Why Can’t I Study?

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Research shows people can only spend 8 seconds on a concentrated task without becoming distracted – less than a goldfish! Learn how to add 2.2 ultra-productive hours to your day with our blog, “Why Can’t I Study?”

By Vincent Giampapa, MD

Back in 2008, a Microsoft Corporation study showed people could spend 12 seconds on a concentrated task without becoming distracted. Just five years later, it was only eight seconds – one second less than a goldfish! [1]

Once our focus is broken, it can take up to 25 minutes to return to its original task. The average knowledge worker consequently loses 2.2 hours of productivity per day to distractions and recovery time. [2] That’s equivalent to 574 hours per year, or almost 24 days of annual lost productivity due to distractions!

Imagine if you could add 2.2 ultra-productive hours to your day. How much more would you achieve?
Distractions not only hurt our productivity; they also have adverse emotional effects. Research shows that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, bad mood, and lower productivity. [3] These negative impacts can damage your work life, career, relationships, and self-confidence. Life without focus is a real struggle, making everything harder to do and more time-consuming.

But the good news is that focus is not an inherited trait, rather, it’s a skill that can be learned and refined with practice over time.

As the digital information age narrows the general attention span of humans, focus and concentration are becoming the new superpowers for 21st-century professionals.

The goal of this article is to help you become less distracted and more productive so you can experience that satisfying sense of accomplishment and reach your potential. Below are the three reasons why people can’t focus sharply and can’t concentrate for sustained periods of time, as well as recommendations to help you support focus, recall, mental speed, and rapid learning.

Tip # 1: “Why Can’t I Study?” Stop Multitasking

Neuroscience has proven that “multitasking” is a myth – it simply does not exist. [4] People often brag about multitasking, but they are really doing something called “task switching” – the brain quickly toggling back and forth between active focus on separate tasks. [5] In fact, neuroscience proves that your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. [5] When you try to “multitask” you are engaging in a counterproductive practice that studies say wastes up to 40% of your productive time! [5] Even worse, a psychology professor at Stanford University, Clifford Nass, says there is evidence task switching may be destroying our concentration and creativity too. Despite most task switchers feeling more emotionally satisfied, which creates the illusion of productivity, they are actually much less productive than people who focus on one thing at a time.
However, you can do two things at once if one of those things does not require direct focus, and uses a different part of the brain. For example, you can work on solving a math problem while listening to relaxing classical music because these processes activate different sectors of the brain.
So what are some ways to stop task switching so you can harness your laser-sharp focus and sustained concentration potential?

If you’re on the phone while typing an email, catch yourself, and then close your computer and focus on the conversation.

Conscious Effort
First, make a conscious effort to become aware of your task switching, and force yourself to actively focus on one thing only, and then the next thing only when you’re done with the first task.

Organize, plan, and follow. You won’t feel like you need to do everything at once if you have a well planned out and organized agenda that you know if you follow, you’ll get what you schedule (and prioritize) done. Organized schedules have been shown to relieve stress and anxiety, helping you to shed that feeling of needing to do everything at once.

The tips above are tactical ways to be more focused, but there are ways to strengthen your focus “muscles” by engaging in activities that require intense focus, such as creating art, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, or playing chess. You can also use The Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo. [6]

Tip # 2: Beat Distractions

Distractions are everywhere today, from digital interruptions to other day-to-day non-digital interactions. Here are some tips to help you beat distractions and focus on what matters most:

Hyper-focus on 2 to 3 important wins (tasks) for the day.

Do your critical work during prime focus time. For most people, their best time of the day is the first thing in the morning or early in the day – before distractions increase and/or mental energy decreases. There are some people who’s prime focus time is another time of day. That’s okay too, just know what works for you. Either way, this means you have a plan on how and when to do these 2 to 3 critical tasks. One counterintuitive tip is to also make a not-to-do list to further emphasize what’s most important.

