Why Can’t I Focus?

You get to work, you dive into your first task or project of the day – and you have trouble concentrating on it.

You make a phone call, the person answers – and you can’t remember why you were calling.

You get home, you sit down to pay the bills – and you feel your mind wandering.

After dinner, you turn on a Netflix movie – and ten minutes in, you realize you’re checking your phone and have already lost track of the plot.

After a while you have to wonder: “Why can’t I focus?”

You’re not alone. Focus is a major issue for a lot of people, whether they’re at work or at home. But what causes the loss of focus? And how can you get it back?

It’s Normal to Pause for a Daydream or Two

Psychology Today reports that 96% of adults admit to daydreaming at least once per day. The Harvard Business Review surveyed tens of thousands of business leaders around the world, and discovered that nearly three-quarters of them admit that they’re distracted during work “most” or “some” of the time.

Everyone’s mind wanders from time to time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Studies claim that daydreaming can increase your creativity levels, help you set goals, improve job performance and even boost your mood.

Needless to say, that doesn’t mean lack of focus is always a good thing when you’re at work. You wouldn’t want your pilot’s mind to drift when he’s landing your plane. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be daydreaming while you’re on the operating table.

And you wouldn’t want to miss a crucial work deadline because your head was in the clouds instead of focused on the job in front of you.

Taking a quick mental break during the workday can reset your attention and refresh your mind. A continuing problem with focus, however, can be a serious issue.

If you find yourself regularly asking “Why can’t I focus?” – we have some answers that might help.

How Do You Know If Lack of Focus Is Really a Problem?

Since it’s normal to daydream, and modern society worships the concept of multitasking (more about that later), you may be wondering if your lack of focus is truly an issue that needs to be addressed or if it’s completely natural.

Here are a few red flags that may indicate that your difficulty with concentration has become problematic.

  • You feel that you don’t have enough physical or mental energy to complete a task.
  • You regularly make careless mistakes.
  • You find that your normal response to a somewhat-difficult job is procrastination.
  • You’re experiencing short-term memory issues, finding it hard to remember recent events or conversations.
  • You delay decisions, or simply can’t make them at all.
  • You begin fidgeting when you’re having problems finishing a task.
  • Your job performance suffers because of missed deadlines or incomplete work.

OK, so you’re not imagining things; your poor attention span is actually an issue which needs to be addressed.

Now what? How can you start focusing better?

The solution depends on what’s causing the lack of focus. For some, it may be a product of poor work habits which can be easily addressed. For others, focus difficulties and poor cognitive function may be due to problems with their physical health and wellness – or their mental health.

Let’s address those first.

Physical Issues That Can Prevent You from Focusing

Many health issues can be the root cause when you’re unable to maintain focus. Here are a few of the common culprits.

You’re Overtired

If you get to bed late one night, you’re likely to wake up tired and have difficulty focusing at work the whole day. We’ve all been there and done that. When it’s happened, we’ve understood that we’re not at our best because of a lack of sleep, and we’d better catch up when we get home.

If you regularly don’t get enough sleep, though, you may not even realize that you’re essentially sleepwalking through life. Many people think they only need a certain number of hours each night. Some say six, some say eight, the National Sleep Foundation says between seven and nine.

The truth is that everyone’s body is different. Some people may just require five hours of sleep. Others may need nine or ten. There’s no magic number; if you think you’re getting enough sleep, you may very well be wrong. 

Attention issues and poor work performance are often the result of being constantly overtired. Researchers continually find that lack of sleep can negatively affect cognition, memory and attention span. Even worse, one study found that regular sleep deprivation may actually kill off brain cells.

So: “Why can’t I focus?” The first thing to try is getting more sleep.

(One important note: chronic fatigue syndrome affects about one million adults, and it’s a medical condition that can’t be treated simply with more sleep. If you’re always tired and can’t figure out why, see your doctor.)

You’re Dehydrated

When you don’t get enough water, your body becomes dehydrated. One of the most common signs of dehydration is sleepiness – and you already know what being tired does to your focus.

This may sound like a silly answer to a serious problem, but it’s not silly at all. Experts claim that three-quarters of American adults may suffer from chronic dehydration.

So if you’re regularly having issues with your attention span, try drinking water instead of mainlining coffee for a few days. It may help.

Substance Abuse

We’ve all heard about – or known – so-called “high-functioning alcoholics.” Those are people who suffer from alcohol use disorder, but still seem to be able to keep their normal life together and functioning. Others seem to be able to manage what may actually be problematic drug use.

In reality, the effects of substance use disorders can show themselves even among those who appear to be performing well at work. And two of the first effects to appear are often tiredness and a lack of focus.

We don’t need to lecture anyone about what they should do if their substance use is problematic. But if you’re having issues with your attention span, some serious self-examination might be in order.

Other Medical Conditions

The side effects of several other health issues are known to include poor focus and attention span. They range from neurological disorders like restless leg syndrome and epilepsy, to Cushing syndrome and dementia. Patients with these and similar conditions should consult with their doctor to see if their medical condition is causing their problems with focus.

Medications

Several classes of prescription and over-the-counter medications are known to have a detrimental effect on brain function, and they can certainly contribute to or cause issues with focus.

