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6 Top Concentration Killers

Straying from the task at hand? Here's how to regain your focus.
By Jen Uscher
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD

Unanswered emails are clogging your inbox, you’re wondering when you’ll find time to pick up the dry cleaning, and your brain is foggy from too little sleep.

It’s not surprising you have such a hard time tackling the projects at work and at home that demand your full attention.   

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To help you concentrate, experts say you first need to identify what's derailing you. Here are six common concentration wreckers and what you can do about them.

1. Multitasking

"Multitaskers might feel like they’re getting more done, but it almost always takes longer to multitask than to devote your attention to one thing at a time," says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload.

We lose time shifting between tasks. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers from the University of Michigan and the Federal Aviation Administration conducted tests in which people had to solve math problems or classify geometric objects. The researchers found that people lost time when they switched between tasks. And when the tasks were more complex or unfamiliar, they took even more time to switch tasks.

The key, Palladino tells WebMD, is be choosy about when you multitask. It’s OK to talk on the phone while you’re folding the laundry, for example, but not while you’re working on a difficult or high-priority task -- say, proofreading a report.

2. Boredom

Dull tasks can sap your ability to focus and make you more vulnerable to distractions.

"When you’re bored, almost anything else can be more attractive than what you’re doing," says Gordon Logan, PhD, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Logan's tip: Give yourself little rewards, like a coffee or a favorite snack, for staying on task for a specific period of time.

"When a colleague of mine had to review a complex grant proposal, she rewarded herself with a chocolate-covered raisin each time she finished reading a page," Logan says.

It’s also good to schedule breaks -- to take a 10-minute walk outside, for example -- so you’ll have something to looking forward to and a chance to recharge.

Boredom is one case when multitasking may work in your favor.

"Multitasking is often a help when you’re doing something so boring that you’re understimulated," Palladino says.

If you’re having a hard time focusing on washing the dishes or filing your receipts, for instance, listening to the radio or texting a friend at the same time may keep you motivated.

3. Mental Distractions

When you’re worrying about money, trying to remember if you took your vitamins, and replaying a conversation in your head that didn’t go as planned, it's hard to settle down and stay focused on a project you’re trying to complete.

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