Loss of focus isn’t necessarily an attention disorder

When you’re ready for bed, do you ever look back at your day and realize you never finished — or maybe never even started — a lot of the things you’d planned?

If you often experience this sort of loss of focus, you’re not alone. The good news is that a solution is probably well within your reach. Jacqueline Gerhart, MD of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health offers some advice.

Where did the day go

Where did the day go?

Question: I wake up with energy, but never get done what I want to each day. Before I know it, it’s 8pm and I haven’t accomplished what I’d hoped. Do I have an attention disorder?

Answer: I have plenty of patients who come in with symptoms of fatigue, inattention, poor concentration and difficulty completing tasks. It’s often difficult to determine what the underlying cause is, but most commonly it isn’t that the person has a disorder or needs to be medicated.

Most often, these people need help with organizing their life. Often, treatment focuses on three things: identifying triggers, organizing priorities and working on mindfulness.

Three things to consider

First, triggers. What things take away your focus or lead to poor concentration? Do you work better with the radio on, or do outside noises distract you? Does taking work to a coffee shop or library stimulate your creativity, or do you instead watch other people and do crosswords?

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Do you have too many responsibilities and not enough time to complete them? Are there things you can delegate or people who can help you? Or maybe you need new productivity tools — for example, if you have a small snow shovel, get a big one.

Next, organizing priorities. I was recently speaking to a UW-Madison undergraduate class and was asked, “How do you fit all your responsibilities into one day?” The answer was simple: I don’t.

Things are always spilling over from one day to the next, but I minimize this by prioritization. Using a technique from author Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), I determine if each task is urgent or not urgent, and if it is important or not important. I then make a table listing things that fall in each category.

For me, “urgent and important” is delivering a baby or seeing a patient, while “not urgent and not important” is painting my toenails. I prioritize emails too, color coding them by what part of my job they involve and their urgency.

Slightly neurotic? Maybe. Organized? Hopefully. Suffice it to say that when I organize and prioritize, I find clarity in my purpose for the day and accomplish more of what matters to me.

Finally, mindfulness. Perhaps you find yourself wandering from one thing to the next or failing to complete something you start. Many people struggle with this and find it hard to be “mindful” of what they are doing and what their goals are.

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“Mindfulness” has multiple meanings including: awareness, presence of mind, returning to oneself and refocusing. There are multiple books, programs, apps, conferences and retreats that focus on mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, tai chi and focused breathing are a few activities that can assist with becoming more mindful.

Some clinics also have integrative medicine practitioners who can help you with other mindfulness strategies. One strategy taught by the UW Integrative Medicine Program is to say to yourself, “Pause, be present, proceed.” That means: Take a breath, notice what you are doing, be in the present moment, and then go forward with clarity and focus.

If you have read all of the above suggestions and feel like you have tried similar strategies and nothing has worked, consider making an appointment with your physician for further evaluation.

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