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Difficulty concentrating and what might be the cause

August 16, 2022 - 16 min read

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Concentration: a collective struggle

Eventual lack of focus vs. chronic concentration problems

Are you having difficulties concentrating?

The role of lifestyle in lack of concentration

Beware of multitasking

6 chronic conditions that can cause a lack of concentration

What can you do about it?

Your next step: how to address difficulty concentrating at work

It's going time. You have a big project to work on, and you must make progress on it today. Unfortunately, you’re having difficulty concentrating once again. 

A headache comes creeping in as you sit down at your desk. Now that you're trying to focus, you’re thinking about your poor sleep hygiene and restless nights. To top it off, you didn't have a filling breakfast, and your stomach is already rumbling. You can think about everything except the task at hand. 

These are common symptoms of someone who has difficulty concentrating on their work. Even when you want to focus on something, concentration problems still impact you.

A lack of focus can stem from various issues and lifestyle factors. Let’s widen the scope of the factors that affect concentration. In this article, we'll outline how and why you may have trouble concentrating. Plus, what you can do to improve your focus and concentration skills.

Concentration: a collective struggle

It's an understatement to say that in today’s world, distractions are everywhere. No matter what stage of life you’re in, focus can be hard to find in all the noise. Concentration difficulties derail your initial focus and pull you away from what you want to accomplish. 

Our minds easily fill up with distracting thoughts, whether that’s something to do (“I should plan my next vacation right now”) or something to worry about (“What if they’re mad at me?”). And once we become distracted, it's hard to gather our focus once again.

Even though technology and social media have benefits, they’re a major influence on how people of all ages focus. One study found that for 68% of students, ringing cell phones are the most significant electronic distractor in their classroom.

They found that phones impaired students’ ability to concentrate and learn new things.

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Sometimes we try too hard to reap the benefits of using technology. This can also contribute to poor concentration. In fact, one study found that people who try to multitask while using technology have worse concentration abilities than those who don't. They also had greater inattention and memory problems

The study concluded that productivity and engagement go down when someone tries to multitask. They grow disconnected from their environment and those around them. These distractions can ultimately harm our interpersonal relationships, whether those are our coworkers or loved ones.

Everyone struggles with concentrating at some point in their life. You aren’t alone. BetterUp can help you eliminate the distractors that negatively influence your concentration and identify strategies to improve your focus.

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Eventual lack of focus vs. chronic concentration problems

If you can find out what causes difficulty concentrating, you can find possible solutions. We’re here to help you discover the reasons for your lack of focus or chronic concentration problems. 

An eventual lack of focus stems from mounting distractions and stressors. These could be anything from a lack of sleep to sitting in a noisy environment. The good news? This kind of distraction is can be resolved easily and quickly by taking a nap or moving locations. 

Burnout from work also leads to an eventual lack of focus. However, recovery from burnout may take longer than a few days. Focusing on rest is crucial to prevent burnout and let our attention spans recover. Taking breaks during the day or going on a vacation can also help.

Chronic concentration problems are rooted in bigger problems like chronic stress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety. The side effects of physical issues, like traumatic brain injuries or chronic pain, can also cause chronic concentration problems.

It's important to pay attention to chronic concentration problems because sometimes they can signal underlying health issues.

Are you having difficulties concentrating?

Everyone’s experience of concentration difficulties is unique. A common symptom for you could be something that doesn’t impact your friend. But it's still important to learn what it can look like to have trouble focusing so you can become aware of your issues.

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Here are five common symptoms you might recognize if you’re having problems concentrating:

  1. Tiredness and a lack of energy to accomplish things
  2. Difficulties with decision making, even for simple things
  3. Forgetfulness and a poor working memory
  4. Trouble thinking clearly and with a critical eye
  5. Making mistakes carelessly, even on routine tasks

The role of lifestyle in lack of concentration

Lifestyle plays a huge role in your concentration abilities. Routines can make or break how well you concentrate as you go through daily life. 

Your mental health can be impacted by school, stress from work, and what you're eating. For example, without a balanced diet, how can you find the energy to concentrate? Fuelling your body for all the work it does is essential. 

Working too many hours without rest won’t help your concentration either — especially if your stress inhibits your ability to sleep at night. When you neglect rest, you become physically and mentally fatigued. Your concentration abilities plummet. 

Our bodies can’t recharge after working hard. And when your mental energy is low, so is your ability to concentrate. Resting strengthens our brain. We need to prioritize it, no matter what type of rest it is.

