We all have days when we feel a smidge spacy and scatterbrained. But a head full of fog is no fun, especially if it interferes with your ability to concentrate on important things like work, family or school.
Here, performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, explains why you can't focus and offers tips on how to fix each possible cause.
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1. You're Tired
"When you feel tired, it's not just your body that's sluggish, it's your brain too," Perlus says. "Being deprived of sleep makes people 'foggy' and less able to focus and stay on task, especially without making errors or careless mistakes."
While anyone who's ever pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test can confirm this anecdotally, there's also sound science to back it up.
This may be due, in part, to the way that lack of sleep "interferes with the ability of some brain cells to function and communicate with one another," Perlus says.
Fix it: “Aiming for at least 7 hours of sleep per night is ideal,” Perlus says. To give yourself the best chance of a sound slumber, she suggests these simple strategies:
- Avoid long naps during the day.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Avoid heavy meals, alcohol or stimulants such as caffeine close to bedtime.
If you're still tired after sleeping a full night, consider whether something is affecting the quality of your sleep, like that you're overexercising, drinking too much alcohol or caffeine or feeling stressed (more on that below).
2. You're Worried
Worrying excessively can be a sign of stress, anxiety or depression. Any number of these mental health issues can sabotage your focus.
When someone has stress, anxiety or even depression, the brain (and sometimes the body) is so busy trying to combat the uncomfortable feelings that it can be hard to concentrate on anything else, Perlus says.
For example, "sometimes people can experience racing thoughts that interfere with their task at hand," she says.
Other signs of anxiety and depression include, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Sadness and tearfulness
- Loss of interest in most activities
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Reduced or increased appetite
- Feeling on edge
Signs of stress include:
- Tension in your neck, back or shoulders
- Reduced sex drive
Fix it: Talk to your doctor if you are worrying excessively and think it might be a sign of stress, anxiety or depression. They can refer you to a talk therapist, prescribe medication and offer any lifestyle tips to help. Perlus also offers the following tips to help you slash stress:
- Practice meditation on a regular basis. A March 2018 study in Mindfulness found that people who completed just 10 brief meditation sessions (each approximately 10 minutes long) via a smartphone app reported lower levels of irritability and stress.
- Eat nutrient-dense foods, get quality sleep and exercise regularly. A healthy, well-rested body is better equipped to handle stress, Perlus says.
- Try daily journaling. “By putting pen to paper, you are taking all of the swirling thoughts out of your head and putting them down in a way that is more manageable,” Perlus says.
- Set boundaries with your time. “Although there are some things you can’t say no to in your career, do not obligate yourself to more than what is realistic in your personal life,” Perlus says.
- Keep track of your obligations. Scheduling things like meetings and appointments in a calendar (and checking them off as they are accomplished) can be helpful, Perlus says.
3. You’re Hungry or Deprived of Certain Nutrients
Being hangry can hamper your focus too. "If a person's blood sugar drops as a result [of not eating], they can feel faint, lightheaded or dizzy," Perlus says, which can make you feel unfocused.
Hunger also leads to a lack of energy, which can wreak havoc on concentration too, Perlus says.
Sometimes it's a matter of not getting enough of the right nutrients. For example, your brain needs glucose — which your body absorbs from the sugars and carbs you eat — for fuel, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
That's why snacking on something sweet — like a piece of fruit — can give you a temporary boost in memory, thinking and mental ability. So, if you're cutting too many carbs from your diet, your concentration may suffer.
Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fatty fish such as salmon also play a vital role in brain health and memory function, per the South Dakota Department of Health. And when you don't get enough of these healthy fats, your brain might feel foggy.
Fix it: “Start your morning with a healthy breakfast such as oatmeal or eggs to kick your metabolism in gear,” Perlus says. Research shows that breakfast meals stacked with high-fiber whole grains, dairy and fruits may help enhance short-term memory and attention, per the South Dakota Department of Health.
And select foods that support brain function. For instance, aim for two servings of fatty fish weekly. What’s more, eating an ounce a day of nuts, seeds or dark chocolate supplies superb sources of antioxidants like vitamin E, which has been connected to less cognitive decline as you age, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
Lastly, “don’t go more than four hours without eating, even if it means a snack like cheese or a handful of nuts or berries,” Perlus says.
4. You're Trying to Do Too Much at Once
Stretching yourself too thin? This can be a major fail for your focus.
While you might pride yourself on being a master multitasker, the practice of multitasking actually reduces your efficiency and performance, Perlus says.
Here's why: "When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the ability to perform both tasks simultaneously," she explains.
Fix it: Prioritize. “It’s rare that all your tasks or obligations hold equal importance or that they all need to be done in the next few hours,” Perlus says. So make a list and focus on the most urgent responsibilities first.
5. You Have an Attention Disorder
Your lack of focus could be a sign of a more serious issue like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is a condition characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Though it's often associated with childhood, ADHD can carry into your teen years and adulthood.
And while people with ADHD may have difficulty staying on task, some may also experience "hyper-focus" if an activity has a high level of interest for them, Perlus says. For example, you may have no attention span for certain job-related tasks, but you might become all-consumed with your love of knitting and spend hours doing it, ignoring all other distractions.
For adults, the following characteristics can also be telltale signs of ADHD, Perlus says:
- You're often late.
- You leave things undone.
- You had behavior issues as a child.
- You lack impulse control.
- You can't get organized.
- People say you're forgetful.
- People complain that you don't listen.
Fix it: If most of these symptoms describe you — and significantly interfere with your daily activities and relationships — it would be wise to seek the opinion of a doctor who can further assess you, Perlus says.
Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy — which increases awareness of attention and concentration challenges — can help people with ADHD develop practical skills to improve focus, per the NIMH.
- Healthy Sleep: “Sleep, Learning, and Memory”
- South Dakota Department of Health: “Brain Foods that May Help You Concentrate”
- National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Teens: What You Need to Know”
- Mindfulness: “Improvements in Stress, Affect, and Irritability Following Brief Use of a Mindfulness-based Smartphone App: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”
- Mayo Clinic: "Depression"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.