Reduce or eliminate digital distractions and focus fully.
Digital noise and distractions from phones and computers are the worst focus-stealing offenders. Avoiding these devices is not easy, but when you get it right, it beats the compulsive loop of checking social media, surfing the web, and texting all day.

Here are a few tips to shield yourself from your devices’ tempting offers:

• Start by putting your phone out of sight, muting it, and disabling notifications. Additionally, you can uninstall addictive apps, and enable screen time limitations.
• Switch your phone’s color filters to Grayscale so it’s less enticing to use. On iOS devices this can be done by going to Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters. To enable, just press the home button three times to enable grayscale. Triple-click again to go back to color.
• Use apps like Freedom or free options like StayFocusd to block digital distractions.
• Install ad-blocking software on your computer, like AdBlock.
• Use productivity tools like RescueTime to help you prioritize your tasks and projects.
• Listen to music that enhances focus. Apps like Focus at will have research-based tracks that have been shown to quadruple productivity and focus. [7]
• Many of the streaming music services have “Focus” and “Study” categories, playlists, and channels. Ideally, these playlists should be instrumental music tracks because tracks with lyrics can be distracting.

Don’t be afraid to say no or ask people to give you privacy.

Steve Jobs, who was renowned for his expertise at focusing, famously explained that “Focusing is about saying no.” There are a limited number of things you can focus on, so you must rigorously eliminate anything that’s less important. The first step in removing distractions is identifying them, which requires the power of self-awareness. Next, get used to saying one simple word – “no.”
This means, say “no” to anything that clutters your mind and doesn’t align with what you want in your life.

Work from home (if you can.)

Most people would think working from home is less productive but millions of anonymized datasets from RescueTime tell a different story. On average, remote workers are far more productive than those in an office. Remote workers average 58 more hours spent on core work and 256 fewer hours spent on communication. Remote workers save a remarkable 2 to 5.5 hours a day without commuting and in-person meetings. [8] Although it seems many of us are more productive in overworked states, this can come at the price of working too many hours leading to burnout, increasing screen time that leads to eye strain, and less social interaction that takes its toll emotionally.

Regardless of your work location, it’s a well-established fact that working longer hours is counterproductive. Most people are able to sustain their focus for just one to four hours of work per day. So, it’s critical to take regular breaks. Even mini-breaks under a minute can help you regain your focus. [9]

Also, make a goal to do some of your work standing up. The average person sits 12 hours a day which is terrible for our health and exhausts our ability to focus. 

Tip # 3: Set Your Brain Up For Peak Performance

Your brain is like a muscle. Working it out is good, but if you don’t give it a break to recover, it will exhaust itself and function poorly.

Your brain needs the right food, adequate rest, and regularly scheduled relaxation.

Here are some tips to keep your brain and body balanced and performing their best.


Over time stress takes a massive toll on our body and brain health. [10] To add on to my prior recommendation of taking regular breaks, scheduling mindfulness is also critical to reducing stress and achieving peak performance.

Whether you want to spend time in nature, lay still and think, practice deep breathing or meditation, these mindfulness techniques put your brain in the alpha brainwave state which is proven to improve focus, mood, creativity, and overall well-being. [11]

Major companies and the military even realize that employees who practice mindfulness are less likely to be distracted, so if you’re still in the camp that thinks this is woo-woo stuff, I urge you to reconsider. [12]


We’ve all experienced what sleep deprivation does to our mood, focus, and overall health and wellbeing. [13]

Lack of sleep and more importantly lack of deep sleep is linked to nearly every major health condition. So it’s no surprise that it’s also a huge focus killer.

Deep sleep is the time when our body repairs itself. When we get it right, our body’s natural processes take over and work each night to rejuvenate our body and brain at the cellular level.

When we’re not getting enough deep sleep, our natural cell repair processes don’t occur as efficiently – leaving our body and brain to play genetic clean up the next day instead of being able to perform at its peak. [14]

If you’re serious about deep sleep… read my article How to Sleep Better: 12 Pro Tips for Better Sleep Tonight and consider using a supplement designed to maximize the 4 stages of human sleep so you can fall asleep faster, stay asleep, sleep deep, wake up refreshed, and perform your best.

