Are you always asking yourself, “why can’t I focus?” If this is the case, you are not alone. Our ability to focus has clearly been hampered by the digital age. According to Apple Analytics, we unlock our phones about 80 times per day, which undoubtedly underestimates the full scope of our digital diversions.
King’s College research from 2022 confirms this, indicating that UK adults significantly underestimate their phone usage. Alarmingly, half of those surveyed admitted having difficulty resisting the urge to check their smartphones even when they should be focusing on something else.
These interruptions aren’t trivial; they impair our ability to get important things done and reach our potential.
In this article, we’ll delve into the reasons why focusing has become such a challenge. Let’s tackle that pesky question, “Why can’t I focus?” together.
7 Reasons Why You Can’t Focus
Do you ever sit in a meeting at work and your mind wanders, making it difficult to focus on the speaker’s presentation?
Or have you tried to read a book while commuting but found it practically impossible to recollect what you’re reading due to the bustling crowds and frequent distractions from individuals going by?
Or, perhaps, you work from home and try to do an important assignment while your children demand attention and play loudly in the background, as I do?
Why is it so difficult to concentrate? What causes a lack of focus? Here’re 7 things that affect your ability to focus.
1. External Distractions
External distractions are things in our environment that divert our attention away from what we’re doing. They can be noises, sights, or events that occur as a result of our interactions with others or our use of technology. Unexpected phone calls or text messages, social media alerts, nearby conversations, and interactions with others are just a few instances.
These distractions are beyond our control, and they often sap our concentration, making it difficult to stay focused.
2. Internal Distractions
Internal distractions are distractions that originate within us. They are linked to our thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Some examples include unpleasant feelings such as worry or annoyance, as well as sudden urges to check our phones or take a break from what we are doing. Internal distractions occur frequently as a result of our inherent desire to avoid discomfort.
When we’re faced with physical or mental distress, our instinct is to find relief. One way we seek relief is by getting distracted. It allows us to temporarily forget about the difficult or tedious things we’re dealing with and gives us a break from the discomfort.
3. Lack of Motivation
A study published in the APA journal looked at how varying levels of motivation can alter our capacity to shift attention and stay focused. It discovered that when people are unmotivated, they switch between tasks more frequently. However, when people are driven, they are more likely to stay focused on what they are doing.
Motivation functions as a fuel, keeping us motivated and involved in what we’re doing. When we lack motivation, it is difficult to fully engage in a task. This lack of engagement makes it difficult to maintain focus and pay attention for an extended period of time.
We are more easily sidetracked when we are not motivated. External factors, as well as our own thoughts, can quickly divert our focus away from the activity at hand.
4. Unhealthy Diet
Your dietary choices have a significant impact on your capacity to focus.
You’ve probably heard of neurotransmitters, a type of chemical that plays an important part in managing our sensations and emotions and is largely produced in the brain. But did you know that our gut creates neurotransmitters as well?
Microbes in the gut produce neurotransmitters including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) like butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These molecules produced by our gut have a significant impact on how our brain functions, including how we react with anxiety and stress. This is why our gut is sometimes referred to as the body’s “second brain.”
What you consume can influence the creation of these neurotransmitters and SCFAs. Thus, your food choices can have a direct impact on how well your brain performs.
Excess sugary foods, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed foods can impair your ability to focus. A spike in blood sugar levels caused by sugar consumption is usually followed by a strong energy drop, which disrupts your attention. Similarly, meals high in harmful saturated fats can cause inflammation, which can affect brain function.
For example, one study discovered that women scored badly on focus tests after eating a meal high in unsaturated fats.
In order to increase attention and concentration, it is essential to maintain a balanced diet that promotes gut health and brain function.
5. Lack of Sleep
Sleep deprivation can have a substantial impact on your ability to pay attention. Insufficient rest slows down your reaction time, leading to inattentiveness and decreasing your responsiveness to external stimuli. This diminished alertness creates difficulties in absorbing new information and responding effectively to potential dangers.
Dr. Epstein, editor of Harvard’s Special Health Report Improving Sleep: A Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Rest draws a stark comparison:
“A 48-hour sleep deprivation can impair cognitive abilities to the same extent as a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1%, surpassing the legal driving limit in all states.”
