Why you Can't Focus and How To Fix That

In today's world, having the ability to focus is nearly sort of a superpower. You rarely see anyone who's ready to consider one task for hours. And the individuals who are ready to focus, to nobody's surprise, get such a lot more done than people. There are many areas where you'll enjoy a better concentration. Whether it's for school, studying, work, or a hobby. If you are able to focus you'll get your required results faster. 

Why you Can't Focus and How To Fix That

So today I'll explain what's holding you back from focusing and what you'll do to enhance it. And I know you're procrastinating at this very moment by reading this article. But I'll make it worth your while. So grab a pen and a bit of paper. Make sure to write down a few key points about whatever you learn in this article. This way you'll get the maximum value out of your procrastination session. And buckle up, because it's going to be a long one to understand Why you Can't Focus and How To Fix That. Let's dive in. We have two types of focus. Scattered focus and directed focus.

1. Scattered Focus:

Scattered focus is broadly distributed attention. This is your typical multitasker, trying to do many things at the same time. Cleaning the house, while talking on the phone, while cooking dinner. Or someone who's trying to focus on one thing, but they keep thinking about something else at the same time. And this is what most people do. They divide their attention towards many different things. The problem with this sort of focus is that your brain is extremely bad at switching between multiple things directly. You see, when you switch from one task to another, it's not an instantaneous switch. Instead, your brain has to "load" the context of whatever you're doing into your working memory. When you're constantly shifting your attention from one thing to another, you're forcing your brain to load and re-load context over and over. Essentially you end up wasting a ton of mental energy switching back and forth, leaving you exhausted without getting much done.

2. Directed Focus:

Now on the other side, we have directed focus. You achieve it by directing your attention to a single action while ignoring everything else. This is what you should aim to achieve and it's how high-achievers direct their focus. They concentrate on one thing at a time, like a laser beam. And they do that thing to the maximum of their ability while disregarding all other stimuli. 

How to avoid:

1. Remove all distractions:

It's simple. You should aim to remove all distractions and avoid any stimuli which could potentially harm your concentration. Let's look at it this way. Let's say you have 5 units of focus available at any time. That means you can use those 5 units in any way you like. For example, you'll use all of them on studying, thus achieving directed focus there. Now let's say your mom enters in your room, while you're studying, and tells you that dinner will be ready in 45 minutes. Even if you were super concentrated and even if that interaction only lasted for 10 seconds, your attention is now divided. Dinner will now be on your mind and your focus will not be as good as it was before. One of the focus units was used on that dinner, taking it away from your studying session. It's now going to take some time before you're able to fully regain your focus and you'll end up wasting your mental energy in the process. Now the funny thing is you're most likely carrying a similarly distracting mom with you all the time. 

2. Avoid your phone:

This tiny device is the biggest anti-focus machine there is. It rings, it vibrates and whenever you get a new notification it makes a sound. That beep is all it takes, to take your mind off the thing you were supposed to be concentrating on. But even if your phone is on silent, you're very likely to take a quick look at it, whenever you feel bored. Thus, dividing your attention. Of course, this doesn't mean you should throw your phone away or anything like that. Instead, I'm simply suggesting that whenever you want to concentrate on something, you put it somewhere, where you know it won't disturb you and you won't be able to look at it. That being said, cellphones aren't the only thing that divides your focus. Anything can do that, but your phone is probably the biggest contributor. 

The point is to become aware of the possible distractions and to avoid them. Another thing that could be affecting your ability to focus on is your physiology. This is something that is not considered often. However, if you want your mind to function optimally, you need to take care of your body. If you're sleeping under 7 hours per day, your concentration will suffer. On the contrary, it's been shown that getting 7-9 hours of sleep, leads to a better ability to focus during the day. Exercise is also something that should be done on a daily basis. Thanks to the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters, your ability to focus on difficult tasks improve. 

Read also: How to Stay Calm Under Pressure?

By exercise, I don't mean going out and running a marathon, but a short walk around the block is already sufficient. Bonus points if it's a walk in nature. Hydration is also very important. You might have noticed that when you wake up in the morning you can't really think straight right away. One of the reasons is because you hadn't drunk anything for over 8 hours, so you're mildly dehydrated. Your diet plays another big role in your performance. If you're indulging and stuffing your face with unhealthy food or drinking soda, you're doing your brain a disservice. Food that is high in sugar content leads to brain fog and the inability to concentrate.

You might want to look into some healthier alternatives. So if you want to focus easier, make sure to take care of your body. 

How to build your focus:

1. Concentration:

It should be noted that concentration is a skill. You can actually train your focus such as you would train for a sport. The more you are doing it, the higher you get at it. When you start, you might be able to focus for just 10 minutes. But when you do that day after day, your ability to concentrate will strengthen and you'll able to do it for longer periods of time. So if you can't concentrate for hours right now, that's fine. You can train your directed focus over time. And the best way to practice your focus is to have a certain time in your day when you concentrate intensely on just one task. Basically, you would like to form concentration a daily habit. 

