There are many factors that can affect our powers of focus and attention, and compromise them throughout the course of a day, including our energy levels and health, engagement with activities, temporal structure, and modern-day distractions, among others.
When you first open your eyes in the morning, on a good day, the world may seem full of promise and potential. You have a long to-do list ahead of you, including a busy day at work, some social engagements and a passion project, all of which will receive your attention in the ideal day lying ahead. However, it is often the case that we fail to reach our grand ambitions for a given day. We feel that we can’t maintain our attention, we lose interest in the tasks at hand, allow ourselves to become distracted, and generally fritter away our time. If you have experienced this sensation, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Even now, in the act of writing this article, my mind has leaped around to half a dozen topics and potential distractions, ranging from my desire for a snack, the looming rent bill, various professional opportunities, the 2020 American election and the climate crisis affecting the world!
Despite our best intentions and efforts, we often find it hard to remain focused and productive throughout the course of the day, which can lead to a variety of problems, including a negative opinion of ourselves, our attention span, and our work ethic. Why is this such a widely experienced problem, and perhaps more importantly, how can we fix it in our daily lives?
The Threats to Focus
While we may be desperate to remain attentive and focused throughout our days, there are many reasons why it can be difficult, if not impossible, including everything from our evolutionary history and the structure of our days to modern-day technology and our personal wellness.
It may be hard for some people to understand how the evolutionary of humans affect their inability to stay awake during a 9am meeting, but there is certainly some connection. For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors operated like any other species, with their survival under nearly constant threat. Their need to feed themselves and protect against predators required that they pay attention to all new information or occurrences in their surroundings. “Novel” information could mean the difference between life and death, so we became more skilled at the rapid processing of these external stimuli.
In the present day, most of the novel information or fast-moving objects in our environment aren’t threatening to our wellbeing, but some part of our brain is still immediately entranced by it. This may come in the form of a new product on the market, the loud rev of a sports car, a brightly colored billboard or a new article on a newsfeed. These stimuli aren’t essential to survival, but they still sap us of mental focus and energy because of our prehistoric instincts.
Health and Nutrition
Personal wellness is one of the most fundamental factors affecting concentration and focus. Our bodies require a certain amount and combination of nutrients to function properly, as well as adequate time to rest and recover. When you don’t eat enough, your brain and body lack the energy to remain productive, whereas if you eat too much, or maintain an unhealthy diet, you might feel sluggish, or experience regulars crashes in energy. Consuming too much caffeine or sugar to increase energy levels is a short-term strategy that will negatively affect productivity in the long run. Studies have also found that a lack of sleep affects our clarity and powers of attention, and may even be permanently damaging to brain cells, so getting adequate rest is also critical.
There is also the mental health side of wellness, which can significantly impact attention and focus. If you are depressed or anxious, or struggling through events that may be emotionally taxing, you will find it harder to keep your concentration on a single subject. Such times in life can significantly affect hormone and neurotransmitter levels, which can compromise your goals for the day, no matter how important they may be.
Somewhat related to the factor of our evolutionary history not being compatible with today’s excessive stimuli, our technological capabilities have trained us to expect instant gratification. A number of studies have found that today’s humans have an average attention span that is less than that of a goldfish. Whether it is the dozens of tabs open at the top of your laptop browser, the perpetual buzzing of your phone’s push notifications, or the immediate access we now have to any person or bit of information, it is very difficult to imagine a life without distractions.
Aside from the physical access points of distraction, there is also the content of the news to consider. Our globalized society is far less insular, so we are able to keep up on global events. We get regular updates about the wars, famines and natural disasters plaguing the planet. The climate crisis is now a part of our daily (or hourly) worries, as are the goings-on in government, the hot new celebrity gossip and the fact that your neighbor just bought a sports car that you couldn’t imagine affording. This flood of information coming at us from all sides (advertising and other forms of media included) can make a fully focused day a vague and unachievable dream.
