How to Focus: Why Do I Have Trouble Focusing?

How to Focus: Why Do I Have Trouble Focusing?

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How to Focus: Why Do I Have Trouble Focusing?

You sit down to read a book and before you know it, your mind is elsewhere. You’re thinking about what’s for lunch, or you’re already mindlessly scrolling through social media. Having trouble focusing is a common issue. Everyone experiences slips in attention, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always normal or that trouble focusing can’t be remedied. Whether it's for work, school, or everyday tasks, improving productivity through focus techniques can offer a number of different benefits.

To help you learn how to stay focused, we’ll break down the differences between concentration, attention, and focus. Then, we’ll address the causes of trouble focusing and techniques to improve concentration. Along the way, we’ll examine the different forms of focus and attention. 

Concentration 101

So concentration... what is it? Well, you’re probably concentrating right now (we hope) by reading this sentence, but are you focusing? Where is your attention? While concentration, attention, and focus have the same colloquial meaning, psychologists differentiate between them slightly. Basically, they are similar but not identical interconnected concepts defined as:

  • Concentration – The ability to perform a task with a focus that is both clear and present.

  • Attention – The object or thing being observed.

  • Focus – The central point of attention.

  • So concentration involves attention that is appropriately focused. Or, to state it in a more basic format: attention + focus = concentration. But that’s not all—focus can be either internal or external and either broad or narrow:

  • Internal vs. external – Internal focus is directed towards thoughts, emotions, and feelings whereas external attention is directed towards the environment.

  • Broad vs. narrow – Broad focus is directed towards multiple stimuli at once whereas narrow focus is directed towards a specific stimulus.

  • As you attempt to concentrate on something, your focus can be a combination of internal and external and broad and narrow. For example:

  • Broad, external focus – Broad, external focus works in environments that are changing rapidly so to keep up, you have to maintain a wide focus. Think of this as a pitcher assessing his environment before he winds up.

  • Narrow, external focus – Narrow, external focus works in environments when you want to complete a specific task or objective, like a pitcher throwing a baseball.

  • Broad, internal focus – Broad, internal focus works when you’re analyzing your overall thoughts and feelings, like a pitcher deciding how he should throw a baseball.

  • Narrow, internal focus – Narrow, internal focus works when you’re mentally preparing to complete a specific task, like a pitcher mentally rehearsing before he throws a baseball.

  • If that all sounds complicated, it’s because concentration is a complex process, but don’t worry. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to learn how to concentrate. If staying focused on an important task for an extended period of time sounds difficult, there are many tips you can follow to improve. Let’s turn our attention to the process of attention. Attention can be defined by how it's directed. There are four primary types of attention that you might use in daily life. These include:

  • Selective attention – Selective attention involves directing your focus towards certain aspects of your environment while ignoring others. For example, you might focus on your friend as she talks to you on the bus while disregarding all of the other ambient sounds and stimuli.
    1. Divided attention – Divided attention involves divvying up your focus between multiple stimuli. For example, you might scroll through social media while watching a movie. Not all divided attention is the same, however. That instance of divided attention would be easier to manage than trying to scroll through social media and drive, for example (we definitely don’t recommend that).
    2. Sustained attention – Sustained attention involves focusing on something for an extended period of time. It can also be called an attention span. Sustained attention is continuous and can improve with practice. For example, you might focus on watching a movie or writing an essay for an extended period of time (without looking at a phone).
  • Executive attention – Executive attention involves goal-based sustained focus. For example, if you have a presentation due by the end of the day, you will not only sustain your attention but also be aware of the steps and timing you need to follow to complete your presentation by its deadline.

  • Each of these forms of attention has its own benefits and disadvantages. Understanding the differences can help you become more aware of your habits and help you develop strategies for maintaining your focus.

    What Affects Concentration

    There are a wide variety of factors that can affect your concentration. On the most basic level, there are distractions. There are two primary types:

  • Internal distractors – Internal distractors arise from your mind. They can be thoughts, emotions, and even fatigue.

  • External distractors – External distractions arise from your environment and can be visual or auditory.

  • While divided attention is a natural form of concentration, attempting to divide your attention too much (i.e. by multitasking) can sometimes result in a loss of focus. Basically, your brain can only be in so many places at once. When you try to do too many things at once, the objects of your focus themselves become distractors.

    There are other factors that might be the reason you’re having trouble focusing, including:

  • Lifestyle factors – If you don’t get enough sleep, water, food, physical activity, or if you have a poor diet, then your concentration can suffer.

