Why Can’t I Focus? 8 Reasons and Solutions for the Distracted Brain
Focus is priceless in our always hectic, often overwhelming lives. It’s also getting harder and harder to find. Whenever you’re up to your eyeballs on a tight deadline and find yourself wandering off into a social media black hole or a YouTube binge, a single question comes to mind:
Why can’t I just focus already?
Digital distractions are everywhere we look, so it’s easy to blame them as the culprits. Others—perfectionist types—chock up the problem to a lack of discipline or willpower. But the truth is a bit more complicated. Navigating the murky waters of distraction starts with an understanding of our own biology and behavior patterns that might have gone unnoticed for years. With a solid grasp of the problem, we can turn our attention to practical solutions to improve our focus.
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in!
What is Focus and Attention? How Does it Work?
Focus is simply selective attention in action. You’re concentrating on a specific task, but you’re also tuning out the countless other stimuli competing for your attention at that moment.
Not all focus is created equal. When you think of the concept, you’re probably thinking of an intentional choice. If you planned to practice guitar today, you focus by sitting down and doing it. Researchers describe this type of action as “top-down.” Top-down selective attention is intentional, goal-driven, and probably how you’d like to spend more of your time each day.
But there’s also another kind of focus. “Bottom-up” selective attention is your brain’s response to stimuli. These stimuli can be external, like reaching for your iPhone when a notification dings, or internal, like finding your thoughts wander to that delicious Chinese restaurant across the street when your stomach is rumbling.
Unlike top-down attention, bottom-up attention is involuntary, which is why it can be so annoying at times. It’s easy to label these unwanted interruptions as distractions—but they’re really just focus of a different kind.
Ancient Brains, Modern Society
It’s easy to blame digital distractions or a lack of discipline when we can’t focus, but a lot of it has to do with simple biology.
Humans evolved this way for good reason. Survival on the Serengeti meant a keen awareness of motion and the present moment. When it came to stalking gazelles or trying not to get stalked by a hungry lion, speed was everything. Now, the typical knowledge worker doesn’t have to worry about their physical safety at the office or where they’ll find their next meal.
As Cal Newport points out, success in modern life demands a complete reversal of how humans have evolved to behave. In just .1% of the timeline of human history, our society has changed to reward those who are able to sit still in their offices, oblivious to external stimuli, locked deep in thought.
The incentives have totally flipped… except we still have the same brains as before. That tension—between what evolution has prepared us for and what modern society demands—manifests as frustration and an inability to focus.
Understanding What Trouble Focusing is All About
Not all focus is created equal, and neither are all focus problems. This makes it even more frustrating when you try some generic advice and wonder why it isn’t working for your specific situation. At their core, however, focus problems break down into two main categories:
- You know exactly what you need to do, but you can’t bring yourself to do it. This is that feeling when you open a blank Word document the night before a report is due and stare at the cursor blinking. You’ll find every reason in the world to delay starting. But when you finally manage to do it, every sentence is agony. You find yourself flipping through web browser tabs, staring out the window, or trying to find that perfect song on Spotify because you just can’t force yourself to stay on task.
- You know what your objectives are, but you can’t figure out how to get there. There’s so much to do—and so little time. Making more to-do lists or shifting through that stack of papers again won’t help. How do you decide what’s truly important? Maybe you’ll bounce between a bunch of different projects for a while before you get too frustrated to continue. No matter how hard you work, you can’t seem to cut through that gray haze of not knowing what to do next.
Although the first problem is more about fixing your attention on a certain task and the second is a matter of prioritization, both problems can look a lot alike. Diagnosing the issue is key, though; certain solutions will help one type of focus problem but not another. If you’re trying to write a proposal with Slack open, your smartphone in your lap, and a toddler tugging at your pant leg, the solution isn’t to create a better to-do list.
Your focus challenges can (and will) change over time. Identifying the issue you’re dealing with right now will help you decide which tactics to use to overcome it.
If you’re trying to write a proposal with Slack open, your smartphone in your lap, and a toddler tugging at your pant leg, the solution isn’t to create a better to-do list.
8 Reasons for a Lack of Focus or Concentration
Now that we’ve discussed why it’s so tough to focus in general, let’s talk specific reasons why you might be having trouble. Check out this list below and see if anything sounds familiar to you.
