I often hear my clients complain of difficulty concentrating. Be it on the job, on their creative tasks, or even in their daily routines, I frequently hear them talk about difficulty keeping track of their ever-growing list of to-do’s and their frantic efforts to keep themselves organized and on top of their various roles and demands. I hear them tell me about the lists they make and the apps they use, and then I sense the frustration in their voices when they admit that even with these gadgets, they still feel overrun by unaccomplished tasks and half-finished projects. I hear them say that despite their best efforts, their minds sometime feel as though they are on a “scan” setting, constantly jumping from one station to the next, without staying at one of them long enough to get anything done.
So, what do I suggest? Well, first of all, a bit education. Let’s start with a piece of information that many may find surprising: the mind’s normal condition is disorder. Our brains are designed to notice, recognize, and attend to a variety of random sensations, perceptions, and thoughts, all of which are competing for attention, all at the same time. Our brains do this to keep us in touch with internal as well as external needs, and ultimately to keep us alive. As our brains develop, we become better able to manage this chaos and turn it into reasonable order by exerting “attentional control." In simple terms, this refers to the ability to filter out irrelevant, or less important things, so that we can focus on others. In other words, the ability to concentrate.
What you’ve probably noticed is that this ability waxes and wanes on different days and even at different points within the same day. Some days you are able to breeze through your various tasks and demands, and others, even the smalles set of chores seems to get pushed around and shoved in different directions, none of which lead to completion.
So, lets first examine some reasons for this variance and what factors may be related to diminished ability to sustain attention and concentration. Once we are better able to diagnose the problem, we will move on to problem-solving approach to target each part. Below is a list of the five most common reasons why our brains may experience difficulty concentrating on any given day:
1. Fatigue. Being tired and fatigued is concentration’s worst energy. Research indicates that staying up just 1 hour later than normal significantly decreases focusing capability. Our brains have developed to work best under very specific conditions and nothing harms it's ability to stay focused quite like being tired and fatigued. Rack up sleep deficits regularly, and you’ll likely experience routine and pervasive concentration problems.
2. Stress. Pretty simple, the more tasks you need to get through, (generally) the more stress you experience. The more stressed you feel, the more difficult it is to concentrated and get any of them done, thus trapping you in a vicious cycle. Anyone who has approached an oncoming deadline with an increasing lists of things to accomplish between said deadline knows what I'm talking about.
3. Multitasking. Contrary to (relatively recent) popular belief, multitasking is NOT a good thing. In our fast paced, time-is-money world, we are continuously pushed to do more things at once and do them faster. However, scientific research has repeatedly proven that not only is this approach detrimental to the task at hand (careless errors, for example), it is also bad for your brain! It becomes accustomed to jumping from topic to topic, making it even harder for your to harness your ability to stay focused on any one thing for any prolonged period of time. In other words, too much multitasking and you are in essence teaching your brain to have a shorter and less efficient attention span!
4. Boredom & Lack of Challenge. This factor is quite clear when you look at a child (or adult) with ADD/ADHD, sit them down to do the same thing for the 100th time and they can’t focus. Give them a novel, interesting, and challenging project and all of a sudden they are able to focus. Going back to the point that our brains are constantly being bombarded by internal and external stimulus, it makes sense that some of them go into "auto-pilot" and that our brains conserve time and energey by payling less attention to those things which are expected routines.
5. Physical Factors. Physical distractions cause mental distraction. This can be as obvious as not feeling well due to illness or injury, but it also plays a more subtle role. Focusing is more difficult if you have certain medical or mental health conditions, including thyroid disease, anemia, diabetes, depression, or anxiety. Again, the mind and body connection I’ve been mentioning throughout this blog plays a role.
So, now that you know some of the practical reasons why people's concentration varies, you can start to take inventory of which apply to you. Stay tuned for the next post where I will discuss simple ways to begin to address these factors and make changes to improve your attention and concentration.