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Why can’t I focus on anything? The reasons behind your lack of concentration

August 22, 2022 - 14 min read

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7 reasons why you can't focus

How to know that you have a low level of focus

Identify your distractors

Top-down vs. bottom-up selective attention

4 mental disorders that cause a lack of focus

Watch out for burnout

When to look for medical assistance

Remember: It's different for everyone

I told myself I'd have a productive morning; I was working remotely but determined to finish my projects. I sat in front of my computer and was ready to start my day. But then my phone wouldn't stop buzzing. I checked my social media notifications, started to scroll, and found a travel blog account.

Before I knew it, I began daydreaming about traveling and wasted half my day on these distractions. I kept thinking, “Why can't I focus on anything today?”

I have trouble concentrating for many reasons, but I’m not alone. One survey found that 75% of surveyed Americans said that digital notifications distracted them enough to decrease their focus and increase their procrastination. And we all have lots of distractors besides digital notifications that derail our focus.

Responding to an email, a pile of unfolded laundry or unhappy kids can all pull us from our work at any given moment. 

Luckily, we can improve our focus and concentration skills and learn to manage our distractions. With dedication, you’ll learn how to identify your distractors and overcome any difficulty concentrating.

7 reasons why you can't focus

Concentration is crucial to completing tasks throughout your day. You need to concentrate on tying your shoes and driving to work. And sometimes, distractions from our personal life disrupt our focus at work and vice versa. It’s difficult to enjoy your weekend when you’re thinking about your work day, which is one of the reasons it’s important to have a good work-life balance

Next time you’re wondering, “Why do I feel like I can’t focus on anything?” consider these seven potential reasons: 

  1. You try multitasking, which wastes energy
  2. Your work isn't aligned with your personal values 
  3. Your work isn’t engaging or challenging 
  4. You're hungry and need to fuel your body 
  5. You haven't been getting enough sleep 
  6. You're under a lot of stress 
  7. You’re worried about financial insecurity

If you need help identifying what causes your lack of focus and how to overcome these causes, consider meeting with a BetterUp coach. Our coaches will help you manage your distractions and limit their causes.

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How to know that you have a low level of focus

Everyone has days when they have difficulty concentrating. It's normal. You might think, "Why can I suddenly not focus at all?" before realizing you’ve skipped lunch. 

As for what it means when you can't focus on one thing — it means it’s time to look at the big picture. Think of yourself as a Whole Person when reflecting on your ability to focus. If you’re struggling to find mental clarity, you may struggle with important tasks and making decisions in your personal life. And lower mental clarity makes it hard to focus or see through the stressors in your life.

Some signs of a low level of focus are easier to recognize than others. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  1. You feel like you have brain fog: Brain fog makes you feel physically tired and mentally confused, and everything takes longer to process. If you experience brain fog for more than six months, you could have chronic fatigue syndrome.
  2. You struggle with basic decision-making: How quickly can you decide what you want for lunch? If you feel like you can't think clearly or your mind wanders when you try to make decisions, your levels of focus could be low.
  3. You often procrastinate: Time management is an important but difficult skill. Time easily slips away from us, but if you’re never able to manage your schedule, your focus levels could need some work. You may need to make adjustments in your life to aid your concentration and limit procrastination.
  4. You catch yourself zoning out: When you start to zone out, it’s difficult to regain your focus and finish your daily tasks. Things like cutting the lawn, doing dishes, or even watching a whole movie from start to finish can become difficult if you can’t stay present.

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Identify your distractors

What's it called when you can't focus on anything? While there are several potential causes for lack of focus, it's ultimately called being distracted.

You’re the best person to identify your distractors if you have trouble focusing. Not everyone will recognize that you haven’t been getting enough sleep or are struggling with something in your personal life. If you haven’t pinpointed your distractors, you’ll need to strengthen your self-awareness to understand what’s happening. 

There are two types of distractors:

  • Inside distractors are internal thoughts and worries, including obsessing over something embarrassing you did or preparing to give a speech.
  • Outside distractors are distractions out of your control, like a noisy workspace, unpleasant smell, or interesting objects around you. 