Getting more deep sleep and 7 to 9 hours every night should be a top priority. I realize this doesn’t always go as planned, so when this happens, try taking a power nap to fill in the gap (but not too late in the day).

Taking a 20-minute power nap earlier in the day can help boost productivity for the rest of the day. Research shows that keeping it to around 20 minutes has the best results. [15] Much more than 20 minutes can make you groggy or disrupt your sleep that night.


Recreation activities don’t need to be strenuous to boost focus, concentration, and memory.

Scientists are continuing to show that everything from walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, and qigong act like moving meditations and can have profound effects on your brain. [16]

Cognitive fuel & brain energy

Your brain is a high-performance organ that needs a disproportionate amount of energy, oxygen, water, and nutrients. Your brain requires energy to function. Although your brain represents only 2% of your total body weight, it burns 20% of your body’s energy. [17] So just thinking burns about 320 calories per day for the average person. Cognitively challenging work burns even more calories.

As you already know what you eat significantly changes how well your brain performs its many functions, including focus. Even certain micronutrients affect your mood for a healthier headspace.

So what type of fuel does your brain need to convert into energy?

Your brain gets its energy from glucose, but medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs) and ketones are also major healthy sources. Omega fatty acids help produce ketones in your body and regulate brain glucose uptake. Vitamin B6 boosts the conversion of food into energy, while vitamin B12 helps build red blood cells that carry oxygen to the brain. MCTs, omega fatty acids, Vitamin B6, and B12 provide the fuel your brain needs to avoid burnout and mental fatigue. If your brain doesn’t get the fuel It needs, your mind will feel foggy, sluggish, or tired, and it will be hard to focus. [18]

To fuel your brain properly, follow the guidelines below:

Add high MCT foods to your diet, like coconut oil (17% MCT), butter (6.8% MCT), yogurt (6.6% MCT), milk (6.9% MCT), and cheese (7.3% MCT).
Add high omega fatty acid foods to your diet, like fish, nuts, seaweed, and algae.
Add high B-vitamin foods to your diet, like fish, liver, and other meats. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, opt for B12 supplements.

In addition to giving your body and brain the right fuel for peak performance, It’s not just what you put into your body, it’s also what you don’t put in it.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of clean air, food, and water. Environmental toxins, contaminants, and processed foods are harmful to your health and productivity. This also goes for many prescription drugs. Some of the worst offenders that negatively influence your focus are cholesterol-lowering drugs, prescription sleeping pills, and drugs that start with “anti” such as antihistamines or antidepressants. [19]


[1] You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/
[2] The Underlying Reason You Can’t Focus https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2016/12/19/the-underlying-reason-you-cant-focus/#27a7695769bd
[3] The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress; Gloria Mark, University of California, Irvine https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf
[4] Abundance of information narrows our collective attention span
[5] Multitasking: Subtle “switching” costs cut efficiency, raise risk. https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask
[6] The Pomodoro Technique https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique
[7] The Influence of Streamlined Music on Cognition and Mood https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.04255
[8] Work from home productivity data: Why you (and your manager) shouldn’t be afraid of remote work https://blog.rescuetime.com/work-from-home-productivity-data/
[9] Microbreak length, performance, and stress in a data entry task.
[10] Stress-induced cognitive dysfunction: hormone-neurotransmitter interactions in the prefrontal cortex https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00123/full
[11] Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness
[12] A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction.
[13] Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/
[14] How Sleep Clears the Brain
[15] The effects of a 20 min nap in the mid-afternoon on mood, performance and EEG activity.
[16] How Exercise Affects Your Brain
[17] Appraising the brain’s energy budget https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC124895/
[18] The Best Nootropic Supplements for Focus + Recall
[19] Acetylcholine Neurotransmission in the Nervous System