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Why Can’t I Focus? 5 Reasons Why, and What to Do About It

People often complain of difficulty focusing – be it at work, at school, or even in their daily routines. Sometimes, they even find it hard to keep up with the to-do list. 

How many times have you picked up your phone to check what’s on your Instagram feed, what's trending on Twitter, or what’s new on Netflix? Even so, you know you have an important task that needs to be completed in front of you.

There is always a distraction, and you end up with half-finished projects and unaccomplished tasks

According to one survey of more than 35,000 leaders from different companies, 67 percent of leaders agree that “their minds are cluttered.” The respondents added that they have a lot of thoughts and a lack of clear priorities. The leaders cited workload, competing priorities, general distractions, and demands of other people to be the main source of distractions. Out of all the respondents, a whopping 96 percent said that enhanced focus would be “extremely valuable.”

Funny thing is, your ability to concentrate fluctuates throughout the day. Some days you can tackle your tasks without any problem, while other days, you procrastinate and daydream all day.

So, how do you train your brain to constantly focus on relevant things and filter out the rest? How do you stay organized throughout the day and accomplish all your tasks?

Luckily, “Focus is a muscle, and you can build it,” says Elie Venezky, author of Hack Your Brain. The more you think that you just can't focus, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the moment you drop that misplaced belief, your perspective changes, and you can start working towards building focus.

What to Do When You Can't Focus at Work

You might think to yourself, “I can't focus on what needs to get done.” Well, here are the most common reasons why you lose focus, and what to do about it.

1. You Are Fatigued

Young business man with fake eyes painted on paper stickers sleeping at workplace in office

If you have been staring at your computer screen, without batting an eyelid, not knowing what to do, it's a sign you are bored and tired.

Just like you can't fight sleep, you can’t fight fatigue. If your brain is overly tired, your focus flies out the window, and it's never coming back until you get a good rest. There are many reasons why you are super tired:

  • You could be overworked, or you are overworking yourself.
  • You didn’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown to harm cognitive performance, and it could explain why you can’t focus at work.
  • You stayed up too late last night, drinking with your buddies.

Studies show that staying up one hour later than the norm significantly reduces your ability to focus. Now, lack of sleep for extended periods will start to kill your brain cells, and you will develop concentration problems.

How to focus:

Just sleep more. Resist the temptation to work late. You need to recognize that the later you work, the less you sleep, and the more you can't focus. In turn, you get less work done.

Additionally, stop overworking yourself and step out for a short walk. Being exposed to natural light will enhance your attention and boost your work performance. Ditch the cup of coffee for water. 75 percent of your brain is made of water. So, it needs constant top-up to keep the level of concentration up.

2. Distractions Are Your Worst Enemies

We can't even start to mention the types of distractions surrounding you in an average workday. Distractions are diversions from your work. They take away your focus, and instead, you start thinking about something else, often, non-work related stuff. 

Unfortunately, our brains pick up everything that’s going on around us. When something is happening outside the office, there's that urge to see what it is. Distractions can be positive or negative events. Nevertheless, they are still distractions, and they make it tough to focus.

Have you ever noticed how quickly you find something else to do (like scroll through Instagram) when your project gets hard? That’s because distractions offer temporary relief from a hectic day. However,the result is your projects take longer to complete than they should.

How to focus:

  • Eliminate everything that’s not relevant to your work. Switch off your phone or put it in silent mode to avoid getting notifications and alerts. Additionally, if you work from home, let your friends and family members know your work schedule so that they don’t bargein whenever they wish.
  • Have clear priorities. What are your goals? What do you plan to accomplish by the end of the day? Having an objective will keep you focused on the tasks at hand, and you won't allow distractions to come in the way.
  • If you can't stay away from YouTube videos while working, try using apps that block distractions.

Alternatively, you can try positive distractions that are actually beneficial, like taking a walk, meditation, creative art, or dancing.

3. Time Management Issues

Managing your time properly throughout the day or week and sticking to it is not an easy task. With distractions hitting you from right, left, and center, sometimes you find yourself putting on hold top-priority tasks. Instead, you do something that’s not truly important, like checking your Twitter feed.

Even with a daily focus list, if you don’t possess proper time management skills, then you will be forced to postpone most of your to-do lists to the next day. Keep up with this trend, and you will start wondering why you can't get things done.

