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