Can’t Focus? 12 Reasons Why and the Ways to Fix It

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Your ability to focus is a skill that you can develop. Choose from a variety of effective focus-boosting techniques and tips that are proven to help.

When you can’t focus, life becomes a struggle.

Everything you do is harder and takes more time than it should.

Work, school, relationships, and confidence suffer when your attention wanders.

Spending more time accomplishing less is frustrating!

But, fortunately, focus is NOT an innate trait or talent.

It’s a skill that can be developed.

Why You Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

That little computer in your pocket was intentionally designed to be an addictive distraction.

Social media, YouTube, and your favorite Netflix series beckon.

It’s no wonder you can’t focus!

While the overuse of technology rightly gets a lot of the blame, it’s definitely not the only factor depleting your potential to focus.

Our modern lifestyle, in all kinds of ways, is not conducive to keeping your mind on just one thing.

Let’s look at the top 12 reasons for diminished focus and even more ways to improve your attention skills.

1. You Can’t Focus When You Aren’t Paying Attention

The definition of focus is “to pay particular attention to.”

And the only way to truly pay attention is to do one thing at a time.

This means no multitasking.

The reason for multitasking — to accomplish more in less time — is counterproductive anyway.

It’s a well-established fact that you can think about only one thing at a time.

When you multitask, your brain must quickly toggle back and forth between tasks.

This wastes up to 40% of your productive time. (1)

You can strengthen your power to focus by engaging in activities that require intense focus, such as:

  • creating art
  • playing a musical instrument
  • learning a new language
  • playing chess

You can also use the Pomodoro technique.

I use this concentration hack whenever I need to focus.

(I’m using it right now to write this article.)

Using the Pomodoro Technique to Focus

First, define clearly what you hope to accomplish.

Next, remove all obvious distractions that are under your control.

Then, set a timer for 25 minutes and, to the best of your ability, give the task at hand your undivided attention.

If your mind wanders, don’t chastise yourself, simply bring it back to your short-term goal.

When the time is up, take a break, then repeat as needed.

By simply focusing on one thing for these 25-minute bursts, you’re training your brain to become better at paying attention.

2. Distractions Undermine Your Focus

Steve Jobs, who was renowned for his ability to focus, memorably explained that “Focusing is about saying no.” (2)

There are a limited number of things you can focus on, so you must rigorously eliminate anything that’s not important.

Practice saying “no.”

So, say “no” to clutter — it affects your brain’s ability to focus and process information. (3)

Say “no” to buying things you don’t need, energy-draining invitations, and life-sucking relationships.

Say “no” to compulsively checking social media, surfing the web, and texting.

If your electronic devices are running your life, take active measures to take back control.

When you want to focus, create a phone-free zone by putting your phone out of sight and muting it.

Surprisingly, having your smartphone nearby, even if it’s silent, compromises your capacity to focus, problem-solve, and think creatively. (4)

Additionally, you can shut off notifications, uninstall addictive apps, and enable grayscale mode (like the screen on the right in the comparison image).

side-by-side comparison of color vs grayscale smartphone screens
The screen in grayscale mode is less distracting. (Image courtesy of OSXDaily.com)

Most people find that the bleakness of grayscale mode makes their smartphone much less enticing.

You can “go gray” with the Go Gray app.

As the company founder observes, “What was bright and shiny is now dull and boring. It’s like turning your favorite dessert into broccoli.”

There are also numerous apps that can help you block distractions, such as:

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3. Working Too Much Saps Your Mental Energy

The average employee works an extra seven hours a week, almost a full workday, outside of the office.

When you’ve got a lot on your plate, it’s tempting to work more hours, both at work and at home, to get caught up.

But it’s a well-established fact that working longer hours is counterproductive.

Our current 40-hour workweek is a remnant of the industrial age and is not the optimal number of hours for productivity. (5)

Research confirms that most people are able to sustain their focus for just one to four hours of intense work per day. (6)

When the United Kingdom government cut the workweek to three days to save energy, overall productivity dropped by a mere 6%.

If you can work fewer hours (i.e., you are self-employed or the boss), do it.

If you don’t have this option, work on your most demanding tasks when you have the most mental energy.

For most adults, this mental peak occurs in the late morning. (7)

And, finally, take regular breaks.

Even a mini-break as short as 30 seconds can help you regain your focus. (8)

4. Stress Interferes With Your Focus

You may have noticed that short-term stress, such as working under a deadline, temporarily boosts focus. (9)

But it’s impossible to keep this up.

Over time, stress takes a toll on your brain health and function, leading to a shorter attention span, reduced memory, and impaired judgment. (10)

Chronic stress actually causes your brain to prematurely age and lose enough brain cells to measurably shrink. (11)

Meditate

One of the best techniques to improve focus and reduce stress is meditation.

