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Tips for Folks Struggling with Focus

Anxiety, Coping Skills, Therapist Guide
8 min read

Focusing can be challenging! We live in a time where distractions are ever present and it can be easy for even the most focused person to drift off. If you’ve been diagnosed with a focus-related disorder (such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or just struggle with focus in general, there are changes you can implement throughout your day to make tasks just a bit more accomplishable. It’s important to remember that the only changes that truly matter are ones that feel accessible and meaningful to you.

Check out the tools and techniques below - you’ll learn ways to improve focus that work for your unique needs.

What makes focusing difficult? 

There are many distractions in daily life that constantly ask for our attention. However, we can feel overwhelmed because our minds are actually “wired for a state of continuous distraction.” Harvard psychologists found that “mind-wandering” or the constant stream of analysis running through people’s minds, keeps us from truly staying focused on the present moment. They say you can combat this through the “Notice, Shift, Rewire” technique. If you’re able to, notice the fact that your mind has drifted, shift your thoughts back to the present, and mindfully allow yourself to savor and experience everything about that moment for about 15-30 seconds - rewire. You can read more about this, here.

Prepare to Focus

  • Creating functional environments

    It’s important to have a specified place for different tasks/levels of focus. Create a space that you’re able to work in that is separate from where you relax. Our minds associate different spaces with emotions so alignment of functionality with our environment is important. Ex. if you’re able to, try not to do work in bed - your brain may want to sleep instead of focus.

  • Reducing Distractions

    Try to reduce distractions before you start engaging in more intense focus. Turn your ringer off and put your phone out of sight if you’re able to. Some Androids and iPhones have a “Focus” feature that allows you to turn off notifications and calls for a specified period of time. If possible, close doors to the room that you’re in and utilize noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, or play a white/brown-noise. Let others know that you’re engaging in a focused time or put a sign up on the door to notify them that you’re working.

  • Have a designated place for everything

    Keeping things visually organized allows you to see all of the items you have and increases the chance of you utilizing them. This also decreases time when putting things away and sticking to a specific task. Environments heavily influence emotions - what do the various areas of your living space convey? You may want to consider how shifting things would promote your focus and possibly improve your mood.

  • Take care of your needs

    It’s really hard to concentrate if you are feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, stressed, or need to use the restroom! Remember to take care of your essential needs before settling into a focus time.

  • Apps/Resources

    There are tons of apps and resources available for various devices that support you in increasing your focus. Here are a few you may want to start with:

    • Recommended Tools:

      • Utilizing Timers - Do you prefer the traditional watch timer or the digital timer on your phone? Use whichever works best for you to set multiple reminders throughout the day around tasks you may easily forget. No task is “too small” to be deserving of a timer and using emojis can make them a bit more exciting. 

      • Calendars/Schedules - If it’s not written down/typed out, it might not happen! Be sure to create a system for tracking work/focus times, important dates, and events visually. Don’t forget to schedule times/days off for breaks/relaxation and schedule “buffer times” for forgotten tasks or surprise events.

    • Recommended Apps

  • A few methods in promoting focus are:

    • Time Blocking - Try dividing your day, or even different tasks, into blocks of time that focus on a specified activity.

    • Body Doubling - Focusing/working alongside another person can increase accountability and focus by making tasks much more enjoyable.

    • Rewards - Sometimes a struggle to focus can be influenced by a lack of motivation, so it’s important to reward yourself while doing hard work. What are small, accessible rewards that allow you to enjoy them just for a moment and inspire you to get back to work? 

    • Reducing Multitasking - Engaging in tasks separately and mindfully allows you to stay in the present and complete each one fully. If you notice you’ve moved to another task, finish what you’re doing, then kindly redirect yourself back to the task, space, or activity that was initially prioritized.

    • Taking breaks - Remember to schedule (and actually take!) breaks throughout your focused periods. Attempting to stay focused for too long can actually reduce productivity and increase burn-out

    • Swiss Cheese Method - Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones - Ex. To clean the kitchen, you need to: a) load the dishwasher b) wipe countertops c) sweep

    • Knowing what works best for you - writing it down, text notes, voice memos, and taking videos of yourself are great ways to track things.

  • Pay Attention to the Senses

    Do you feel uncomfortable in a hard chair after a while? Try sitting on a yoga ball or create a “standing desk” out of stacked books. Do you notice your hands always need something to do? Make sure to have a fidget toy or something similar on hand to engage with.

  • Try Music

    Listening to music helps improve mood, support memory, and increase concentration. Put on some low, slower, instrumental music without lyrics and see if you notice a difference. You can check out Noisli to create your own focus mix or Coffivity to hear some ambient cafe murmur.

  • Videotape/Timelapse Yourself 

    Creating a video or timelapse of ourselves working/focusing increases accountability and a tangible way to notice our efforts. 

Takeaways 

Most importantly, remember to have grace with yourself when you’re having a difficult time focusing as it requires consistent practice and takes time to improve. 

Think about the way that you focus right now. Which 2 techniques above might be helpful in supporting you the next time you’re trying to intensely focus? Take note of them now so you have them to utilize the next time you’re trying to get work done.


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About the author: Chelsea Cummings is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate (LCMHCA) and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) from Asheville, NC. She specializes in working with folks who identify as neurodivergent and supports people in cultivating healthy, creative, and resilient minds. Read more from Chelsea and connect directly by viewing her Frame profile here.