9 Reasons You Can't Focus

Concentration, focus, attention. Whatever you call it, it’s quickly becoming the rarest of national resources. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals 9 reasons your focus might be fizzling and 5 ways to fight the distraction of random shiny objects.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #162

Your mind used to be like a sponge, but today it’s more like a colander. You try to read, and while you’re looking at the words, nothing is sinking in. You try to have a conversation, but everyone sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. You try to work—or write or plan or think—but instead, it feels like you’re in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve: overwhelming and distracting.

Why can’t we focus? These days, the finger is most often pointed at technology. “Smartphones are giving us the attention span of goldfish!” shout the headlines. And while technology certainly plays a role in our fractured attention, it’s not the only culprit. What else could it be? Check out these 9 reasons, plus 5 ways to get your focus on.

Culprit #1: You’re anxious.

Worry and overthinking take up all your bandwidth, leaving you unable to focus. Indeed, worry is the ultimate in missing out—it takes you out of the moment you’re in and puts you squarely in worst-case scenarios that not only aren’t real, but what’s more, probably won’t happen.

Culprit #2: You’re burned out.

Along with exhaustion and resentment, a hallmark of burnout is having to work harder but getting less done. It’s as if your brain has become allergic to your job--any exposure causes a big reaction.

Culprit #3: You’re depressed.

There’s a new school of thought that depression isn’t primarily about mood. Instead, it’s about motivation. Anyone who’s ever suffered from depression and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of making a sandwich or getting through an entire shower knows what I mean.

And who’s the loyal sidekick of motivation? Concentration. They go together everywhere—when you feel pumped, it’s easy to focus. But when you’re feeling slower than a herd of turtles, your concentration naturally feels more like a disco ball than a laser beam.

Culprit #4: You’re drowning in clutter.

This one may seem surprising at first, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We can only process visual information about so many things at once. Focusing on one thing means competitively suppressing everything else. So if we’re trying to focus on one thing, having to filter out a stack of dirty dishes, unopened mail, and a veritable mosaic of sticky notes takes way too much bandwidth.

Culprit #5: You have a food intolerance.

If you have a food sensitivity, mainstream allergens like dairy, wheat, eggs, or corn, as well as more obscure food categories like fermentable carbs or sugar alcohols, may cloud your thinking like a fog machine gone rogue.

Culprit #6: You’re exhausted.

If all your remaining energy is going towards staying upright and not drooling, it’s no wonder you can’t concentrate. In a culture where coffee regularly replaces sleep, we’ve forgotten what it’s like not to feel tired.

Culprit #7: You’re not sure what you’re doing.

You can’t stay on task because the task isn’t well-defined enough, or you don’t have all the information you need to properly tackle the task. For example, say you’re a student trying to write a paper, but your task list simply says “write paper.” Trying to write before you have a clear idea of your thesis and major supporting points, or a breakdown of what you have to do—make an outline, research main points—creates an open invitation to distraction.

Culprit #8: You’re unconsciously procrastinating.

Sometimes we’re willing participants in our own downfall. You may simply not want to do what you’re supposed to do. It’s easier, more rewarding, and simply feels better to give into checking email, scrolling through the news, or even getting sucked into productive procrastination like cleaning, travel planning, or other tasks that need to get done, just not now.

Culprit #9: You have a medical issue.

MS, lupus, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, cancer and it’s treatment, or even pregnancy are all notorious for causing various forms of brain fog. As someone who once put lettuce in the freezer and ketchup under the sink while pregnant, this is definitely a thing.

So what to do? While we wish we could all come down with a bout of Attention Surplus Disorder, until that happens, try these 5 tips.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.