  • Mood Stabilizers and Antipsychotics: Abilify, Seroquel, Risperdal, Zyprexa and Depakote are the most-commonly prescribed drugs in this group.
  • Anticholinergics: The name of this class describes the neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that the drugs block. Sadly, that action can produce cognitive dysfunction and a loss of focus. The medications are used for a wide range of medical conditions ranging from COPD and motion sickness, to itchiness, muscle tightness and overactive bladder. Some of these potential focus-destabilizers are Ditropan, Detrol, scopolamine, promethazine and Flexeril. Tricyclic antidepressants like amitryptiline and the SSRI Paxil also produce anticholinergic effects, as do over-the-counter allergy meds like Benadryl and sedating antihistamines like Nyquil.
  • Sedatives and Anxiety Medications: Many sedatives prescribed as sleep or anti-anxiety medications are strong benzodiazepines, which work by slowing down the brain – an obvious possible cause of focus difficulties. These meds include Xanax, Valium and Ativan. Other non-benzodiazepine sleep medications, like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata, also affect cognitive function but to a slightly lesser extent.
  • Opiates: All of the regularly-prescribed opioid pain medications are known to have an effect on cognitive performance in many patients, although some may develop a tolerance.

Doctors treating older patients try to avoid most of these medications, as the cognitive side effects in many of them have been linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s clear to see why they may affect focus in younger users.

Mental Health Issues That Can Prevent You from Focusing

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

It’s simply common sense. Imagine that you’re at work, and someone interrupts you to deliver bad news about your personal or professional life. It goes without saying that you’re probably not going to be able to completely focus on your day-to-day duties after they leave.

The same concept applies in a wider sense, when considering the mental health conditions of stress, anxiety and depression.

Anxiety disorders and stress produce constantly-elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the “fight or flight” hormone adrenaline. When there are low levels of those hormones in the body, the brain operates “slowly” and it’s easy to get bored. In moderation, the hormones can help increase productivity and focus, because they speed up the brain’s processing and filtering functions. But at high stress levels, which produce high levels of the hormones, the brain moves into overdrive and is overwhelmed by all of the stimuli and messages it receives. (This varying hormonal effect is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.)

One other interesting preliminary study focused on anxiety produced by the Covid pandemic. It found that not only did worry and negative thoughts interfere with normal daily activity, but they also seemed to decrease available “working memory” in the brain.

Clinical depression makes things even worse. Experts say it “changes” the patient’s ability to think, limiting attention span and memory performance. Depression has also been shown to affect the brain’s ability to process information, make decisions, adapt to changing situations, and successfully complete executive function (figuring out and accomplishing what needs to be done to reach goals).

Consulting a psychotherapist may help you overcome these often-crippling conditions, and improve your ability to focus.

ADHD

You may be surprised to learn that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder doesn’t only affect kids. It’s estimated that 4-5% of Americans have “adult ADHD,” and it can wreak havoc with their attention spans.

The symptoms of ADHD include difficulty remembering information and following directions, problems with organizing and prioritizing – and importantly for this discussion, procrastination, and difficulty concentrating and finishing work on time. The condition can also cause mood swings and impulsiveness, chronic boredom, low motivation and self-esteem, and understandably, anxiety and depression.

Most of these problems are caused by low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, regulates mood and is integral to the brain’s reinforcement-reward system. Norepinephrine works together with the neurotransmitter serotonin to regulate mood – and boost energy and attention levels.

As you’ve certainly guessed, this chemical deficit makes it difficult for many of those with ADHD to “force” themselves to focus. (Interestingly, others with ADHD are able to channel their brainpower to “hyperfocus,” or fixate, on a single task and perform it at a high level.)

If you find focusing particularly difficult and can’t identify another cause for it, it could be worth seeing your doctor or a mental health professional and asking to be screened for ADHD.

Other Mental Health Conditions

Several other mental health issues can also cause lack of focus. They include bipolar disorder, emotional trauma and schizophrenia; a therapist or psychologist should be consulted if you suspect any of these conditions are to blame for your attention problems.

Workplace Issues That Can Prevent You from Focusing

Most people who have trouble focusing at work aren’t ill or having a bad reaction to their medications. They’re simply not properly setting themselves up for success. Here are some of the common issues.

Distractions

We live in a world that has seemingly been designed to provide an infinite number of distractions.

Emails, phone calls, texts, social media, music and dating apps, games, streaming services; it’s a wonder that any of us is able to focus on anything at all. And that’s a particularly difficult environment in which to try and get your work done.

Marie Kondo’s organizing philosophy has become a huge international phenomenon in recent years; she preaches that simplifying and organizing are the keys to a serene and happy life. In many ways, the same is true for your workspace. You need to organize and simplify it, in order to eliminate all the things that might serve as distractions – even though you’ve may feel that you can’t live without them.

Here’s what that means in practice.

Emails

One of the great technological innovations of the late 20th century was the modern telephone answering machine. It freed us to ignore the insistent ringing of the phone, and just retrieve our messages when we had time. 

