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 you can’t focus.
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 general, 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 more multitasking.
The reason for multitasking — to accomplish more in less time — is counterproductive anyway.
It’s a well-established fact that you can think of 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, or 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.) 😉
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, and repeat as needed.
By simply focusing on one thing for a short time, you’re training your brain to become better at paying attention.
2. Distractions Undermine Your Focus
Steve Jobs, who was renowned for his expertise at focusing, famously 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.”
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.
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).
Most people find that the bleakness of grayscale mode makes their phone much less enticing.
As the founder of Go Gray observes, “What was bright and shiny is now dull and boring. It’s like turning your favorite dessert into broccoli.”
3. Working Too Much Saps Your Mental Energy
Technology allows us to easily work at home and so most of us do.
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)
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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, 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 literally shrink! (11)
One of the best techniques to improve focus and reduce stress is meditation.
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The US Marines have experimented with meditation and found that it helps soldiers stay focused and calm under pressure. (16)
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 person sits 12 hours a day. (20)
All that sitting is making us fat, tired, and sick and is exhausting our ability to focus.
You can 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)
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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, 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)
How much physical exercise is enough?
The latest research indicates that a total of 8 hours per month is all you need to stay mentally sharp. (26)
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. (29)
Learn more —
Smart Ways to Improve Concentration and Focus
Disengagement occurs when employees feel that their work is boring or not important, or when the project they are working 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 keep you 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 simple, but proven, ways to increase focus when you’re bored include chewing gum, eating mints, doodling, using fidget toys or stress balls, or inhaling essential oils to stay alert. (30, 31, 32, 33, 34)
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.
If it’s appropriate, listen to music.
Listening to music, especially music you enjoy and that you have chosen, can enhance focus and attention. (35)
Ideally, it should be instrumental since lyrics can be distracting. (36)
The music streaming service Spotify has an entire category of playlists called “Focus” that have been curated to help you do just that.
Another music service, Focus@Will, offers scientifically engineered music channels for enhancing focus based on your personality type.
Focus@Will is used by employees at forward-thinking companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon.
Their playlists work, in part, by altering brainwave activity to enhance 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.
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A lot goes on in your brain while you sleep besides dreaming.
It’s not always possible to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours every night, but taking naps 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 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 up better and longer than consuming caffeine.
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 affect your capability to focus.
Dietary advice has gotten overly complicated and controversial, but one thing all the experts agree on is that sugar is bad news for your health and for your brain.
Sugar negatively affects your attention span, your mood, and your memory.
It changes your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly. (43)
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Sugar fuels brain inflammation which is linked to poor focus as well as numerous mental health disorders. (44)
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
If you use caffeine, consume it in moderation and keep your intake roughly the same every day.
Too much can make you a jittery mess, and too little will have your head on your desk — neither extreme will help you focus!
While caffeine is universally consumed for its power to increase focus, alertness, memory, and productivity, it’s definitely not right for everyone.
It’s surprisingly detrimental for those with anxiety.
It reduces blood flow to the brain which is not a good thing for brain health. (45)
Blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients that your brain cells need and signs of impaired blood flow to the brain include poor focus and concentration.
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 brain function.
And while your brain cells clearly need oxygen, oddly, many people hold their breath when concentrating, especially when working on their electronic devices. (48)
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 known to increase focus and concentration.
Some of the best brain supplements to consider are bacopa, phosphatidylserine, citicoline, taurine, and huperzine A.
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. (49)
Viewing nature scenes balances activity of the autonomic nervous system to induce a state of relaxation.
One hour spent interacting with nature increases attention span and memory by 20%. (50)
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. (51)
If you don’t have a view, fill your home or office with houseplants, keep pictures of nature on your desk, or install a background of natural wonders on your desktop computer. (52)
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. (53)
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.
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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 the victory 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. (54)
And each burst of dopamine helps you stay focused and motivated.
12. Your Health Is Affecting Your Ability to Focus
And finally, there are many underlying health conditions that can interfere with brain function and focus. (55)
Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, dementia, and, of course, attention disorders can affect your ability to focus.
Medical disorders known to impair focus include fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, substance abuse, cancer, and epilepsy. (56)
Also, many prescription drugs used to treat these and other disorders can negatively influence 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. (57)
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.
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Why You Can’t Focus: The Bottom Line
Developing your ability to focus is more important than ever if you want to succeed in school or at a career, or you just want to have a 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.