Between social media notifications, the relentless news cycle, and never-ending to-do lists, staying focused can feel like an impossible task these days. And while there are plenty of factors that contribute to this attention crisis, many everyday habits we don’t think twice about can sabotage our ability to get in the zone (and stay there).
If distractions are dragging you down, know that some small tweaks to your daily routine can make all of the difference. Here, experts break down the habits that could be interfering with your ability to focus—and how to take back control.
1. You Don’t Prioritize Sleep
Hustle culture makes it hard to prioritize getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but skimping on shut-eye does your focus a serious disservice. “It’s no longer a badge of honor to be the person who gets the least amount of sleep,” says certified health and wellness coach Caroline Makoujy-Kusnetz, N.B.C.-H.W.C., co-founder of GRYT. “Not getting enough quality sleep can dramatically affect focus and lead to mental and physical fatigue, impaired cognitive function, and reduced productivity.” Sleeping less than six hours a night impacts the body’s circadian rhythm and can increase stress levels, further hindering cognitive function, memory, and concentration, she adds.
To maximize sleep, it’s important to establish a consistent bedtime routine. Makoujy-Kusnetz suggests starting to wind down at least an hour before bed, which means putting away your phone and computer and turning off the TV. You can also make your sleep environment is comfortable and conducive to rest by turning the thermostat down and reducing all light, she says.
If you need extra support, supplements can help your mind and body settle in for a restful night of sleep. “A few herbal supplements that are good for relaxation and sleep include magnesium glycinate, l-theanine, CBD, l-tryptophan, and melatonin,” adds certified health coach and counselor Kamilah Stevenson.
2. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Want to feel more focused throughout the day? “Skip that energy crash by having a mid-afternoon snack with some solid protein,” says dietitian Amanda Sauceda, M.S., R.D. Eating protein is important for the production of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which impact motivation and concentration, per the Cleveland Clinic. Fall short on protein and your body has fewer building blocks with which to make these important neurotransmitters, which could leave you struggling to fire at your finest.
When your stomach starts rumbling in the afternoon (just as your focus coincidentally wanes), grab a cheese stick, yogurt, or protein bar for a quick protein boost, says Sauceda. You can also add collagen peptides to your afternoon tea or lemon water for some easy protein oomph. And, in general, try to eat between 0.5 and one gram of protein per pound of body weight throughout the day from whole, fresh foods like turkey breast, chicken, eggs, fish, and beans.
3. You Overdo The Caffeine
If you look forward to your morning cup of coffee, you’re not alone—but drinking too much caffeine can actually mess with your focus. “While moderate caffeine intake can help improve alertness and concentration, excessive consumption can lead to increased anxiety, jitters, and difficulty focusing,” says Stevenson. This is because caffeine stimulates the nervous system, which triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and too much of these hormones can cause anxiety, agitation, and difficulty focusing, per the Cleveland Clinic.
You don’t have to go cold turkey on caffeine; just be mindful of whether your intake is really working for you. The FDA recommends a maximum of about 400 milligrams per day (that’s roughly four to five cups), however, your personal caffeine threshold depends on how quickly you metabolize caffeine. It’s possible you might experience negative side effects after drinking a much smaller amount. Generally, if you crave an afternoon sip, Stevenson recommends opting for decaffeinated coffee or herbal teas.
4. You Check Your Phone First Thing In The Morning
It’s no secret that the endless notifications on your phone can tank your focus—and checking your phone first thing in the morning can set you up for a day of struggle, says licensed psychologist Lienna Wilson, Psy.D. “The anticipation of emails, messages, and ‘likes’ engages our sympathetic nervous system and causes a stress response—and when our stress levels are high, our memory and concentration are negatively impacted,” she explains.
To help create some detachment and awareness, try practicing mindfulness when you wake up. Instead of reaching for your phone, meditate or journal. “Set an intention and then check in with yourself throughout the day to make sure that you are on target,” adds Wilson.
5. You’re Skimping On Omega-3s
Feeding your brain with healthy nutrients is a non-negotiable for focus, and omega-3s, in particular, are a necessity, says Sauceda. Omega-3 fatty acids support brain health and brain functioning, and studies have found that these fatty acids are vital for facilitating communication between the brain cells responsible for concentration and memory. In other words, if you’re lacking omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, your ability to hammer out that work project or remember your to-do list might suffer.
Luckily, you can find omega-3s in a variety of foods, Sauceda says. Animal sources include salmon, mackerel, and tuna, while plant-based sources include chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Just how many omega-3s you need depends on factors like age, sex, and specific health status, but it’s worth noting that many people don’t get enough.
The going recommendation for plant-based omega-3 ALA is 1.1 and 1.6 grams per day for women and men, respectively. Meanwhile, many experts suggest an average of 250 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA, the all-star omegas found in animal foods, per day. If you struggle to hit these marks via the food on your plate, consider a supplement such as flax oil or fish oil.
6. You Sit All Day
A sedentary lifestyle has been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis, and it also negatively impacts focus. “Prolonged periods of sitting can lead to decreased blood flow to and oxygen levels in the brain, affecting focus and productivity,” explains Stevenson. In fact, research has shown that extended periods of sitting lead to poor executive function, memory impairment, and a lack of attention.
“Regular movement breaks can help refresh your mind, alleviate muscle stiffness, and improve circulation, thereby enhancing focus and cognitive function,” Stevenson says. In addition to incorporating 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity into your daily routine, take short breaks to stand, stretch, or walk during work hours. Stevenson recommends doing so every half an hour or so.
7. You Work At A Cluttered Desk
“A cluttered desk reflects a cluttered mind,” says Makoujy-Kusnetz. “When our surroundings lack organization, our brains have to work overtime to mentally create space to think and process information, which can lead to stress.” This, she says, contributes to increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and distraction.
Read More: 6 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed
The simple solution? Create a designated workspace and spend a few minutes at the end of each day organizing and setting your space up for the following work day, Makoujy-Kusnetz suggests. It’s also helpful to schedule an hour a week to declutter. “Prioritize those spaces where productivity is important (like your desk) first,” she says. “Then, you can move on to spaces like the bedroom, where a calm environment is very important for a restful night’s sleep.”
8. You Lack Sun Exposure
Not only is sunlight good for the soul, but it’s also beneficial for improving concentration. “Americans spend an average of 90 percent of their time indoors, and depriving ourselves of natural sunlight can have a major impact on our focus,” says Makoujy-Kusnetz. You see, too little sun exposure disrupts our circadian rhythm and makes for reduced vitamin D levels, which can lead to fatigue and reduced cognitive function, she explains.
Your body makes vitamin D when the sun hits your skin, which is why many experts recommend exposing as much of your skin to the sun for 15 to 30 minutes a day. If that’s not possible for you (or you’re dealing with other factors that impact your vitamin D status), consider incorporating a supplement into your routine to keep your levels where they need to be.
9. You Don’t Take Enough Breaks
Know the feeling when everything starts to look and feel blurry after you’ve been staring at a book or computer screen for hours? It happens to the best of us and, frankly, it means we’ve passed the point of productivity, suggests Wilson. Research shows that trying to focus your attention on one thing for too long can increase mental fatigue and lead to a decline in work performance and concentration.
The frequency of breaks for optimal concentration can vary. However, Wilson suggests the Pomodoro technique, which recommends a five-minute break after 25 minutes of work. Another helpful schedule is implementing a 10-minute break after 50 minutes of work, she shares.