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Can’t concentrate? 12 things that may be making it hard for you to focus

September 21, 2022 - 15 min read

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12 factors that affect concentration

Health conditions that affect concentration

6 extra tips to improve your concentration

Be your own best ally

“I can’t concentrate at work.” 

“Why can’t I concentrate on reading?” 

“How can I focus when the weather is so nice?”

If you’ve ever said these types of sentiments to yourself, you understand the fickleness of concentration. 

Some days, you sit at your desk, and the work flows naturally. Other days, no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time.

There are many reasons for this — and not all of them are under your control. For example, research shows that concentration peaks in your early 20s, then gradually reduces over time. 

But you’re not powerless here. Even with biology working against you, you can clear your mind and increase your concentration skills. 

Small changes, like reducing your screen time and prioritizing sleep, can measurably benefit your focus. These tactics also have a nice side effect of improving your mental health and well-being. 

If you’re looking to boost your productivity, it’s important to understand the factors that affect concentration. This will empower you to adjust your workflow to keep you on track.

 

12 factors that affect concentration

Take a look at this list of common personal and environmental factors that can affect your concentration levels. Plus, see ideas for how to alleviate the effect of these focus-busters, from putting on classical music to adjusting the temperature.

1. Bad ergonomics

If you’re uncomfortable or in pain, that can easily take away from your focus. 

Try: paying attention to how your body feels. You may need to get better equipment and stretch throughout the day. A good office set-up — work-from-home or otherwise — is key for productivity.

2. A messy workspace

A cluttered desk suggests a chaotic mind. Constantly fishing for a pen or looking for a document zaps energy and can have negative effects on concentration. 

Try: organizing your desk, filing loose papers, and only using what you need for the task at hand.

3. Excessive notifications

Whether it’s your phone, email, or social media accounts, notifications are designed to break your attention. 

Try: tweaking your notification settings to only alert you when absolutely necessary. You could also try downloading a focus app like Forest to keep you in the zone.

4. Noise level

There’s nothing more distracting than a colleague having a loud conversation outside your door or next to your desk. 

Try: setting boundaries with co-workers. You can also wear headphones or, if it’s an option, move to a quieter area. If you’re a remote worker, you might benefit from the public library more than a noisy cafe. Try using classical music to concentrate by tuning everyone else out.

5. Poor time management

You might be budgeting too much or too little time to complete your tasks. That can lead to stress and doesn’t set you up for peak productivity.  

Try: establishing clear expectations for yourself with realistic to-do lists. You can also set time limits for tasks without a natural end, like answering emails or responding to Slack messages.

6. Stress

Not all stress is problematic. For instance, eustress, a positive variety of stress, can motivate you to concentrate and be more productive. But chronic and acute stress can hurt your mental health and concentration levels. 

Try: making time for self-care and relaxation techniques. And, if you need additional help, consider talking to a mental health professional.

7. Too much internet

If you’re addicted to browsing online, your attention span can drop to less than 10 seconds. This isn’t exactly conducive to productivity. 

Try: blocking social media websites with a browser extension. You can also schedule your browsing with a clear start and finish time. As you get a handle on your habit, you can gradually reduce your internet time.

8. Bad lighting

Believe it or not, the lighting of your workspace can affect concentration. 

Try: positioning your desk near natural light. If that’s not an option, use cooler artificial light sources.

9. Poor room temperature

If your room is too hot or too cold, it could hurt your comfort and concentration levels. 

Try: keeping the temperature between 69°F and 71°F. If you don’t have control over the thermostat, use a blanket or a personal fan at your desk.

10. Lack of sleep

Sleep deprivation can affect your attention, working memory, and long-term memory. 

Try: getting 7–8 hours of sleep per night. If you have trouble sleeping, it helps to avoid electronics at least one hour before bed. You can also try relaxation techniques to prime your body for much-needed shut-eye.

11. Unhealthy diet

An unhealthy diet and dehydration can lead to fatigue and an inability to focus. For better concentration, you need to fuel your body with nourishing foods. 

Try: drinking plenty of water and eating whole grains. Plus, look for foods packed with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B-12, among other healthy nutrients.

