Request a demo
Back to Blog

Focus vs. concentration: Use the differences to your advantage

September 12, 2022 - 15 min read

concentrated-middle-aged-woman-working-on-her-laptop-focus-vs-concentration

Jump to section

Focus vs. concentration vs. attention

What is the difference between concentration and focus?

Balancing focus and concentration

Find your balance by improving focus and concentration

Boost your work performance with focus and concentration

Why can’t I concentrate?

Don’t hate: Concentrate

Concentrating for extended periods is challenging. From text message notifications to phone calls, endless distractions will pull your attention. 

And it’s not entirely your fault. Your ability to concentrate peaks in your early 20s, then gradually reduces over time. The Internet also plays a role since Internet addiction can reduce your attention span to less than 10 seconds — which is less than ideal when you’re trying to focus on a work task.

But you’re not powerless here. One of the first steps to improving your attention is understanding the difference between focus vs. concentration. Once you do, you can take steps toward improving your productivity.

So focus up, friend. We’re about to get into it.

 

Focus vs. concentration vs. attention

Let’s start with the obvious question: are focus and concentration the same? The short answer is: no. People often use both terms interchangeably, but they refer to different parts of your attention. 

Let’s take a closer look.

Attention is your brain’s highlighter. Using your executive functions, your mind processes information from multiple sources — whether it’s sound, touch, smell, sight, or your inner thoughts and feelings. When you “pay attention,” you direct your conscious mind to one of these sources of information.

If you’re in a class, you might direct your attention to the professor. Or, if you find them boring, you might turn your attention to social media.

Concentration is how you direct your attention. It involves filtering out the noise and processing one of the multiple stimuli affecting you. When you concentrate on something, you’re thinking intensely about it.

So, if you’re listening intently to your professor, you’re concentrating on their lesson. You’re devoting your mental energy to the task of learning.

Focus is about discipline and, to some degree, willpower. It involves choosing a single point to put your attention on rather than succumbing to the whims of exterior forces.

You can focus narrowly on a task, like writing an essay — which demands heavy concentration. You can also focus on broader goals, like completing your studies.

New call-to-action

What is the difference between concentration and focus?

With the basic definitions out of the way, let’s zero in on the main differences between concentration and focus. 

  • Focus is about intention. Concentration is what you do with your intention.
  • Focus is where you choose to concentrate. For example, you made the decision to concentrate on your spreadsheet rather than answer emails. Concentration means processing a task deeply, like losing yourself in the complexity of a string of computer code. 
  • Focus means prioritizing small and large goals, like doing everything you can to complete your undergraduate degree with good grades. Concentration is about directing your energy to particular tasks. Ideally, they’d be in service of your goals. If you’re concentrating on studying for a test so you can do well, it requires focus to motivate you, and concentration to succeed.
  • Focus is how you choose what to filter out. It’s the focal point of your attention. You focus on your friend in the restaurant because they’re more important than the music on the stereo or the noise from the crowd. Concentration is how you filter stuff out. You process your friend’s words more deeply than the other stimuli in the restaurant.
  • You can also focus on a task without concentrating or vice versa. For example, you can focus on weight-lifting at the gym (i.e., choose to exercise instead of not). But, a work problem could be at the back of your mind, drawing your concentration away from the task at hand.

If you have difficulty concentrating, try working with BetterUp. Our coaches can help you find strategies to keep you on task. Whether you’re a beginner in the workforce, struggle with time management, or need help setting goals, we can help you every step of the way.

Balancing focus and concentration

Mastering your attention is about balancing focus and concentration. You can have multiple areas of focus in life but not enough energy to concentrate on all of them.

You may want to focus on your career, health, and family. Hypothetically speaking, that would require dropping other priorities, like indulging in personal hobbies. 

To focus on your career, you’ll have to concentrate heavily on work tasks, ignoring distractions throughout the day. That means no texting friends, long lunch breaks, or leaving work early for happy hour. You’ll have to use some free time to concentrate on physical exercise and your health. And, for your family, you’ll also have to concentrate on your spouse or children during the weekend.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to focus on your career. One focus doesn’t eliminate fun from your life. But true concentration requires time and energy. That’s why you need to be mindful about where you put your focus.

And if you’re easily frustrated by your distractions, that’s OK. It’s normal! Be patient and kind to yourself.

The myth of multitasking

man-with-glasses-working-with-multiple-electronic-devices-focus-vs-concentration

You might think you can create more free time by multitasking, or, effectively, concentrating on multiple tasks at once.

Sounds great on paper. But unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t work that way. We’re wired to concentrate on one thing at a time. Even if you think you’re succeeding, your mind is actually shifting your concentration between each item, giving the illusion of multitasking. 

And every time you do, it takes up to 15 minutes for your brain functions to re-orient. When all is said and done, you lose about 40% efficiency because of the lost time.

Find your balance by improving focus and concentration

Everyone will have different priorities in life. And everyone will have different capacities for meeting them.