Top-down vs. bottom-up selective attention

Research has found two types of selective attention: top-down and bottom-up. Both of them are important for your cognitive function and mental energy. 

Top-down attention comes from your thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and goals. It's intentional, making you feel more in control and purposeful. You use it for things like goal setting and visualization.

Bottom-up attention is much different. It happens when your brain responds to external stimuli, like receiving an email notification or seeing a cute dog. They distract you from your original task and make it difficult to regain focus. 

4 mental disorders that cause a lack of focus

Mental health conditions could be the reason you’re struggling to stay focused. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that one in five American adults experience mental illness each year.

Some recognized mental health conditions cause a lack of focus. Here are four of the most common conditions:

1. Anxiety disorders

We can all experience anxiety, but anxiety disorders are more severe. These anxiety disorders constantly overwhelm people as they focus on possible threats, insecurities, and worries. 

2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

This condition causes people to struggle with their attention span and staying on task. It also causes a sense of hyperfocus and impulsivity.

3. Depression

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People struggling with depression can experience low levels of motivation and negative thoughts. With little to no motivation, people won't be able to concentrate on their tasks, and even when they do, they may have a negative outlook. 

4. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Those who have PTSD may continue to relive traumatizing experiences when triggered. Reminders of their trauma cause anxiety, among other symptoms, making it difficult to concentrate on things around them.

Watch out for burnout

One big reason we can lose focus is burnout. We all have busy days at work, but we'll become burnt out when we're overworking ourselves. Our brains tire after being hyper-focused on tasks. 

That's why we need a healthy work-life balance and time to rest. Different types of rest allow our minds and bodies to recharge. 

We also need to ensure we're fuelling ourselves with food to help our concentration levels. Food has been found to seriously impact our brain function and overall mental health. Our gut microbiome, which consists of all the bacteria and microorganisms in our digestive system, influences our cognition and behavior. 

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And when our gut microbiome is disrupted by things like unhealthy foods or poor sleep habits, it influences our mental health and brain development. Some foods positively impact our brain health, like green leafy vegetables and strawberries, while large amounts of caffeine and sugar can negatively impact our concentration abilities.

We need to take burnout seriously, especially at work. We should define our roles and responsibilities to avoid taking on too many projects. It’s important to have integrity and be honest with our managers about our energy level to avoid working too much.

When to look for medical assistance

If your lack of focus causes you to forget to switch over your laundry, it’s not a huge concern. But if you forget to eat or your mental and physical health suffers, it’s time to seek medical assistance.

Talking with your doctor, a psychotherapist, or another medical professional will address your lack of focus and help you find answers. Various conditions could impact your ability to concentrate, and your doctor can find a treatment plan to help you regain your focus.

Prescription medications like Adderall or Ritalin might help you focus, but it's important that you speak with a healthcare professional first. 

If you have a combination of these less severe symptoms, you may require medical assistance:

  • Confusion
  • Lack of concentration
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety, like shortness of breath and sweaty palms
  • Overthinking and excessive worrying 
  • Zoning out
  • Not enjoying what you used to
  • Change in appetite 

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Here are six signs that you should seek immediate medical assistance:

  1. Sudden memory loss, like when you forget your name or where you are
  2. Severe migraines that make you physically sick
  3. Lack of sleep or sleep deprivation 
  4. Brain fog that lasts longer than six months and impairs your cognitive abilities
  5. Loss of consciousness and waking up confused
  6. Your school or work performance is lower quality than usual

Remember: It's different for everyone

Combatting a lack of focus is a journey everyone experiences differently. Not all strategies and tips are effective for everyone. Keep trying new strategies until you find one that works for you. Try the Pomodoro technique, journalling, or silencing your phones to avoid pesky notifications. What matters is that you don't give up. Your hard work won’t be for nothing, and that's important.

When you start working on your focus and concentration levels, you might find it difficult to stick to your plans or goals. At BetterUp, our coaches will provide the guidance and accountability you need to never forget what you're working toward achieving.

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Published August 22, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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