Can’t Concentrate on Work or Studying? Here’s Why (+Proven Strategies)

“Work, work, work. Sleep is for the weak. I can multitask effectively.”

Chances are, you’ve been believing “common sense” advice that is actually counterproductive for getting things done.

If you can’t concentrate on work or studying, the reason might be that your energy level, attention, and/or your planning is suboptimal. To solve this problem, make sure you increase sleep quality, learn how to plan appropriately, and manage your attention levels.

In this post, I’ll give you 7 things that might be sabotaging your productivity and how you can solve each problem using the most practical solutions backed by scientific research.

If you haven’t already, check out my All-in-One Guide to becoming more productive now.

Reasons Why You Can’t Concentrate on Work or Study (and What to Do About It)

1. Got 7-9 Hours of Sleep, but of LOW Quality

Inforgraphic from National Sleep Foundation

Counterintuitively, sleeping or resting, in general, is ESSENTIAL to your productivity. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that we get 7-9 hours of sleep; however, this recommendation seems lacking.

The quality of sleep also matters.

Just imagine being able to sleep for 10 hours but actually getting the same amount of restorative sleep as the one who got 6 hours. Your energy levels would end up being the same.

Matthew Walker, Ph.D. and Sleep Expert states in his book, Why We Sleep, that in order to have our best sleep, there are two conditions that must be met: Dark, and Cold.

Darkening your room improves the production of melatonin—a neurotransmitter that tells the brain “It’s sleeping time”. The cold room temperature helps reduce our body temperature faster—another signal for the brain for sleeping time.

2. You have a huge elephant in your to-do list

If a task is “big” enough, it may be incredibly unclear to you what your next action should be—and that creates vagueness.

Remember, vagueness is procrastination’s best friend.

When someone lists “Study Math” in their to-do list and “Math” consists of “Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry”—you can see how another decision has to be made before actually starting the task.

Vagueness blocks the path to least resistance. Aka “the path our bodies always take” (think: Eating instantly available Junk Food vs Preparing Healthy Meals).

One way you can solve this problem is by using a productivity principle called chunking.

Chunking: Break the task into smaller ones such that it is easier to make some progress.

Accomplishing one mini-task makes you more motivated and more in control if the big task you’re struggling with.

In other words, eat the elephant one bite at a time.

3. Not enough Productive Momentum

Photo by energepic.com

In Physics, we have learned that the heavier the moving object is, the harder it is to stop it from moving.

It’s a basic principle of momentum that we can apply to productivity.

When you tackle smaller, less important tasks early in the day—you’ll never get caught up.

What you can do, according to Eat that Frog! by author and success expert Brian Tracy is to determine your hardest, most valuable task that gives the most value to your work and do them first thing in the morning.

After finishing the hardest task, the succeeding tasks will seem easier by virtue of the Anchoring Principle of Psychology.

You’ll gain more confidence and a feeling of “flow” brought by the sense of accomplishment from accomplishing the hardest and most valuable task first.

4. You’re working on “wrong” periods of your Ultradian Rhythm

According to the book, When by Daniel Pink, there are times that we are naturally lethargic; these times are determined by our Ultradian Rhythm, or the Human Energy Cycle.

If we work during these periods, then it is natural that we can’t focus–it’s not even our fault. (In fact, when I was creating this article, I experienced this same problem and had to take a longer break)

Individually, we have different Ultradian Rhythms, but the 7-hour rule is the rough estimate for the general population.

According to the Productivity Project by Chris Bailey, this “trough” period is the perfect time to schedule lower-value tasks that do not require a lot of focus, to begin with.

Another tip is to schedule caffeine naps during this sluggish period. After a 20-minute nap preceded by a cup of coffee, you’ll wake up extremely energized and ready to tackle the remaining work ahead.

5. You’re working on the wrong environment (bed, dining table)

Credits to owner

Have different places for different activities. In the book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear states that time and location are powerful cues for our habits.

When working in the bedroom, there are cues present for your resting habits; for example, when you see your bed, your brain automatically goes “let’s lie down, use our phone” or goes “sleeping time”.

The brain is basically just eliminating the “thinking part” to make us more efficient.

Now, if you want to build a productivity habit, ideally we want to assign a room designated ONLY for that purpose so we deliberately make our brain automatically make us work when entering that room.

If that doesn’t work, you can use furniture:

Desk is for work, Sofa is for using smartphone, Dining table for eating, and so on. It works just as good.

In fact, you can even make proper cues for work using a simple trick with a lamp.

Here’s the trick: Only turn the lamp on during work.

Every time you work after turning on the lamp, a signal is sent to your brain: “I always work after turning the lamp on”.

6. You’re not present in the moment; Lots of “mind clutter”

I’ve read somewhere, I think it’s from Getting Things Done by David Allen, that our brain is made for having ideas, not holding ideas.

Come to think of it, if your brain’s resources are spent elsewhere, you lose some percentage of its power that you can use to actually concentrate on the task at hand.

To mitigate this problem, you can do two things: externalization and meditation.

Externalization simply means putting everything you think about in one capture system, be it your smartphone, a piece of paper, or a notebook. As long as you externalize your thoughts in the moment, you’ll free up some space there in your head.

One method I’ve found extremely helpful is to have a “Distraction List” where you write your distracting thoughts at the moment. I do this to cultivate focus when I’m already doing a Pomodoro Session.

Related: Does the Pomodoro Technique Work?

Another thing is to meditate regularly. How do you meditate? Do nothing. Focus on your breath. You’ll be surprised how hard it is to just focus on your breath for just 5 minutes.

Meditation trains your brain to become more present in the moment, and trains you to be the “observer” of your own thoughts. You’ll gain the ability to “catch” yourself thinking of things other than what you’re doing.

Perhaps it’s because of our lowering attention span, but that’s another topic altogether.

7. You’re suffering from Attention Residue

Photo from Project Horizon

Multitasking is a myth. In fact, only 2% of people can legitimately multitask.

For the general population, switching your attention from one thing to another creates more harm than good due to a thing called Attention Residue.

You might think that you can actively channel your focus from one task to another after finishing the other—but that’s entirely false. Our brain still gives the last thing you focused on a little bit of attention, and it saps brainpower that you’re supposed to use to finish your valuable task.

What causes Attention Residue is checking messages, email, social media, or even chatting with others from time to time during your work.

Another reason is that your work area is just filled with unnecessary bullshit. (Seriously, do me a favor and clean up your mess)

In the book, Deep Work, professor Cal Newport states that when you work alongside these distractions, you are producing Shallow Work—a form of work that not only takes a lot of time but also has lesser value.

In short, work on one task at a time. As author George McKeown says in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, “An essentialist can do anything, but not everything”

Bottom Line

If you can’t concentrate on work or studying, it’s a good idea to invest some time into managing your plans, energy, and attention levels.

It will go a long way into boosting your productivity now, and in the days ahead.

Until then, leave a comment if you have any questions and make sure to share this with your friends by clicking the Share buttons down below 🙂

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