Thu, Apr 08, 21

Have You Asked, "Why Can't I Focus?" Here's Why

* Verified by a US-based board-certified doctor.

To be able to zero in on what we’re trying to accomplish is essential to getting stuff done. But our environments are full of distractions - within and without. It’s not just our world that is noisy and clamoring for our attention, but it’s also our minds. We often struggle with concentration because of internal chatter and distracting thoughts. So how can we get past this? We have to begin by knowing why we can’t focus. 

What is focus?

glasses focused on a book

We inherently know what it means to focus. It means to direct all of our attention on a single activity or thought. An even more intriguing definition we found says that focus is the act of saying yes to one thing and no to all the others. In other words, we have to temporarily eliminate some options to choose something else. 

For instance, during meditation, a pleasant thought may come to mind. Because focusing on the breath is all-important at that moment, and because I know that I can find that thought again later, I can choose not to engage with it. I turn my focus back on the breath, knowing that my choice isn’t permanent. I can choose that thought later when my meditation is done. 

There is no productivity without focus and concentration. That makes this topic essential to our progress in work, business, and personal development. 

Related: How to Stop Overthinking: A Simple Guide to Help You Relax  

Why can’t I focus?

The truth is, we can’t focus for many reasons - behavioral and biological. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of the right amount of pressure being applied to get us moving, but for most of us, the problem is deeper than that. We know we have to get things done, but it doesn’t stop us from checking our social media, email, or watching something on Netflix. There seems to be a disconnect between knowing what we need to do and doing it. 

The myth of multi-tasking

We’re pretty clever when we need to be. It’s easy for us to listen to an audiobook while doing housework, talk on the phone while answering an email, or write a report while watching our favorite television program. We call this multi-tasking, and we’re proud of ourselves when we do it. But while it’s possible to do a few things simultaneously, what isn’t possible is to focus on more than one thing at a time. The report you’re writing in front of the television isn’t likely to be your best work, and that email you’re writing while talking on the phone will take longer and may have several grammatical errors. 

Multi-tasking means that our brains have to jump back and forth between activities. Unfortunately, our brains don’t do this very well. Every time our brains have to switch between activities like this, we experience a slight delay while our brains catch up to the current activity. Psychologists call this the switching cost. It is a disruption in our cognitive process that costs us time. One study estimated that by multi-tasking (specifically, frequently checking email) and forcing our brains to do this mental jump-a-roo, we waste one out of every six minutes!  

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What’s hindering me

To get the level of focus required for success in our endeavors, we have to figure out what’s hindering us. Here is a list of possibilities. Be open to considering these and any other possible issues that may come to mind.  

Your smartphone

woman using her cellphone

Not to make your forever-companion the bad guy here, but often our phones are a massive distraction. It’s great to live at a time when we can hold so much computing power in our hands, but the almost unlimited reach and capabilities of our smartphones make focusing on any one thing nearly impossible. It’s just too easy to check email, surf the web, scroll social media, and conduct business from a smartphone. You can’t get rid of it but know the danger.

No motivation

Do you even want to get this work done? No, seriously, do you? A lack of motivation is another hindrance to focus. Having to do something and wanting to do it are different things. If you’re not motivated, consider reviewing your ‘why’ or expose yourself to motivational material to restart your motor. 

Related: How to Get Rid of Brain Fog: Tips and Tricks 

Health issues

Poor health or vitamin and mineral deficiencies can make concentration challenging or even impossible. So taking your health seriously will benefit other areas of your life as well. Take care of yourself - adopt a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, get good rest, and listen to your body when it tells you what it needs. 

Lack of sleep

If your body and mind are not rested, you won’t be able to focus. Interestingly, when we need to focus the most, we usually compromise our sleep to get more done. This isn’t a good idea: stress, anxiety, chemical imbalances, and lack of mental clarity result from a lack of sleep. Do yourself a favor, get some rest.  

How to increase your attention span

Despite the above, you can still increase your attention span by trying some of the following: 

Manage your energy, not your time

When you know you have something important to do, plan to do it when you have the energy to get it done. If you’re a morning person, schedule the task for the morning - likewise, if you’re a night owl. 

Choose an anchor task 

Although you may have several things to get done in a day, prioritize one essential task. This anchor task will determine your flow for the day and give you one primary mission to focus on instead of a distracting list. 

Measure your results

woman measuring her results

This might seem unnecessary, but knowing that you’re making progress is excellent fuel for focus. Determining milestones along the way or just measuring how much you’re getting done will encourage you to continue.    


A meditation practice is a powerful way to get control over the constant activity in your mind. Researchers at Columbia University have found that meditation can increase focus and learning, improve your attention span and memory, reduce stress and anxiety, and make you more psychologically resilient. 

Related: How Meditation Improves Productivity 

Final Thought

If focus is genuinely an issue for you, pay attention to what is happening in your internal and external environments. With a bit of self-reflection and observation, you can figure what’s causing it and overcome the problem.

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