To understand why you may have difficulty concentrating, you must connect with your mind, body, and soul. Each of these aspects impacts your focusing abilities.

Beware of multitasking

It can feel great to think you're accomplishing multiple things at once. Multitasking lures us in with the promise of increased efficiency. However, that's a false promise.

Even though we multitask in daily life (like talking to someone while making a cup of coffee), it's not great when you need to concentrate on a single task. 

In fact, research has found that multitasking negatively impacts our performance by dividing our attention. If you don’t know where to focus or which tasks need the most attention, you’ll make mistakes. 

When you’re multitasking, your concentration bounces back and forth between different tasks.  You can't entirely focus on any of them. Multitasking also demands energy for you to refocus on each task. That means you’ll waste more time moving back and forth. 

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Sometimes we feel like we need to multitask. Let's say you're starting a new role at work, and you want to learn as many new things as possible. While that’s tempting, you need to slow down. Multitasking won’t allow you to truly learn.

Instead, you should take things one at a time and devote your concentration fully to each task. That way, you won't overwhelm your brain and you’ll be able to concentrate more effectively.

6 chronic conditions that can cause a lack of concentration

While difficulty concentrating can be caused by loud noises or sleep problems, medical conditions can also be the source. Physical and mental health conditions impact how well we concentrate and stay focused on our tasks.

These conditions can also lead to chronic concentration problems, which are harder to resolve.

Below are six different chronic health conditions that can impact your concentration abilities:

  1. Stress: Both acute and chronic stress can be a source of cognitive impairment. One study found that people who experienced chronic stress had to work harder to focus on tasks than those who weren't stressed.
  2. Thyroid issues: Thyroid hormones are important for brain functioning. If the hormone is low, the brain doesn't work as quickly. This can cause memory problems, slower thinking, and a lack of focus.
  3. Depression: Many ask if difficulty concentrating is a sign of depression. Research has found that people who have depression might make more mistakes because they aren't as focused. Plus, when depressed people have low motivation, they also have a lower capacity for attention.
  4. Anxiety: Difficulty concentrating is one of the most common diagnostic criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety can cause difficulty concentrating because it can cause you to be overwhelmed with other worries and thoughts.
  5. ADHD: ADHD can start to appear in children as early as the age of seven. It can impact all areas of our lives and cause impulsivity, fidgeting, and more.
  6. Head injuries: A traumatic brain injury or concussion can impact your whole body and mind. It can cause irreversible impacts on a person’s cognitive abilities. Studies show that 70% of people with head injuries report poor concentration and memory problems.

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What can you do about it?

Now that we know what can cause difficulty concentrating, let’s talk about solutions. The tips below are most helpful for people struggling with an eventual lack of focus — AKA, difficulty concentrating from external factors like hunger and tiredness. 

Those who have chronic concentration problems and other health conditions should seek help from a professional. Severe difficulty concentrating can't simply be resolved by sleeping more. Receiving medical advice from healthcare professionals is the best option. 

That said, there are many concentration exercises that you can add to your daily routine. These can strengthen your concentration muscle over time. Here are six tips to help you deal with eventual lack of focus issues and boost your concentration abilities:

  1. Combat tiredness and sleep deprivation by changing sleeping habits 
  2. Make time to practice self-care so you can relax your body
  3. Manage and watch your energy, and know when to take a break
  4. Keep yourself on a schedule and remain organized to avoid forgetfulness
  5. Practice breathwork strategies to help refocus when you get distracted
  6. Eliminate distractions where you work, like social media, games, people, and noises

Your next step: how to address difficulty concentrating at work

If you have difficulty concentrating on your tasks, it can feel defeating. We know we need to get work done, but distractors interfere. The good news? We don't have to accept those distractors just because they're present.

Whether they're eventual or chronic, you can find ways to manage them yourself or seek the help you need.

One place where we perhaps need to address our concentration problems is at work. Maybe your work anxiety is taking a toll, or a physical health condition prevents you from focusing well. 

Talking to your manager about these issues can make you feel better. It can be a little daunting, but it's the next step you need to take if you want to move forward and focus more. 

Here are some final tips to help you do that:

  • Be specific as you articulate the issues you're experiencing
  • Arrive with possible solutions or ideas that they can help you with
  • Don't stop advocating for yourself and your needs
  • Be honest, truthful, and vulnerable as you express yourself

Communication skills are always important, but they're critical when we need to explain how we're feeling. BetterUp can help you strengthen these communication skills. From there, you can make sure what you need is heard loud and clear.

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Published August 16, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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