1. Trouble Prioritizing What’s Most Important
This happens when you’re facing an endless list of tasks, a distant and vague goal, or both. You’ll often find yourself multitasking, ticking off items on your to-do list as you bounce between different tasks. But when you get to the end of the week and find yourself no closer to your goal (or, even worse, you can’t even tell if you’re closer or further away), you’ll start to question the value of it all. Unable to discriminate tasks by importance, the temptation is to just work on whatever’s easiest or just throw up your hands and run off to Netflix or HBO.
2. Emotional Procrastination
A lot of our procrastination issues are thinly veiled attempts to avoid discomfort. Theoretically, we know we can get through whatever task is ahead; anyone who’s ever been on a tight deadline and found a way to meet it can attest to that. The issue isn’t a lack of capability. It’s our emotional triggers driving us away from discomfort. Without the right strategies to manage them, it’s often only when the discomfort of not doing something outweighs the benefit of procrastinating on it that we’re able to get started.
3. Lack of Motivation
If you’ve left a pile of unfinished projects in your wake, you aren’t alone. A lack of motivation can strike when it’s time to start focusing (leading to procrastination) or keep us from staying focused until the job is done.
Remember, our brains are wired to seek rewards in the present moment. That’s why it’s so easy to scarf down the whole box of chocolates right now; the future is an unknown. This bias for the present payoff can make it tricky to stay motivated throughout a project that will take days, weeks, or months. The same goes for the essential (but sometimes boring) tasks of planning and practicing your craft. That kind of work won’t earn immediate accolades from customers or your boss. A lack of feedback forces us to guess about our own progress, making it that much tougher to stay on target.
4. Too Much Multitasking
Multitasking is a common byproduct from feeling overwhelmed. It’s hard to stay focused long enough to finish one thing when you’re worried that your to-do list is turning into the next War and Peace. The temptation is to jump from task to task, working on that spreadsheet while you hop back and forth from phone calls and emails. It’s easy to trick ourselves that a whirlwind of activity is the same thing as productivity. All the while, the switching costs (loss of efficiency and the time it tasks to reorient ourselves whenever we change tasks) continue to add up.
5. Time Management Issues
As Nir Eyal says, “time management is pain management.” The way we schedule our days, if done unintentionally, reflects our tendency to avoid discomfort. Instead of forcing ourselves to tackle that hard but top-priority task first thing in the morning (when most of us are fresh and alert), we pencil it in sometime after lunch. Then we wonder why it never seems to get done. Another common struggle is estimating just how long things will take. It’s easy to try to squeeze in too much and then end up frustrated when we don’t meet an unrealistic schedule. Finally, leaving too many gaps of unstructured time robs us of the ability to use goal-driven, top-down selective attention and instead sets us up to respond to whatever stimuli is demanding our attention in those moments.
6. Physical Health Issues
Our minds and bodies are intimately connected. So it’s a shame how often people overlook physical health as a crucial piece of the focus puzzle. A staggering one in three adults are chronically sleep deprived, which disrupts communication between brain cells and disrupts cognition. We also have a habit of skipping meals or grabbing light snacks when we should be eating something substantial, which has been proven to impair focus. Most of us aren’t drinking enough water either—another focus killer. It’s no wonder that our bodies respond in the only way they know how: by sending internal stimuli demanding our attention.
7. Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues can impair focus just as severely as physical health issues. Anxiety and depression don’t just change our thought patterns; they can even rewire our brains. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to knock out that next coding sprint when your stress hormones are pumping because your brain perceives you’re under a serious threat (anxiety) or when motivation is impossible because the task feels meaningless (depression). Mental health issues are overarching and can have a domino effect on everything else discussed in this section. People with ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions face a whole different set of challenges to navigate.
Distraction isn’t a lack of focus; it’s simply allowing yourself to become focused on something other than the task at hand. This is frustrating because it makes projects take much longer than they should. When it happens often, it has the same switching costs as multitasking because your brain is constantly scrambling to reorient itself. Notice how easy it is to find something else to do the second your project gets hard? That’s because distractions are little breaks from discomfort. That quick scroll through Instagram is like a pressure-release valve from a hectic day. Concerns about distraction didn’t start with the Internet age either. People have battled distraction by televisions, radios, and even earlier technologies.
