We are wired for inattention, yet expected to hold our focus for long periods of time. Our brains can only focus in ninety minute increments, yet a full work day is 8 hours, sometimes longer. Attention is our brain’s primary executive function, but in modern society, it is overstimulated and overworked. Behaviorally, with a brain on constant arousal, plus biologically, with our executive functioning declining past the age of 20, we are set up to get worse and worse at paying attention over the course of our lifetime.
Although I don’t often seek out guidance from WebMD, the site offers a comprehensive list of reasons that people have difficulty focusing:
- lack of sleep
- thyroid problems
- eating too many high sugar or fatty foods
Attention Issues due to Underlying Mental Health Conditions
When you think of depression, you may think of feeling sad for lengthy periods of time. The DSM-5 (the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the mental health diagnosis Bible) offers the more complex criteria. While not all of these factors apply to everyone, an individual must have 3 or more to meet a mild diagnosis. The more factors are apparent, the more severe the depression.
Criteria 3 suggests loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities. Criteria 8 suggests an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions. Depression changes your ability to think, lowers your cognitive flexibility, and executive functioning. Thus, depressed people not only have a difficult time initiating tasks, but even on ‘good days,’ when they feel a burst of energy, may lack focus to follow through. While medications to treat depression, like Lexapro and Zoloft, are found to improve mood in some patients, they don’t seem to help with directly with cognitive impairment. Challenging cognitive distortions can be helpful, as well as cognitive remediation, to enhance memory through practice.
When we worry and get stuck in cycles of anxiety, we deplete our energy. According to a 2007 study on attention control theory anxiety impairs attention towards goals, but intensifies attention to outside stimuli. Because clinically anxious people are constantly overstimulated and are apt to perceive outside circumstances as threats, their focus is fixated on alleviating hypervigilance, instead of focusing on useful thoughts.
Of course, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) causes an inability to focus as it is the central feature of this mental health condition. But why? Like many health conditions, modern research on ADHD shows more and more links to genetic predisposition. Brain injury, complications at birth, low birth weight, and alcohol/substance use patterns in mom’s are also shown to increase the likelihood of ADHD in children. Many folks I work with worry for both themselves and their children that ADHD can only be treated with stimulant medication, which poses the threat of addiction. Often, however, if one meets true criteria for ADHD, they are likely to feel ‘normal’ with medication, and calmer, increasing their capacity for focus. Changes in diet, exercise, limiting screen time, and sleep hygiene can also be game changers in increasing focus for those with ADHD.
Attention Issues due to Multitasking
Don’t have clinical depression, anxiety, or ADHD and still struggle significantly with inattention? The problem may be due to multitasking. Subtract a good eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, and you are left with eight hours in a day to: eat, go to the bathroom, shower, dress/undress, take care of pets/childrens/parents, commute, answer calls, on and on and on… Modern responsibilities force us to multitask, but our brain is not equipped to do so.
Our wiring makes us monotaskers and working within a focused framework leads to more potential for success. Skilled surgeons practice at getting extremely precise at one task by avoiding distraction and pressure to multitask. Switching from task to task results in lack of efficiency, as our brain uses an extraordinary amount of energy to switch gears. In short, we need to focus in order to learn, and we are poor at focusing on more than one task at a time. Therapies based on mindfulness and learning present moment awareness can be helpful in increasing our capacity to focus, mediating our monotasking nature and a high pressure society that demands multitasking.