But here are some tips that everyone can benefit from:

1. Get enough sleep

If you don’t regularly sleep between seven and eight hours per night, it can severely affect your ability to focus. Tiredness will lower your productivity levels, demanding more time to complete tasks.

To sleep better at night, try:

  • Quitting the caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Put away your electronics an hour before bed
  • Use relaxation techniques to de-stress before sleep

2. Focus on one task at a time

Switching between tasks wastes time and energy. Focused individuals complete one task at a time. This helps them complete the task faster and frees them up for other priorities.

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Before signing off at the end of the day, create the next day’s to-do list 
  • Set clear deadlines for each task
  • Block time in your calendar for each list item

3. Take care of your body

Regular physical activity can help boost your energy, motivation, and concentration ability. The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. It’s also good to eat healthy foods.

Here’s you can make exercise a habit:

  • Find a type of exercise you actually enjoy
  • Try beginner workouts on YouTube
  • Start slow — no need to run a mile on your first try
  • Set SMART goals for yourself

fit-man-exercising-at-home-with-hand-weights-focus-vs-concentration

4. Do mental activities

Word games, puzzles, and other brain exercises can act as concentration exercises and improve your mental state.

Here are some challenges to get you started:

  • Increase your English language vocabulary
  • Practice a foreign language 
  • Learn to play music
  • Meditate

Boost your work performance with focus and concentration

When you’re in the thick of your daily tasks, focus and concentration will help you be more efficient. Let’s walk through a scenario so you can see them in action.

Scenario 1

You’re a freelance graphic designer, and you have three main clients. You’re working on similar projects for each, and they’re all due in three weeks.

To complete everything on time, you divide your weeks into focus areas. Each one will have tasks that require your concentration:

  • Week 1: you focus on brainstorming ideas with each client. Here, you concentrate on hearing what they want regarding designs, agreeing on a payment rate, and approving the plan.
  • Week 2: you spend the whole week creating your designs. Here you concentrate purely on the artistry. 
  • Week 3: your focus shifts to the final project phases. You concentrate on getting approval for your designs, making edits where necessary, and sending them off to print.

confident-focused-businesswoman-making-a-week-calendar-focus-vs-concentration

In this case, dividing your work into focus areas makes you seem organized and competent. It shows your clients that you have a plan, instilling faith in you and your work.

Why can’t I concentrate?

It’s normal for your attention to drift sometimes. But, if it happens too frequently, it could be a sign of something deeper. 

Here are some conditions that can lead to a lack of concentration:

man-suffering-insomnia-focus-vs-concentration

When should I see a doctor?

Your low degrees of concentration could be a sign of something deeper. It’s important not to ignore your physical and mental health symptoms. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Numbness or tingling on one side of your body
  • Sharp chest pain
  • Severe headache
  • Sudden memory loss
  • Unawareness of where you are
  • Unusual feelings of tiredness
  • Difficulty sleeping

Your doctor will likely ask about when you first noticed your symptoms. They may also review medications (if you have any), supplements, or herbs you consume regularly. 

Diagnosis takes time and may require further tests. But it’s important, to be honest with your physician to get to bottom of it.

Don’t hate: Concentrate

Where does focus come from?

It comes from prioritizing the things that matter and dropping the things that don’t. 

As you think about the differences between focus vs. concentration, I challenge you to apply them to your own life. Think about your priorities, beliefs, and values and how you spend your time. Eventually, you’ll learn to zero in on the things that enrich your life.

And if you need help, BetterUp is here. Our professional coaches can help you  focus on where you can have the most impact. If you’re willing to put in the work, we can help you set priorities, improve your time management, and take your concentration to the next level.

New call-to-action

Published September 12, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

Read Next

Employee Experience
11 min read | January 7, 2022

Why you shouldn't overlook neurodiversity in your DEI strategy

Neurodiversity is an oft-overlooked component of DEI - but it can be an important untapped resource. Learn how neurodivergence can help your team thrive. Read More
Research & Insights
12 min read | February 17, 2022

Outsmarting the Innovator's Bias: Where future-mindedness and innovation meet

The world today demands innovation. But we tend to overlook the downside of our own ideas. To move confidently (but not blindly) forward, it helps to imagine the worst. Read More
Well-being
18 min read | July 15, 2022

Exercise and mental health: a look at the mind-body connection

Exercise and mental health have an intimate relationship. Here’s how hitting the gym can improve your well-being. Read More
Professional Development
17 min read | August 18, 2022

10 things that can destroy your focus at work

What causes lack of focus at work? Turns out, there’s a lot of reasons. Here’s everything you need to know. Read More
Productivity
16 min read | August 16, 2022

Difficulty concentrating and what might be the cause

Wondering why you have difficulty concentrating? Learn what causes your lack of focus, and what you can do to address it at work and in your personal life. Read More
Well-being
14 min read | September 20, 2022

How to talk to your boss about mental health, let’s sit down and chat

Unsure about how to talk to your boss about mental health? Learn the do’s and don’ts for talking to your boss, and how to speak your mind about your well-being. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.