Many people have experienced that uncomfortable feeling of anxiety when a due date for a big project is looming and they’re struggling with completing it, or they really meant to have the house clean for guests but got sidetracked, or they just wanted to finish up a creative project and lost track of time. It can be incredibly frustrating and difficult to address why this happens, but for those who are willing to examine the causes, there is good news: There are many ways to strengthen your mental processes and bolster focus and concentration to improve your productivity!Table of Contents
- Concentration issues are totally normal
- Personal issues that interrupt focus and attention span
- Day-to-day causes of inattentiveness
- Health conditions that impact attention span
- Easy ways to improve your focus
- Life with a sharper attention span
It might seem like a small issue, but many people struggle with staying focused, both professionally and in their personal lives. It can be a struggle at times to keep your mind on the task at hand, especially if you’re working in an office or other position that requires you to work at a computer.
Of course, your mind can wander when you’re completing different kinds of projects at the same time, but for many, mental tasks can be challenging. A robust focus can assist you with finishing your work faster, freeing up more time for other tasks or activities. It can help you produce higher quality work, improve your reputation and performance, and achieve a higher sense of satisfaction in your work and time spent during your workday.
Concentration issues are totally normal
It’s completely normal to have trouble concentrating during the day. For countless children and adults, this often-misunderstood problem is in no way a notion of unintelligence, laziness or apathy.
In fact, it might very well be the main reason so many highly-intelligent people are unable to perform as well as others who don’t seem as smart as them. Why does this happen? Because the ability to remain focused amid myriad distractions is far more crucial to success than talent. If you were to ask virtually every icon of every field how they got to where they are today, their number one answer would likely be unbreakable concentration.
The power of monotony
Very few people are able to turn their passion into their work. Most of us have regular jobs that involve monotonous tasks related to products or services we will probably never use. The only real motivation for getting work done is keeping your job, as opposed to, say, helping people you care about.
Everybody goes through this every day, so it should be easy, right? It’s extremely difficult to concentrate on something you don’t feel a connection to. Without a connection, it doesn’t seem like these tasks actually “need” to get done since they might not be directly affecting anybody of real value in your life. It’s only natural for your ability to focus on your work to fade when you feel less and less fulfillment from it as time passes.
Staying stationary isn't natural
You don’t have to be a medical expert to know that sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen all day is not exactly what your body and mind are asking for. Human beings were not built to be stationary for such long periods of time. When you are sitting at your desk, your body becomes restless and your mind struggles to focus because your inner urges to move around or seek sunlight are kicking in. Remaining stationary all day is especially difficult for active people who love to exercise or enjoy the outdoors in their spare time, but this is the environment the average adult must cope with.
The internet isn’t good for your brain
In front of your eyes are dozens of different things to click on. You might think you are ignoring most of these things and only paying attention to the task at hand but according to Carr’s research, your brain is hard at work, telling you not to click on that link, share that post, or watch that video. In other words, you are never truly focused on one source of information. Constantly forcing your brain to decide whether or not to click on something impedes your ability to concentrate because your brain isn’t used to paying attention to just one thing at a time.
Personal issues that interrupt focus and attention span
There are many ways you can find your attention span impacted, with a wide variety of causes and accompanying issues. Difficulty focusing can be accompanied by:
- Lapses in memory
- General cognition issues or "brain fog"
- Lack of willpower
- Mental resilience
Most people know what it feels like to have a distracted afternoon or trouble finishing a project they’re not very interested in, but some folks struggle with a consistent inability to give their best work and stay focused on their chosen task.
Additionally, issues with focus and concentration can cause something of a negative mental loop; when you are struggling with productivity and performance, it can impact self-esteem and create stress and anxiety, which further reduces your ability to produce solid, timely work.
Day-to-day causes of inattentiveness
As well as more serious struggles with health conditions, including mental health struggles as detailed below, simple day-to-day occurrences and items can get in the way of your focus.
Phones and other personal screen devices
Unsurprisingly, some of the most disruptive causes of unfocused behavior come from the sheer amount of screen time we spend each day. It’s very difficult to concentrate when you have a tiny, blinking device containing not only internet access, but engaging apps and personal messages, just tempting you to take a dive into its screen. Additionally, the light from your phone can not only make you restless, but actually impact your ability to relax and stay focused.
Time of day
Your daily rhythms and inner-clock can also affect your ability to focus. If you’re hungry, with low blood sugar, you might find your mind wandering and have difficulty keeping on task. That being said, if you’re trying to be productive while digesting a large, heavy meal, or after a high-sugar treat, you may find yourself crashing or sleepy.
Overconsumption of caffeine can also cause a physical and mental crash once its energizing effects wear off. If you’re working late into the evening, you might experience brain fog as your body begins to send sleep signals.
Diet and lifestyle
What you eat and how you live can have a significant impact on your cognition and attention span. Long stretches of time spent sitting at a desk can cause restlessness, and if you’ve been up late, fatigue can impact your mental abilities the next day. If you’re finding that you generally feel more unhealthy or out-of-shape than you’re comfortable with, these may also be contributing to your difficulty with focus. If you’re experiencing any unusual or ongoing, compounding stress in your life, you may find it difficult to complete tasks without being distracted by intrusive thoughts.
Your work style
How you actually work might be detrimentally affecting your work flow. Many people pride themselves on being able to multitask, but the effectiveness of multitasking is a myth. Unless you’re working a job that requires the ability to pay attention to multiple responsibilities at the same time, like education or hospitality, attempting to switch between different tasks can actually impair the quality of your work. It can take up to 15 minutes to center on an assignment, and distractions, even for another duty, can take you out of the effective flow of concentration.
