Why Can’t I Concentrate? How to Combat Attention Deficit Disorder

how screens steal your focus and lead to attention deficit disorder

Attention Deficit Disorder is on the rise. If you struggle to concentrate or focus your mind, or suffer from brain fog, you’re not alone. Millions of us are finding it more difficult to manage our attention mechanism.

In this post I’ll explore some of the reasons why we’re losing our ability to focus (and the problems this causes). And I’ll offer 5 ways you can combat Attention Deficit Disorder (in yourself or your kids) without having to resort to the use of powerful drugs.

It’s time to get with it!

How your attention has been stolen

In his ground-breaking best selling book, Stolen Focus, author Johann Hari highlights the pitfalls of modern tech. He speaks about how screens, apps, and social media have stolen our attention, making concentration and focus so much harder than it should be.

But the downside of stolen attention doesn’t stop there…

It leads to heightened emotionality (and consequently an inability to think clearly), stress, poor sleep, anxiety, and depression. And in some people it leads to a clinical diagnosis of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

Hari argues that Big Tech is driven by a business model whose main objective is to keep you on screen, endlessly scrolling until you make a purchase. You’ve only got to look at people on the tube, buses, trains, and in the street to see how well the model is working; everyone is glued to their phones!

Are you one of them? (Go into your phone settings and see how many hours you spend every day staring at that screen).

stolen focus: why you can't pay attention by Johann Hari

What is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)?

Before we look more closely at ADD, we need to distinguish it from its ‘cousin’, ADHD. The latter has an added element – hyperactivity. We are hearing more and more about this in children (especially in the U.S.) where kids in the classroom can’t sit still or concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time (1).

Worryingly, increasing numbers of kids are being prescribed mind-altering drugs to address the problem. The danger is that the long-term effects of these drugs have not been researched. What are they doing to your child’s brain?

This treatment approach is based on the belief that ADD (and ADHD) are caused by genetic factors. But ADD and ADHD have increased exponentially over the last 40 odd years. Human genes simply don’t change that quickly so there must be something else going on…

Hari argues that we need to have a wider perspective when trying to understand (and treat) attention problems in ourselves and our kids and that it is often the environment in which we live, work and play that determines our ability to focus and concentrate.

A toxic environment at home, school or work will undermine our ability to meet important emotional needs, raising stress levels, resulting in the more primitive emotional brain taking control. We become hyper-alert, restless, unable to be fully present in the here and now, as if we’re constantly looking for potential danger.

The main symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder

If you (or your child) meet any of the following criteria, you might be labelled as someone with ADD (and be prescribed medication).

This is what the ‘experts’ in ADD look for…

  • Difficulty in giving attention to details or makes careless mistakes in work, schoolwork, or other activities
  • Often has trouble staying focused on tasks or play activities
  • Often does not seem to be listening when spoken to directly and/or is easily distracted
  • Avoids, dislikes, or doesn’t want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for long periods of time (such as schoolwork or homework)
  • Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools)
  • Often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork or projects
  • Is often forgetful in day to day activities

What all this boils down to is an attention mechanism that’s gone awry. You can’t focus. You can’t concentrate. You’re easily distracted. And you’re not really present in the moment.

This makes learning anything more difficult than it need be.

Screen addiction, advertising, and ADD

Is it any wonder that you (or your kids) can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes?

Computers, smartphones, and tablets are constantly vying for your attention with their endless texts, emails, messages, notifications, and adverts.

Watch a YouTube video and there’s another, more exciting one clamouring for your attention. Maybe this one will hit the spot, you wonder. Click…and then your attention wanders off yet again until you’re mindlessly – and endlessly – scrolling.

Same with TV. In the UK we’re now being bombarded with adverts every 10 minutes or so. Our attention is hijacked and products are shoved in our faces.

And then there is ‘surveillance capitalism’ where Alexa (and other bots) build a profile of your likes. Within days – and sometimes within hours – you’ll see an ad for that very thing popping up on your screen. (2)

So, if Big Tech is driven by a business model that has no interest in your wellbeing, what can you do yourself to get your attention back and, consequently, improve your focus, mood, sleep, and lower stress levels?

