Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD
It’s not surprising you have such a hard time tackling the projects at work and at home that demand your full attention.
To help you concentrate, experts say you first need to identify what’s derailing you. Here are six common concentration wreckers and what you can do about them.
“Multitaskers might feel like they’re getting more done, but it almost always takes longer to multitask than to devote your attention to one thing at a time,” says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload.
We lose time shifting between tasks. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers from the University of Michigan and the Federal Aviation Administration conducted tests in which people had to solve math problems or classify geometric objects. The researchers found that people lost time when they switched between tasks. And when the tasks were more complex or unfamiliar, they took even more time to switch tasks.
The key, Palladino tells WebMD, is be choosy about when you multitask. It’s OK to talk on the phone while you’re folding the laundry, for example, but not while you’re working on a difficult or high-priority task — say, proofreading a report.
Dull tasks can sap your ability to focus and make you more vulnerable to distractions.
“When you’re bored, almost anything else can be more attractive than what you’re doing,” says Gordon Logan, PhD, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Logan’s tip: Give yourself little rewards, like a coffee or a favorite snack, for staying on task for a specific period of time.
“When a colleague of mine had to review a complex grant proposal, she rewarded herself with a chocolate-covered raisin each time she finished reading a page,” Logan says.
It’s also good to schedule breaks — to take a 10-minute walk outside, for example — so you’ll have something to looking forward to and a chance to recharge.
Boredom is one case when multitasking may work in your favor.
3. Mental Distractions
When you’re worrying about money, trying to remember if you took your vitamins, and replaying a conversation in your head that didn’t go as planned, it’s hard to settle down and stay focused on a project you’re trying to complete.
Those types of distractions — the ones that are in your head — “have a lot of power over us,” says Michael J. Baime, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness.
One way to let go of these nagging thoughts is to quickly write them down. Add items to your to-do list, for instance, or vent your frustrations in a journal entry.
If you’re stressed about a certain problem, find a time to talk about it with someone you trust. “If you have a supportive, active listener, it can help drain away some of the tension that is bouncing around in your head,” says Daniel Kegan, PhD, JD, an organizational psychologist.
Meditation can also help.
“When you’re meditating, you learn to manage distracting thoughts so they don’t compel your attention so strongly. You discover how to refocus the attention and take it back and place it where you want it,” Baime tells WebMD.
In a 2007 study, Baime’s team found that people who took an eight-week meditation course improved their ability to focus their attention.
To learn the basic techniques of meditation — such as focusing on the sensation of breathing and then transferring that focus to other sensations in the body — Baime recommends taking an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction class, either in person or online.
“Multitasking is often a help when you’re doing something so boring that you’re understimulated,” Palladino says.
If you’re having a hard time focusing on washing the dishes or filing your receipts, for instance, listening to the radio or texting a friend at the same time may keep you motivated.
4. Electronic Interruptions
“It’s easy to fall into aiding and abetting in your own distraction by checking your email all the time,” Kegan says. “If you’re trying to concentrate, you can lose your train of thought every time you hear ‘You’ve got mail’.”
We often feel like we need to respond to an email, text, instant message, or voice mail as soon as it’s received. But Palladino suggests drawing some lines so you’re not letting technology control you.
Carve out blocks of time when you can focus on your work without electronic interruptions. Try checking your email at set times each day (rather than constantly), and close your email program the rest of the time.
It may also help to change location. Take your laptop to a spot where you know you won’t have wireless access to the Web for a few hours, for example.
Many studies show that loss of sleep impairs attention, short-term memory, and other mental functions. “Your attention falls apart when you’re sleep deprived,” Baime says. Sleep needs vary, but most adults do best with seven to nine hours of nightly sleep. Getting at least seven hours of sleep will go a long way toward improving your focus during the day.
Also, try scheduling tasks that need more concentration during the times of day when you’re feeling the most alert. “Pay attention to your own biorhythms,” Kegan says, “and learn which times of day you work best.”
6. Drug Side Effects and Other Medical Issues
If your concentration problems hamper your ability to function at work or at home, or if you’re also noticing a physical symptom like weight gain or insomnia, tell your doctor. Poor concentration can stem from conditions such as ADHD, sleep apnea, depression, anemia, or thyroid disease. Certain medications, such as those used to treat depression, epilepsy, or influenza (flu) infections, may cause concentration difficulties as a side effect, as well.