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10 things that can destroy your focus at work

August 18, 2022 - 17 min read


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Lack of focus definition

What can cause lack of focus?

Ask yourself the right questions

The gears of work never stop turning. But, by Friday afternoon, it’s easy to lose focus — especially in the summertime.

It happens everywhere. In the US we tend to worry about it.

There are many reasons for this. On one level, Americans are some of the hardest-working people in the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Americans worked an average of 1,767 hours per year from 2017 to 2020 — slightly above the global average of 1,746.

It’s no wonder we’re tired. In a 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 American workers, 67% said they feel burned out at least some of the time. And when we’re feeling spent, we can easily lose focus.

But burnout is just one of many reasons you might lose concentration at work. Noisy coworkers (including the wfh variety), poor work setup, a great playlist, or underlying mental health conditions can all slow you down. And in some cases, it might be a simple case of improving your time-management skills. 

The point is: you’re not alone. We all lose focus sometimes. Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do about it.

Focus is about setting yourself up for success. Whether you have ADHD or you’re just feeling a little tired, you can start by determining what causes lack of focus at work. Then you can take steps to do something about it.


Lack of focus definition

So what does lack of focus mean? Even though they’re often used interchangeably, focus shouldn’t be confused with concentration.

Concentration is the act of devoting your attention span to a particular stimulus. When you’re concentrating on a book, you filter out the noise around you and lose yourself in the words. 

Focus, on the other hand, is about discipline and willpower. You can decide where to put your attention. You decide to open the book and start reading. You’re choosing to concentrate on the book rather than other stimuli in the room.

If you struggle to bring yourself into focus, BetterUp can help. Focus is a key area where our Members seek and achieve growth through coaching.

With our coaches, you can identify what is contributing to your lack of focus and learn effective techniques, like the Pomodoro Technique, for time management, self-discipline, and resilience to focus on what matters.

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What can cause lack of focus?

As you surely know, focusing can be a struggle, and it has the tragic side effect of causing poor performance.

So here’s a list of possible answers to the question, “Why am I not focused at work?”

1. You have sleep deprivation

Mental exhaustion can lead to brain fog and trouble concentrating. Physical exhaustion can have a similar effect. Your low energy levels mean you can’t direct your willpower to the task at hand, so you let yourself be pulled off track by the slightest distraction.

You might be trying to knock out an end-of-year report for next week. And, as important as it is, you can’t help but scroll through memes on Instagram. Your brain is unconsciously taking a break because you’re overtired.

Lack of sleep is usually a symptom of something deeper:

Make sure you’re taking steps to improve your sleep hygiene and manage your stress to get a good night’s sleep


2. You have a demanding personal life

You have a life outside of work. As much as you try to compartmentalize, you only have one bucket of energy to pull you through the day. It’s normal to feel tired at work when your personal life is taking a toll.

Let’s say you’re writing this budget report and planning to move next week. Moving apartments is taxing work — doubly so if it’s due to something emotionally difficult, like a bad breakup. On top of dealing with complex emotions and your career, you’re spending your evenings packing boxes and planning logistics. Do that for a week, and you’re sure to feel tired by Friday.

3. You’re trying to do everything at once

It’s tempting to multitask when you have a to-do list as long as your arm. But it’s all just a grand illusion. In reality, you’re rapidly shifting your focus between each item, which your brain cells interpret as “multitasking.”  And you’re probably not as good at it as you think.

It can take up to 23 minutes to re-orient when you jump back into an item. When all is said and done, you lose about 40% efficiency due to the lost time.

You probably experience this trying to answer emails while working on a document. You spend 20 minutes carefully crafting your message. Then, when you hop back to your document, you need time to remember your last train of thought.

Try using time-blocking to schedule time for all of your tasks, even busy ones — like sending emails or organizing your schedule. You won’t feel the need to drop everything because you know you’ll get to it later. 

4. You don’t like what you’re working on

Even if you love your job, there are likely some tasks you just loathe. Working on them is like pulling teeth, to the point where you would rather do just about anything else.

