What Is Focus?

person focusing at work

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What Is Focus?

Have you ever read the same paragraph multiple times without absorbing a word of it? Or, sat in a classroom and faced the teacher, but been so lost in your own thoughts that you haven’t heard a word they’ve said? Or, zoned out during a meeting as you thought about all the things pending on your to-do list?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve been physically present but mentally absent, the missing element is focus.

Focus

Focus is the cognitive ability to channel your attention to a single task and be fully absorbed in it without disruption, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

This article explores the characteristics, benefits, and drawbacks of focus, and suggests some tips to help you improve your focus and concentration.

Characteristics of Focus

Focused attention can be described as being in a state of flow, where you’re fully engrossed in the task and don’t have to actively filter out intrusive stimuli, says Dr. Romanoff.

These are some examples of what focus could look like, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Sitting at your desk and working, without getting distracted by other people’s conversations in the office
  • Paying attention to a lecture, without looking at the other students or doodling in your notebook
  • Participating in a conversation and listening to what the other person has to say, without letting your mind wander
  • Reading a book and absorbing the information, without having to re-read it
  • Watching a movie or show, without scrolling on your phone simultaneously
  • Studying and completing the chapter you wanted to do, without letting yourself get distracted
  • Working toward a goal and prioritizing it above other things in your life

Benefits and Drawbacks of Focus

Listed below are some of the benefits and drawbacks of focus.

Benefits of Focus

The ability to focus is important because it enables you to fully engage in a task without having to disentangle other thoughts or activities from your mental space, says Dr. Romanoff. 

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Being focused means being fully present in the moment. This is the optimal state for learning and taking in information.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Drawbacks of Focus

While lack of focus can be problematic, too much focus can also be a bad thing. Being hyperfocused on something to the extent that you have tunnel vision and are oblivious to everything else can be detrimental.

What May Be Affecting Your Ability to Focus

Many mental health conditions can affect your ability to focus. According to Dr. Romanoff, these can include:

  • Anxiety: You may experience repetitive, intrusive thoughts that cause you to feel anxious and make it difficult for you to focus on the task at hand.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: You may have difficulty thinking, remembering, or focusing, particularly when it comes to abstract concepts such as numbers.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): If you have ADHD, you may alternate between periods of inattention, where you are unable to sit still and focus on anything, and hyperfocus, where you’re locked into a period of intense concentration.
  • Bipolar disorder: During a manic episode, you may experience racing thoughts and have difficulty focusing on a single one, whereas during a depressive episode, you may have trouble concentrating or making decisions.
  • Depression: You may find yourself ruminating over the past, which can make it difficult for you to focus on the present, says Dr. Romanoff.
  • Dementia: You may have trouble focusing and completing tasks.
  • Insomnia: Lack of adequate, restful sleep can make it hard for you to focus for any duration of time.
  • Schizophrenia: You may have trouble focusing and lose your train of thought, causing you to jump from one idea to another.

Additionally, other factors such as stress, lack of sleep, hunger, dehydration, pain, unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, or certain medications can also affect your ability to focus.

How to Improve Your Focus

Dr. Romanoff shares some strategies that can help you improve your ability to focus:

  • Eliminate distractions: Reduce noise and distractions while you’re trying to focus. For instance, if you’re trying to work, you can put your phone on silent, switch off the radio and television, and sit in a quiet room without other people around to distract you.
  • Create positive sensory associations: One way to make the task more interesting is to improve the sensory experience and create positive connections. For example, you can perform the task in a beautiful, serene spot, or spray your favorite scent or light a candle while you’re working on it.
  • Do one task at a time: The human brain is incapable of multitasking—research shows that it can only focus on one thing at a time. As far as possible, try to focus on one task and complete it, before starting on another one, rather than trying to do two things at once.
  • Simplify tasks: It can be helpful to simplify tasks or break them up into smaller chunks that are more manageable.
  • Try mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation involves focusing all your attention on something, such as your breath, parts of your body, or music. While it’s natural for your attention to wander, meditation requires you to bring it back to what you’re focusing on. Practicing this exercise regularly helps train your brain to be more mindful and improves your ability to focus.
  • Focus on your goals: Keeping your goals in mind can help motivate you to focus on the tasks you need to complete in order to get there.
  • Time your medications: If you’re taking medications for a mental health condition, it can be helpful to consult your healthcare provider and adjust your medication schedule so that your ability to focus lines up with the times of the day that you need it.

A Word From Verywell

Focusing is an important cognitive ability that helps us complete tasks. It is vital to activities such as listening, learning, reading, studying, and working. If you’re having difficulty focusing, there are steps you can take to improve your focus and be more productive. You can also reach out to a mental health professional for further assistance if you need it.

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11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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