Why can’t I concentrate or focus?

Why can’t I concentrate or focus?

Reviewed by:
Caitlin Gardiner, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
March 22, 2024
In this article

Our world is filled with distractions. Social media, to-do lists, calendars, email, and cell phone notifications all demand attention. According to one study we spend an average of 12 minutes on a single task, and when we’re interrupted it can take up to 25 minutes to regain focus. Difficulty focusing can happen to everyone once in a while. But if it's something you're struggling with on a daily basis it may be signs of a larger issue, like a mental health condition or an underlying medical issue.  

In this guide we’ll talk about why you might have trouble concentrating, how to improve your focus, and when to get help.


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Signs that you're struggling with focus

So what exactly does it look like when you lack focus? Here are some things to watch out for and what concentration problems might look like:

  • Making careless mistakes
  • Falling behind with work or school
  • Easily forgetting appointments, conversations, and important details
  • Struggling to start and complete usual and routine tasks
  • Avoiding tasks with metal effort
  • Interrupting conversations

4 reasons you might have trouble concentrating

Focus issues can stem from a variety of factors, and it's not always a clear-cut single cause. Sometimes it’s a mix of different things coming together. Consider the following list of possible reasons behind your focus struggles. Then, have a chat with your doctor to understand what might be going on and get the support you need.

Not enough sleep

Sleep deprivation can significantly hinder concentration. A published study on insomnia determined people with this condition struggled to concentrate and hold their attention on one specific task. And unlike those who slept well, they were easily distracted by other external stimuli.  

Stress and anxiety

When our minds are preoccupied with worries and racing thoughts, it becomes challenging to maintain focus. The body’s stress response can flood your brain with cortisol, and compromise your ability to concentrate. So can​ different types of anxiety disorders.

Think it’s your workplace causing you stress? Check out: Is burnout real?

Medications

A number of over-the-counter and prescribed medications can have side effects that negatively affect  your concentration. If you notice any changes in your cognitive abilities, it's a good idea to talk to your health care provider. They can go through your medication history and figure out if it’s something you’re taking that’s causing the issues or if there's something else going on that needs to be addressed.

Here are a sampling of some medications that include a lack of focus as a side effect.  

  • Anticonvulsants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Anticholinergic medications, including certain antidepressants, anti-Parkinson's, bladder control medications, allergy medicines, sleep aids, and cold and flu medications that contain diphenhydramine
  • Beta-blockers and other cardiovascular medications  
  • Corticosteroids
  • Narcotic pain medications
  • Prescribed sedatives and sleep medications

Mental health conditions

Difficulties with concentration is linked to multiple mental health conditions.  

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): This neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by ongoing patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Difficulty staying focused and organized is a key part of ADHD, but people can experience symptoms differently.  
  • Generalized Anxiety disorder (GAD): This disorder involves experiencing continuous feelings of anxiety or dread that can last for an extended period of time. It can significantly interfere with daily life, and a difficulty concentrating is also a main symptom. Restless, irritability, and other physical symptoms of anxiety might also contribute to your inability to focus as well.
  • Bipolar disorder (BD): This  mood disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, including manic episodes of elevated mood and energy, as well as depressive episodes of low mood and reduced energy. Concentration difficulties can arise during both manic and depressive phases.
  • Major depressive disorder (MDD): Depression can affect how you think, feel, and manage your daily activities. Along with a loss of interest in things, you can also experience a diminished ability to concentrate.

There is some crossover and similarity between the symptoms of these mental health disorders, and it’s possible to have more than one. Symptoms can also present differently for people. A licensed healthcare professional knows what to look for and can help adequately diagnose which one you have.

To learn more, check out: When to see a psychiatrist

Other health issues

Sometimes your lack of concentration stems from a medical issue or physical health condition. It's worth noting that while these conditions can contribute to concentration difficulties, they often have additional symptoms and might require medical evaluation. They are also not the only medical conditions that cause focus issues and there are many more.

  • Concussion:  This is a brain injury caused by a blow to the head or a violent shaking of the body. Alongside other symptoms, such as headaches and dizziness, concussions can lead to difficulties with concentration and cognitive functioning.
  • Dementia: Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of cognitive disorders characterized by memory loss, impaired thinking skills, and difficulties with concentration. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, and it progressively affects cognitive abilities, including your attention and focus.
  • Thyroid disorders: Thyroid disorders, such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), can also impact concentration and cause brain fog. You can find out if you have any thyroid issues by getting a blood test.

If you think a medical condition may be affecting your ability to concentrate (or if forgetfulness is becoming a problem) it's important to reach out to a professional who can assess what you’re experiencing and give you medical advice.

How to improve your focus

If you're struggling to focus, don't worry. There are a few things that can help. Effective work habits, certain lifestyle changes, and bettering your physical health and well-being, can all improve your productivity and concentration so you make the most out of your daily activities.