  • Medications – If you take medications including antihistamines, painkillers, and overactive bladder drugs, then your concentration and memory can decline.

  • Mental health disorders – If you have mood disorders such as anxiety and depression or other mental health conditions such as attention-deficit disorder (ADD), then you may have difficulty with concentration.

  • Physical health disorders – If you suffer from certain medical conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, or chronic pain, then you can experience poor concentration.

  • Identifying the reason you can’t focus is a great place to start. Remember, however, that you don’t have to have a medical condition to have poor concentration. Regular old internal and external distractors or excessive multitasking could be the culprit as well.

    11 Techniques to Improve Focus

    Whether you’ve determined the exact cause of your poor concentration or not, you can still learn how to focus better. In fact, here are 11 specific strategies and techniques that you can try:

    #1 Focus on Controllable Occurrences

    Becoming consumed with all of the things you cannot control can drain your ability to focus. Instead, make a list of what you can control vs. what you can’t and consciously focus on those things that you can control.

    #2 Rehearse Scenarios

    If there are specific incidences where you struggle to focus such as during a performance or competition, use mental or physical rehearsals to practice and train your focus.

    #3 Practice Being Distracted

    If you can identify the kinds of things that consistently distract you, then you can practice maintaining your focus. For example, have a friend interrupt you as you study so that you can train yourself to resume your focus quickly and effectively.

    #4 Create Concentration Cues

    You can write a list of specific prompts to use when you lose your focus. Mantras or visualizations can serve as cues to reset your focus when you’ve become distracted.

    #5 Avoid Multitasking

    Set yourself up for success by avoiding multitasking when you feel your focus faltering. In fact, modify your behavior and build the habit of focusing on one thing at a time and giving it your full attention. Each time you switch your focus between tasks, your internal concentration reserves diminish, so you don’t want to constantly be shifting your focus to multiple things.

    #6 Take Breaks

    Take regular breaks frequently. That means taking a break while you are still focused and fresh and not waiting until you’re already having trouble focusing.If you need it, take a longer break so you can come back with better focus.

    #7 Alter Your Environment

    Rethink your environment to decrease any external distractions or stimuli that might affect your attention. Build a quiet and calm environment for yourself that is conducive to focus. Often, this means turning off electronics such as the TV, the computer, or your phone.

    #8 Attend to Your Health

    Since mental and physical disorders can affect your concentration, take care of yourself and visit the doctor when necessary. Even if you don’t think your lack of concentration is serious, it doesn’t hurt to bring it up during your annual physical.

    #9 Try Cognitive Rehabilitation Therapy

    This therapy teaches you techniques to improve both your attention and memory. You’ll learn to use exercises like visualization to retain information and develop your concentration.

    #10 Make Lifestyle Changes

    Since your lifestyle can affect your concentration significantly, making changes to your sleep schedule and diet can ultimately improve your focus. Consider avoiding excessive caffeine. While moderate amounts can improve short-term focus, too much only results in a decrease in concentration.

    #11 Take Care of Your Vision and Hearing

    Your eyes and ears help your brain acquire and process new information. If you have any sort of vision or hearing problem, then your ability to focus might be inadvertently diminished. Do you wear glasses or contacts? Make sure to get your eyes checked each year.

    Rediscover the Brain-Body Connection with Bio-K+® 

    No matter what you do, you’ll always experience losses in focus. It’s just a natural part of the human experience. In fact, these lapses in concentration can give you important data about your health—whether by revealing an underlying medical condition or poor lifestyle habits such as sleep deprivation.

     

    As you become more aware of your health and wellness, you’ll realize just how much your brain and body are connected. Even the smallest lifestyle changes can enhance your health, from beginning a daily meditation practice to taking a daily probiotic. Check out our latest Cognition probiotic supplement made with cereboost (american ginseng). Cereboost is a scientifically supported active ingredient used to help support cognitive function, performance, and working memory. Self care starts here with Bio-K+.


    Sources: 

    Exercise & Sports Psychology APA 47. (2014, May). Concentration and Attention in Sport. SportPsych Works, 2 (1). https://www.apadivisions.org/division-47/publications/sportpsych-works/concentration-and-attention.pdf 


    Mazarin, J. (n.d.). Attention as Part of Cognitive Development: Definition &; Process. Study.com. https://study.com/academy/lesson/attention-as-part-of-cognitive-development-definition-process.html


    Milanowski, A. (2020, October 15). Why improving your concentration helps your memory. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-improving-your-concentration-helps-your-memory/.

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