Lack of Concentration: Why It’s a Symptom, Not a Cause

Lack of concentration is a growing problem in an age of distraction. Find out how you can manage your time to restore your concentration.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Alexander Graham Bell

Distractions are everywhere.

Lack of Concentration

To do the important work that will give our lives meaning, we need to be able to shut out noise, interruptions, and naysaying.

But the lack of concentration might signal deeper issues.

If you find yourself thinking or doing any of the following, you may have a problem with concentrating:

  • My mind wanders during the work day
  • I can’t finish anything
  • I procrastinate a lot
  • I can’t get motivated
  • I can’t wake up without caffeine

Sometimes lack of concentration is a sign of depression or illness. But more often than not, I believe lack of concentration is a symptom of the age we live in and the world of work that we’ve been born into.

If your work were truly meaningful and engaging, would you have trouble concentrating?

Lack of Concentration & Burnout

Lack of concentration is a symptom of burnout.

Overworking leads to exhaustion, shoddy thinking, and lack of energy. Is it any wonder you can’t concentrate?

In a culture that fetishizes time spent over value added, burnout syndrome is a common and persistent threat. Burnout saps your creativity and your motivation. Burnout preys on your mental focus and concentration. Burnout works on you until you can barely function at all.

A reader contacted me to let me know that she and her husband had found Agile Lifestyle. She thanked me for my articles on burnout. What’s fascinating is that they had already recognized the signs of burnout in themselves. They only needed to see it reflected somewhere else before accepting it themselves.

If your head is feeling fuzzy and you can’t concentrate at all, you might be experiencing a harbinger of full-blown burnout.

Dr. David Ballard of The American Psychological Association explained to Forbes that our cognitive system is designed to narrow our focus and pay attention to threats:

but our bodies and brains are designed to handle this in short bursts and then return to normal functioning. When stress becomes chronic, this narrow focus continues for a long time and we have difficulty paying attention to other things.

If you can’t concentrate anymore, your mental reserves may be depleted.

Leaving Nothing in the Tank

Agile processes promote sustainable development.
The sponsors, developers, and users should be able
to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

- The Agile Manifesto

What do centenarians from Okinawa know about living at a sustainable pace that you don’t?

Justin Jackson is an entrepreneur and father of four. Like many high achievers, Jackson was a workaholic. He displayed all the classic signs of burnout, until he finally hit his limit:

You see, I had no reserves. The problem with being maxed out is you can’t deal with anything new. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I’d squeezed my schedule, my finances, my energy, and my family to the absolute limit.

And then a crisis: the business I’d invested in went bad. I had no extra room to deal with a crisis: all those plates I’d been spinning came crashing down.

Once he recovered from this setback, Jackson needed a new way to organize his life.

The principle he settled on is hara hachi bu.

This is a Confucian idea that roughly translates to “eat until you are 80% full.” The extremely long-lived residents of Okinawa, Japan use this principle, as documented in the Blue Zones research. In a surprise to no one, Okinawans are longer-lived, less obese, and less likely to succumb to cancer than your average American.

Jackson turned the power of hara hachi bu on his time management systems. He made sure that at the end of each working day, he’d have at least 20% left in the tank for the next day. That way, small shocks to his lifestyle wouldn’t send his system crashing. He’d also have something in the tank for the following instead of trying to run on empty.

Justin Jackson embraced an Agile Manifesto principle known as sustainability. You can work yourself ragged, but that makes you fragile and prone to sloppier work. Your lack of concentration might be stemming from a lack of mental energy. If you’re working yourself to the bone everyday, there will be nothing left for future work.

Do like the Okinawans do: Work until you’re 80% full, then stop for the day.

Flow Is the Antidote

There were probably about five games in my career where everything was moving in slow motion and you could be out there all day, totally in the zone, and you don’t even know where you are on the field, everything is just totally blocked out.

Lawrence Taylor, Hall of Fame linebacker

The natural remedy to a lack of concentration is flow.

As defined by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his groundbreaking book Flow, the state of flow is when your mind and your body are totally absorbed by the task at hand. Flow is so powerful that nothing other than the activity seems to matter while you’re experiencing it.

Athletes call flow “being in the zone.”

It’s when a basketball shooter can’t seem to miss a 3-pointer.

It’s when a pitcher throws a perfect game.

It’s when a running back makes every cut a split-second before getting tackled.

The problem of concentration goes away when you’re in the flow state. Your attention is completely occupied, sometimes to the exclusion of necessities like eating or going to the bathroom.

Csikszentmihalyi says the key to reaching flow is for the challenge of the task to match the skill level of the performer. You can’t reach flow by doing easy things. Conversely, you can’t reach flow by doing something too difficult either.

If you lack concentration, it might be because the activity you are engaging in isn’t worthy of you.

How many people are really challenged every day at their jobs?

What will you do to regain your focus and concentration?

Image by Thomas Leuthard.

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