Productivity tips

  • Don't multitask: Contrary to what you might have thought, multitasking can actually hinder your concentration and productivity. When we constantly shift between tasks, it depletes more of our mental energy and leads to distractions that can muddle our thinking and lead to careless, preventable mistakes. Instead of juggling multiple tasks, try focusing on just one thing at a time, which brings us to our next tip…
  • Use time-blocks: This time management strategy has you divide your day into distinct blocks dedicated to specific tasks or activities. After focusing on one thing for a certain amount of time, take a break before resuming work, whether on the same task or a different one. You can also use time blocks to mark certain hours of the day when you don’t want to be disturbed, so you can focus on your work without any interruptions.  
  • Minimize digital distractions: In today’s hyperconnected world, we’re constantly bombarded with distractions. Social media notifications, text messages, and emails, can easily divert our attention. While you can’t get rid of everything, you can try to remove some of them and set boundaries. Try using an internet blocker or an app timer, and silence your notifications.  
  • Take a break: While it may seem counterintuitive, incorporating regular breaks into your work routine can actually help with concentration. Research indicates that scheduled breaks help prevent mental fatigue and can even enhance productivity. So give yourself permission to step away from your work, stretch, grab a healthy snack, or take a walk to recharge your mind.  

Lifestyle tips

  • Make sleep a priority: It's no secret that lack of sleep can leave us feeling tired and struggling to stay focused. That's why it's essential to prioritize getting sufficient sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night and establish a consistent routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. By giving your body and mind the rest they need, you'll set yourself up for better focus.
  • Engage your mind and try brain exercises: Contrary to what you might think, participating in activities that require a high level of concentration can actually help sharpen your focus. Learning to play an instrument or another language can improve your attention span in the long run.
  • Practice mindful meditation: Dedicate a few minutes each day to sit still, breathe, and take in the sounds and sensations around you. Medican can help lessen any stress that might be causing your attention issues.  
  • Stay socially active: Loneliness is associated with anxiety, depression, and more stress, all of which can also interfere with your focus. Interacting with others can keep your mind sharp and stimulate your memory.  
  • Stay physically active: When you exercise, you stimulate increased blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain responsible for focus and concentration. It's like giving your brain a refreshing boost of energy. According to one study of children with ADHD, regular physical activity can even help with your attention span. Make it a habit to incorporate exercise into your routine. The key is finding an activity you enjoy so you can stick with it.  
  • Adopt a healthier diet: Did you know that a nutritious diet can help your focus? According to some research, simple sugars and processed foods high in saturated fats can negatively affect your cognitive abilities. On the other hand, some studies suggest that a Mediterranean diet high in fiber and healthy fats can help support concentration and focus.  
  • Review your medications: As mentioned above, trouble focusing might be a side effect of something you’re taking. If you're experiencing trouble focusing, it's important to review the medications you are taking, both over-the-counter and prescribed, and be sure to let your doctor know.

When to get help for concentration problems  

Having trouble maintaining concentration doesn't mean you have a mental health disorder. However, if you're concerned and you consistently lose focus—making careless mistakes, frequently misplacing things—it’s important to recognize when it’s time to get help.  

Making an appointment with a mental health professional is a great starting point. Consulting with an expert, like a psychiatrist, can help you get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan to help with any issues (and potentially reclaim your attention span). At Talkiatry we treat a number of mental health conditions, including those related to concentration issues, like anxiety, depression, and ADHD. To get started, simply fill out this quick online assessment, and we’ll match you with a psychiatrist for your first virtual visit.

FAQs

Still have more questions? Here’s what else to know about concentration.  

Why do I struggle to focus?

There are many reasons behind concentration issues, including stress, a lack of sleep, nutritional deficiencies, and mental health conditions, and thyroid issues.

If I can't focus, do I have ADHD?  

Not necessarily. Struggling to focus is one of the core symptoms of ADHD, but it can be caused by something else, including other mental health conditions. If you constantly struggle with focus and suspect you have ADHD, it's best to reach out to a healthcare professional to get an accurate diagnosis.

How do I concentrate better?  

Making specific lifestyle changes and adding new work habits while potentially working with a mental health professional can minimize how often you experience a loss of concentration. Get enough sleep, eat healthier, be sure to socialize, meditate, review your medications can all aid you in allowing you to improve focus.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner's practice is based on the biopsychosocial model and believes that the foundation of healing is in psychotherapy and human connection. She is known for incorporating therapy into her medication management practice. Typically she offers 30-minute follow-up visits for medication management with focused therapy based on individual needs.

As a known helper, Dr. Gardiner started her career with a bachelors degree in social work from Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, NY. After changing career paths she received her medical degree from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY. She stayed at Upstate to complete her general psychiatry residency where she was chief resident during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, she completed her child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at Upstate due to the high quality of training. Dr. Gardiner has completed 3 years of advanced training in Dynamic Deconstructive Psychotherapy as well as specialized training in DBT.

Dr. Gardiner is a well -rounded psychiatrist who enjoys treating youth and young adults during transitional phases of life while providing a safe and supportive environment. She believes strongly in reducing polypharmacy and providing high-quality medication management through a therapeutic and developmental lens.

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