Do you have these kind of days? The days when you can’t seem to get anything done?
You spend a few minutes picking away at a project, then get sucked into into YouTube and Google searches. Or maybe you answer one email then stray away to endless social media scrolling.
Despite a hefty to-do list, you just can’t focus on anything—and it’s painfully unproductive. You know you need to get work done, yet those looming deadlines aren’t enough to convince you to actually hunker down and focus.
So you ask yourself, why can’t you zoom in on the task at hand? But, more importantly, how can you spark up your attention span?
Reason #1: You’re Really, Really Tired
Are you yawning at your desk? Do you feel foggy, or like you’re wading through the mud? Are you actually thinking about a third cup of java?
Here's the low down: You’re overtired, and it’s hindering your ability to concentrate.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows a connection between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive function—including your working memory and cognitive speed. Not to mention the job it does on attention span!
That means not enough shut eye can really undermine your focus.
Here’s something really disturbing — continuous lack of sleep might actually destroy your brain cells. As part of a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, when mice were deprived of sleep, the researchers discovered that locus ceruleus neurons (LCns) in the mice’s brains—which are essential for the brain’s alertness—began to die off.
Since these neurons were constantly firing without enough rest, they became damaged and were eventually destroyed. The mice lost a whopping 25% of their LCns after just three days of 4-5 hours of sleep.
Scientists hypothesize that the same destruction could happen in human brains. So, simply put, a lack of sleep could literally kill off your brain cells. No wonder it’s so hard to focus when you didn’t get a good night’s rest.
So, What Can You Do?
Skip the fourth cup of coffee, it's a temporary fix.
In lieu of sleeping on the job, there are a couple of things you can do to awaken yourself.
An easy fix is to head outside for a quick walk. Not only does that get your blood pumping, but it also exposes you to natural light. Research published in the International Journal of Advances in Chemical Engineering and Biological Sciences states that some exposure to daylight enhances your attention, as well as your work performance.
And, instead of that coffee, guzzle a big glass of water instead. 75% of Americans suffer from chronic dehydration, and sleepiness is one of the most common symptoms. So, intaking water might be just what you need to perk up.
Of course, these quick remedies can help when you feel sluggish in the middle of your workday, but they’re no substitute for actually getting a full night’s slumber.
Evaluate and realign your schedule to ensure that you’re allowing yourself enough rest each night (according to the National Sleep Foundation, you should be getting anywhere from seven to nine hours) and can show up to work feeling alert and rejuvenated.
Reason #2: All News Is Bad News
There’s no shortage of distractions in your average workday—and we're not just talking about the coworker who habitually drops by or the countless meetings that chop up your day.
You have a life outside of work, and it’s hard to check personal to-do’s at the office entrance. When big things are happening outside of the workplace—whether good or bad—it becomes increasingly difficult to push them aside and tackle your work. That’s because your emotional state is directly tied to your level of focus.
Let’s look at both positive and negative here. Negative news has a severe impact on our mood. “In particular...negative news can affect your own personal worries,” says British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, in a HuffPost article about the negative news cycle. “Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”
Bad news sens you into a funk that tanks your mood and makes it tougher to commit your attention to your project list.
What about good or exciting news, then? It would stand to reason that it would have the opposite effect. It does, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
When you’re pumped up about something, it increases your adrenaline. Adrenaline can be beneficial, but levels that are way too high can actually lead to anxiety, and result in decreased work performance.
It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and it basically states that there’s an optimal arousal level for getting stuff done. Thrilling event puts you over the top way above that optimal level—which makes it hard to concentrate.
Just think, if someone asked you to generate a report immediately after you were told you’re getting a promotion, it’s probably going to make it tough to focus. You’re too amped up, making it next to impossible to handle even the most routine tasks.
So, What Can You Do?
Keeping your thoughts and emotions under control can be a challenge. You can try to dismiss the distracting news, but chances are, it's not that easy.
Instead, experts recommend that it’s best to acknowledge exactly what is distracting you and then re-center yourself by focusing on something more visceral—like your breathing, for example.
