If you’re still being affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine, you are not alone. Nearly six months have past since the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak halted the U.S. economy, and yet here we are, still dealing with the stresses at home and at work. With school starting and remote learning in full swing, many parents, students and teachers alike are sailing in uncharted waters. Fighting for some sense of normalcy. Many of us are still learning to live with an ambient thrum of stress, anxiety, fear, grief, and anger.
The COVID Brain Fog
Brain fog seems to be collateral damage, according to a recent survey of “300 American workers, about 40% said they feel less productive than usual during the pandemic” (Ducharme, J., 2020). Whether recovering from the virus, or juggling work and childcare, it’s not uncommon to still be battling the issues the virus have brought to our nation and the world.
Todd Braver, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says that it’s completely normal. “Lots of research has shown that concentration, memory and cognition suffer when people are under stress and anxiety, and that’s especially true when it builds for months,” Braver says. “The brain is good at responding to short bursts of stress, but it’s not as good at operating under constant, low-grade pressure” (Ducharme, J., 2020).
“Our brains are hard-wired to be vigilant about this potential threat, so that’s using up the same resources we might need… for work or social interactions,” Braver says. Even if it’s happening subconsciously, “you’re diverting some of your capacity to try to deal with the anxiety” (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Sound Familiar? Here are some quick and easy ways you can improve your concentration and attention span, even, as Braver says, “while the world is literally sick.”
First, cut yourself some slack…
A historic pandemic is unlikely to become the most productive period of your life, nor should you feel pressured to make it so. Do your best to use these tips to get through these trying times, it is not however, a call to do more.
“Take time for self-care and self-compassion,” Braver says, and lean on basics like sleep, healthy eating and exercise. “Appreciate that nobody is operating at 100% of their full capacity. We’re all doing the best we can” (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Self-compassion or self-love may be a foreign concept for some. To break it down, it’s a construct drawn from Buddhist psychology, and refers to a way of relating to the self – with kindness. It’s not to be confused with arrogance or conceit, which usually indicates a lack of self-love” (Abrams, A., 2017).
Psychologist Kristen Neff was the first person to measure and operationally define the term “self-compassion.” Describing it as “kindness toward the self, which entails being gentle, supportive, and understanding”. In other words, being kind to ourselves in good times and bad, in sickness and in health – and even when we make mistakes (Abrams, A., 2017).
“Over the last decade or so, research has consistently shown a positive correlation between self-compassion and psychological well-being. People who have self-compassion also have greater social connectedness, emotional intelligence, happiness, and overall life satisfaction. Self-compassion has also been shown to correlate with less anxiety, depression, shame and fear of failure” (Abrams, A., 2017).
So taking time out for yourself is an act of self-care, not selfishness!
In lab settings, offering feedback or a gentle reminder to stay on-task can help study participants focus, says Gordon Logan, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University who studies attention and performance. Outside the lab “you have to create your own feedback,” he says (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Setting specific goals can help do that, Logan says. Instead of vaguely promising yourself you’ll “focus” or “be productive,” decide exactly what you want to do – whether it’s working on a tas for 30 minutes straight, or writing a certain number of words by the end of the day. Having a specific goal can help you check in a guide yourself back to the job at hand when your mind starts to drift (Ducharme, J., 2020).
The same can be said about for our children. With remote learning and zoom classes in full roar, our children need gentle reminders to stay on task and participate. Breaking up their learning experience with play and other activities will help keep them involved in coursework. Setting goals with your children can help them overcome challenges and provides them a reason to celebrate small achievements as well!
Take breaks, ideally outdoors
Many social scientists believe workplace fatigue is “not so much a physical thing, but it’s more that you’ve been doing the same thing for so long that the reward you get out of it is diminishing,” Logan explains. Taking breaks that fully remove your mind from your work can help counter that, he says (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Go outside, play catch with the kids, let them run and ride bikes, read outside, blow bubbles, play with sidewalk chalk, or visit the park. During your remote learning breaks, sit out in the sun and soak up the rays. Listen and take in the nature around you.