Health conditions that impact attention span
Anyone who is experiencing specific health concerns or disorders may find that their cognition is impacted, and that includes their attention span and productivity. A person who is on the ADHD spectrum is likely to experience inattention or difficulty focusing. Someone with ADHD might find small noises or distractions harder to ignore, or struggle to keep their mind on the task at hand. Additionally, many people who have ADHD are diagnosed later in life, so if you think the symptoms of ADHD apply to you, it may be worth discussing with your doctor.
Although anyone who is neurodivergent such as autistic or dyslexic folks, may struggle more than neurotypical people with the length of their attention span or ability to concentrate. Addtionally, people who are experiencing depression or anxiety can also struggle with brain fog or the ability to focus productively.
Conditions that negatively affect the brain’s processes, such as dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) can, naturally, have a variety of symptoms including a detrimental effect on focus, cognition, and attention. It can be a struggle to confront the effects of a difficult diagnosis. Even the natural process of aging can cause cognitive decline and memory issues. It is possible to keep up good practices to keep your mind sharp as you age; however, if you are experiencing new and unexpected issues with your mental functions, it’s always best to discuss those with a trusted healthcare professional.
Easy ways to improve your focus
Though it might feel impossible to overcome at times, there are absolutely ways to improve your ability to concentrate and get uninterrupted, high-quality work done, whether that’s at the office or developing your personal projects.
Unplug from your cell phone
It’s not enough to just put your phone down. In order to keep yourself from compulsively checking your notifications, the best thing you can do is turn your phone off completely and put it out of sight. Giving yourself permission to be unavailable can be freeing, and can allow your mind to step away from the possibility of distraction.
If you would like to dial up your distraction-free experience even higher, but have to complete some work on a computer or other screen device, you can download a program that will lock your ability to access distracting sites or apps. Another option is to use a work timer; the Pomodoro method times periods of uninterrupted work and short, five minute breaks, with one longer break after three sets, allowing your brain to dive in, but refresh yourself at intervals. You can use those breaks to get some fresh air, drink some water, or listen to a song. Many people swear by these methods for productivity!
For some, the prospect of meditation is an intimidating one. However, there’s no big secret to meditation and it’s easy to begin. The act of trying to clear your mind is all it takes to get started, even if for the first while you can’t quite get rid of pesky thoughts infringing on your focus. The more you practice meditation, the easier you will find it to slip into a state of calm, relaxed detachment - and the more you will find it can benefit both your stress levels, and your ability to concentrate.
Raising your heart rate and breaking a sweat on a regular basis has great benefits for your overall health, but it can also aid your mind in focus and cognition. Even if you’re not able to fit in a longer workout every day, getting up and getting your blood moving can help in the middle of a workday. Taking a brisk walk around the building, or moving through a few yoga poses can help you center and strengthen your concentration. Yoga is a great practice for assisting your cognition and concentration, as many styles of yoga combine elements of focused breathing and long-held poses - not to mention helping your body stay resilient, especially if you work a job that requires sitting at a desk for a large portion of your day.
Spending time in nature can significantly lower your stress levels and boost your mood. Even if you live in an urban centre, finding green space to immerse yourself in can be very helpful. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can improve your short-term memory and assist with the ability to concentrate.
A healthy diet that incorporates fresh produce and whole grains, rather than processed foods, simple carbohydrates, and refined sugars, can support and help maintain your cognitive ability. Eating nutritious foods keeps your body nourished, balanced, and resilient, while a diet high in processed and sweetened foods can cause brain fog, energy crashes, and mood swings. Ideally, you should get most of the essential vitamins and nutrients required for health from your diet, and that will benefit your brain as well as your body!
Make sure to drink water throughout the day. Staying hydrated benefits both your body and mind; dehydration can hit your mental processes hard. Additionally, getting up to refill your water bottle or fetch a tall glass of H2O can be the perfect break from your workstation, helping to refresh your mind and reset your mood.
Monitor your caffeine consumption
While caffeine can be a valuable tool for alertness and wakefulness, especially first thing in the morning, it’s important to be aware of its effects and the amount you are consuming. Drinking several cups of coffee throughout the day can keep your energy level spiking and crashing, overloading your adrenal glands. Limiting your consumption of coffee, and avoiding overly sugary additions, can help maintain an even energy level throughout the day.
Another excellent option is replacing coffee consumption with a beneficial beverage like green tea or matcha, which is a concentrated form of powdered green tea. Green tea does have caffeine, but far less than coffee, and is accompanied by the amino acid L-theanine which promotes a sense of calm relaxation.
Though it’s best to aim to include as many cognition-boosting foods in your diet as possible, supplementing for support is a good choice as well. Plant-based supplements are experiencing a huge increase in popularity, though they have been used in traditional practices for centuries.There are many natural options that can optimize your mental processes and nervous system, and these botanical solutions are lauded for their gentle effectiveness at supporting the overall nervous system.
Life with a sharper attention span
Many people have reported that lifestyle changes have improved their ability to focus and produce high-quality work. Improvement in diet and an increased amount of exercise is a huge benefit to being able to think effectively throughout the day. Additionally, supplementing for mental clarity has certainly worked for many; as well, studies have indicated that some of the adaptogenic components used in many brain-boosting products can be efficacious at improving cognition.
The first step in seeking help for trouble concentrating is recognizing that it’s not your fault. Several external factors (possibly beyond your control) are to blame. There’s no downside to finessing your personal habits and bettering your health - why not give it a try?!