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Can’t focus? 10 reasons why you’re unable to concentrate and what to do

Productivity 6 min read

Noisli - Can't focus?

We’ve all been there, at least once.

You know you have to focus, but for some reason, you simply can’t. You even want to focus, but you just can’t seem to put your mind to it. Your brain feels foggy and your attention constantly drifts away. No matter the length or the importance of your To-Do list, you just can’t concentrate on anything.

This lack of focus may be due to many reasons. Perhaps it is due to something obvious whose solution is quick and easy, or perhaps it’s due to something you didn’t even think of and which might require a bit more effort to get it solved.

Let’s have a look at 10 common reasons why you can’t focus:

1. You’re unmotivated

When you’re unmotivated it means that you’re not interested in the thing you have to do. It doesn’t spark any enthusiasm and you would rather be doing anything but that.

What to do

On such occasions, try to figure out if you can somehow drop the task altogether. Maybe the effort is simply too much for what you will gain from it and you would be better off focusing on something else. If that is however not possible, explore the opportunity to delegate the task to somebody else. If that is also not possible, you need to find the fastest way to get it done.
The best way to do this is to set yourself a limited time window within which you’ll be doing the task. This will create some urgency to help you get started and finally get over it.

2. You’re stressed

When you’re stressed it means you’re worrying, feeling anxious or are under a lot of pressure. It could also mean that you are facing a big change or an unusual or uncomfortable situation. This naturally builds tension and emotional strain which in return inhibits you to focus on something else.

What to do

If you can, remove the root cause of stress as soon as possible. Realistically, that is often not possible or completely out of your control. Try to calm yourself by controlling your breathing, engaging in relaxing activities, or listening to nature sounds. It also helps to take a break and move away from the stressful situation by occupying your mind with something completely different, going outside in nature or doing some exercise. You can read more about ways to relieve stress here.

3. You’re getting distracted

When you find yourself constantly distracted by other people, situations or things, it’s a sign that something in your environment is disrupting your focus. You probably find yourself in an environment where it is too quiet or too loud, and where you have little control over who or what can potentially ask for your attention at any given time.

What to do

In order to be able to focus you need peace of mind, so work from a place where the risk for sudden distractions is low. If that is not so easy, you can listen to background sounds to help mask distracting noises. Also, make sure to eliminate any visual clutter, disable or mute notifications and to let your co-workers or family and friends know when you’re available and when not.

4. You’re sleep deprived

Adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If your sleep cycle is all over the place and you frequently lay in bed unable to close your eyes or you constantly wake up during the night, it’s a sign that you may be sleep deprived. Not getting enough sleep is a potential cause for your inability to focus during the day.

What to do

Establish a good night time routine so to help wind down at the end of the day and so as to fall asleep more easily. Before going to bed, do something relaxing, avoid eating, using devices or in general doing anything too active or exciting. Also, try as much as you can to go to bed at around the same time each night.

5. You’re burned out

If you’re under stress for a prolonged period of time you might feel mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. You’re feeling constantly overwhelmed, unmotivated, joyless and drained, and have no energy left to meet the daily demands.

What to do

Recovering from burnout is a long journey. The logical thing to do is to work on the root cause and remove it for good. But, with probably no energy left, you need to start from the basics. Put yourself on top of your priority list and dedicate yourself time to recover. Go on a vacation or ask for some time off from work. Focus on the basics: getting the right nutrition, enough sleep and exercise. Think about what makes you happy and what you’ve neglected over time. As you slowly recover your energy you can start reassessing your goals, figuring out what is important and how to say “no” more often, and ultimately working towards removing the cause of your burnout.

6. You’re not using the right tools

Working with the right tools is essential to be able to concentrate. You’re unable to work well if the chair you’re sitting on is giving you back pain, if the sun is blinding you and causing you headaches or if the tools you’re using are simply slow and uncomfortable. If your tools are working against you instead of facilitating you, they are probably also messing with your focus.

What to do

Since you spend a lot of time “at” work, it’s worth investing in good equipment and tools which facilitate and enable you to do your best work. Analyze your work area and try to spot things you find uncomfortable, annoying, that bother you or just bring you frustration. Then, search for better alternatives. Also, find out which tools other people in your field or profession are recommending and using.

7. You’re uninspired

When you’re feeling uninspired you’re mentally unstimulated and bored. You’re frustrated by your own ideas, the repetitiveness of the tasks you do and the daily outcome of your work. Everything seems the same and dull, and you seem to have lost any sense of purpose.

What to do

You need to get unstuck. And the easiest way to do this is by simply getting started somewhere. Small steps are better than nothing, and even if small, they will eventually lead to something. Try to break your routine, do things differently and incorporate changes and new things into your daily life.
Also take a moment to look back at a time where you felt inspired: what was different back then? What was the driver? What were your beliefs and aspirations? You can also seek inspiration from the people you admire, the amazing work they do as well as reading about their journey and struggles they had to overcome.

8. You’re not eating the right food

Without the right nutrients your body is not able to function properly. A balanced and healthy diet helps you to intake the right nutrients for your mind and body so to have the energy and ability to focus on your tasks.

What to do

Eat a rich variety of fresh vegetables and fruits as well as whole grains, nuts, lean proteins and legumes. Drink enough water and avoid sugary drinks and alcohol. Distribute your food intake throughout the day, eating more in the morning and gradually reducing your food intake as the day goes on. Avoid processed food and food rich in saturated fat, sugar and salt. If you need an extra boost in brainpower you can read which foods to eat here.

9. You’re overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed means feeling something is too big or too challenging to overcome or manage. It’s a feeling of being completely submerged to the point where you do not know where to start or what to. It’s as if you’re paralized and unable to react, and this prevents you from functioning properly and thinking or acting rationally.

What to do

When something seems overwhelmingly big, you need to think in baby steps. Instead of trying to figure out the whole plan, or worrying about all the different aspects of something, you need to take one little step at a time. Think more in the immediate: what is the next step? This will help you regain some sense of control over the issue. If it’s a big task or project we’re talking about, you need to break it down in many small chunks so to end up with tasks that are easy and actionable.

10. You’re in need of a break

Nobody can focus for 8 hours straight. If you constantly work for long stretches of time without taking frequent breaks, you’re draining your batteries and never giving your body and mind a chance to rest and recharge. Likewise, if you’ve been working for weeks and months without ever taking a few days off or going on a proper vacation, your ability to focus is certainly compromised.

What to do

As you naturally can’t focus for long stretches of time, it’s important that you take frequent breaks throughout your day, ideally every 25-50 minutes of work. Try to work in sessions as much as you can. You should also take a day or two off each month so as to have a long weekend in which you can fully recharge. You should also plan a bigger vacation once or twice a year to really help you detach from work and allow you to fully restore your batteries.

Written by Sabine

Thank you for reading!
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