“You don’t have to stifle it or suppress it,” explains Rich Fernandez, CEO of the nonprofit, Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, in an article for Harvard Business Review. “Make note of it, acknowledge it, and put it in a mental parking lot to think about later, when you can discuss it with someone else, or when you’re not at work and have lots to do.”
Taking those few moments will slightly alter your mood or lower your adrenaline, so you can get back to your work with a renewed level of concentration.
Reason #3: You’re Juggling Too Many Balls
You’ve probably heard that too much multitasking can sabotage productivity. When your focus feels depleted, that’s a sure sign that you have way too many balls in the air at one time.
What’s so bad about this juggling act? In a study titled, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” researchers found that while people worked faster in conditions where they were constantly interrupted (the way you are when you’re multitasking), they were actually less productive.
And, that's not all. They felt significantly higher levels of frustration and stress.
When stress occurs, here is what actually takes place in your brain: Your amygdala sends a stress signal to your hypothalamus, which reacts by letting your adrenal glands know that you’re under some serious pressure. Your adrenal glands respond by releasing—you guessed it—adrenaline into your bloodstream.
We just learned in the previous section that too much adrenaline leads to too strong of arousal, which makes it that much more difficult for you to focus and perform.
So, What Can You Do?
As stressful as multitasking might be, it’s an inherent habit for many of us. That’s because our brains are adaptable—which means we’ve “trained our brains to be unfocused,” as David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, explains in an article for Entrepreneur.
It sounds simple enough to tell yourself that you’re only going to focus on one task at a time. But, if you’ve ever actually tried to do it, you know just how challenging it can be.
Start by controlling whatever you can to create an environment that’s conducive to highly-focused work. Put your cell phone in a drawer. Close down your email. Wear headphones to drown out the buzz around you.
Next, make a list of your top three priorities for that day. That short list will keep you focused on the bigger picture and hopefully prevent you from getting swept up in the small stuff.
Finally, try breaking your day down into smaller chunks. You can use something like the Pomodoro Technique or even the science-backed system of 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break.
Using these time chunks creates a sense of urgency, because you only have a short work period to do the most with—as opposed to your whole day stretching out endlessly in front of you. Plus, the brief breaks will give you a chance to take a breath and refocus when necessary.
Reason #4: You Hate What You’re Working On
Let’s face the facts—if you aren’t excited about whatever it is you need to be doing, you’re probably going to find ways to procrastinate. You know you need to get it done, but that won’t stop you from wasting time dragging your feet.
As Phil Stutz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Barry Michels, a practicing psychotherapist, explain in a piece for Greatist, that’s because actually taking action on that dreaded task inspires a certain amount of pain.
Perhaps you’d rather a pot boil than tackle the mundane task of preparing your monthly sales report. Or, maybe finally acting on a huge project stirs up feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy.
In either circumstance, you put off focusing on that task to avoid whatever uncomfortable feelings it’ll inspire. You talk to a coworker. You take another trip to the water cooler. You scroll through social media. You do anything but what you are supposed to be doing.
In this particular case, it’s not so much a lack of focus that’s the culprit—it’s procrastination.
So, What Can You Do?
Get ready for a reality check: You just need to buckle down and get that thing done. In fact, get it done first—before anything else on your list. Swallow the pilll and tackle your biggest task first thing every day.
What’s so great about getting it done first? You’ll know the worst is behind you. Everything else on your list for that day will seem painless in comparison, which means you’ll probably feel far more focused and motivated throughout the remainder of your workday.
Stop Stalling And Start Focusing
There are countless reasons that deter you from focusing. If you can’t pinpoint one of the above categories? Well, that is not uncommon.
Some days there’s no rhyme or reason to why you can’t get anything done. You just aren’t able to focus.
Here’s the good news: Unless you’re a surgeon or a commercial pilot, your to-do list probably isn’t life or death. Take a load off your feet, step away for a few minutes, and do your best to talk yourself into refocusing.