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Why can’t we focus?

Got the attention span of a goldfish? We've got some simple techniques to help your concentration.

 Dan Murray-Serter
Dan Murray-Serter
November 11, 2020
3 min read

After this viral tweet by BBC journalist, Emily Maitlis—where she cited a complete lack of concentration or ability to get past a single page of a novel during lockdown—things really haven’t changed much. In fact, as things have progressed, staying focused has become even harder as our attention spans may have retreated even further into goldfish territory.

Things usually devoured without a second thought like podcasts, documentaries, or audiobooks—are going in one ear and out the other, or get turned off in favour of rewatching another episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And, if we’re honest, some days even staying focused on that is a stretch.

Here’s what’s going on:

We have unconscious anxious minds

According to this interview with New Zealand clinical psychologist Dr Kimberly Falconer, our ability to stay focused is suffering because of the increase of stress. Thanks, 2020. The sudden plunge into uncertainty and the intensive juggling act of work, home, finance, political, and health concerns can take a toll on our stress response, even if it doesn’t feel like an ‘active’ worry.

Because our situations continue to be a far cry from normality—we’re still without access to our usual coping mechanisms and support systems, and the anxiety of that is a constant factor. Even if it’s not obviously there, as soon as we stop and try to stay focused on a book, the anxiety-induced lack of attention-span becomes searingly obvious.

Then, concern for our lack of focus can cause additional worry, and make the problem worse.

What actually happens in the brain when we’re anxious?

In simple terms; when we are subject to uncontrollable stress, high levels of arousal chemicals are released into the brain, which causes the prefrontal cortex to shut down, and our “top-down” control to be impacted. This can make us forgetful, emotional, reactive, and crucially, distracted.

The major functions of the prefrontal cortex include decision making, planning, patience, impulse control, working memory, and our ability to stay focused.

How to stay focused by taking control of your anxiety response

The key factor in all of this is control. Feeling out of control of the situation is what is making us anxious, flooding our brains with arousal chemicals, and making us feel so scattered. But, there are ways to still feel everything, and avoid the flood effect.

When you manage your stress response so that you feel alert, safe, and interested—the amount of chemicals is moderated. This means that the prefrontal cortex can do its job properly, and we can make better decisions, control our impulses (no more bizarre stress purchases), and vitally, regain some focus.

What to do if you need to focus for more than a minute

These simple techniques will help you to get some perspective, a sense of control and strengthen the prefrontal cortex —all aiding your ability to concentrate:

Learn how to cope with stress in this Work In with Dr Rangan Chatterjee

Use meditation to your advantage—understand how it works with teacher Natalia Bojanic

Try journalling as a way to strategically process your feelings and refocus your attention

FOR THE NERDY: The impact of anxiety on brain function (NCBI)

Want to be more productive? Here’s how to stop procrastinating.

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