Focus: What Is It, and Why Can’t I Do It?

Focus: What Is It, and Why Can’t I Do It?

“I just can’t focus today.”

“If only I could focus, I would be done with this already.”

“I want to get this done, but I can’t focus!”

Do you ever find yourself struggling to concentrate on a task, even though there is technically nothing stopping you from doing it? Maybe there are not even any physical distractors in your environment, but for some reason, you just cannot seem to focus.

Focus is the act of voluntarily directing one’s attention for a sustained period of time. This requires a mental process that in cognitive psychology we call inhibitory control, which is the ability to ignore competing stimuli. For example, at work, you might have to ignore a conversation your coworkers are having.

However, our own thoughts can be just as distracting. For example, if you are trying to focus, but you keep thinking about other things (they could be good things, like a fun concert you went to last weekend, or worrisome things, like an unstable relationship), it can be hard to focus. Redirecting your mind to attend to the task at hand requires inhibitory control.

Inhibitory control is part of a group of mental processes called executive functions. There are three types of executive functions: inhibition, cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between tasks that each have their own rule sets), and working memory (how much information you can hold in your mind at once). The thing with executive functions is that they require effort. Concentrating and paying attention is harder than doing whatever you were doing before you decided you need to focus.

Attention is a precious resource, and it is easily fatigued. When we do things that overload our cognitive resources, it gets harder to focus. If you want to focus better, it is best to avoid overloading your executive functions with unnecessary things so that you can channel those precious mental resources into the task you actually want to focus on.

For example:

  • Inhibitory control: Make sure your workspace is quiet so that you don’t have to waste mental resources on tuning out (inhibiting) conversations from other coworkers.
  • Working memory: The amount of information you can circulate through your mind at one time is limited and can be maxed out easily. Avoid overloading your working memory when you are trying to focus. For example, solving a tough problem at work often requires holding a lot of information in your working memory at once. This results in mental resources being directed to juggling different parts of the problem, rather than moving towards the problem’s solution. You can fix this by reducing the problem space: try breaking down the problem into smaller parts on paper.
  • Cognitive flexibility: Switching between tasks takes up precious mental resources, so avoid doing two things at once. For example, many people keep a messaging system like Microsoft Teams, or even just their text messages, open while they are working. Every time your attention gets pulled to an incoming message, it costs mental energy to redirect your attention back to the original thing you were working on.

Keep in mind, executive functions can be improved with practice. For instance, I found that after graduate school (which was basically six years of wrangling complex brain MRI data and publishing theoretical frameworks from our laboratory’s research on bilingualism in the brain), I found that my working memory expanded significantly. I am just one person, but there is something to be said about working on complex stuff for a long time. The brain adapts and gets more efficient at it.

The bottom line here is that focusing is a skill, and it requires effort. However, it can be improved with practice.

If you are wanting to get some extra practice at focusing, try Mendi. Mendi uses a neuroimaging technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to detect when there is increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is not the only region involved in attention (attention is a complex process that is the result of many parts of the brain working together), but it plays a key role in it. In particular, the prefrontal cortex is important for monitoring what other brain areas are doing and sending commands to them in order to achieve “attention.” When Mendi detects increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, it gives you positive feedback in an app on your phone. You can choose your session length and go from there.

About the author

Hannah Claussenius-Kalman earned her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Houston, where she was a graduate researcher in the Laboratory for the Neural Basis of Bilingualism. Her hobbies include Spanish, dancing salsa, paddle boarding, and pulling the perfect shot of espresso.

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