Have you ever found yourself reading a paragraph in a novel, only to realize that you processed none of it and will need to read it again?
How about catching yourself starting to zone out during a conversation with a colleague or friend?
Or ever find yourself unable to focus on reading the news and prefer to just skim the headlines and close the tab?
The odds are high that you can relate to one of those above scenarios.
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These types of situations can be normal and they do happen to everyone once in a while.
If you can’t concentrate on anything for a period of time and become distracted to the extent that you cannot finish an article, or forget about an important work meeting, then it’s time to be concerned and take action to improve your focus.
When Paying Attention Becomes Hard…
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Okay, so WHY is it that I can't concentrate on anything?
Glad you asked. It's prudent to first identify the root of the problem before attempting to fix the problem itself.
The inability to focus can be attributed to numerous reasons, but here I have narrowed it down to the following five reasons that may cause lack of focus in people.
Other than a diagnosis of the widely known ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and lesser known sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) or concentration deficit disorder (CDD), there are other conditions and circumstances that can shorten one’s attention span and negatively impact one’s ability to pay attention.
Suspect #1: Anxiety
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Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) actually lists difficulty concentrating as one of the diagnostic criteria for the emotional disorder, and it has been proposed that there is a strong connection between worrying and cognitive impairment. It is also a very frequent complaint among individuals living with GAD, and greater levels of worry or anxiety potentially worsen the clinical severity of impaired concentration.
Suspect #2: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Another mental condition that can lead to concentration deficit is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where survivors of a traumatic event may experience prolonged states of emotional numbness, social detachment, apathy, insomnia and irritability. When these patients have nightmares or sleep disturbances during the night, it then translates to fatigue and reduced concentration during the day.
Suspect #3: Major Depressive Disorder
Major depressive disorder (MDD), or depression is a widely prevalent condition that not only negatively affects a person’s mood and quality of life but is also strongly associated with cognitive impairment. Research has shown that there is direct correlation between the severity of depression and the level of cognitive deficits.
Symptoms such as diminished concentration and attention, memory deficits and inattentiveness may be present in depressed individuals, which then results in significantly lowered work productivity.
Suspect #4: Lack of Sleep or Insomnia
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Insomnia is a common condition that many people experience on a regular basis. However, to put things into perspective, an official diagnosis of insomnia requires dissatisfaction of sleep quality or sleep duration alongside night and day symptoms that are present of 3 or more nights per week while lasting for more than 3 months. The daytime insomnia symptoms include fatigue, low energy, mood disturbances, and impaired attention or concentration. A specific clinical study demonstrated that those with insomnia do perform worse on attention-related tasks compared to those who do not suffer from insomnia. Hence, when sleep-related problems arise, consequently focus and attention is also significantly reduced.
Suspect #5: Aging
Last but not least, aging is a contributing factor in the decline of selective focus and concentration.
Situated in the brainstem, there is a small nucleus called the locus coeruleus (LC), which releases noradrenaline during an arousal response to external stimuli. In younger adults, this response amplifies the focus to the most salient or relevant information to achieving the task on hand while suppressing other non-relevant information.
In contrast, in older adults, there is a decline in the locus coeruleus’ functional connections with the frontoparietal networks that is responsible for the coordination of attention selectivity. Hence, their arousal responses increase processing of all stimuli and information, regardless of its relevance or importance to the intended goal.
As one’s age increases, the capacity for selective focus and attention markedly diminishes.
How to Reclaim Your Focus?
Now, after presenting the most likely suspects that can lead to decreased focus and concentration, it is time to take the necessary steps to correct the issue.
However, before trying out focus techniques listed below or anywhere else, make sure you check with a physician to determine if there are underlying medical conditions, and whether any medications or non-pharmacological therapies are available to help treat the problem.
Follow a healthcare provider’s advice first and then feel free to incorporate one or more of the following methods into your routine and see if it offers any improvement!
Tip #1: Pomodoro Technique
Chances are you have heard of the Pomodoro Technique by now, as it has become quite popular in the last decade and been widely touted as a “productivity hack” in various news sources and social media feeds.
Developed by Italian graduate student Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is simple and straightforward yet surprisingly effective. The concept consists of allocating specifically timed work sessions to a single task and focusing on completing one task at a time before moving on to the next task.
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Although a typical Pomodoro session usually lasts 25 minutes, with 5-minute breaks between sessions, you are totally free to customize the length of both your work sessions and break intervals to fulfill your own needs and preferences. You can also use a variety of tools to time yourself, such as desktop apps, mobile apps, or even just a kitchen timer. This technique works for numerous people, as it eliminates multitasking, reduces procrastination, and reinforces memory. As well, since you cannot work on any other task, it compels you to complete the assigned task in order to move on to the next item on your calendar or to-do list.
Tip#2: Meditation & Mindfulness
Next up is a particular technique that not only extends one’s attention span, but also provides great benefit for those who can’t concentrate or focus on reading due to mind-wandering and distracting or anxious thoughts.
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Meditation allows one to practice regulating their mental awareness, focusing on the present, and maintaining their attention on the current task at hand. For example, in two studies where study participants underwent intensive meditation training and reading tasks, they significantly had less mind-wandering and lower incidences of mindless reading.
Hence, if you have trouble sustaining your attention on certain cognitive tasks, then meditation would definitely be worth trying.
I'd suggest starting your meditation journey with mobile apps that include guided meditations, as most of them are both convenient and user-friendly.
Tip #3: Eat & Drink Right
The diet and memory connection is real, which is why Harvard Health recommends steering clear of trans fats and saturated fats.
Instead, go hard on mono- and polyunsaturated fats and other brain-healthy goodies!
Among foods that promote brain health are whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil… and if you think I am just giving you a refresher on a Mediterranean diet right now, I'm actually talking about something even better: the MIND diet.
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What about the drinks? Well, coffee and green tea have both been found to boosts brain function and improve memory, and hydrogen-rich water, due to its neuron protective effects and antioxidant properties, may lessen the age-related changes in cognitive functions such as cognitive decline and reduced focus.
The Sky is the Limit...
Though we have only listed 3 ways to improve your concentration in this article, know that the possibilities are endless it comes to making positive changes to your life.
With productivity being a hugely popular topic these days, there are countless techniques and apps to increase focus and optimize efficiency. Take the time to try out different approaches, adapt existing methods to suit your lifestyle, and honestly assess the end results.
Some techniques will work better than others, and it is important to decide what is best for you.
Also, remember to be patient with yourself, as building new habits take time and effort!
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