Why Can’t I Focus? 5 Distractions That Are Secretly Stealing Your Attention

A time manager pad with two pens on a white marble countertop

How can you get out of a focus slump?

Unfortunately concentration isn't constant. It fluctuates. Sometimes from day to day and sometimes from task to task. If you’re lacking focus, it could be for a variety of reasons. 

We often think about focus going off track due to noisy environments or the constant ding of email notifications, but focus is much more complex, and figuring out how to get it back isn’t always easy. Just sitting in a quiet room won’t fix a problem that runs a lot deeper than a chatty co-worker. 

If you feel like the reason you’re feeling unfocused is fleeting, read on. You may be surprised at what system problems and habits can derail your progress and how easy it can be to course correct.

1. Lack of motivation

It’s difficult to focus when your motivation is shot. You find yourself trying to muster up enough excitement or energy to jump on a task or you jump from project to project not getting much done because you can’t keep your concentration. 

Finding ways to keep up your motivation will help a lot of areas of your work, but mainly focus – which is crucial to progress and success. If you experience a chronic lack of motivation, you may be dealing with burnout, which could require a different approach, but if you’re just not feeling it every once in a while (we’ve all been there!), then you’re experiencing a normal phenomenon.  

Solution: Set a goal. We often think about goals as being lofty or having some pivotal role in our lives, but not every goal needs to be big. In fact, setting goals when you need to focus is a great idea because it tricks your brain into doing what it needs to do to accomplish the goal – and sometimes all you really need to do is block out the distractions and do the work. 

If you’re having trouble focusing on writing a paper, for example, set a power hour goal. In one hour, see how much you can write without taking any breaks. The writing doesn’t have to be great or final draft worthy, but you should be able to get your thoughts on the page. After the hour, take a walk, eat a snack, or do something enjoyable to reset your mind. That little bit of motivation can snap your right back to being able to focus. 

2. Disorganized priorities

Do you ever feel like you keep getting distracted by all of the tasks on your to-do list? You’ll sit down to work on one thing only to remember you need to follow up with another colleague or send an email you forgot last week. All of a sudden it’s an hour later and you haven’t even started on that original task. It happens to the best of us, especially when the to-do list is long and time is short. 

It feels like an oxymoron that our own work can become a distraction, but it’s totally possible. The problem is often that our task lists are disorganized and we haven’t found a great way to attack them. 

Solution: Start by prioritizing your tasks. The Eisenhower Method can help you figure out which tasks rise to the top and which can drop off completely. Tasks fit into four categories (if you do better with visuals, set this up into four quadrants): 

  1. Urgent and important 
  2. Urgent and not important 
  3. Not urgent and important 
  4. Not urgent and not important 

Items that are urgent and important float to the top, while not urgent and not important can either be delegated or dropped off the list. Most of all, this method will help you think about what you should tackle first and allow you to take back your focus on the tasks that need it most. 

3. A cluttered workspace

Out of sight, out of mind. This is the mindset you should bring to your work space. If you have a stack of papers slowly swallowing your desk, a pile of reports that need filing, or a mess of cords taking up permanent space next to your monitor, you probably aren’t as focused as you could be. 

The reason why makes a lot of sense: the human brain favors order, so when it sees disorganization, your focus can go out the window simply because your brain is trying to make sense of the mess. Even if you’re not actively organizing that pile of papers or messy desktop screen, your brain is still working in the background to make sense of it. 

Solution: Take a few minutes each week to reset your work space. Discard any old notes, put away those notebooks you aren’t using, and reorganize devices as necessary. There are lots of great tools that can help you keep your workstation in tip top condition, and they elevate your space! A metal tray and an office supply organizer can make a big difference. 

4. Small interruptions that add up

How many times throughout the day do you find yourself losing focus because you are tending to a small interruption like a question from a co-worker or an email notification?

While they may seem like quick interactions on the surface, they can disrupt the whole flow of your day. Researchers estimate that it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after an interruption – that can really add up! 

Solution: You don’t have to take extreme measures to prevent interruptions that can derail your focus. Sometimes closing your door, putting on headphones or setting your online status to busy or do not disturb is enough of a signal to those around you to stay away for a bit. 

You can also find ways to adjust your schedule to make sure you’re still making yourself available while not compromising important focus time. You can block off a period of time each day for emails and correspondence so that you aren’t constantly pausing progress on a task, and if you’re able to, consider setting your own “office hours” – sort of like a professor might – where you dedicate time to engaging with teammates and answering their questions. 

The goal is to minimize moments where you have to switch tasks. In the end, you’ll get more done and have more time to do it. 

5. Unrealistic expectations 

Biting off more than you can chew can be a real problem when it comes to focusing on the task in front of you. Maybe you promised more progress than the amount of time you have or perhaps you underestimated the resources you have. Even your own expectations can trip you up and cause you to lose focus. 

It can be difficult to recognize sometimes, especially when we’re stressed about deadlines and what we want to accomplish. But a common sign that your expectations aren’t aligned with reality might be that you’re procrastinating (the ultimate example of being unfocused!)

Solution: Regular audits of your progress. Check in with yourself on a regular basis to make sure you’re still in step with where you should be. This can help you re-evaluate priorities if need be and reassess if necessary. 

Remember, that in life there’s often more flexibility than we realize, so if you’re struggling to focus because you have too much on your plate, talk to a teammate, manager, or somebody who might be able to bring some perspective to the situation. 

Written by Kara Mason
Share Pin it
Back to blog