5 Ways To Naturally Combat Attention Deficit Disorder

Here are 5 ways to steal back control over your attention mechanism, clear the brain fog, and fully engage with what’s going on in the moment. (And it doesn’t involve using any medication)…

1. Stop switching between tasks

When we switch attention (say, from reading an article to suddenly deciding to check our emails or text messages) we lose focus. And it takes time to get that focus back. The fact is that humans are not very good at multi-tasking.

So, switch off notifications on your phone and computer. Even better, switch off your phone entirely! Commit to one activity and stick to it. No checking emails, no texting, no social media when you’re in the middle of something else. (These things can be done later).

Johann Hari suggests coming off social media altogether (for certain amounts of time, say 3 to 6 months). Social media is designed to hijack your attention and keep you scrolling for eternity (until you press the ‘buy now’ button).

Bottom line is, the less switching you do the more focus you’ll have.

2. Learn how to get into ‘flow’ states

A flow state is a trance-like state, often referred to being ‘in the zone’ by sports people. (3)

When have you experienced this in your life? When do you lose yourself in whatever you’re doing?

Think about those experiences when time disappeared because you were so absorbed in something, such as a hobby or doing something deeply meaningful to you.

Absorbing your attention in this way – on something you enjoy – has an added benefit; it feels as if time slows down. And this will help you feel less stressed too.

Flow is exactly like self-hypnosis, a highly focused state of attention and absorption.

3. Let yourself daydream and play

Contrary to what teachers might have shouted at you in class, daydreaming is good for you. Letting your mind wander is not a loss of attention but a form of attention in its own right.

When you allow your mind to wander freely you reflect on things and make connections between different things you’ve learned.

Giving your attention space to roam also stimulates your imaginative/creative energies to find solutions to problems. Indeed, many scientific breakthroughs arose in this way, such as Kekule’s discovery of the structure of benzene. (4)

And learning how to play again – like a child – is so vital to your wellbeing. Developing a child-like wonder and inquisitiveness will help you be more present, in the here and now.

how to focus your mind: 5 ways to combat Attention Deficit Disorder without medication
Image: Leo Rivas

4. Make sure your emotional needs are met

When basic human needs go unmet your stress levels rise, putting the reactive/compulsive/emotional brain in charge. That’s the last thing you want if you suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder.

The needs we’re talking about include…

  • Having emotional connections with others
  • Feeling safe and secure in your environment
  • Having a sense of control or autonomy in your life
  • The need for goals, purpose and meaning
  • The need for ‘downtime’ – time to be still and reflect
  • And the need to keep learning new things

When emotional needs are met (and if you can remove yourself from toxic environments) the higher cortex regains command – the part of you that can focus and concentrate and think clearly.

Download an emotional needs audit and identify the stressors that steal your attention

5. Improve your sleep

Sleep is both a physical and psychological need. It de-arouses the previous day’s stresses during REM sleep and makes physical repairs during slow-wave sleep.

But if you’re attention is glued to your phone late into the night, you can be almost certain that your sleep will be affected in some way. For this reason, sleep experts are now saying we shouldn’t be using our phones in the two hours prior to going to sleep.

With the right balance of REM and non-REM sleep (and about 8 hours of total sleep per night) you’ll feel rested and re-energised upon waking.

RELATED CONTENT: Learn how to sleep better – starting tonight!

By implementing some of the above, you’ll soon notice your ability to pay attention and focus starts improving. But not only that…

You’ll feel calmer, more able to learn better (because you can now concentrate), and your sleep should improve as well.

I’d love to hear what you think about this post.

Have you read Johann Hari’s book? Do you feel that Big Tech have stolen your attention? Are you motivated to reclaim it for yourself?

Please leave a comment after the notes below (and if you implement some of the ideas I’d love to know how you got on).

Notes and references

(1) The rise in ADHD in kids – What’s behind the increase in ADHD? | Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR)

(2) Surveillance capitalism: what you need to know – Harvard professor says surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy – Harvard Gazette

(3) For more on flow states see the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘cheek-sent-me-high-ee’) The ‘flow state’: Where creative work thrives – BBC Worklife

(4) How Kekule solved the benzene puzzle in a daydream – Chemical Anniversaries: 1865 – Kekulé’s benzene ring – Collins | Freedom to Teach

The featured image for this post is by Bianca Castillo

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