Poor concentration and attention


We all have moments of poor concentration and attention, especially when we’re tired or stressed. There may be a more serious issue, however, if we’re struggling to concentrate most of the time, or if these difficulties have lasted for a long time.

External symptoms

Problems with concentration and attention usually manifest as erratic behaviour, such as:

  • Jumping from task to task without completing one fully
  • Difficulty maintaining attention on a conversation or event
  • Difficulty following simple sets of instructions
  • Daydreaming
  • Making frequent, careless mistakes
  • Being unable to sit still and be present

Internal symptoms

For the patient, these issues can feel like ‘brain fog’. This is a term used to describe a group of symptoms causing mental confusion or a lack of mental clarity; and it can feel like a cloud which reduces our ability to think clearly.Alban, D. (2017). ‘Brain fog: causes, symptoms, solutions’. [online] Be Brain Fit. Available at: https://bebrainfit.com/stop-brain-fog-know-the-causes-symptoms-and-solutions/ [accessed 29 Sept. 2017].

Symptoms of brain fog usually include:Draxe. (2017). ‘Causes and natural treatments for brain fog’. [online] Available at: https://draxe.com/brain-fog/ [accessed 29 Sept. 2017].

  • Confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of energy
  • Headaches

Possible mental health issues linked to poor concentration and attention

Difficulties with concentration and attention could indicate an attention deficit disorder.

Alternatively, they could be caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, or other mental health issues.

ADD and ADHD take different forms, but they usually share two principal symptoms:

  • Inattention
  • Impulsivity (in speech and behaviour)

ADHD differs in presenting a third principal symptom:

  • Hyperactivity

Other symptoms of both conditions can include a lack of motivation, an inability to make plans, and a tendency towards depression.


There is no one test that can be used to diagnose ADHD. The disorder is diagnosed when:

  • The patient has exhibited symptoms for at least six months (it isn’t just a ‘difficult period’)
  • The patient has exhibited these symptoms in more than one circumstance (someone who’s inattentive at school or work as well as at home for instance)
  • The symptoms are making the patient’s life substantially more difficult or awkward

Both ADD and ADHD are easier to diagnose in children than in adults: there is ongoing disagreement about whether the above criteria apply to the latter.NHS Choices. (2016). ‘Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – Symptoms’. [online] Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/CONDITIONS/ATTENTION-DEFICIT-HYPERACTIVITY-DISORDER/Pages/Symptoms.aspx [accessed 29 Sept. 2017].

Someone with OCD will have recurrent, compulsive thoughts or behaviours that adversely affect their everyday life.

For instance, they may feel the need to wash their hands repeatedly, or check that a door has been locked.

Their difficulties paying attention or concentrating might, therefore, be a sign not of distractibility but of an obsession with something else.Child Mind. (2017). ‘Not all attention problems are ADHD’. [online] Available at: https://childmind.org/article/not-all-attention-problems-are-adhd/ [accessed 30 Oct. 2017].

In patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, it is common to see difficulties maintaining concentration or attention, even for short periods of time.Scheffers, M.K., Johnson Jr., R., Grafman, J., Dale, J.K., Straus, S.E. (1992). ‘Attention and short‐term memory in chronic fatigue syndrome patients’. Neurology, 42(9), p. 1667.