Are you having trouble focusing? Me too!

Woman with head in the clouds

I used to excel at multi-tasking, and now I cannot even SINGLE task. What is happening to me?

While I don't usually turn to the internet for diagnosing what ails me (sorry, WebMD), a quick search on the internet reassured me I am not alone. Turns out, experts say that the extra anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has impaired our working memory and ability to focus.

“All over the world, people are trying to overcome one of the few universal problems this pandemic has brought on: that it feels near-impossible to stay focused on anything. Whether it’s work or study, or even pleasurable things like reading, gaming or chatting, everything suddenly feels like a battle against your attention span to concentrate on what was once simply routine” writes author Sarah Manavis.

Dr. Amy Arnsten is a Professor of Neuroscience and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, and her work has focused largely on the brain’s response to stress. She states that since February, 2020 there has been a 300 percent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus”, a 110 percent increase in “how to focus better,” and a 60 percent rise in “how to increase focus.“

Why are so many of us suffering from lack of focus? Turns out, your brain’s prefrontal cortex (the area right behind your forehead) processes “higher functions”, such as critical thinking, impulse control, and the ability to focus. “The prefrontal cortex has got this built in genie that causes it to weaken with stress signaling,” Arnsten says. 

When faced with immediate physical danger (including anxiety, stress, fears of Covid-19, etc.), your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can react quickly in order to protect you.

However, shutting down the prefrontal cortex leaves us lacking resources in the key areas of critical thinking, impulse control, and the ability to focus. For me, that presents itself as “brain fog”. Todd Braver, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says that is completely normal. “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 is happening subconsciously, “you’re diverting some of your capacity to try to deal with the anxiety.”

Now, I don't watch the news or read the newspaper and I do not follow the numbers online. But I do stay vigilant at home and practice strict-social distancing and mask wearing. Even with these steps to keep my stress and anxiety under control, there are subliminal fears that are affecting my mental capacity and affecting my ability to be my best at home, or at work. And it seems that workers everywhere are feeling the change. In a recent survey of 300 American workers, about 40% said they feel less productive than usual during the pandemic.

And those high stress levels? Many of us are dealing with them. Fears of sickness, unemployment, stress for those newly working from home, overwhelmed parents helping children learn virtually - the list of anxiety-causing events continues.

"46% of parents say their average stress level related to the coronavirus pandemic is high (between 8 and 10 on a 10-point scale where 1 means “little or no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress”)". Stress in America 2020

While I am grateful I do not have school-age children, and that I was able to move my work home with me back in March; working from home has brought its own set of challenges. Instead of “working to live” I find myself “living at work” and it has been a struggle for me to retain some type of work/life balance. Particularly in light of the fact that it seems to take me twice as long to accomplish a basic task.

To be truthful, while writing this blog I have checked my social media feeds 4 times, posted two hilarious memes, placed some tiles on Words with Friends, and checked on my dryer. All within the past 30-minutes. But, in my defense, I provide the following rationale:

  • Social media helps me feel connected in this otherwise unconnected world
  • Memes help me laugh – something that I feel that I forgot to do for a few months at the beginning of this crazy time
  • Words with Friends is something I started with my family when I feared my memory was slipping. I needed something that would make me use parts of my brain that I felt were stagnant and hoped that the game would help me re-learn how to focus on one thing at a time
  • And a clean and tidy home makes my mind calm

But I know that to be my best, I need to cut back on the interruptions on my time. Here are some steps we can all take to shake off some of that brain fog and inattention.

  1. Cut yourself some slack –Take comfort in knowing that you are not the only one struggling with this phenomenon. These are unprecedented times.
  2. Identify your issues – interruptions by well-meaning family members, phones, apps, and social media can interrupt your flow. Identify external elements that pull at your attention and manage them as best you can. Sit family members down and explain your need for time to concentrate. Silence your phone, shut down web pages, etc.
  3. Clear your workspace – remove anything not related to the task at hand. Physical and visual clutter can impede our ability to focus.
  4. Work when you are strongest – for me, that is the morning hours. So, I do my “heavy lifting” then. I save tasks for later in the afternoon that do not require a heavy level of focus.
  5. Investigate apps, tools and techniques that keep you on task, and try methods that support short bursts of attention, like the Pomodoro Technique.
  6. Set goals – I am a list maker, but my lists have become 5-pages long. Each morning I pick three things that, if accomplished, will make me feel great. I write only those three items on a sticky note and keep that front and center.
  7. Take frequent breaks – when your mind starts to wander, take a break. Go outside for a walk, do some stretches, drink some water.
  8. Practice self-care – eat well, rest often, and exercise frequently. The busier we get, the more apt we are to let these things slide.
  9. Practice mindfulness – many times throughout the day, reset your mind by practicing intentional breath (I call this “box breathing”). I count to three while breathing in, count to three while holding that breath, count to three while releasing that breath and count to three before taking the next one. Whatever works best for you. Quiet your mind and focus on the breath and how your body is feeling in that moment.
  10. Do one thing at a time – this sounds simpler than it is. We have been conditioned to handle more than one task at a time under the guise that we are being more productive. Studies have shown that we are LESS productive when multitasking – even before this pandemic. Give your attention to one item and one item only.

My wish is that they quickly find a cure for Covid-19, as well as develop a vaccine to prevent it. However, I feel that after this pandemic, things are not going to go back to the way they were before. We will be a changed world in the way we socialize, work, educate and live. My hope is that we take the best things that we learned during this time and carry them forward. Let us just try to leave the stress behind.

Ed4Career is proud to offer the following online courses: Personal Stress Reduction and Relaxation and Stress Reduction for those who might like to learn techniques to help alleviate the stress in their lives. Or, if you are more inclined to want to help others manage their stress, consider taking one of our online career training courses: Stress Management Coaching or Wellness Coaching.

Stay well.


By Kris Powers | August 25th 2020

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