For the last several months, my brain has been…mushy, for lack of a better word.
I stare at empty Word documents, unable to start writing the articles that constitute my livelihood.
I look at the piles of dishes or laundry and almost can’t remember how to get started on cleaning or folding.
I have to ask my kids to repeat themselves multiple times when they ask me questions. (I will admit, this is in part because my youngest tends to swallow his words, particularly when he knows I will probably say no to whatever request he has, and in part because my oldest likes to pose head-scratchers like “Would you rather fight 100 chicken-sized zombies, or 10 zombie-sized chickens?” and then argues with me as to why my preference is wrong).
I reread the same passage several times before giving up on the book.
Other than constantly doom-scrolling on social media, I seem unable to put my attention on any of my tasks for any amount of time.
In short, I’ve been struggling with a severe lack of focus. (Full disclosure: I checked Twitter 3 times before completing the previous 150 words. Granted, there’s a dumpster fire going on right now that I want to keep tabs on, but that’s basically Twitter 24/7).
My inattention is hardly unique. We’re all struggling with a completely changed world that seems to veer toward almost comically awful on a daily basis. Of course, we’ve got things other than work/chores/impossible Would You Rather questions/reading on our minds.
But our work, chores, children’s questions, and leisure can’t wait forever. So how do we break through the mush-brain cycle and carve out some time for productivity or presence with our loved ones or relaxation when we feel overwhelmed?
I can’t claim to have any answers (I just checked Twitter again), but I think some of the lessons of mindfulness can help us find our focus when it’s taken a powder. Here’s what I’m trying:
One of my least favorite genres of pandemic scolding has been the repeated suggestion that anyone who comes out of quarantine without a new side hustle, newly-written novel, beautifully organized home, or second language is missing “the will” to reach their goals rather than time.
Screw that and the self-satisfied horse it rode in on.
We are living through something that no one currently alive has ever experienced. It’s completely reasonable that daily life in 2020 is going to do a number on our concentration, emotions, productivity, and brain-good-thinkiness.
That’s why we all need to be compassionate with ourselves when we find ourselves repeatedly scrolling through social media (and yes, I’ve checked Twitter twice more since the last time I mentioned it) or unable to focus on our work or returning to YouTube to watch kitten videos.
We’re human, and we’re facing something inhumane. There’s going to be some disconnect between our brains and our abilities, and that is only to be expected. Rather than beating ourselves up for losing the thread of concentration yet again, we need to simply acknowledge that it’s happened and be kind to ourselves as we gently draw our focus back where it needs to be.
Honor Your Inattention Without Indulging It
When my kids were tiny, they would often become entranced by toys or candy in the store that they definitely were not allowed to have. Simply saying “Nope, you can’t have that” while pulling them away from the wondrousness of a toy they had never played with or the joy of a food substance featuring colors unknown to nature was a sure way to spark a tantrum and the kinds of sighs and eye-rolls every parent of a publicly screaming child has had to field.
I learned to let my boys look at the forbidden items while saying, “It does look fun/delicious/pretty/exciting, doesn’t it? But it’s not coming home with us.” We even got in the habit of saying goodbye and thank you to the items to help my kids feel better about not letting the toy or excitingly shaped high fructose corn syrup bomb come home with us.
The urge to switch to social media or refresh a news site or check out a viral video or go grab a snack is similar to my kids’ yearning for the toys and candy they couldn’t have. They saw something that looked fun or tasty, and they wanted it, which was a reasonable desire for a small child.
There are similar reasonable emotions behind my urges to step away from work: I want to know what’s happening in the world or connect with friends or distract myself or find something pleasant to put in my mouth which will also give me a plausible excuse to stop working for several minutes. Recognizing that this urge is reasonable is the first step. I’m not being a slackerly jerk because I want to know what’s happening or want to connect or even want to get a chocolate chip cookie. All of these wants are reasonable.
So, I’m working on telling myself “Yes, it would be fun/informative/a relief/delicious to switch to Twitter/check the news/watch a video/dive headfirst into the guacamole. But I don’t need to do it.” Just as I honored my kids’ yearning for a toy, I’m going to work on honoring my yearning for distraction, while making it clear that I won’t indulge it.
