Stefan Cosma]

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