Meditation puts your brain in the alpha brainwave state which enhances focus and concentration, inspires creativity, and induces a state of deep relaxation. (121314, 15)

Meditation has definitely become a mainstream practice.

The US Marines have experimented with meditation and found that it helps soldiers stay focused and calm under pressure. (16)

Major corporations like Google, Aetna, Target, and General Mills encourage their employees to meditate. (1718)

These companies realize that employees who meditate are happier, healthier, and less likely to ruminate or be distracted. (19)

5. You Sit Too Much to Think Clearly

The average American sits 10 hours a day. (20)

All that sitting is making us fat, tired, and sick.

It’s also draining our ability to focus.

You could try using either a standing desk or sit-stand workstation, but that’s not always practical.

Instead, you can follow the 20-8-2 rule.

Every half-hour, sit for a maximum of 20 minutes, stand for 8, and move around for 2. (21)

In addition, get regular physical exercise.

Exercise helps you focus, learn, and remember. (22)

Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, is a renowned expert on the effects of exercise on the brain.

He states in his TEDx Talk that exercise works as well as attention disorder drugs to focus the mind.

Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective.

Walking is not only one of the best all-around exercises, it clears your mind and helps you think better. (23)

Additionally, exercises that act as moving meditations, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong, can appreciably improve focus. (2425)

How much physical exercise is enough?

The latest research indicates that a total of 8 hours per month is the minimum you need to stay mentally sharp. (26)

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6. You Lack Focus at Work Because You Aren’t Engaged

In a perfect world, we’d all have interesting, motivating work that requires creativity and engagement.

But that clearly is not the case.

A whopping 68% of us aren’t engaged at work. (27)

This lack of engagement has a high price, both personally and collectively.

The average worker loses more than 2 hours of productive time every day due to distractions. (28)

This adds up — these interruptions cost the US economy over $500 billion per year.

Disengagement occurs when employees feel that their work is boring or not important, or when the project they are working on is overwhelming.

The big-picture solution is to discover, or re-discover, your sense of purpose at work.

Additionally, breaking large projects down into small bite-size chunks can help you stay motivated and engaged.

Each time you finish one of your mini-projects, you get a nice boost of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with productivity and motivation.

Other surprisingly simple, but proven, ways to increase focus when you’re bored include: (2930313233)

  • chewing gum
  • doodling
  • eating mints
  • inhaling essential oils
  • using fidget toys or stress balls

7. Your Work Environment Isn’t Right for You

When it comes to the ideal work environment, everyone has their own preferences.

If you find your workspace to be too hot, cold, cluttered, noisy, or quiet, your capacity to focus will suffer.

Take control of your environment as much as you reasonably can.

If you work in a noisy environment but can’t focus unless it’s quiet, get a good pair of earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.

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Listen to Music

If it’s appropriate, listen to music.

Listening to music, especially music you enjoy and that you have chosen, can enhance focus and attention. (34)

Ideally, it should be instrumental since lyrics can be distracting. (35)

The music streaming service Spotify has an entire category of playlists called “Focus” that have been curated to help you do just that.

Music That Enhances Focus

Another music service, Focus@Will, offers scientifically engineered music channels, based on your personality type, for improving focus.

Focus@Will is used by employees at forward-thinking companies such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and SpaceX.

These playlists work, in part, by altering brainwave activity to boost focus and attention.

Focus@Will’s research indicates that listening to their music channels can quadruple focus and productivity.

8. You’re Too Tired to Concentrate

A lot of people pride themselves on how little they sleep.

But, please, don’t be one of them.

Lack of sleep adversely alters brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other.

This, in turn, impairs focus, memory, mood, and overall mental performance.

According to Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD, of the University of California at Los Angeles, lack of sleep affects your mental performance as much as being drunk! (36)

A lot goes on in your brain, besides dreaming, while you sleep.

During sleep, your brain is busy forming new brain cells, consolidating the day’s memories, and repairing, cleaning, and reorganizing itself. (3738, 39, 40)

It’s not always possible to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night; so when you don’t, taking a nap can help fill the gap.

Taking a 20-minute power nap in the afternoon is a highly effective way to stay focused, alert, and productive for the rest of the day.

Dr. Sara Mednick, a leading authority on napping and the author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, discovered that taking a nap keeps productivity higher better and longer than consuming caffeine.

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9. Your Brain Doesn’t Get the Fuel It Needs

Your brain is a high-performance organ that needs a disproportionate amount of energy, oxygen, water, and nutrients.

What you eat significantly changes how well your brain performs its many functions, including focus.

For optimal focus, your diet should look more like the Mediterranean “real food” diet and less like the standard American “processed food” diet.

Here are a few dietary suggestions that can significantly improve your ability to focus:

Ditch Sugar

Dietary advice has gotten overly complicated and controversial, but one thing all the experts agree on is that sugar is bad news for your mental and physical health.

