I thought there was something wrong with me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t focus.
My monkey mind would jump from one branch to another looking for distractions. I would do anything to avoid the task at hand. I would think random thoughts or plan useless things until eventually, I would give up and find something else to do.
My attention span was shortening. I could not read books or work on tasks for a long time. I would zone out while listening to people.
Finally, I’ve learned how the brain works. Because I know how it operates, now I can focus on command. I know how to train it and tame it.
Before I share the tricks with you, let’s understand why you can’t focus.
While many factors (that we’ll discuss later in the article) can reduce your ability to focus, the biggest reason you can’t focus is that your mind is occupied with unproductive activities that zap your mental energy.
We’re increasingly spending more time in front of smartphones and tablets. On average, we spend 12.5 hours a day consuming media (1). That’s more than half of a day.
This reduces your ability to concentrate as it leaves no space for your brain to process and recharge. That’s why you have trouble focusing on anything.
What Happens In Your Brain When You Focus
The prefrontal cortex region of the brain plays important role in key executive functions including sustained attention, which is your ability to focus (2).
The triple-network model explains how focus works in our brain. It consists of the salience network, the default mode network, and the central executive network.
The salience network is responsible for managing the constant stream of inputs in the brain. It filters out information to help you determine what’s important to focus on (3).
The default mode network is active when your mind is wandering or daydreaming. It’s also active when you’re thinking about yourself or others, remembering the past, imagining creative solutions, or planning the future.
The central executive network (or the frontoparietal network) is involved in sustained attention and complex problem-solving. It allows you to focus on a particular object or task.
When you want to focus, the central executive network needs to be active and the default mode network activity needs to be low. This enhances your bottom-up and top-down attention.
Top-down attention is voluntary i.e. when you direct your attention towards something at your will. Bottom-down attention is involuntary i.e. when something takes away your attention without a conscious choice (4). You need to manage both if you want to focus.
Brain And Body Functions That Affect Focus
High levels of beta or alpha brain waves, BDNF, myelination, klotho (16, 17, 18, 19), and blood flow to the brain (through nitric oxide production) are associated with improved ability to pay attention and focus (20, 21).
How To Focus – Proven Focus Techniques And A 3-Step Process
What should you do when you can’t focus on what needs to get done?
First, create habits and lifestyle changes that will train your ability to focus. Here are 12 proven ways that will give you the fuel you need to stay focused.
Another benefit of meditation is that it also helps to combat chronic stress.
4. Eat the foods that enhance focus or use supplements:
- Caffeine (40, 41, 42, 43, 44) (caution: too much caffeine can reduce blood flow to the brain) (45)
- Green tea (Caffeine + L-theanine) (50, 51, 52, 53)
- Vitamin D (46)
- Omega-3 (47, 48, 49)
- Avocado (54)
- Cocoa (55)
- Blueberries (59).
- Avoid dehydration (56, 57, 58)
It increases BDNF (84) and klotho (17). Moreover, exercise improves fitness levels, HRV (heart rate variability), sleep quality, energy levels, and stress levels which are all correlated with improved ability to focus (85, 86).
8. Take care of your health and wellbeing (physical, mental and emotional) because diseases can decrease alertness and focus (87). Taking drugs (like antidepressants) can further decrease alertness as some may bind to acetylcholine receptors (88, 89).
10. Remove distractions from your life. Say “no” to unnecessary things and eliminate the trash from your life.
11. Do things you are interested in and are curious about. Avoid things you hate doing. I know it’s easier said than done because sometimes you have to do things you dislike doing.
Luckily, there are ways you can increase your intrinsic motivation so you can love whatever you do. Having a sense of meaning and working in alignment with your values are the key motivators that lead to focused work.
12. Optimize your dopamine levels as it will motivate you and help you to avoid procrastination. Regulating noradrenaline and acetylcholine will also help you induce focus and get into the zone. While you can go into another rabbit hole and find foods and supplements to enhance those neurotransmitters, eating a healthy diet and exercising is a pretty good start.
Once you’ve nailed the basics, here’s a three-step process you can use when you want to get focused:
Step 1: Prepare (Create Conditions For Optimal Focus)
Get ready and remove as many distractions as possible.
1. Put your phone on silent (no vibration) and hide it somewhere you can’t see and reach easily. Even the presence of a phone can reduce your cognitive capabilities (93).
2. Depending on the task and your personality, get in an environment that helps you concentrate. For some people, a coffee shop may work but for others, a silent place with less distracting noises in the background would work better.
If you’re in a noisy environment but you prefer silence, you can wear noise-blocking headphones. Listen to music or sit in silence — whichever helps you focus on the task at hand.
