Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
August 6, 2021
Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

“Just focus and ignore the distractions.”

You might have said that a million times to yourself or to your child already. However, just repeating this does not seem to help or make it any easier.

So, why can’t you focus, you might ask. Some people might be more prone to having a lack of concentration. This might just be a symptom of a bigger problem or you might be very unlucky. If trouble focusing is making your life difficult, you can find some tips and a possible explanation of what is going on.

Why do I have a lack of focus?

If you can’t focus, there might be a reason. A doctor can provide medical advice about your specific situation. Having difficulty concentrating can be a sudden situation or a chronic situation.

If this problem is new and acute, the following might explain your poor concentration:

If the problem has been there for a long time, it is time to take a deeper look. Many times the question gets asked “Is it adult ADHD?”. The answer is, it could be. One of the main symptoms of ADHD is inattention, so a difficulty concentrating could be because of that.

Other culprits could be in the mental health space or could have to do with other medical conditions like:

  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Dementia
  • Alcohol abuse
  • chronic fatigue syndrome 

Part of the problem is sometimes our reaction. A bad reaction might increase our stress and anxiety, and by default also our lack of focus. When you feel the need to concentrate on a task, you probably really want to finish that task because of a deadline or because it is very important to you.

If you can’t focus, there is a chance that you procrastinate. This is not the end of the world, you still have time to finish your task. Your stress and anxiety will start to rise. You might look for a way to escape or avoid these feelings by watching your favorite Netflix show. 

If you are unlucky, this is when the worrying and the ruminating thoughts starts. You think you can’t do it, or that you are a failure. You are worried about not making the deadline and having too much work.

These thoughts and those stress levels can only have two consequences. Either you finish that task finally or you miss your deadline and you are left with high stress and anxiety and the unfinished task.

Tips to get rid of your lack of focus

When you lose focus, it is time to take action. Feeling like a failure is not necessary. We are sure you have great potential, by taking a deeper look at your issue we can prevent it and move on. 

Sometimes you might need extra help than these lifestyle tips, and that is ok too. A healthcare provider can give you medical advice on how to deal with your lack of focus if needed. 

1. Notice when you lose focus

Noticing when you lose your focus is the first step to do something about it. If you are easily distracted, you might find yourself searching for youtube videos about cats. Three hours later you end up being a masterchef in bread, while in fact you still have not written your thesis.

Notice your sudden interest in these cat videos. They might be a signal that your body and brain needs a break. Maybe you have not started your task yet and you are looking for distraction as a way to not be confronted with this long task. Whatever the reason is, notice it. You do not necessarily have to listen to these thoughts, you can just move on. 

Take a look at your current environment as well. What triggers make it more difficult for you to concentrate? 

2. Reorganize your space

If you decide that one of the triggers might be a messy space, then that is something to take care of on a regular basis. 

The rule “better safe than sorry“ applies here, keeping an organized space can prevent you from searching for distractions in your mess. Some people also believe that a clean house can free up the space in their mind.

3. Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a way to be aware and pay attention to the present moment, without having judgements. In short, it is a way to train your attention muscles.

It is shown to improve your concentration, working memory and cognitive control. Mindfulness guides your attention to your thoughts, emotions, body and external sounds. 

Peer reviewed studies are even taking a look at mindfulness as an alternative treatment for children with ADHD. This is also used as a skill to teach their parents.

Results seem optimistic. Examples of such interventions can be deep breathing, a body scan or progressive muscle relaxation.

4. Exercise

Exercise can improve happy hormones, and memory hormones (catecholamines). It is shown to give people a boost in their concentration. A peer-reviewed study even showed that people with ADHD who perform intense exercise can have similar performance to those without ADHD that did no exercise. 

5. Use it or lose it

Peer reviewed studies show an optimism towards training your working memory, although there is still a lot of work to do. Training your brain might help you in many ways.

Mostly training your working memory seems like a hit. Training this function can potentially support your fluid intelligence and attention control. It might also reduce symptoms that we usually associate with ADHD. 

Trying some exercises where you need to “work with your memory” can be a good idea to ease back into activating the brain. Mathematical sudoku’s or numerical puzzles are a great example. If language is more your comfort zone, you can try crossword puzzles.

6. Check your medication

Certain medications are made to calm you down or make you sleepy. Other medications are made to fight cancer. Sometimes these medications have adverse effects.

It could be that your concentration is lower because of a new medication you are taking (or a different dosis). This might be a direct or indirect consequence off other physical side-effects.

7. Cut your sugar and caffeine if needed

Sugar and caffeine are addictive chemicals. 

Mary Poppins said that sugar makes the medicine go down, turns out that she probably is right. Sugar makes you feel great by providing a boost in your dopamine levels.

Dopamine makes you feel really good and is rewarding. Although sugar makes you feel great, high consumption is associated with health risks.  

It is correlated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Cognitive decline and some cancers are also associated with high sugar consumption. That is not to say that sugar is the only culprit, however, moderation is key.

