Reasons you can’t focus on your work (and how to destroy each one)
You know those days, right? The ones when you can’t seem to get anything done?
You spend a few minutes tapping away in a Google Doc, followed by an embarrassing amount of time falling down the YouTube black hole. You answer a single email before grabbing your phone for a not-so-brief scroll through Instagram.
Despite a lengthy to-do list, you just can’t focus on anything—and it’s infuriating. You know you need to get stuff done, yet those looming deadlines aren’t enough to convince you to actually buckle down and focus.
What gives? Why can’t you zoom in on the task at hand? And, more importantly, how can you give your attention span a much-needed kick in the pants?
Reason 1: You’re, Like, Really Tired (And Killing Off Brain Cells)
Are you yawning at your desk? Do you feel bleary-eyed, foggy, or like you’re trudging through cement? Are you debating a third (ok, fourth) cup of coffee?
I have news for you: You’re overtired, and it’s really hindering your ability to concentrate.
One study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows a direct correlation between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive function—including your working memory and cognitive speed. Another facet that really takes a nosedive? Vigilant and executive attention.
That means not catching enough zzz’s can really sabotage your focus.
Here’s what’s even scarier — continued lack of sleep might actually destroy your brain cells. As part of a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, when mice were deprived of sleep, the researchers discovered that locus ceruleus neurons (LCns) in the mice’s brains—which are essential for the brain’s alertness—began to die off.
Since these neurons were continuously firing without enough rest, they became damaged and were eventually destroyed. The mice lost a whopping 25% of their LCns after just three days of 4-5 hours of sleep.
Scientists hypothesize that the same thing could happen in human brains. So, basically, a lack of sleep could quite literally kill your brain cells. No wonder it’s so hard to focus when you didn’t get a good night’s rest.
So, What Can You Do About It?
Your first instinct might be to scramble for another caffeine boost, but that’s really just a bandaid.
In lieu of putting your head down and napping at your desk, there are a couple of things you can do to wake yourself up without slapping yourself across the face.
One of the best things you can do is head outside for a quick walk. Not only does that get your blood pumping, but it also exposes you to natural light. Research published in the International Journal of Advances in Chemical Engineering and Biological Sciences states that some exposure to daylight enhances your attention, as well as your work performance.
And, instead of reaching for the coffee pot, grab a big glass of water instead. 75% of Americans suffer from chronic dehydration, and sleepiness is one of the most common symptoms. So, chugging some water might be just what you need to perk up again.
Of course, these quick fixes can help when you feel bogged down in the middle of your workday, but they’re no replacement for actually getting a full night’s rest.
Evaluate and rearrange your schedule to ensure that you’re giving yourself enough rest each night (according to the National Sleep Foundation, you should be getting anywhere from seven to nine hours) and can show up to work feeling alert and recharged.
Reason 2: All News Is Bad News (For Your Focus)
There’s no shortage of distractions in your average workday—and I’m not just talking about the colleague who keeps dropping by or the seemingly endless meetings that break up your day.
You have a life outside of work, and it’s hard to check personal to-do’s at the office door. When big things are happening outside of the office—whether they’re good or bad—it becomes increasingly tough to set those aside and tackle your work. That’s because your emotional state is directly tied to your level of focus.
Let’s look at both positive and negative events here. We’ll follow the cliché and start with the bad news first. To put it simply, negative news has a severe impact on our mood.
“In particular…negative news can affect your own personal worries,” says British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, in a HuffPost article about the negative news cycle. “Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”
While that quote is related to news programming in particular, it can be applied to any sort of negative news you receive—such as an upsetting update about a family member’s health. It sends you into a funk that tanks your mood and makes it that much tougher to dedicate your attention to your task list.
What about good or exciting news, then? Shouldn’t that have the opposite effect? It does, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
When you’re pumped about something, it increases your adrenaline. Adrenaline can be great, but levels that are way too high can actually lead to anxiety, which results in decreased work performance.
It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and it basically states that there’s an optimal arousal level for getting your stuff done. And, a thrilling event puts you way too far past that optimal level—which makes it hard to concentrate.
Just think, if someone asked you to generate an important report immediately after you were told you’re getting promoted, it’s probably going to be tough to focus. You’re way too hyped up, and that amped emotional state makes it almost impossible to handle even the most routine tasks.
So, What Can You Do About It?
Keeping your own thoughts and emotions in check can be a challenge. You can attempt to ignore the distracting news that’s swirling in the back of your mind, but chances are, you aren’t going to be successful.
