If you’re finding it difficult to focus, remember things or make decisions at work, you’re not alone. Lots of us are finding it difficult to go beyond carrying out simple human functions, like getting dressed and brushing our teeth — and even that seems hard at times.
For the last few months, sitting down and concentrating — really focusing on the task at hand — has seemed impossible. Whether it’s work, study or even chatting to friends, things that were once routine or even fun suddenly feel much harder because of a pandemic-induced brain fog. So why does each day feel like a battle against your attention span at the moment?
“There are lots of reasons why it may be more difficult to concentrate at the moment given that the pandemic has created both uncertainty and lack of control,” says Susan Carr, a BACP accredited therapist with an interest in stress at work.
“The situation is constantly evolving so that we are continually having to adapt to change. It is not surprising then that this can lead to anxiety and low mood, both of which can impair cognitive functions including concentration.”
Cognitive load theory was developed by Australian psychologist John Sweller in the 1980s on the premise that the brain can only do so much. He theorised that heavy cognitive load can have negative effects on task completion — which helps to explain why COVID-19 is having such a detrimental impact on our ability to concentrate.
From the threat to our health to worries about vulnerable loved ones, job insecurity and home-schooling, we’ve had a lot to think about in the last 12 months. Even tasks we used to do without a second thought now come with added stress and considerations, like going to the shop to buy food and remembering to go at a quiet time, bring a mask and use hand sanitiser.
“Add into this the constant interruptions of working from home — particularly if you are balancing home-schooling — it is no wonder that you may be finding it hard to concentrate on work,” Carr adds.
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We are also living through a period of unprecedented anxiety, another key reason why we may be finding it hard to concentrate. Levels of stress, anxiety and depression have soared since the onset of COVID-19. One UK study compared rates of mental distress in the general population between the spring of 2018 and spring 2020, finding an increase from 18.8% to 27.3%.
And while our brains may be good at responding to short bursts of stress, they’re not as good at operating under constant, low-grade pressure. “Anxiety is one of the reasons why it may be hard to focus and this can be explained by thinking of your brain as having two parts; the ‘cognitive’ brain and the ‘emotional’ brain,” Carr explains.
“The prefrontal cortex is the cognitive brain which controls functions such as memory, concentration and decision making. The limbic system is the emotional brain which controls emotional and behavioural functions such as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
“In a situation of stress and anxiety, it is the limbic system which is activated so that you can respond to the perceived threat, whereas the prefrontal cortex is dampened so that cognitive functions such as concentration are effectively switched off.”
Although we’ve had nearly a year of lockdowns and home-working, many of us are still finding it hard to knuckle down with the thrum of anxiety in the background. So what can we do to improve our focus?
First, it’s important to be kind to yourself and understand your limitations. “With all that is going on, recognise that it is OK not to be as productive as usual and be more realistic about what you can achieve,” says Carr. “It is unrealistic to expect that you will get the same amount of work done if you are also trying to home-school.”
It also helps to take regular breaks to reduce mental fatigue. Being active on a work break can be even more beneficial because exercise increases blood flow to the brain and the release of hormones which boost focus and attention.
“It can seem counterintuitive but breaks may actually aid concentration as our brains are not designed to remain focused for long periods of time,” Carr adds. “This will obviously vary from person to person but using something like the Pomodoro Method where you work in chunks of 25 minutes can allow you to focus on one task at a time.”
Although it’s easier said than done, try to minimise distractions if you’re struggling to focus on work. “Life is full of distractions and even more so if you are working from home and trying to balance other commitments,” says Carr. “Although something as simple as checking notifications on social media may seem like it doesn’t take much time, it can actually take up more time than you think.”
And finally, reach out for support if you need to. Speak to friends, relatives or colleagues if you’re struggling, or seek professional help from a therapist who can help you work through any worries.