- Christian Jarrett
- Editor of Psyche Magazine
It seems that we have already been in these “uncertain times” for years.
Months ago our routines were interrupted and we have been forced to adapt.
And an important consequence is the state of mental fatigue. It became more difficult to concentrate over a long period of time and it seems that we are in a collective state of almost constant distraction.
“I felt like I had a mental block that prevented me from concentrating,” says writer and assiduous reader Sophie Vershbow.
She got into that frame of mind early in the pandemic and her tweet admitting not being able to concentrate enough to read a book received more than 2,000 “likes”.
But she is not alone. Do a quick search on the internet and you will find a flood of recent articles on people who cannot concentrate, the prevalence of “brain fog”, and the different forms of loss of concentration.
Of course, much of this subjective feeling of mental distraction focuses on the practicalities of life today.
For many people, especially parents, the sudden shift to working from home meant an intensification of conflict between your professional work and domestic life.
It’s hard to focus on a spreadsheet while your kids wrestle over the TV remote.
But there seems to be more to it than that. Even when the day’s work is done and the children are in bed, it is still difficult to escape with the help of a novel.
There is a psychological theory, originally applied in the context of learning, that may help explain why living in the era of Covid-19 may have turned our minds into a mixed bag.
Is named cognitive load theory and was first developed by Australian educational psychologist John Sweller.
Our minds are like information processing systems. When we are working on a problem, especially an unknown one, we depend on our “work memory“, which is very limited both in its storage capacity and in the time it retains the data.
The less familiar you are with a task, the more you will depend on your working memory to try to juggle relevant information and find a solution.
In contrast, when you are an expert, most of what you need to know is stored in long-term memory and you can complete the task on autopilot.
New tasks, new stress levels
Cognitive load theory provides a useful framework for understanding the different ways in which the pandemic may be wreaking havoc on mental function.
First, it forces you to adopt new routines and robs you of the ability to do things automatically.
For example, in an earlier work meeting the person would just show up and join the discussion.
Now, if that same individual works remotely, they should start their software videoconference, worry about the internet connection, adjust your times to possible delays, etc.
The same applies to household challenges like shopping online rather than in person at the grocery store.
These forced adaptations force us out of automatic pilot and demand our limited working memory capacity.
For this theory, the intrinsic “cognitive load” required in much of what we do has increased.
We spend most of our time forced to deliberately and consciously think, more like newbies that as an experts, and that’s exhausting in itself.
Second, research based on cognitive load theory holds that emotions can interfere with information processing.
When one is anxious, for example, the capacity of the working memory is reduced. This makes it more difficult to solve any mental problem that requires conscious resolution.
Something like nerves during an exam They are brain-racking and make it difficult to solve math facts or write a coherent sentence.
Or how the stress of a test drive makes it much more difficult to perform the different maneuvers requested.
Third, this theory speaks of “external cognitive load.” It is about the demand on the capacity of our working memory imposed by distractions that are not directly relevant to what we are trying to do.
These alterations could just be basic secondary tasks running in background, like listening to the newsletter while working.
What is happening now is that the daily interruptions caused by the pandemic force people to tap into their working memory capacity more often.
When you’re more stressed and anxiety levels rise, or you’re juggling multiple tasks and commitments, your working memory capacity decreases.
It’s the worst of both worlds and another reason you can feel mentally drained.
Usually in a time of conflict, we can solve the problem quickly and the cognitive load becomes more manageable.
The surprising thing about life in this pandemic is that the situation keeps changing.
Governments around the world are constantly implementing different and more complex restrictions.
Travel rules, self-isolation instructions, symptom watch lists, new smartphone apps, etc. Not a day goes by without us hearing about some change.
“Any novel situation imposes a cognitive load on our brains, but the fact that COVID-19 had such a widespread impact on society forced us to absorb new information faster than we were capable, “explains Samuli Laato, a researcher at the University of Turku, who studies the role of cognitive load on people’s unusual shopping behavior during the pandemic (panic buying) and on the widespread exchange of misinformation.
The expert explains that “in general, uncertainty always increases the cognitive load. Stressors such as the threat to health, fear of unemployment and fear of shocks in the consumer market cause this.”
“Additionally, remote work policies were introduced globally, requiring people to adapt to new technologies and a new way of working together,” Laato adds.
Planning and self-discipline
Fortunately, interpreting the mental exhaustion effect of pandemic life through the lens of cognitive load theory provides us with some simple and effective strategies.
First, you have to try to establish new routines and maintain them, so that no let’s use constantly the ability to the working memory for tasks everyday.
For example, I recently invested in a wireless internet system with repeaters that reduced interference in video calls, and I took the time to read about the different features of the various virtual conferencing platforms.
By understanding these kinds of basic elements needed during the pandemic, we will no longer have to waste brain power on them.
Second, because we are going through an era of increased anxiety and uncertainty, it is important putting extra effort into stress management, so that your working memory is not constantly overwhelmed by worries.
This means eating right, exercising, and establishing a regular bedtime routine, as well as finding time for relaxing activities.
As the situation allows, contingency plans can be made for different aspects of your life. Making realistic preparations for dreaded scenarios can be a great relief from anxiety.
Also, you have to give the brain a break from the daily updates of the pandemic numbers.
It can be considered to have days (or at least whole afternoons or nights) to avoid any talk or information related to covid-19.
Finally, it is important to relieve the strain on working memory by unplugging any “extraneous cognitive load.”
This means trying harder to organize your time and being disciplined with distractions.
Try to reserve moments of the day dedicated to different tasks, whether they are work or domestic.
For example, when working it is better not to have the television or radio on with the news in the background.
When playing with your children, not having your mobile phone next to you, or at least don’t check emails or Twitter.
Allow the mind to focus on one thing at a time, and the reward will be to feel less mentally drained.
It looks like we are going to live in this pandemic age for a while yet.
While constant anxiety and anomaly are mentally exhausting, it can be comforting that we are not the only ones who feel this way.
Our brains have limited processing power that is being stretched to the limit right now, but with careful planning and self-discipline, there are ways to reduce cognitive load and rediscover how to focus.
* This article is an adaptation, you can read the original version in English here.
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