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You have a pandemic brain — Here’s how to fix it.

5 tips for enhancing your daily focus at work.

Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

Do you have a pandemic brain? Experts describe it as the cognitive impairment we are experiencing due to the significant stress of the pandemic. Common symptoms include forgetfulness and a lack of focus.

74% of millennials and Gen Z workers describe themselves as distracted at work. 46% say they feel unmotivated, and 41% say they feel stressed.

Focus, attention, and mental relaxation are the keys to getting work done. But when we are stressed, we lose focus from the task at hand. This is why most people have multiple “mental and physical” browser tabs open.

Consider this situation, you might have experienced one yourself: A few weeks ago, I decided to work on a new blog article. And I usually set 1-hour blocks for focused writing. Upon typing the first few lines, a Slack notification popped up on my Mac. The curious-cat-alarm in my head started ringing — open it, check it, take a peep. At first, I resisted the urge, relying on willpower alone, I told myself “I’d come back to it after my 1-hour block”. This was really hard for my stressed-out “pandemic brain”. Frustrated at my efforts, I gave in and opened the notification. I whispered to myself “maybe, I could open this in another tab, and come back to it later”. While in Slack, I noticed a few unchecked mentions, and like most people, I opened all linked items and made a mental note to revisit them later. 45 minutes into my blocked time, I had only written 4 lines and managed to open 17 new tabs. Starting to make up for the lost time and focus, I jotted down an outline in the remaining time and began my next task.

There are two kinds of people in the digital world:

1. those who freely open multiple tabs open during their workday

2. those who are focused on 2 to 3 working tabs at a time.

If you find yourself in one of these two categories, you may also be managing the extra mental, emotional and physical toll from a stressful pandemic. Studies on the effects of the pandemic brain have shown that prolonged exposure to cortisol — the body’s main stress hormone — negatively impacted cognitive focus, attention, and memory.

This anomaly is amplified by the sheer amount of digital activity that requires our attention during remote work.

Has noise increased our distraction?

In interviewing dozens of workers, and reading even more articles written about working post-pandemic, it is clear that the 5 days/week office culture is dying. Hybrid plans promise the flexibility to work from a shared space for in-person socials and creative work. In turn, reserving the task-based work for remote locations.

Our chat-style work tools subtly compel remote workers to be 100% available all day long. Almost all work and personal activities — communication, brainstorming, meetings, task performing — can now be completed online. This inevitably increases the volume of activity and distracting noise. And filtering through it all remains a challenging task.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Noise, typically in the form of email notifications, pings, and tags, is created in shared workspaces — GitHub, Notion, Slack, Google Workspace, Figma, and the like. Some events require attention, while others are generic broadcasts to all team members.

The detrimental effects of noise created by our tools are well-documented. They range from context switching, responding to low priority work to dopamine dysregulation syndrome. This constant demand for our attention gets in the way of completing our most important and urgent tasks, leading to costly project delays.

Can we fix this?

Moving from a state of active awareness — constant refreshing, and watching for notifications — to a more selective state, can help reduce the effects of the distraction. How? I’ve found that switching all notifications off feels good initially but does not completely solve the issue. In fact, it amplifies the hidden anxiety we feel when we don’t see any activity across our team spaces.

We spend a good chunk of time checking and refreshing the inbox for feeds to soothe this feeling. A 2019 Survey showed that workers spent an average of 352 minutes (yes, 5 hours, and 52 minutes) each workday checking their work and personal emails. Why? The price of inaction on urgent tasks includes expensive delays and potentially overworking.

A photo of a stressed out worker
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

As we move ahead with asynchronous work, new job opportunities will open for millions of people. It is now important to cut through the noise during focused-work sessions to become a part of this revolution.

Here are 5 ways to improve focus during the workday:

  1. Create a morning focus ritual. Start your day right by having a good breakfast, meditating, or working out. This ensures that you have the required fuel for a productive day.
  2. Manage your digital chatter. Respond asynchronously, and stop multitasking. Get things done more effectively and efficiently by focusing on one task at a time.
  3. Use the Pomodoro technique to take frequent breaks. Consistent breaks keep us from getting bored and allows the brain to refocus and relax. Refresh by going for a walk, grabbing a snack, or petting an animal. You’ll come back recharged and ready to achieve greater efficiency.
  4. Simplify and shorten meetings. The average online attention span for most adults is 7–10 minutes and getting shorter. The longer time spent in back-to-back meetings, the longer it takes to re-focus on a new task.
  5. Free your head, and space with one app to track them all. Delegate the task of checking your email and Slack for notifications to modern tools like Neat’s notification tool for macOS.

Regardless of what you do or where you work, we are all looking for ways to be more productive on the job. This is especially true because staying on track and avoiding distraction is harder to accomplish than your actual work in this digital age. The good news is that by sustaining mental focus on one task at a time, you can hit your targets and enjoy that euphoric feeling of a productive day.

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Nuel Edeh

Nuel Edeh

13 Followers

Co-Founder @Neat_run. I am passionate about leadership and technology innovation. I envision a future where our work is deeply meaningful and rewarding