Struggling to pay attention lately?
How psychology and neuroscience can help you overcome the cognitive overwhelm brought on by this pandemic life.
One of the simplest and most fundamental truths about the human brain is that its ability to pay attention is finite. Much more so than we realize.
We frequently overestimate the limits of our ability to sustain focus [hello myth of multitasking], and as psychologist Angela Duckworth notes in her book "Grit," as far as human resources go, our attention is "the ultimate scarce resource."
"Human attention is the ultimate scarce resource." Dr. Angela Duckworth
Given its fragility, you probably won't be surprised to learn that a number of external factors can have a powerful impact on just how big - or small - your capacity for attention can be. I also doubt you will be surprised when I say that, for the past 12 months, we have been living inside the perfect storm of cognitive overwhelm: stress, uncertainty, hardship, illness, isolation and multitasking of epic proportions. With [still] no end in sight.
This kind of cognitive overwhelm causes our brain to get locked into survival mode, where emotions are strong and unruly, and the part of our brain that is responsible for abstract thought, impulse control [hello 9 hours of Netflix], forethought and careful decision making is tuned out. That part - the frontal lobes a.k.a. the executive center - is tuned out in order to give our more 'primitive' brain areas the opportunity to step out in full war-time regalia and help us survive with the aid of their most trusty weapon: the fight-or-flight response.
"This kind of cognitive overwhelm causes our brain to get locked into survival mode, where emotions are strong and unruly, and the part of our brain that is responsible for abstract thought, impulse control [hello 9 hours of Netflix], forethought and careful decision making is tuned out." Teodora Pavkovic
So, what does this look like in practice? Well, have you:
- Been finding it hard to focus?
- Often forgotten the details of a conversation?
- Not been able to recall a particular word, only to have it burst into consciousness a day later?
- Forgotten what in the world you came into the living room to get, even though you were literally just thinking about it?
If you have, feel free to breathe a deep sigh of relief: you are 100% a normal human being surviving a global pandemic! And remember that, as I wrote in my previous newsletter to my email community, this "is not proof of your incompetence, it is proof of your RESILIENCE."
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So, what do we do about these pandemic-aftershocks? IS there even anything we can do about them? The answer is: yes, there absolutely is [I am a positive psychologist, after all], and here are just some of my practical suggestions that anyone can implement:
Chronic stress is one of the biggest culprits, and so a great first step is to tackle it head-on. It's very likely that you already hold the key to this first step: think about the practices, however big or small, that help you calm down, or in fancy psychologist-talk - help you down-regulate your stress-response. It really can be as simple as taking 10 minutes of uninterrupted time to breath slowly and deeply, or more intense like lifting weights for 25 minutes. You may want to engage in a formal meditative practice, or pick up the phone and call your mom. And what is THE number one stress-buster in the world? Nature. So as much as you can, spend time in it. Regardless of the weather.
Name your emotions. In the field of neuroscience, there is a great saying that goes: "Name it to tame it." What it illustrates is what I wrote about earlier, regarding how strong emotions activate the more 'primitive' parts of our brain and tune out the 'higher,' more executive, rational parts. What scientists have discovered is that intentionally engaging in certain actions - like for example, using our language to describe and narrate what we are experiencing - brings those rational parts back online. So, the next time that you find yourself experiencing very strong and disruptive emotions, practice labeling them as specifically as you can, whether by using your inner voice or your inside voice. Don't worry about doing anything else for the time-being - you are only working on that one skill, and that one skill is naming your emotions.
Don't worry so much about doing a digital detox, instead try a Distraction Detox. Your tech isn't quite off the hook, though, because I am still talking about your relationship with your devices and what's housed within them; however, I'm asking you to take a wider view and to change your starting position. Instead of starting out by thinking about the tech, think in general about the moments during your day when you experience distraction and a particularly strong loss of focus. Use a journaling approach for a couple of days to get a really clear sense of what all these distractions are and when they attack; I am willing to bet that many [if not most] will indeed be tech-related, but you may find others in the mix too. Whatever they are, set the intention and make a self-commitment to reduce or eliminate them from your environment, if even for just a few days to see what happens. If these distractions happen to be children, partners and/or pets, you probably won't want to "eliminate" them [!], but develop a kind of "best practices" list that both sides can agree upon [yep, your cat too]. When it comes to your tech, my simplest starter-level recommendations are: switch of all notifications (both visual and sound), remove social media apps from your most easily accessible device, and use only one device at a time as much as you can.
Use tools that help you feel more grounded and in control of your time. One of the main pandemic-era complaints many people have voiced is a sense of an uncontrollable passage of time. To a great extent, this has been the result of a kind of copy-paste daily life that Covid has sentenced us to, but our constant connectedness to tech hasn't helped either. The internet never sleeps, they say, and it doesn't have a "beginning" or "end" either, so to create boundaries around your hours, days and weeks, use three-dimensional, physical time-management tools. Tools like planners, notebooks, clocks. Like I said in a recent interview with The Well: "Using tools that you can touch and sense in the three-dimensional world will help you feel some sense of control and the finality of your work task, your day and your week too."
To help place further constraints on both your distracted mind and the passage of time, create consistency in your daily life by implementing rituals throughout the day. I don't use the word "rituals" here in a religious - or even spiritual - sense necessarily, although if you are a religious or spiritual person those practices have surely been of immense help to you throughout this pandemic. I am referring to those small consistent habits we can employ to signal the start and end of our day, to signal a time to take a break and do nothing for a while, to signal the experience of gratitude, and so much more. And in order to help create more noticeable work/personal life boundaries - virtually non-existent over the past 12 months - get in the habit of working in only one spot in your home, a spot where you will keep all of your work-related accessories [including the tech ones], to prevent that 'work contagion' spill into the other parts of your home, and your psyche.
I hope you will find these strategies helpful! If you feel inclined to share what has worked best for you, I would love for you to get in touch and share your experience with me. Feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.