2. Opportunity:

A lot of us are waiting for the opportunity when everything is perfect, when we're feeling motivated and when all the planets are aligned before we go and try to focus. But that's the wrong approach. Instead, it's way better to have a dedicated time in the day, where you sit down and just concentrate on one thing for as long as you can. You then want to protect that block of time. The best time for focus is in the morning, about 1 hour after waking up. Usually, that's when you're fully awake and your mind is not yet occupied with other things that require your attention. Plus, at that time you typically have no distractions and you have all your focus units ready to be distributed. This time of the day has been utilized by many historic artists, writers, and philosophers.

But what about the afternoon? 

Well, you see, if you've had a busy day, your attention has been already been scattered in many different directions. And your brain is heavily stimulated. That's why it's so much easier to focus in the morning. Your brain has been resting for 8 hours after all. So if you decide in the middle of a distracted afternoon, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, for example studying, you'll have a hard time directing your focus. Your mind will already be occupied with other things. Such attempts will therefore frequently fail. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to focus late in the day. You just need to un-stimulate your brain. And you do that by taking a proper break. You see, it's very hard to concentrate on something for a longer period of time, without getting mentally tired. And it doesn't matter if it's scattered or directed focus. Both are exhausting. 

That's why you need to take a break and give your mind a rest after a while. However, this is where most people slip up. You see, taking a break doesn't mean pulling out your phone and browsing Instagram, Youtube, or whatever. You're still stimulating your brain and you're still mentally engaged, therefore draining your mental energy, instead of recharging it. What you should do instead, is go for a walk, meditate, or maybe take a nap. These activities allow you to un-plug and start recharging your mental energy because they're not as stimulating. I know it might sound boring, but you should allow yourself to be bored to give your brain some breathing room. Of course, taking a mental break is not just for once you want to modify from scattered focus to directed focus. It's also very useful when you want to extend your ability to continue focusing intensely. 

Another way to look at it is to imagine you've been running for an hour without stopping. Then you have a 15-minute break before you'll be running for another 1 hour. 

You can choose to: 
A.) sit down, relax, and do nothing for 15 minutes. 
B.) jump rope and do burpees for 15 minutes. 

Obviously, you choose option A, as you don't want to exert yourself even more. You want to have enough energy to run for another hour after all. In this case, running is an analogy for focus. When you've been focusing for 1 hour, you don't want to add more stimulation to the mix. You'll just tire yourself out mentally if you watch TV or browse the web. To find an activity that suits you, that's not mentally stimulating and it helps you to disconnect. Personally, my favorite thing to do is to go for a short walk. It helps me recharge mentally every time.

3. Pomodoro technique:

Now the perfect technique that ties intense focus and mental breaks together, is the Pomodoro technique. It goes like this: You choose a task that you want to focus on. Then you set a timer for 25 minutes and do nothing but concentrate on that task. When the timer rings, you take a 5-minute break and restart the timer. When you've completed four 25 minute sessions, you take a longer break, usually consisting of 30 minutes. Of course, it doesn't have to be so rigid. 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest are just recommendations. You can do it for however long you feel like, depending on the complexity of the task. For example, when I'm writing my articles, I usually set the timer for 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute break. So you ought to experiment with a touch and determine which combination suits you best. If you made it this far into the article, good job. Your focus is already better than most people's. Because this is a long article, I'll quickly summarize everything I just talked about. 

  • We have two sorts of focus: scattered focus and directed focus. You want to achieve directed focus while staying away from scattered.
  • The best thing to avoiding scattered focus is to avoid distractions. Every time something interrupts you, it takes from your focus units. And your brain has to re-load the context over and over, leaving you mentally drained.
  • Take care of your body. If you want your mind to function properly, you need to take care of your physical health. That means getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, keeping hydrated, and watching what you put in your mouth.
  • Concentration is a skill. If you can't focus right now, that's fine. You can train your concentration like you would train for a sport, and over time, you'll get better at it.
  • Make the focus on a daily habit. Don't just wait around for motivation, instead set a time in your day when you're going to focus intensely. Mornings are the most optimal because usually there are no distractions and your brain is not yet occupied with multiple things.
  • Un-stimulate your brain. Meditate, go for a walk, or take a nap. Allow your brain to be bored and don't do anything stimulating like browsing the internet. This is especially important if you want to focus later in the day.
  • Take regular breaks. Focusing gets exhausting real fast. So give your mind a rest and you'll be able to focus intensely for longer. And make sure you're actually resting and not low-key stimulating your mind.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. If nothing else, make this system your daily habit. 

This is it for this article. Hopefully, you've enjoyed it, and if you did, share this article with your family & friends. I hope you'll be able to focus better than yesterday.

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