Instead, experts recommend that it’s best to acknowledge exactly what is distracting you and then re-center yourself by focusing on something more visceral—like your breathing, for example.
Take note: This isn’t the same thing as totally avoiding that distraction.
“You don’t have to stifle it or suppress it,” explains Rich Fernandez, CEO of the nonprofit, Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “Make note of it, acknowledge it, and put it in a mental parking lot to think about later, when you can discuss it with someone else, or when you’re not at work and have lots to do.”
Taking those few minutes will hopefully slightly alter your mood or lower your adrenaline, so you can get back to your work with a renewed level of concentration.
Reason 3: You’re Spinning Too Many Plates
You’ve probably heard that your obsession with multitasking is sabotaging your productivity.
I’ll be honest: I’m a firm believer that multitasking isn’t always bad. However, when your focus feels depleted, that’s a solid sign that you have way too many plates spinning at one time.
What’s so bad about this juggling act? In a study titled, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” researchers found that while people worked faster in conditions where they were constantly interrupted (the way you are when you’re multitasking), they actually produced less.
And, the real kicker? They felt significantly higher levels of frustration and stress.
That matters. When you feel stressed, here’s what happens in your brain: Your amygdala sends a stress signal to your hypothalamus, which reacts by letting your adrenal glands know that you’re under some serious pressure. Your adrenal glands respond by releasing—you guessed it—adrenaline into your bloodstream.
We just learned in the previous section that too much adrenaline leads to too strong of arousal, which makes it that much more difficult for you to focus and perform.
So, What Can You Do About It?
As stressful as multitasking might be, it’s an ingrained habit for many of us. That’s because our brains are pretty adaptable—which means we’ve literally “trained our brains to be unfocused,” as David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, explains in an article for Entrepreneur.
It sounds simple enough to tell yourself that you’re only going to focus on one thing at a time. But, if you’ve ever actually tried to do it, you know just how challenging it can be.
Start by controlling whatever you can to create an environment that’s conducive to highly-focused work. Put your phone in the other room. Close out that email tab in your browser. Put headphones in so you don’t hear the humdrum of the office.
Next, make a list of your top three priorities for that day. That short list will keep you focused on the bigger picture and hopefully prevent you from getting swept up in the minutiae.
Finally, try breaking your day down into smaller chunks. You can use something like the Pomodoro Technique or even the science-backed system of 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break.
Using these time chunks instills a greater sense of urgency, because you only have a short work period to do the most with—as opposed to your whole day stretching out endlessly in front of you. Plus, the brief breaks will give you a chance to take a breath and refocus when necessary.
Reason 4: You Hate What You’re Working On (And According To Science, It’s Causing You Pain)
Let’s face it—if you aren’t at all excited about whatever it is you need to be doing, you’re probably going to find as many clever ways to put it off as you can. You know you need to get it done, but that won’t stop you from wasting time poking around first.
As Phil Stutz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Barry Michels, a practicing psychotherapist, explain in a piece for Greatist, that’s because actually taking action on that dreaded task inspires a certain amount of pain.
Perhaps you’d rather watch paint dry than tackle the mundane assignment of filling in your monthly expense report. Or, maybe finally rolling on that huge project stirs up feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy.
In either circumstance, you put off focusing on that task to avoid whatever uncomfortable feelings it’ll inspire. You talk to a colleague. You take another trip to the vending machine. You online shop. You scroll through social media. You untangle your paperclips.
In this particular case, it’s not so much a lack of focus that’s the culprit—it’s plain ol’ procrastination.
So, What Can You Do About It?
Get ready for a brutal reality check: You just need to buckle down and get that thing done. In fact, get it done first—before anything else on your list. Eat that frog and tackle your biggest task first thing every day.
What’s so great about getting it done first? You’ll know the worst is behind you. Everything else on your list for that day will seem painless in comparison, which means you’ll probably feel far more focused and motivated throughout the remainder of your workday.
Stop Fidgeting And Start Focusing
There are plenty of different reasons that you might be running low on focus. If you can’t pinpoint one of the above categories? Well, that happens.
Seriously, some days there’s no rhyme or reason to why you can’t get anything done. You just aren’t feelin’ it (how’s that for scientific?).
Here’s the good news: Unless you’re a surgeon or a commercial pilot, your to-do list probably isn’t life or death. So, show yourself some grace, step away for a few minutes, and do your best to talk yourself into refocusing.
That might seem like a waste of time, but I can guarantee that it’s way more productive than banging your head against the keyboard or scrolling through Twitter for the 800th time that day.
I promise—your work will still be there waiting for you after you’ve given yourself a brief timeout.
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