Research shows that nature sounds, classical music, music that you personally enjoy or are indifferent about, songs without lyrics, and music that matches the tempo of the type of work you’re doing are some of the common sounds that can increase focus. Whatever music you find that works for you, make sure you play it at medium volume to get the best results (94, 95).
5. If you’re working with other people, prevent interruptions by managing expectations from other people.
Having boundaries around when they can or can’t interrupt you will set a foundation for focused work. Every time you’re interrupted, it can take an average of 25 min, 26 sec to get back to that level of focus (98).
6. Organize, prioritize and plan tasks before doing them. Get clear about the task before doing it. Break the tasks into tiny steps. Do important and hard tasks before easy and shallow tasks. Separate planning from doing.
7. Set a reward for yourself as anticipation of reward will help you sustain attention while doing the task (99).
8. Get motivated and create an emotional “high” to increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels (100, 101). You can use music, visualization, affirmations, or anything that invokes positive emotions in you.
Step 2: Zone Out (Bring Your Attention To The Task)
You know what exactly you need to focus on because you have planned in advance. You can take care of all the other worries in the world when their time comes. Now it’s time to focus.
1. Minimize multitasking as much as possible because switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time (102).
2. Breathe optimally so you can get an adequate supply of oxygen. Most people forget to breathe optimally while working in front of the screens (103).
3. Tackle boredom and frustration — Find ways to be engaged. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow state which refers to the optimal arousal zone when you lose the sense of self and time.
Another two psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson created a similar concept called the Yerkes–Dodson law for optimal performance.
Other than finding the balance between your skill and the difficulty of tasks you can add deliberate perceptual load like listening to music (as discussed earlier) as it can help tame the wandering mind (104).
Small things like chewing gum (105, 106), smelling essential oils (especially peppermint and rosemary) (107, 108, 109, 110), doodling (111, 112, 113), and using fidget toys or stress balls can help you focus (114, 115).
4. Make a distraction list as impulses and thoughts come. Write them down so your mind can let go of them.
Sometimes, if it takes a short amount of time, it’s wise to give in to the distraction and do that small task if it doesn’t take a lot of your energy. The other option is to engage in those distracting activities during your breaks (which we’ll discuss later in the article).
5. Keep doing focus reps (get back to work). Notice your recurring disturbances, impulses, and patterns.
6. Take a micro-break. A 40-second micro-break watching the green color can restore your attention (116).
Step 3: Reset (Recharge And Reboot Your Brain)
If you want to focus optimally, you need to give your brain time to unfocus. Using the salient network, you need to switch between using the default mode network and using the frontoparietal network (117).
If you keep using the frontoparietal network for a long time, it could drain your mental energy which will make it harder for you to self-regulate. As a result, you will lose self-control and willingness to help others (118, 119).
While using the frontoparietal network is good for focusing on conscious thoughts (120), switching to the default mode network between periods of focus can help you be more creative, retrieve information, and think for yourself (121, 122, 123, 124).
1. Follow ultradian rhythms (usually 90 minutes of work followed by 20 minutes of rest). The time period depends on many conditions but usually, focused sprints are better than sluggish marathons. (125, 137)
2. Move your body—While sitting is the best position to get focused work done, doing it for an extended period of time isn’t optimal. The best is switching between sitting, standing, and taking movement breaks (126).
3. Daydream — According to psychologist Paul Seli of Harvard University, intentional mind-wandering breaks where you think about something unrelated can be beneficial for focus when you return to the task (127).
To practice positive constructive daydreaming, imagine a beautiful setting and then do an undemanding task. This helps you first come in a positive state of mind and when you’re occupied with a low-key activity, your wandering mind can come up with great insights and creative solutions to your problems. (129, 130)
5. Switching to a new work environment will add some novelty so you’ll avoid getting bored.
6. Reward yourself with the thing your brain was anticipating before doing the task (as discussed earlier). Do something you enjoy (135). Let yourself be distracted so that your “focus muscles” (the frontoparietal network) can get some rest. Playing video games can develop your attention skills (136).
7. If you need a complete reset, step away from work and cut off sources of media input for a few days.
Conclusion – Why You Can’t Focus
Now you know why you can’t focus at work. There are so many things pulling your attention away in different directions that you’re too mentally tired and stressed.
The solution is to protect your attention and then train your ability to concentrate, just like you would train your muscles to grow stronger.
Then you follow the three-step formula mentioned before. The first step is to create conditions for optimal focus. The second is to get lost in the task. Then finally, you give your mind the rest it needs so you can focus again.
The modern world is designed to shorten your attention span. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re losing your ability to focus. But now it’s your responsibility to take control of where your attention goes. The power to stay focused is in your hands.