Sugar negatively affects your attention span, mood, and memory.

It changes your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly. (41)

Sugar fuels brain inflammation which is linked to poor focus as well as numerous mental health disorders. (42)

Sugar puts your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride, first up and then down.

Low blood sugar will certainly disrupt your focus.

Use Caffeine Wisely

Caffeine is universally consumed for its power to increase focus, alertness, memory, and productivity, but it’s definitely not right for all situations.

Too much can make you a jittery mess, and too little will have your head on your desk — neither extreme will help you focus.

It can exacerbate stress and trigger symptoms of anxiety.

It reduces blood flow to the brain which is not a good thing for brain health. (43)

Blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients that your brain cells need; signs of impaired blood flow to the brain include poor focus and concentration.

If you use caffeine, consume it in moderation and keep your intake roughly the same every day.

Respect caffeine for what it is, a psychoactive drug, and use it judiciously.

Breathe Deeply and Stay Hydrated

Oxygen and water are two overlooked nutrients that are absolutely critical for proper brain function.

Your brain is 73% water, and even 2% dehydration can have a big impact on your ability to focus. (4445)

And, while your brain cells clearly need oxygen, many people hold their breath when concentrating, especially when working on their electronic devices. (46)

This habit, which has been called “email apnea,can lessen your capacity for focusing and even make you feel lightheaded or dizzy.

Stay well hydrated and remember to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, not from your chest.

Supplements for Focus

Lastly, there are a handful of supplements that contain phytochemicals known to increase focus and concentration.

Some of the best supplements that can help boost focus are:

  • bacopa
  • citicoline
  • huperzine A
  • phosphatidylserine
  • taurine
  • vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is especially important for focus and brain function if you don’t eat meat or frequently take acid-blocking drugs.

10. You Have a “Nature Deficit”

Spending time in nature clears your mind and restores your power to focus.

Viewing nature scenes balances activity of the autonomic nervous system, inducing a state of relaxation.

One hour spent interacting with nature can increase attention span and memory by 20%. (47)

If it’s not possible to spend time in nature every day, there are some simple workarounds.

Spend a minute gazing out a window.

One study found that looking at a green roof for only 40 seconds improved concentration and focus. (48)

If you don’t have a view, fill your home or office with houseplants, keep pictures of nature on your desk, or install a wallpaper of natural wonders or landscapes on your monitor.

And you don’t have to stick with seeing nature since listening to nature works in much the same way.

Music that includes sounds of nature is especially beneficial for focus and mood. (49)

11. A Low Dopamine Level Is Draining Your Mental Energy

If you’ve lost your zest for life, can’t focus, and feel unmotivated, you may be low in the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is the most important brain chemical for focus, productivity, and motivation.

There are many ways to increase dopamine naturally with food, supplements, and physical exercise.

But one way to boost dopamine that also ensures that you get more done is proper goal setting.

If you watch sports, you’ve certainly seen athletes do a celebratory dance or raise their fists in triumph.

A flood of dopamine is responsible for their exuberance.

You can do your own little “victory dance” any time you accomplish a goal.

You can trick your brain into pumping out more of this “motivation molecule” by breaking large goals into many mini-goals.

You’ll get a small burst of dopamine for each item you complete. (50)

And each burst of dopamine, in turn, helps you stay focused and motivated.

12. Your Health Is Affecting Your Ability to Focus

And finally, there are many underlying physical and mental health conditions that can interfere with brain function and focus.

Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, dementia, and, of course, attention disorders can affect your ability to focus. (51)

Medical disorders known to impair focus include: (52)

  • diabetes
  • thyroid disease
  • lung disease
  • heart disease
  • malnutrition
  • substance abuse

Also, many prescription drugs used to treat these and other disorders can negatively impact your focus as well.

Some of the worst offenders are cholesterol-lowering drugs, prescription sleeping pills, chemotherapy, and drugs that start with “anti,” such as antihistamines or antidepressants.

The “anti” drugs block the action of acetylcholine, a brain chemical responsible for your capacity to focus, learn, and stay mentally alert. (53)

If you suspect that you have an undiagnosed condition or you take any medications that could be affecting your focus, be sure to bring it up with your doctor.

Read more —
Search our site to find in-depth information on each focus remedy, such as dopamine, exercise, diet, caffeine, supplements, sleep, meditation, multitasking, music, etc.

Why You Can’t Focus: Take the Next Step

Developing your ability to focus is more important than ever if you want to succeed in school or a career, or if you just want to have a more fulfilling life.

Fortunately, if your focus is not what you want it to be, you don’t have to live with it.

Try this two-pronged approach.

First, create an environment that gives you the best possible chance of being able to focus.

Second, give your brain what it needs for optimal health and performance.

READ NEXT: Learn How to Concentrate: It’s A Skill You Can Master