12. Lack of physical activity

Humans were built to move. If you spend your day sitting at your desk, you’re depriving your brain of one of its key functions. 

Try: doing what you can to move. You don’t have to run a marathon to feel the concentration benefits of exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate movement per week.

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Health conditions that affect concentration

Everyone experiences an occasional lapse in concentration. But, in some cases, your lack of focus could signify an underlying health condition.

Pay attention to your symptoms. If you have a hard time concentrating, it might be due to one of these health issues:

    • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a mental health condition that directly affects your ability to concentrate. It’s usually diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. 
    • Cognitive impairment: a brain health condition. It can cause memory loss, reduced ability to learn, poor concentration, and reduced capacity to make decisions. It’s often associated with older adults. But it’s also linked to developmental delays, disabilities, or neurological conditions that hurt the brain’s executive functions.
    • Untreated mental health conditions: Anxiety, depression, and mood disorders can severely impact your ability to concentrate. Treatment usually involves working with a mental health professional. You may be prescribed medications to cope with the symptoms.
    • Concussions, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or other head injuries: Head trauma can affect your ability to concentrate until you’re fully healed. You might need mental breaks until you’re back to full capacity.
    • Farsightedness and other vision problems: Lack of concentration is one common symptom of hyperopia. This is in addition to excessive squinting, aching or burning eyes, and headaches. A visit to the optometrist might be in order. 
attention-deficit-man-working-factors-that-affect-concentration

6 extra tips to improve your concentration

Lack of concentration can be frustrating — especially when you have things to do. Addressing the important factors listed above can help. But if you want to further improve your cognitive abilities, you can try out these tips. Many of these concentration factors come down to creating good habits.

1. Plan your time strategically

Pay attention to your concentration in “peak hours.” Are you more productive in the morning? Do you fare better in the afternoon? If your job allows for it, do your most intensive tasks when concentration comes easiest.

For example, if you’re a writer and more focused in the morning, do most of your writing after waking up. Then, in the afternoon, you can spend your time doing less intensive tasks, like responding to emails.

woman-working-alone-early-in-the-morning-factors-that-affect-concentration

2. Train your neurons with games

Games can be healthy stimuli for your brain. For example:

  • Sudoku
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Chess
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Word searches
  • Memory games
  • Puzzle video games

Spending just 15 minutes per day, five days per week, on these types of games might be a meaningful way to improve your concentration. You can treat these like concentration exercises, too, to stay motivated.

man-playing-sudoku-factors-that-affect-concentration

3. Take in some nature

Going outside for 15–20 minutes is enough to help boost your concentration naturally. If you can, go somewhere with greenery. A short walk through the park or sitting in your backyard can help energize you.

You can even bring nature to you. Having plants in your office can improve your well-being and help you be more productive.

4. Take breaks

This sounds counterintuitive, but stepping away from work for a few minutes could be what you need. Walk to your local coffee shop, meditate, or read a book for a few minutes. When you get back to it, you’ll feel more focused.

5. Do one task at a time

Multitasking might sound like an efficient use of your mental energy. But it is an illusion. You might think you’re succeeding, but you’re merely shifting your concentration quickly between each task. And every time you do, it takes up to 15 minutes for your brain to reorient. 

Focus on a specific task before moving on to another. This allows your brain to settle in and truly concentrate.

woman-examining-notes-on-her-desk-factors-that-affect-concentration

6. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation is a great way to train your concentration and improve your overall mental health. A mere 10 minutes per day is enough to generate results in the short term. 

The process is simple:

  • Find a quiet place
  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes
  • Take long, deep breaths
  • Focus on your breathing and nothing else

Be your own best ally

Concentration is a muscle. And just like your physical body, you can train your mind to focus on tasks when you need to.

Some improvement techniques might work better than others. It all depends on your personality type, work style, and personal motivators. And that’s okay. You’re a unique individual with a unique mind. 

You don’t need permission to experiment. Pay attention to what works. And, if you need to, reach out to a professional for help. They can help you identify the unique factors that affect concentration.

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Published September 21, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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