It is not only important that we have the physical capacity and the mental clarity to focus and stay productive, but we must also be engaged with the activity that is occupying our time. If you dislike your job or are regularly tasked with menial projects that don’t interest or challenge you, then your ability to focus on the activity will suffer. Think of how long it sometimes takes you to fill out a simple (albeit boring) expense report, or how many years you’ve waited until the last day to file your taxes.
On the other end of the spectrum, when tasks are difficult or personally daunting (such as finally getting around to finishing your novel), we may find it hard to focus because working on this task makes us feel insecure, unworthy, or disappointed. Procrastination of tasks that feel unpleasant, for whatever reason, is a major culprit behind our apparent lack of productivity.
One of the largest shifts in professional trends of the past 10 years is the phenomenon of remote work, freelance careers, and other forms of independent employment. While this affords people a huge amount of freedom and flexibility, it can also result in a loss of structure, which can lead to wasted or poorly used time. Without the framework of a 9-5 job, or regular weekly work, it is easier for time to run away from us. Self-regulation and self-motivation can be an exhausting, but essential, element of these “liberated” professions. Many people struggle to establish a firm structure for their time, opening up the door for distractions, delays and poor decisions that wouldn’t be made in a traditional work environment.
Even in “normal” work and life settings, maintaining structure is key. Surprise meetings, pop-ins from your boss, phone calls from family, lunch dates with coworkers, personal emails and a dozen other things can interrupt the regular flow of your day if you’re not careful. Scheduling your breaks and allotted sections of the day may not be as exciting as flying by the seat of your pants through your planner, but it will help you hit your daily goals and maintain focus when you need it most.
Strategies to Improve Attention
Now that the main threats to focus have been outlined, some of the solutions should appear quite obvious, including eating right, structuring your time, minimizing distractions, and overcoming procrastination, whatever the reason behind it, but there are a few other useful tools to employ that might help to boost your powers of concentration.
- Time Outside – Taking a short walk outside not only gets your blood moving, which can increase energy levels and deliver nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and brain, but it also provides a daily dose of sunshine (and vitamin D). This can be time away from screens and other people, a time for you to focus on what tasks lie ahead, and improve your mood to tackle problems with renewed determination.
- Unplug – A large percentage of the population now spends hours of every day peering at an electronic screen, whether a computer, tablet or phone. Between an increasing amount of work being done digitally, in addition to our obsession with smartphones, taking time away from screen when possible can give your eyes and brain a break from the constant barrage of draining stimuli.
- Work Smart – Our bodies operate on a series of Circadian rhythms, which affect our energy levels throughout the day. Learn to identify your high-energy, focused periods of the day and maximize your efforts during those windows of time. Starting a mentally grueling task right after lunch, when your body is digesting and relaxing, is not using your time wisely!
- Reward System – Some people find that establishing a reward system provides the right level of motivation and accountability to stay productive. Breaking larger tasks down into smaller segments can make the process feel less insurmountable, and the small rewards you give yourself (e.g., trip to the vending machine, 10 minutes on Instagram) can help you keep moving forward.
- Stay Hydrated – As simple as this sounds, it is estimated that more than 70% of Americans are regularly dehydrated, which affects metabolic processes all over your body. If you want your mind and body to operate at their highest level, you need to provide them with the most fundamental component of life!
- Posture and Breathing – Although every job has different physical demands, be conscious of how you are treating your body while performing a task. Whenever possible, maintain good posture that allows for even blood flow and clear deep breathing. If you work in an office, your chair should be comfortable and at a level that prevents any muscle strain. This may seem like common sense, but a tiny twinge in your back can undermine a whole day of productivity!
A Final Word
Staying focused is a universal struggle that everyone deals with from time to time. Understanding that there are many factors that affect our attention and concentration is the first step towards improving our abilities. There is no secret recipe, nor is there such thing as becoming permanently focused, but this article hopefully pointed out some common pitfalls and triggers for distraction. With that in mind, next time you sit down at your desk to do battle with a blank Word document, remember that you’re not alone, and that you have all the knowledge you need to focus and get things done!