Identifying What You Want to Achieve and What’s Getting in the Way
One of the biggest obstacles to better focus is understanding where we’re going wrong right now. Are you a diehard multitasker? Easily distracted? Is it a motivation issue? It might be all of the above—or it could vary depending on the time of day or type of task you’re trying to finish.
Bottom line: a lot of our focus issues are unconscious. Making those unconscious habits conscious will help you understand what’s wrong and how to fix it.
Start by making a log of your distractions. This is exactly what Nir Eyal recommends in his book Indistractable. Instead of writing down all the stuff you get done that day, document the moments you failed. Note what you were supposed to be working on, how you lost focus, and as many other details as possible (time of day, your physical and mental state, etc.) The idea is to better understand the triggers that lead to your focus breakdowns.
Do this for a few days, and patterns start to emerge. You’ll wonder why in the world you’re always on Facebook at two in the afternoon or chatting with coworkers whenever you get anxious about your dog back home.
Some people are great at focusing no matter what’s going on emotionally but terrible about allowing external stimuli (like smartphones and office gossip) to take control. Others have no problem shutting out external distractions but are captive to internal stimuli like fatigue, relationship drama, or self-doubt.
Some of your observations may surprise you. Untangling all that unconscious behavior into recognizable patterns puts you that much closer to better focus.
Practical Strategies to Tackle a Lack of Focus
Once you have a deeper understanding of your focus problem areas, it’s easier to find the right approach to overcome them. Here are some practical strategies for the eight types of focus problems we discussed above.
1. Trouble Prioritizing What’s Most Important
- The Eisenhower matrix. Popularized by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, this prioritization strategy involves creating a box with four quadrants: important and urgent tasks, urgent but unimportant tasks, important but not urgent tasks, and not urgent or important tasks. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the urgent stuff that we never get around to what’s truly important. The Eisenhower matrix forces you to discriminate.
- Warren Buffet’s “2 list” strategy. Warren Buffet is a master of focused investing, turning down tons of mediocre opportunities for a few winners. His list-making strategy is no different. Write down your top 25 goals. That’s list one. Then, force yourself to pick just five of those items for a second list. Prioritize your time on those five items exclusively, and you’ll put your limited time to its best use.
- The Ivy Lee method. Ivy Lee was a popular productivity consultant with clients like Charles Schwab and the Rockefeller family. His method is simple but super effective. Before you finish work each day, write down your top six priority tasks for tomorrow. Rank them from one to six. When you start work the next day, work on your number one task until it’s complete. Then go on to number two, three, and so one. It’s a great way to structure your time for single-tasking.
2. Emotional Procrastination
- Create a mental parking lot. Negative thoughts and emotions are unavoidable—but they don’t have to mess with your focus. The next time something unpleasant is bothering you, open up a Word document or good old paper and pen, write it down, and then let it go and get back to work. Fill up this mental parking lot throughout the day. It will help you take a moment to acknowledge your feeling without them consuming your day.
- Single-tasking. If starting to work on one thing is intimidating, the thought of starting a dozen things is nearly impossible. But there’s no need to set yourself up to fail. Pick one thing. Then set a timer and make yourself a deal: all you have to do is work for five minutes. When the timer goes off, you’ll often be in the groove and ready for more.
- Just get started. Seriously. This sounds like tough love, but it’s amazing how much better you’ll feel once you get over that inertia. Plus, simply starting a task makes the Zeignarik effect kick in; incomplete tasks creates mental tension, keeping the tasks at the forefront of our thoughts until we close the loop by completing the task.
3. Lack of Motivation
- Track your results. One of the biggest motivation challenges on large projects is a lack of feedback. With the end goal so far away, you’ll wonder how much progress you’ve made. Remedy this by tracking important daily metrics. It might be the number of words written in your novel, the hours you spent coding your mobile app, or how many marketing emails you sent.
- Knowing your biological rhythms. A lot of focus comes down to managing your energy effectively. As much as you can, align your high-priority, difficult work at times when you’re at your peaks. Low-energy times are great for admin tasks that are still important but don’t require as much brainpower.