For some reason, though, most people seem incapable of doing the same with their emails – even though they conveniently pile up in the inbox until they’re read. Checking email has become almost an obsession in the 21st century world, even though there’s really no need to do so.

In order to improve your focus at work, resolve to only check and answer your mail in the morning, before you leave for the day, and perhaps at lunchtime. If that’s too drastic for you, limit your email checks to a few of the work breaks we’ll be talking about shortly.

Email is one of the easiest-to-access distractions that can regularly interrupt the work you actually have to get done, destroying any momentum you may have built. Putting email in its place will greatly improve your ability to focus on important tasks or projects.

Your Phone

The only thing that can compete with email as a nearly-perfect distraction is the phone sitting on your desk.

If you can, turn your phone off while you’re working. If you can’t (because office communication or collaboration is done via apps or software), close down all “personal” apps like Facebook and Instagram, all news, sports or entertainment push notifications and websites, and the stuff you know you shouldn’t be using during work (dating apps, streaming sites – you know what we’re talking about).

If that’s too much to bother with, and you “know” you won’t be tempted to use your phone as a distraction, then there’s no harm in installing an app blocker like Flipd or Offtime, “just in case.” While we’re on the subject, do the same for your tablet, and also close all of those tempting open windows if you use a desktop computer monitor. Oh, and if you have a TV nearby, turn that off too. Even images seen out of the corner of your eye can distract you and break your focus.

Your Workspace

You don’t have to consider your workspace to be sacred – but it should come pretty close. It shouldn’t be a gathering place for co-workers (or family, if you work at home). It shouldn’t be a mishmash of papers, books, printouts, and personal items, either. Take a page from Marie Kondo’s book and simplify. You’ll minimize distractions, make it easier to find what you really need, and improve your ability to focus on your current task.

One item you should strongly consider keeping on your desk, however, is a to-do list. Yes, we’re talking about that paper-and-pencil list they used before desktop “organizer” programs and smartphone “notes” applications. It may sound prehistoric, but research shows that to-do lists really do increase productivity and focus. Sticky notes work, too.

When making your list, don’t overload it. Staring at a huge to-do list will just increase your stress level. Keep it manageable, and break big projects into easier-to-accomplish smaller ones. The rewarding feeling you get every time you cross off a small job will keep you relying on the list

If you absolutely, positively can’t detach yourself from your phone – you can keep your to-do list there, but make it the only app you keep open.

Time Management

When you eliminate distractions, that allows you to single-mindedly focus on the work you have to get done.

There’s just one problem with that: none of us, even those of us who’ve honed our ability to focus, has an unlimited attention span. After a while, we develop what experts call “work fatigue” – the inevitable draining of mental energy.

The way to battle work fatigue is with time management, building in regular work breaks that allow you to rest your brain and reset your focus.

The most popular method these days is called the Pomodoro technique. You break the workday into smaller chunks: 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break. Do that for two hours and you’ve earned a longer 30-minute break (which you can use to check your email, if necessary).

There’s nothing magical about those increments; you can manage your time any way that works for you. The important step is using a system of time management that will optimize your focus at work. The Pomodoro method has become so big, though, that its Italian developer even sells replicas of the timer he uses, on Amazon. (It’s a tomato-shaped timer, since Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian.)

Forget Multitasking

Being able to successfully multitask is considered a modern badge of honor. But guess what? Most people who think they’re multitasking, aren’t. They’re doing what’s called “serial mono-tasking,” switching their attention between several different tasks and doing each of them less efficiently. Research shows that serial mono-tasking leads to poorer work and an increased error rate.

You can best maintain focus by concentrating on just one thing at a time, and doing it well.

Other Techniques to Help Your Focus

Here are more proven methods that can boost your concentration and focus in the workplace.

  • Set Up a Parking Lot: That’s what time management experts call a place you can keep stray thoughts and ideas that might otherwise distract you from the job at hand. When one of them pops into your head, write it down (or put it into your phone) somewhere where you won’t lose it – your “parking lot” – so you can go back to focusing on work and deal with the idea later.
  • Take Care of Yourself: The health and wellness advice you’ve always heard from doctors, health teachers and parents doesn’t just help you maintain physical health. It also boosts your mental and brain health. Eating right, getting enough sleep (and yes, not overindulging in alcohol and drugs) keeps your body in shape so you can avoid fatigue. It also boosts your mood and improves both performance and focus.
  • Caffeine Helps, Up to a Point: Those regular trips to the coffee or soft drink machine can definitely energize you and stimulate your brain for short periods of time, and they won’t hurt you – as long as you don’t overdo them. More than 4-5 cups of coffee or sodas, or more than a few energy drinks, can give you the jitters – which will break your focus instead of improving it. (Pro tip: stay away from sugary soft drinks and sugared coffee. Drinks sweetened with monk fruit extract, like Super Coffee, are better for your health and won’t cause a sugar crash.)
  • Try Mindful Meditation: Yes, a lot of people find the whole idea of doing breathing exercises and visualizing positive images, in order to “live in the present,” too New Age-y for their tastes. However, research has shown that practicing mindfulness actually does improve job performance and increase focus. It might at least be worth a try!

Written by Jordan DeCicco

10 min read

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