Our brains are wired for pain avoidance and seeking rewards. This impulsivity is why we procrastinate — we put off painful experiences for as long as we can, even if we know they’re better for us in the long run.

Your career as an independent freelancer may be exciting every other day of the year. But, when tax season rolls around, you would rather not have to do the data entry required —  even if it ends with an income tax return. 

Find a way to make it fun or sandwich this task between things you want to do to stay motivated. You can also try eating the frog, which means doing the unpleasant tasks first thing in the morning. After that, your day can only improve.


5. You fear success

Is it possible you’re too good at your job? Of course not. But, you might fear the added responsibility that comes from being successful. This can lead to bad habits like procrastination and self-sabotage. Your lack of focus could be a subconscious ploy to keep you from meeting your goals.

You might not want to finish your graduate school application because you fear being accepted. Acceptance would mean quitting your job for two to three years of extra schooling. This can be scary — even if it brings you closer to achieving your dreams.

Remember what you’re working for, put your head down, and write that application. You’re more likely to regret not submitting it than a potential rejection. 

6. Your health is working against you

Lack of focus is a common symptom of various physical and mental health conditions. Some mental health disorders that cause difficulty concentrating and lack of focus are:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Here are some physical health medical conditions that can cause concentration problems:

  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Narcolepsy
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Epilepsy
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Blood sugar imbalance/diabetes
  • Blood pressure

It’s worth seeking medical advice from a doctor or mental health professional if you think one of these applies to you.

7. You lack purpose

If you’re not sure of your “why,” you’ll be less motivated to focus on your work. You might need to set better goals for your career and connect your daily tasks to a wider purpose.

If your purpose is to make the world a more community-oriented place, you might feel uneasy about doing public relations for a large corporation. The work zaps your mental energy because you’d rather work at a non-profit.

Finding your purpose isn’t easy, but you might be able to create purpose in your work to stay motivated. Maybe the skills you’ll learn at this corporation will help you land your dream job at a national non-profit or do freelance work with smaller organizations that need your expertise.


8. You’re bored

You’re a smart, capable, and talented person. It makes sense that dull tasks would cause trouble focusing. But sometimes, life’s greatest achievements are built on a foundation of tedium.

You don’t need to look much further than the court of law to understand the importance of detail. Something as small as a misplaced comma can make or break a case. Whoever found that typo must have spent hours combing through documents — a far cry from the entertaining drama of Law & Order. 

A great way to make your workplace fun is the people around you. Making friends at work isn’t always easy, but it’s always rewarding. 

9. You didn’t turn off your phone

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

Think about when your phone after it pinged you to review a “memory” in your photo album and sent you down a rabbit hole. Save yourself the trouble and turn on your “do not disturb” function.

10. Poor time management

Parkinson’s Law, a popular theory of productivity, contends that work naturally expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. So, even if your task could take you an hour to complete, you let yourself lose focus because you budgeted three hours for it. 

Plus, setting realistic goals can help you activate eustress, sharpening your focus.

Think back to your college days. When your professor gave you three weeks to write an essay, you probably waffled until the last minute. Then, the time crunch gave you the boost you needed to finish the assignment on time.

Spend a week taking inventory of how long tasks actually take you. Then you can organize your calendar and properly devote your time to tasks. (Make sure you schedule breaks, too! You aren’t a robot.) This will help you work smarter and save some valuable mental energy.


Ask yourself the right questions

Your inability to focus could be a symptom of fatigue, poor work habits, or an underlying health condition. Consider this an opportunity to check in with yourself. You might have to make some changes, such as:

Addressing your lack of focus will take some time and effort. But the first step is honesty. When you can acknowledge the problem, you can make a plan to address it.

Now that you’re aware of what causes a lack of focus at work, make BetterUp part of your journey. We can help you stay sharp and on track toward your goals. Through confidential one-on-one sessions with our coaches, you’ll discover a whole new level of “you.”

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Published August 18, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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