Do you struggle to maintain focus on important tasks? Does your mind wander as soon as you sit down to work? Do you turn to your phone, or Youtube (yes, WE SEE YOU), TikTok, or Twitter, to distract yourself from a project for your boss? What about watching too much TV or reading so much you never get your homework done? Does working on something for a whole hour sound like an impossible task? Utterly daunting? Totally unthinkable?
Well, you’re not alone. Focus is a difficult thing to master, and many people struggle with it. Even now as I write this, I find myself momentarily preoccupied with a spot of dirt on my laptop, flipping through the pages of a book nearby that I’ve never read, and crossing off the previous days on my wall calendar.
However, once you develop the ability to focus for an extended period of time, you may discover that your ability to focus is kind of like a superpower. But until then, not being able to focus can cause anxiety, frustration, and even lead to some pretty nasty consequences in the long run.
So WHY can’t you focus? There may be a lot of reasons. Let’s cover some of the major causes of a lack of attention, then move on to some ways to combat it and build your focusing powers.
Your brain loves distraction — and our phones, laptops, and ipads provide plenty of it.
Your brain hates focusing on difficult tasks for a long period of time. It would much rather get quick hits of dopamine from other, less productive (and less anxiety-inducing) things. So instead of focusing on that stressful report due tomorrow, your brain eagerly wanders off to the smartphone sitting two inches away from you that just dinged with an unread message or buzzed that you have a new like on your most recent tweet. Watching viral videos for hours at a time is much more thrilling to your brain than crunching numbers for your job.
So in order to help retain your focus, try removing any non-essential electronic devices, such as your phone, from your reach. Even just having your phone in the same room as you can cause your attention to drift. Try putting it in a sock drawer, or even in another room entirely so you can fully focus on whatever task you’re working on.
In fact, using your phone less often in general is a great way to improve your attention span. Phones give our brains a lot of dopamine, but they also train our brain to want lots of quick dopamine hits. Watching viral video after viral video trains your brain that it can get a good feeling every thirty seconds. This makes it very difficult to focus on a task for an hour without getting any dopamine hits at all. So if you stop using your phone so much, your brain will become less addicted to viral videos and tweets and comments and likes, and more capable of focusing for long periods of time on hard work.
You Haven’t Slept Enough
Another major cause of distraction is simply not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem that causes lots of symptoms, not just lack of focus. You may find yourself having mood swings, thinking slower, getting irritated easily, and having difficulty remembering things. A tired brain simply doesn’t have the energy it needs to keep its attention on one thing for an extended period of time. If you continue to operate on too little sleep, no amount of coffee or energy bars will help you retain focus.
The best cure for a lack of sleep is to get some more of it. Take a nap in the middle of the day, start going to bed early, or talk to your doctor if you find yourself unable to sleep due to insomnia.
Your Work Space is Cluttered
A messy environment can lead to a messy mind. If you constantly find yourself fidgeting with discarded pens, rearranging papers you don’t know what to do with, or experiencing a general sense of overwhelm, you may have a cluttered workspace.
Keeping your space clean and clutter free can have a surprising effect on your ability to focus. If your desk is full of random things, try organizing your belongings and clearing away anything unnecessary to the task you are currently working on. Move away books, notebooks, or any other visual clutter that doesn’t directly pertain to your current work. This way your brian won’t be tempted to wander if your eye catches on something you shouldn’t be thinking about.
You’re Not Getting Enough Exercise
While your brain loves distraction, it also loves it when you move your body. Exercise and movement are excellent idea machines. Have you ever gone for a walk and suddenly had the perfect solution to a problem you’d been agonizing over?
Sitting at your desk for too long can cause your brain to get antsy, so try getting in some exercise. Even if you can’t hit the gym, just try doing some light stretching, following a yoga tutorial, walking around the block to get some sunshine, or turning on some music and having a mini dance party.
Instead of forcing yourself to focus (an endeavor which rarely works), get your body moving! You’ll have a much easier time returning to your work.
You’re Working Too Much
Your brain can easily become fatigued if it focuses on one thing for too long. If you’re working long hours, you may find it difficult to come up with innovative solutions, and may find your brain distracted by every little thing that pops into your head.
Give yourself a break from your work and do something entirely different. Even if you’re working on a tight deadline, it may be counterproductive to keep hitting your head against a wall, so to speak. Instead, taking even a five minute break to do something completely different may give you the energy and focus you need to power through and get your work finished.
ADHD, or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, may be the cause of your inability to focus. If you find yourself unable to focus, regularly hyperactive, and/or exhibiting impulsive behavior, you may have undiagnosed ADHD. There are medications and therapies that you can take in order to help with ADHD and control your focus. If you think you may have undiagnosed ADHD, talk with your doctor to see about getting tested.
Your Work is Causing You Anxiety
Another reason you might be having trouble focusing is anxiety.
If you feel a lot of anxiety about your work, your brain might be wandering off in order to avoid that work. Feelings of fear or hesitation may drive your brain to intentionally sabotage itself so it doesn’t have to feel those emotions. Not only may you be having trouble focusing, but you may find yourself procrastinating regularly.
If you think you may be suffering from anxiety about your work, try working for increments of 15-25 minutes. The pomodoro method is a popular way to keep your focus on a task by setting a timer to work for 25 minutes, taking a break for 5 minutes, and then setting the timer back to 25 minutes to continue working.
However, if even 25 minutes seems daunting, Virginia Valian provides another solution in her essay “Learning to Work,” where she describes her frustrations about procrastinating her thesis work.
In order to finally start enjoying the process of work instead of dreading it, Valian decided to break her work down into its smallest parts and only work for 15 minutes a day. Only fifteen minutes! Not fifteen minutes and then another 15 minutes and then another. One session of 15 minutes.
Because any amount of work is still better than none. If 15 minutes scares you, try 10, or even 5! Getting started is often the biggest hurdle, and if you can make it through those 15 minutes, you may be surprised to find you’d actually like to keep working anyway.
So to answer the question: “why can’t you focus?” the answer may not be as simple as we’d like. Only you can determine what might be the underlying cause of your wandering attention, and if you continue to have problems with focus, you may want to consult a therapist or doctor.
If all else fails, a little mindfulness, some meditation, and more awareness of the present moment can go a long way in helping improve focus. In the modern age, the world moves fast — so fast our brains can hardly keep up even though they desperately try to. So if you find yourself distracted, constantly moving from one task to the next, take a deep breath, slow down, and only worry about what’s right in front of you.
Over time, you may be able to focus for longer and longer. And eventually, you may exercise your focusing powers so much you can focus for hours at a time and get all your work done with plenty of time to spare.