How to focus:

  • Use timers. Timers help you to stay focused on tasks at hand. It's not enough having a to-do list. You should set a timer for how long you want to work on that task. If you are working on a big project, don’t set a timer that lasts the whole day. Instead, divide the timer slots into smaller periods to avoid getting tired. Traqq is a great timer clock app that also doubles up as a project management app. Once installed, you can access the app from your menu bar, making it easy to start and stop the timer as you wish.
  • "Eat the Frog". This tip by Brian Tracy describes starting with the hardest, and most important tasks first thing in the morning. While it might not be appealing, doing it first thing when your energy is at its peak allows you to tackle the tasks with ease. With the toughest tasks out of the way, you can carry on with other lighter chores that don’t require much energy and focus.

4. Whatever You Do, Don’t Multitask

Multitasking is the enemy of productivity. There is a common misconception that when you multitask, you get more done. In reality, you only end up with lots of unfinished tasks. We live in a fast-tracked, time-is-money world, where we are continually pushed and pressured to do more things at once, and faster.

This approach is not only wrong but also detrimental to your brain. When you jump from a meeting to working on a presentation to replying to emails and phone calls, and back to the meeting, you are never fully present in any of the tasks, and you can't maintain focus.

The more you multitask, the more you wire your brain to have shorter and less efficient attention spans.

How to focus:

  • Try the Pomodoro technique. This productivity hack helps to keep you focused on one task only but in smaller time slots. For instance, you can work for 25 minutes non-stop, take a short (timed) break of say five minutes, and then focus for another 25 minutes, and take a 5-minute break again, and so on. The Pomodoro technique uses the 25-minute work/5-minute break schedule, but you can adjust it to suit your preferences. You can find tons of apps online to help you with this technique.
  • Turn off notifications. When you hear notifications on your phone trickling in or you get a call and pick it up, you may end up completely losing focus on the task at hand depending on what you read or hear. So, to minimize distractions, turn off all phone notifications and block notifications on your PC to work without interruptions.
  • Take control of your day. Apart from turning off notifications and blocking unnecessary websites, prioritize your tasks throughout the day – start with things that are important and urgent to the least important tasks.

5. Lack of Motivation

A lack of motivation usually leads to procrastination, and you end up losing focus at work. Lack of motivation can be driven by several factors, including:

  • Overworking
  • Not setting clear priorities
  • You don’t know what you want
  • You no longer find your job interesting
  • Your goal is overwhelming you, and you procrastinate on getting started
  • Lack of self-belief
  • You give in to fear
  • Your lifestyle is unhealthy

Without motivation, it becomes difficult to concentrate on your work, and your productivity suffers. It also deprives you of the feeling of satisfaction that comes from completing tasks on your to-do list.

How to focus:

  • Stay in control. Don’t just give in to whatever your mind needs. You may want to just lie in bed and watch Netflix all day, skip workout, or scroll through Instagram. However, ask yourself what you will achieve if you give in to these destructive habits. We all have those days when we don’t feel like working, but we do it anyway, especially when we remember the outcome.
  • Find inspiration. Look for something that lights you up and re-energizes you anytime, any day. It's different for different people. While some get inspired by break dancing, reading a good book, listening to music, or doing artwork, others get inspired by reading motivational quotes from highly successful people.
  • Track your progress. One of the biggest motivation challenges is the lack of feedback. However, when you know how far in you are in your project, you might get motivated to push yourself harder to hit your target. Maybe you are working on a large project or writing a book. By tracking your work, you will be able to see how many hours you’ve put in the project and how many words you have written so far. These daily metrics will help you stay focused and have the urge to finish what you started.
  • Reward yourself. Incentives are a great way to keep employees motivated. They help people develop a positive mindset that they will get rewarded when the work is done.

In Conclusion…

Many people struggle to focus on work. Whether it's due to fatigue, lack of motivation, distractions, or poor time management skills, there’s a remedy – you can train your brain to focus. 

Practice makes perfect, and over time, you will learn how to focus and prioritize tasks. Soon your productivity will increase, and you will have yourself to thank.

When you can't focus, take a walk or a short run, or hit the gym. A little break from work won't hurt. Instead, you will come back feeling rejuvenated. Remember to stay hydrated and get quality sleep every single night. Your brain depends on it.

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