Another common theme is that people say they just can't focus, can't concentrate, haven't accomplished anything.
If you're feeling that way, you're not alone.
According to an article in The New Statesman:
"Since February, there has been a 300 per cent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus”, an 110 per cent increase in “how to focus better”, and 60 per cent rise in “how to increase focus”. People are paying for apps and services to help their concentration."
Before I go on, I just want to acknowledge that your experience of this pandemic may vary widely according to where you live and how you life has been impacted. I live in NYC which for the past three months was the country's epicenter. We've had close to 400,000 cases and over 24,000 deaths. That kind of thing plays games with your mind - literally. But we'll get to that.
Almost exactly one year ago today, I wrote a post for Seekerville called A 15 Letter Word Not Equal to Lazy. I was reminded of that post this week when I stumbled upon this article - There's a reason we procrastinate and it's not laziness.
I immediately started to read the article because the title struck a chord. I know I have a tendency to procrastinate, but it's been really bad lately. I have a book coming out in January and that seems like so very far away. But that book is done. How do I concentrate on writing a new one when I have no idea what kind of world will even exist for it to be released into? That kind of insidious thinking can be paralyzing, and it definitely fosters procrastination.
So I read the article.
As I began to read, it felt familiar. That's when I realized the person being interviewed, Dr. Pychyl, was the same man I'd read about when writing that Seekerville post a year ago. This man has made the study of procrastination his life's work. He has spent twenty years studying it and leads a procrastination research group at Carleton University. He has a book called Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.
This article was focused on how the pandemic has affected us.
"We are in a time when uncertainty, worry and anxiety are dominating us emotionally. We are inevitably going to end up delaying things, but if we only have one word for that delay, which is procrastination, we end up beating ourselves up for it." He goes on to disagree, saying, "I would argue that yes, many things are being delayed, but we need a lot of self-compassion right now. We don't need to impugn ourselves with this notion of procrastination."
Indeed, according to research Dr. Amy Arnsten, a Professor of Neuroscience and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University, our inability to focus is actually a biological response to stress.
This is where I got really interested and went all Science Geeky. Apparently it goes back to our prehistoric survival days. I highly recommend you read the whole article, but I'll summarize her main point. The pre-frontal cortex of our brain is where we do all our critical thinking, control impulses, and ... focus. But the pre-frontal cortex is also programmed to weaken under stress so our primitive survival instincts take over.
"So essentially, when faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you."
And that's exactly where we are now, and why concentrating is so difficult.
"Arnsten says there are three major factors that make Covid-19 particularly potent for cutting off our prefrontal cortex: its invisibility; the lack of individual control we have over it; and being forced to go against our normal habits in order to protect ourselves."
So what do we do? We can't just give up and wait til someone comes up with a vaccine or a cure.
Dr. Pychyl's answer is very simple - just start. But start small.
"Here's the magic — the next time you face a task that your whole body is screaming, "I don't want to, I don't feel like it," ask yourself: what's the next action? What's the next action I'd need to take to make some progress? Don't break the whole task down. That will be sure to overwhelm you. I think if most of us broke our whole task down, we'd realize that life's too short, you can never get it all done. Instead just say, "What's the next action?" and keep that action as small and as concrete as possible."
Dr. Arnsten suggests you cut yourself some slack and feel reassured that this is a perfectly normal reaction and at some point it will get better. “I think that’s really helpful to have that kind of perspective and gain that sense of control,” she says.
So let's talk. Does it help you to know that you're not alone and that there is a perfectly reasonable biological explanation?
How are you coping?
Prayer helps. Some people do mindfulness or meditation. My daughter has taken up yoga.
For me, I'm trying the combination approach - starting with prayer, and then getting started - with the understanding that it may be tough, but if I do something I'll feel better than if I just waste away time. I was reminded recently about the Biblical admonitions against sloth. I'll take that to heart too - no time for idle hands.
But perhaps the best reward, because we are writers, is that our story world can take us away. There, we are in control. There we make the decisions; we have the power.
And that may give the affirmation we so desperately need.
Remember the Calgon, Take Me Away ads?
So, go write today! And let's hear how it worked for you.
But if you''re procrastinating and are willing to hang around, let's chat. Let's talk about your experiences, and let's try to work our way back to productivity.