When it comes to free sugar, guidelines of the WHO recommend to keep it under 5% of your daily calorie intake. 

As they understand that this is difficult, they have drawn the strong line at 10%. That is about 5 to 10 teaspoons, while a soda can contains about 10 teaspoons already. Sugar is not only the white crystals, it is also in our fruit, pasta and milk.

A daily cup of joe can improve concentration and can give you energy. The rule should be followed again to not go overboard. Too much of something is never great.

Caffeine can give you the jitters or a feeling of nervousness. It can cloud your mind, when you consume too much or when you are trying to trick your body into not sleeping. It can come with plenty of related symptoms.

Although your sleep hormone adenosine will be pushed down by the caffeine, it will catch up on you eventually. It is recommended to keep your caffeine intake under 400 mg per day, or maximum 4 cups. Using caffeine outside those limits (and late at night) might lead to sleep problems.

8. Focus on three tasks per day

Using a daily to do list is a way to structure, protect and adapt your time to your needs. A daily focus list can consist of things that you find important and are giving you pressure and a possible headache. Scraping those things off your to do list, might make you feel productive and boost your wellbeing.

9. Focus on your own talents and flow

Identifying your talents and what is exciting for you can go a long way to obtain your focus. Michael Csikszentmihaly has written a ton on flow.

Feeling in the zone or in the flow is highly satisfying. You can also get there by using your strengths and interests and deep diving so to speak. 

Further there is another concept that might interest people who suspect they have ADHD. Researchers and people with ADHD (or certain other health conditions) report hyperfocus sometimes.

People with ADHD don’t seem to have concentration issues when they are truly interested or motivated by something. 

They report a focus so deep that they will not hear or notice anyone around them. They even tend to lose track of time or space in such moments. Again the advice would be to follow your passion as it will make your focus come more easily. Hyperfocus sounds similar to flow because it is. 

A big difference might be that people can regulate their flow, while hyperfocus is not easily regulated. When stuck in hyperfocus, everything else might just disappear.

You will be able to ignore distractions with ease. However, as we all understand, life is complex. Although it is great if you can focus 110% on your work project, you will still need to pay your bills and cook and do your dishes as well.

10. Take a break

Plan for your breaks. Productivity apps recommend working in blocks of 52 minutes before taking a break of about 17 minutes. Others believe that we have a natural cycle of concentrating for about 90 minutes before we need a break. A break can improve concentration and creativity again. It can give you another perspective, we all sometimes need that. 

A productive break can be to move your body, get some exercise or take some time for meditation or do something creative.

11. Buddy up

Study spaces and coworking spaces were on the rise before the pandemic hit. That has a reason, people seem to be able to focus better on their goal if they are held accountable.

Accountability can be created by getting a buddy with similar goals and checking in on a regular basis with them. You can try to be accountable to yourself, and that might work great for you. Research does show that people have more success obtaining their goals by using a partner there. 

12. Use a planner

Working on your time management skills can boost your quality of life, productivity and your wellbeing. Planning your routines and downtime can help you set proper expectations and priorities. It makes it clear how much time you have left. Being in control of your time can give you the feeling that you can change your life.

By planning your tasks, it can be a good idea to divide your goals in subtasks to keep the mental load low. Working with subtasks can also give you a guideline of productivity and make it less overwhelming or triggering. 

A planner can help you if you suffer from adult ADHD. A common symptom is difficulty with decision making. However, making careless mistakes is another symptom on that list. A planner can help you prepare and not be bothered as much by these troubles. 

13. Set deadlines

Setting deadlines is a form of time management. Getting your deadlines and priorities straight, can improve focus and productivity. It shows where your priorities lay.

Further, it is also a great way to help you in decision making. Once your priorities are clear, there will be no need to think about what to do.

14. Keep an eye on your mental health and your generalized anxiety disorder if needed

Racing thoughts or ruminations can make your life more difficult and can be a bummer for your concentration. If you feel stuck in your own head, it is very understandable. This can happen to everyone. Anxiety can be set off by many triggers.

By learning when you get triggered or what triggers you, you can prepare and anticipate what is going to happen. That does not mean you should avoid this trigger. Avoidance can make a problem bigger than it is. 

ACT therapy, a form of behavioral therapy, would recommend accepting your negative feelings. After you can validate that it is ok to have that feeling. The next step is not stopping yourself because of this. Thinking that you are a failure is just a thought.

A thought does not need to hurt you although it can be scary and unmotivating. You can still choose to take action in direction of what you value and get it done.

15. A doctor can provide medical advice

A healthcare provider can give professional medical advice. It is important to ask for help if you are struggling with concentration problems. Consult a medic if your daily life is still impacted by the following symptoms: trouble focusing, long term memory loss, short term memory problems. 

A doctor can take a look at what makes it so hard for you to stay focused. They can advise diagnosis or treatment that can solve your trouble focusing.

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