Taking brief breaks to socialize also gives your brain a much-needed change of pace, Logan says.
Braver recommends making mindfulness a daily habit, but it can also be a good spot treatment for inattention. If you feel your focus waning, drop everything, take a comfortable seat, close your eyes and focus on your breath for a couple minutes. Braver recommends counting your breaths going in and out, or slowly bringing your attention to each part of your body one by one. “It’s not a magic pill,” Braver says, but it can help your brain reset (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Do one thing at a time
“Unfortunately, there are countless ways for productivity to be derailed. For example, it takes time for the brain to disengage from one set of tasks and to commit to another, so switching between many tasks at once will slow overall productivity. Technology poses an endless supply of immediate distractions as well; avoiding them as much as possible should help fuel the productivity” (Psychology Today, n.d.).
“We never do well with multi-tasking,” Logan says. “There’s always a deficit.” Especially when you find it difficult to focus, it may be beneficial to devote all your energy to one task.
“That means resisting the compulsion to toggle back and forth between social media, news sites and work. Commit to reading the news and checking your timeline at specific points throughout the day, Braver suggests. Not only will this help you concentrate, it may also ease your stress a bit, potentially turning down some of the background noise that makes it so difficult to focus in the first place” (Ducharme, J., 2020).
Taking breaks for social media provides a great brain break, but make sure that it’s not replacing your outdoor breaks from technology!
Adjust your schedule
“People’s productivity waxes and wanes,” Braver says. “Four hours of maximum productivity gets as much done as eight hours of fluctuating.” If you have the luxury, take advantage of remote learning and remote work and talk to your manager about adjusting your hours. If you know you do your best work in the morning, for example, you could front-load your day and sign off earlier, or vise versa (Ducharme, J., 2020).
If that’s not an option, you can still try to schedule strategically. Braver knows he works best in the afternoon, so he books calls and meetings for the morning, and then tries to get substantive tasks done in the hours after lunch. “We’re often driven by the schedules that we find ourselves with,” Logan says, but it’s often more effective to shape your own daily plans (Ducharme, J., 2020).
“An individual’s productivity hinges on mental energy and a sense of internal and external motivation. It often emerges naturally from work that they find inherently meaningful or valuable. And while not everything one must do each day can hold deep personal meaning, researchers find that maintaining focus on a larger long-term goal can help activate the drive and energy to push through more tedious day-to-day tasks” (PsychologyToday, n.d.).
Be kind to yourself, and be understanding of your children’s frustrations as we continue our way through this global pandemic. Take time out for yourselves and make sure that you get breaks from the stress. Create new ways of doing things to help ease the transition from in person work and learning to remote work and school. And above all, be understanding of the fact that what you’re going through may not be anywhere close to normal, but we will all get through this by doing our part together and individually!
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Ducharme, J., (August 14, 2020), TIME: Struggling to Focus? How to Improve Your Attention Span When ‘the World Is Sick’ https://time.com/5878780/how-to-focus-covid-19-pandemic/?fbclid=IwAR0yDdeaJrpgngrRPhMLgPH4TbZ1iPHx__PsOFpiSN4-2Fka41IUhizl2MI
Psychology Today, (n.d.), Productivity https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/productivity
Additional Good Reads!
Abrams, A., (March 03, 2017), Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201703/how-cultivate-more-self-compassion
Bristow, J., (October 25, 2018), 10 Ways to Define Mindfulness https://www.mindful.org/10-ways-to-define-mindfulness/
Bullock, G., (September 16, 2019), 7 Ways to Define Mindfulness https://www.gracebullock.com/post/7-ways-to-define-mindfulness
Formica, M., (January 17, 2013), Psychology Today: Human Needs, Buddhist Psychology and Mindfulness https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/enlightened-living/201301/human-needs-buddhist-psychology-and-mindfulness?collection=169074