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When You Just Can't Focus

Everyone has those days when their attention span just won’t cooperate.  You can’t focus, you can’t seem to complete even a simple task, and you’re frustrated on top of all that.  But what happens when it’s not just some days, but most days?  What happens when you really try to buckle down and focus, but you simply can’t?  Well, that’s why we’re here.


When it’s not for lack of trying….

Maybe it’s not you.  Whether you’re having a hard time finding or maintaining focus—no matter what you try—there could be an underlying cause.  Many people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with this concept. And it’s not “all in their head.” Neurologically speaking, it’s caused by lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.  Both of these chemicals contribute to your self-control over attention levels and brain arousal.  So, even though you’re trying to push through the distractions and really concentrate, sometimes you simply can’t.  While this doesn’t mean you should stop trying, it does mean that you might have to approach the problem a little differently.  If you think you may have ADHD, it’s important to consult with a licensed professional who can help you reach a diagnosis and form a treatment plan.

Create the right environment…

If you can’t eliminate distractions from within, then try to control your external environment.  Silence your phone, set up a work space where you can go when the mood strikes, and keep a notebook or planner on hand, just in case.  Many people—ADHD or no ADHD—need a solitary space to actually concentrate.  Although co-working spaces are quite popular right now, you really need to do what’s best for you.  If you can’t focus in an office, or a classroom, filled with 30 other people distracting you daily, then tell someone.  See if there’s a separate area you can utilize to accomplish your tasks.  But don’t forget to come up for air!  Taking breaks for collaborative work can help to keep you engaged, as long as you don’t go overboard.  Realistically, it’s all about the balance of activities.  You want to give yourself enough time to actually get things done, but incorporate enough variety that your ability to focus remains stimulated.  Do what you can to cut down on clutter, too.  Disorganization and a collection of unnecessary objects in your work space will only interfere with your goals.  But, it’s not just about where you are, but also what you’re doing.

Setting yourself up for success…

ADHD, or not, there are plenty of things you can do to create patterns of success for yourself!  Many people find scheduling activities useful when it comes to focusing.  By blocking out that specific time, you’re able to limit interruptions.  Plus, this helps you start down the path of accomplishment.  The same is true for deadlines.  Whether they’re set by your boss, your teacher, or yourself, knowing that you have to complete a task by a certain date/time can actually give you that extra boost of adrenaline that you need to focus.  They’re also known to activate hyperfocus—a period of deep concentration that some people with ADHD experience.  If you find yourself in a period of hyperfocus, take advantage of it!  Dive into a task you’ve been putting off and try to accomplish as much as possible.


Speaking of, have you heard of the “Zeigernik Effect”?  Basically, this is the theory that once you start something (a project, a paper, a conversation, etc.), it’s harder to ignore it.  For example, if you’ve known for several weeks that you have a mid-term due after the holidays, but you’ve just been ignoring it—stop.  While you don’t have to finish it in one sitting, at least start writing it.  Whether it’s your outline, your introduction, or any other paragraph, it’s best to begin as soon as possible.  Once you do, it will remain in your mind, encouraging you to go back and complete it.  Try to keep a notebook on hand, too, or some other form of note-taking software.  So, when distracting thoughts arise, you can quickly jot them down and come back to them later on.


Whatever system works for you, take advantage of it!  It’s important to remember that we all struggle with focus in different ways—especially when ADHD is in the picture.  If you’ve tried all of these techniques on your own and you’re still struggling, don’t lose hope.  Just consult with The Family Center for a more hands-on approach to help.

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