The consequences of inadequate sleep go beyond mere lapses in attention. It can also impede “placekeeping,” which refers to the ability to effectively follow instructions. Insufficient sleep can even affect motor skills, rhythm keeping, and certain aspects of speech.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the negative effects of little sleep. Dr. Epstein advised getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Understanding your particular sleep cycle also helps you in determining your optimal sleep requirements. Prioritizing a good night’s sleep is an important step in improving your focus and mental clarity.
6. Stress And Burnout
A study from 2015 found that people who experience burnout have a harder time staying focused.
Researchers in this study contrasted a group of individuals diagnosed with burnout symptoms with a control group devoid of chronic stress history. The participants from both groups were shown pictures and were asked to control their emotional reactions to the images. At the same time, a loud noise was played to try to distract them.
Both groups initially had a similar response to the distraction, but the group with burnout had a much harder time refocusing their attention. The researchers noticed that the burnout group had strong reactions to the unexpected noise and reported struggling to control their negative emotions.
These findings show that burnout can change the way your brain works, making it harder for you to bounce back from tough situations. It makes you more sensitive to the external environment and makes it harder for you to deal with common work disruptions like interruptions, notifications, and distractions.
7. Mental Health Conditions
Certain mental conditions can significantly hamper your ability to focus. If you suspect you’re dealing with such a challenge, consider the following conditions and their impacts on concentration:
ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. These symptoms can present in a variety of ways, including difficulties remaining organized, forgetfulness, and difficulty following through on tasks.
Focusing problems caused by ADHD can be frustrating. Tasks demanding continuous concentration or specific focus may be particularly difficult, resulting in issues at work or school.
If you often find it hard to pay attention, are constantly restless, and tend to act without thinking, you might want to consult a healthcare professional for an ADHD evaluation.
Anxiety refers to a mental health condition characterized by excessive, persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. These feelings of anxiety and panic can be disproportionate to the triggering event and can interfere with daily activities.
Chronic anxiety can hijack your attention, leading to constant worrying and the inability to concentrate on tasks. This mental state might deplete your brain resources, making it difficult to concentrate on a single job.
If you find it hard to manage your worry and are frequently overwhelmed by emotions of anxiety or panic that seem out of proportion to the current circumstances, it may be worthwhile to get a professional opinion on whether you might have an anxiety disorder.
Depression is a common mental health disorder marked by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities.
Depression can make it difficult to focus, think clearly, or make decisions. It can lead to cognitive impairment, which can interfere with work and daily activities.
If you’re continuously feeling low, losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, or having trouble sleeping, eating, or focusing, you should speak with a healthcare expert about the possibility of depression.
Remember, this overview is not a diagnostic tool. If you suspect that you might have one of these conditions, consult a professional who can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment options.
How to Fix a Lack of Focus
If you feel that any of the above mental conditions resonates with your experience, it’s a good idea to touch base with a health professional. They’re the best folks to guide you.
But if you’re feeling like your focus is slipping away for other reasons, I’ve got something you might find helpful — dive into my in-depth guide How to Focus & Stay Sharp (A Comprehensive Guide). It’ll arm you with the know-how to get your concentration back up to snuff.
You’re most certainly not alone if you’re having trouble focusing. The reasons for a lack of focus are numerous, but determining the root cause is the first step toward finding a solution.
So take a moment to reflect: Do you find yourself constantly distracted by your phone? Are your thoughts straying? Is your diet deficient in essential nutrients? Do you get enough restful sleep? Could it be a mental condition that requires attention?
Once you’ve figured out the ‘why’, you can begin working on regaining your focus. It may involve some lifestyle changes or professional assistance, but it’s all part of the process of improving concentration.
Remember, regaining focus isn’t about achieving perfection; it’s about making progress and finding what works best for you. So, start today. Take small steps. With patience, persistence, and the right strategies, you can reclaim your focus and boost your productivity.
Why Can’t I Focus?
Featured photo credit: Ilya Pavlov via unsplash.com