9 Reasons You Can’t Focus

Your mind used to be like a sponge, but today it’s more like a colander. You try to read, and while you’re looking at the words, nothing is sinking in. You try to have a conversation, but everyone sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. You try to work—or write or plan or think—but instead, it feels like you’re in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve: overwhelming and distracting.

Why can’t we focus? These days, the finger is most often pointed at technology. “Smartphones are giving us the attention span of goldfish!” shout the headlines. And while technology certainly plays a role in our fractured attention, it’s not the only culprit. What else could it be? Check out these 9 reasons, plus 5 ways to get your focus on.


Culprit #1: You’re anxious.

Worry and overthinking take up all your bandwidth, leaving you unable to focus. Indeed, worry is the ultimate in missing out—it takes you out of the moment you’re in and puts you squarely in worst-case scenarios that not only aren’t real, but what’s more, probably won’t happen.

Culprit #2: You’re burned out.

Along with exhaustion and resentment, a hallmark of burnout is having to work harder but getting less done. It’s as if your brain has become allergic to your job–any exposure causes a big reaction.

Culprit #3: You’re depressed.

There’s a new school of thought that depression isn’t primarily about mood. Instead, it’s about motivation. Anyone who’s ever suffered from depression and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of making a sandwich or getting through an entire shower knows what I mean.

And who’s the loyal sidekick of motivation? Concentration. They go together everywhere—when you feel pumped, it’s easy to focus. But when you’re feeling slower than a herd of turtles, your concentration naturally feels more like a disco ball than a laser beam.

Culprit #4: You’re drowning in clutter.

This one may seem surprising at first, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We can only process visual information about so many things at once. Focusing on one thing means competitively suppressing everything else. So if we’re trying to focus on one thing, having to filter out a stack of dirty dishes, unopened mail, and a veritable mosaic of sticky notes takes way too much bandwidth.


Culprit #5: You have a food intolerance.

If you have a food sensitivity, mainstream allergens like dairy, wheat, eggs, or corn, as well as more obscure food categories like fermentable carbs or sugar alcohols, may cloud your thinking like a fog machine gone rogue.

Culprit #6: You’re exhausted.

If all your remaining energy is going towards staying upright and not drooling, it’s no wonder you can’t concentrate. In a culture where coffee regularly replaces sleep, we’ve forgotten what it’s like not to feel tired.

Culprit #7: You’re not sure what you’re doing.

You can’t stay on task because the task isn’t well-defined enough, or you don’t have all the information you need to properly tackle the task. For example, say you’re a student trying to write a paper, but your task list simply says “write paper.” Trying to write before you have a clear idea of your thesis and major supporting points, or a breakdown of what you have to do—make an outline, research main points—creates an open invitation to distraction.

Culprit #8: You’re unconsciously procrastinating.

Sometimes we’re willing participants in our own downfall. You may simply not want to do what you’re supposed to do. It’s easier, more rewarding, and simply feels better to give into checking email, scrolling through the news, or even getting sucked into productive procrastination like cleaning, travel planning, or other tasks that need to get done, just not now.

Culprit #9: You have a medical issue.

MS, lupus, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, cancer and it’s treatment, or even pregnancy are all notorious for causing various forms of brain fog. As someone who once put lettuce in the freezer and ketchup under the sink while pregnant, this is definitely a thing.

So what to do? While we wish we could all come down with a bout of Attention Surplus Disorder, until that happens, try these 5 tips.


Tip #1: Break whatever you’re trying to do into ridiculously tiny steps.

Forget breaking tasks into 10-minute chunks or whatever else the interweb says. Instead, go with your gut. Break a task down, then ask yourself how you feel about it. If you have any hint of resistance, break it down even further. It’s totally okay if your chunks get ridiculously miniscule: “Google ‘tax software.’” “Lace up my workout shoes.” “Open laptop.” Only you will ever know how small your tasks have to get to keep you moving forward. Make your task smaller and smaller until your gut says, “Okay, fine.” Once you’ve broken the inertia, you’ve done the hardest part.

Once you’ve broken the inertia, you’ve done the hardest part.

Tip #2: Turn your attention inside out.

Oftentimes, our own internal workings take up most of our bandwidth, leaving little for what we’re actually supposed to be doing. So if you’re worrying, ruminating, overthinking, or are otherwise stuck in your head, consciously turn your attention outward to the task at hand.

I won’t lie. Turning your attention to what you’re supposed to be doing is hard, not because it’s hard to do, but because it’s hard to sustain. Turning your attention to the task isn’t difficult, but ignoring everything else is.

Thankfully, if you have the right expectations around it, it gets easier. Think of this as a repetitive task, like filing. When you file papers, you don’t just cram everything in one spot and are done with it. You file one document at a time, again and again. It’s just how you do it. Repetition is part of the process. Think of focusing in the same way. It’s not as simple as yelling “FOCUS!” and then locking in on your work like a tractor beam. Instead, focusing is something you do again and again.

Tip #3: Organize your immediate environment.

Remember how clutter competes for our attention? That extends to all sensory clutter—noise,  email alerts on your laptop, the loud conversation right behind you at the coffee shop. Of course, you can use various paraphernalia to help with this: noise-cancelling headphones, social media-blocking apps. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view.” Dillard reports that during one writing project, she wrote in a cinder-block room that overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. So take a few minutes to make your workspace into a giant distraction filter and focusing gets a lot easier.


Tip #4: Meet yourself where you’re at.

Have a shorter-than-usual attention span today? Fine. Let’s say you usually knock out 25-minute pomodoros (25 minutes of work, 5 minute break, repeat) but today you’re head feels like it’s full of marinara sauce. Rather than forcing yourself to aim for your usual 25 minutes, start with ten. Or eight. Or one. Lower the bar. Yes, one minute of work isn’t much, but repeated over and over again, those drops in the bucket add up to a bucketload of productivity. The upshot? Something is better than nothing.

Tip #5: This should go without saying, but take care of yourself.

How often have you thought that stabbing pain in your head was a brain tumor, but really you were just dehydrated? Or that everyone and everything in your life was against you, but really you were just hangry?

Is there an easily fixable reason you can’t focus? Are you exhausted? Hungover? Did you just cut out refined sugar or gluten or some other usual go-to? There’s very little that a good night’s sleep, a brisk walk, a big glass of water, and a healthy snack can’t fix. Take care of your body’s needs and your mind will follow.

Tip #6: Of course, if your concentration problems go beyond the occasional off day, consider seeking out some help.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, burnout, food intolerances, and most medical issues are treatable. See your doctor, or of course, a good psychologist. If he or she doesn’t help or doesn’t listen, see another one.

As a symptom, brain fog doesn’t often get the attention it deserves because it’s not easily measureable and not life-threatening. But it does threaten your quality of life.

So break down your tasks, turn your attention inside out, remove distraction, take care of yourself, and get help if you need it. When the next fogbank rolls in, you’ll be ready to blow it away.

You didn’t think the episode would end without a bad joke, did you? Here you go: What happened when the Ford Escort took Ritalin? It became a Ford Focus.

What do you think? Let me know below.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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