- Use a timer. The sheer scope of a project can overwhelm. You can either let that intimidate you into distraction—or you can break it down into bite-sized chunks and get to work. Using a timer will do this for you. All you have to do is work until that buzzer rings and you’ll end up many minutes closer to finishing that project.
4. Too Much Multitasking
- Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is about the easiest productivity method around. The idea is to work on one task only for a set time interval, take a short break (also timed), and then move on to the next interval. The Pomodoro technique uses a 25-minute work/5-minute break schedule, but you can adjust the intervals so they best suit your workflow. Tons of apps and timers are available online.
- Limiting your number of open tabs. Visual clutter on your devices and web browsers isn’t just distracting; it also primes your brain for multitasking. All you have to do is click or alt-tab your way to something more exciting.
- Turn off notifications. Notifications are essentially invitations for distraction. When your phone pings and you read that latest email, your work priorities are forgotten. It’s time to take back control. Turning off all those pesky notifications lets you respond on your own time—not in the middle of an important task.
5. Time Management Issues
- Use to-do lists. These productivity standbys will cut down on the mental energy spent on wondering what to do next. You can rank items by priority and make separate lists for daily, weekly, and monthly objectives. Check out Jake Knapp’s burner list for a cool way to prioritize.
- Time-Blocking. Knowing what to do is a great start. But if you want to be as focused and productive as possible, assign yourself tasks for certain times. Treat them like you would an appointment with a doctor or important client. This eliminates so much uncertainty whenever you finish something and find yourself wondering what to do next.
- Eat the frog. This tip from Brian Tracy is simple. Do the hardest, most important task first thing every day. Sure, it’s unpleasant. But that’s probably when you’re freshest and have the most energy. Knocking out the toughest thing builds momentum that will carry you through the rest of your tasks.
6. Physical Health Issues
- Drink water in the morning. After sleeping for (hopefully) seven or eight hours each night, you’re going to wake up dehydrated. If you can start the day with a few glasses of water, it’ll make a big difference to your energy levels and ability to focus.
- Healthy snacks. When you’re hungry and facing a pile of work, it can be tempting to just stick it out until lunch or the end of the day. But hunger impairs your ability to focus significantly. Keeping a stash of healthy snacks (like fruit or nuts) at your workspace makes it painless to keep your belly full and stay on task.
- Move. Taking short walks throughout the day can be just the type of positive distraction you need for peak focus. If you’re working in time chunks with a method like Pomodoro, the built-in breaks are perfect opportunities. Try to get outside if you can; sunlight has been proven to boost attention and work performance. Also consider a stand-up desk.
7. Mental Health Issues
- Know your patterns and seek professional advice. One of the first steps to mental health is acknowledging when things go wrong. If you’re having a bad week, do what you can to limit stress and workflow. Accept that you may not be as focused as usual. There’s absolutely no shame—and everything to gain—in seeking professional advice.
- Take care of your mental health like you do your physical health. Investing the time to mediate, pray, paint, or whatever you like to do to ease your mind is just as valuable as that time in the gym. Be kind to yourself. Call up an old friend.
- Eliminate everything that is not essential. We live in a society where the default answer is more. But the essence of focus is cutting off everything that isn’t truly important. Consider how you could do more with less. Maybe it’s cutting cable or that new social media platform. Or saying no to the third happy hour this week.
- Know your priorities. Whether it’s career, travel, relationships or all of the above, remember what you want most. Your priorities will warn you whenever distractions are pulling you off course. If your priorities are fuzzy, you could be distracted all the time without even realizing it. Nothing feels like a distraction when there’s no course to be pulled off of.
- Avoid digital distraction with tools like Freedom. Tools like Freedom help you make the most of technology without becoming overwhelmed. Block apps, distracting websites, or even the entire Internet across multiple multiple devices. You can schedule dedicated time blocks for peak productivity. Allow yourself access on your terms and create healthier, more intentional habits with technology.
Struggling to focus is a frustrating and layered problem that that affects everyone at some point. Whether you’re struggling to find motivation or having trouble prioritizing – chances are your lack of focus is pointing to something more complicated beneath the surface. Luckily, with a better understanding of our biology, behaviors, and a few practical techniques, we can begin to tackle our issues with concentration so that we can give our attention and focus to the things that matter most.