That way, I can recognize that it’s reasonable for me to want some distraction without letting myself get dragged into it.
Start with Five Minutes
Something interesting has happened since the last time I checked Twitter whilst writing this piece: I’ve felt fewer urges to pop on over to social media as I got further along in writing. As I’ve learned over the past few months of brain mushiness, I often reach a tipping point of work done on an article, pile of dishes, or request to rate and defend my preference of Pokemon types. After getting to that point, I feel a distinct urge to keep going rather than distract myself by doing something else.
This is because of a mental quirk known as the Zeigarnik Effect, wherein your brain nudges you to finish a project if you’ve left it undone. According to the psychologists who discovered it: “It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”
Forcing myself to focus for five minutes, whether that’s on work, a movie, a book, cleaning, or giving my kids my 100% full attention, makes it much less likely that my mushy brain will jump up and down asking for some distraction. My brain will find itself invested in the thing it so badly wanted to distract me from, and I’ll be productive/relaxed/deep into a discussion on Pokémon powers before my brain realizes I’ve tricked it.
A Job Worth Doing Poorly
I grew up with the old adage that a job worth doing is worth doing well. And this saying, my friends, is why I hate sweeping the floor.
As a lifelong perfectionist, it kills me that it is scientifically impossible to sweep up all the schmutz from the floor. (Ever chased a single line of dust around a kitchen for 10 minutes, since it will never all get into the dustpan? I certainly have.) Since sweeping is a job worth doing, it’s worth doing until all the dust has been eradicated, but that is impossible. So, I hate feeling as though this particular housekeeping chore is never done “well”—and as a result, I just don’t sweep. (Not to worry. I got my husband to take over this chore. I’m not living in a house with knee-high fur tumbleweeds).
The problem with the “worth doing well” mindset is that it sets us up for perfectionism, which often leads to inattention. But because we’re never going to get something perfect (or do the job “well” when we’re distracted), we end up avoiding the job altogether.
This is why I believe a job worth doing is worth doing poorly. At least the job will be done if you commit to doing it poorly. Removing our expectation for a well-done job can be freeing when we’re struggling to focus. Because a well-done job often needs the A-game we can’t bring right now. So, I commit to doing a poor job. I can always fix the problems with a poorly done job later on: editing a poor first draft is infinitely easier than writing a great first draft.
One of the reasons we are collectively having such a problem focusing is the fact that information is available to us 24/7. We can easily have a TV tuned to 24-hour news while scrolling through social media on our phones and refreshing Coronavirus statistics websites on our laptops and getting push notifications about horrific events on our tablets.
Human beings were not built for this kind of constant informational overload.
Shutting off the spigot of constant news and information for a period of time every day is vital to our mental health, clarity, and ability to opine on whether specific clouds look like a Bakugan or a Transformer or a turtle.
A friend shuts off his phone from 11pm to 11am to give himself this important mental break. In the past, I have used app blockers like Self Control or Off Time to force myself to get the hell off Twitter and Facebook and stick my nose in an actual book. (I badly need to re-download that program to keep me from doom-scrolling past bedtime). Other friends have removed their most addictive media apps from their phones and tablets entirely, so they have to fire up their laptop to check on them.
Whichever strategy you use, building a media-free space into every day will make a huge difference in your ability to disengage from the constant need for distraction. And once you’ve cut off the distraction source for a set period of time each day, that can improve your focus throughout the rest of the day, too.
Brain Fog Is Real
It’s become cliché to talk about how this is such an historic moment—I mean, isn’t every moment historic?
But as annoying as it is to read the word “unprecedented” over and over, it is worthwhile to remember that we are living through something truly unusual, and we’re going to be affected by that.
Human brains are incredibly well-suited to a lot of things. This particular moment in time, where there is an intersection of connectivity, technology, fear, misinformation, unrest, injustice, and unlimited kitten videos is not something we’re built to withstand.
Being gentle with yourself while putting some systems and routines in place to improve your focus will also do a lot to help you feel lighter and less overwhelmed, as well as more focused.
And we all need to figure out how to brain better right now.
Note from Emily:
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