Finding it hard to focus? Not sure what day of the week it is? Or don’t feel motivated to undergo the daily hygiene routine? After two or more months of physical distancing and self-isolating you may find yourself losing focus and motivation. Even the simplest tasks may seem a challenge. And trying to do something that requires concentration can be even harder.

Surely with all that extra time on our hands from not commuting, socializing or shopping, we could put to good use. When self-isolation began, articles sprang up telling us how to use this time wisely and be productive. Stories of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined circulated. How-to articles told us now is the time to get those projects done you’ve been putting off.

plan failed

Even with the Best of Intentions…

Having a project to focus on, whether it’s through work, an artistic outlet, home renovations or even a thousand piece puzzle, are all great for the mind during this time. These activities provide routine, mental and physical stimulation, as well as a distraction from everything else. All of which are helpful in relieving anxiety and stress.

But if you’re finding your to-do list still looks the same as it did weeks ago, or your well-planned routine is in tatters, you’re not alone. If someone told you, you could have two or more months at home with the freedom to manage your own time, you might start to go through all the things you’d do and get done. However, the current reality is much different.

Of course no two people are in the same situation. Some people can work from home. Others have lost their jobs. You might live with your family or live alone. Each of these situations present their own challenges and stresses. The commonality among all of them, is we’re stuck in the same place and not able to do what we normally would like to do.

hard to focus with pandemic brain

‘Pandemic Brain’

Over this extended period of time, it can affect your ability to focus, be self-disciplined and cut into your motivation. I’ve started calling this ‘pandemic brain’ (a non-scientific term), but it’s not much different from ‘cabin fever’ (another non-scientific term).

The other week I missed sending my Mother’s Day card off in time. When it arrived (late), my mum sent me a text saying it was a lovely card from her ‘daughter’. Turns out this son of hers couldn’t even read the card properly. That’s not my only misstep. My vegetable garden, which is usually planted this time of year, is still waiting for me to get motivated. Even though I have more time now than in previous years.

You also might find the days blurring into one. This past week, I sent out an email to remind my staff Monday was a holiday (in Canada) and not to work. Just in case. And sure enough, one of my employees replied thanking me as she had forgotten that Monday was indeed a holiday.

hard to focus

Why is it so hard to focus?

There are a number of reasons why this time is particularly challenging even if your own health is not at risk. Some of them include our loss of routine, being in the same place for much of the time and the constant reminder of what’s going on.

A lot of our regular routine is set for us. Whether you work or go to school, we usually don’t have control of start and stop times. If you’re retired, you’re still limited as to when you can go shopping or socialize. The same goes for watching live sports and entertainment. While we may dream of the day when we’re in control of everything, having some structure set upon us can also be freeing.

It becomes the foundation on what we build the rest of our days around. It basically differentiates one day from another. Otherwise it would be hard to tell a Monday from a Tuesday, or a Sunday for that matter. It also provides little deadlines throughout the day. Knowing you have to get off to work or meet friends is incentive for getting up, showering and getting dressed. We’ve lived like this for our entire lives and only the most disciplined of people can successfully navigate a routine all of their own making.

cabin fever can make it hard to focus

A Bit of Cabin Fever

Being exposed to the same surroundings can also impair your thinking and mental wellbeing. Being in different environments stimulates your mind and makes you happy. Conversely, being in the same environment, seeing the same walls all day, every day, can have the opposite effect. Much of this is due to what you’re missing; sunlight, which helps set your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle, and being exposed to nature, which can relieve anxiety and stress.

Even though having a home that’s comforting is ideal, we still need that change of scenery. Your brain associates behaviours and memories with physical spaces, whether positive or negative. For example, if you work from home, you may find yourself having a hard time dissociating your home from your work environment. Having a separate office you can close the door to is ideal, but if you have to work at the kitchen table, your brain may connect eating at that table with work making it harder to enjoy an evening meal. This is why sleep experts recommend only using your bed for sleep, and not for reading, watching TV or anything else.

Part of your environment also includes the people you share it with. Being around the same people all day can be taxing. Many of us are used to having our own time, whether at home or elsewhere. That may be taken away now, and depending on your home situation, you may be bumping into them (literally) on a regular basis. Music blaring or the TV continually on may be distracting. And frustrations with the current situation may be taken out on your housemates (or vice versa).

How This Effects Your Brain

On top of all that, we’re constantly made aware of the current pandemic. There’s the continual reporting of numbers of cases and deaths. That alone can take its toll. But even what used to be a simple trip to the grocery store, with the many physical distance reminders, tells us something isn’t right.

Altogether, this effects our brains by making it harder to focus and be motivated. We begin to weigh every decision based on the possible risk to us or others. The constant questioning of our actions can lead to moral fatigue, making it harder to make subsequent decisions. Similarly, being in the same environment with the same people, can be exhausting. And if you’re stressed or anxious, over a long period of time, the biological adaptations can make it harder to think.

small changes

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Setting up a routine and engaging in active distractions are two ways to help. But don’t over program yourself and do limit your expectations. Don’t expect to be super-productive and remember to be kind to yourself if you don’t achieve everything on your list. Also, make sure your active distractions are things you like, which stimulate the brain (puzzles, exercise, knitting, etc.) and aren’t filled just with watching TV. Consider signing up for a live online class or setting a time to connect with others. This can be stimulating while also providing structure to your day.

Try getting up at a similar time each day, shower and change into clothes other than what you slept in. You may have nowhere to go, but this will give you a greater sense of purpose than spending all day in your pajamas. If you can, get outside in the first few hours of the day, whether it’s a walk around the block, doing gardening in the yard or reading on the balcony. That dose of natural light in the morning will help refresh you for the day.

If you live with others, no doubt things may be a bit messier than usual with everyone at home. Try to even out the household chores and share the load. Also, set up a schedule for commonly shared household things, whether it’s the TV, backyard or living room. This can help avoid confrontations and arguments.

Lastly, don’t compare your experience with others. Your situation is going to be different from everyone else’s, which means you’ll react and cope in a different way. Feel free to share experiences, but don’t expect yours to be the same as other’s in your family or your friends. Find what works for you and go with that.

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