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How to focus when it’s hard to stay focused

by Liz Marchant

It’s rare that a single news story holds the attention of people in every country globally at the same moment. Sometimes the Olympics catches the collective eye. So does a royal wedding and news of a disaster. Right now, undeniably, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has the world riveted.

People everywhere are watching events unfold daily, even hourly. Every news outlet is delivering the latest World Health Organization (WHO) updates, reporting what politicians and health leaders are saying, and providing advice on how we can protect ourselves and what to do if we can’t.

Even if we choose to ignore the news for a day or two, there are subtle reminders all around us that life is not business as usual. Offices feel unusually quiet without the hum of a full team working in the same place, certain supermarket shelves look oddly naked, and there’s the omnipresent scent of sanitiser.

At a time like this, even the most focused professional risks losing her concentration. If you’re finding it more difficult to focus than usual, here are some of the practices we’re using to keep calm and carry on:

Consider reducing your news consumption

Like it or not, bad news sells, and there is no doubt that constant exposure to negative news adds to feelings of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression. To help manage these natural emotional responses and avoid feeling distracted when you have things to do, limit news consumption to certain times of the day or skip the news entirely for a day or two. If something critical happens, rest assured, you’ll know about it without an RSS feed filling your inbox with sensational headlines.

Follow reliable news sources

Our connected devices deliver boundless amounts of information. Much of it helpful and practical. But we’re also delivered information we don’t go looking for, featuring detail we weren’t even aware was worth being curious about. Sometimes the news sources aren’t credible or reliable, and we’re drawn into a hype wave of worry without underlying facts. Social media is notorious for spreading rumours and fake news, so choose your news sources carefully, online and offline. If you hear or read something that worries you, make sure you check its veracity at the source. Government websites or the ABC can provide more reliable facts.

Avoid catastrophic thinking

Whether it’s an upcoming job interview or your child’s first day of school, we all experience moments that trigger worry and concern. In times of serious stress, those thought patterns can slide into catastrophic thinking, where we brood on worst-case scenarios. Needless to say, thinking only of the worst possible outcomes can increase anxiety and fear and distract you from the task at hand. Be mindful of catastrophic thinking and stop it from taking hold of your thoughts by practicing self-care. Prioritise rest and sleep, meditate, exercise, and practice mindfulness. Talk to people you trust; while social distancing is important, that doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself from the support your friends and family can provide.

Don’t try to forecast the future

The situation is constantly changing as new information comes to light and experts determine the best course of action. You can’t predict the future and trying to do so could make you feel even more confused and powerless. Be prepared to be flexible, consider what you might do if the worst-case scenario occurs, then get on with your day. Help your brain stay focused on important matters by minimising forecasting.

Focus on what is in your control

The coronavirus presents a situation where those of us who are accustomed to feeling in control of every area of life may start to feel out of control. Information about COVID-19 is still being discovered, including how quickly it incubates, how long it lives on surfaces, and how it can be treated. Many people are unsure what is actually involved with self-quarantine. These unknowns can be unsettling.

Focusing on things we can’t control distracts our attention from what we can control. It can be reassuring to remember that, really, we’re still in control of many things. Right now, we can all control how often, and well, we wash our hands and disinfect surfaces, and when to practice social distancing. We control what we wear, who we see, what we eat, and our entertainment choices. While we might make these choices on a smaller scale for the moment, rest assured, you can still dictate much of your life.

Make appropriate plans

Most of us run our lives on carefully considered schedules and plans. The potential for these plans to be thrown out of balance by things like school and office closures, cancelled sporting events, and more can feel a little overwhelming. However, it’s important to start making new plans, without panicking, about how to manage over the next little while.

Think about alternate working models if your company or kid’s school moves into a shutdown phase. Plan for how to manage if you, or one of your family, contracts the virus or needs to be quarantined. If you’re a business owner, run a practice work-from-home day to ensure your technology and systems are in good shape if you need to support more remote employees than usual. Finally, purchase a few extra supplies to cover your household essentials in case self-isolation becomes necessary. Remember, that means a few extra supplies please, not the entire toilet paper or canned food aisle at your local shop.

Offer to help

Sometimes, the best way to take the focus off our own fears is to offer to help others in the community who may be disadvantaged or vulnerable at a time like this. You may be able to help an elderly neighbour complete their weekly shop, or offer to provide childcare for a friend if the schools are shut down and you can work from home. You may have a few extra supplies you can offer to someone who works casually and has just had their hours slashed or has to self-isolate. There are so many things we can do to help each other through this difficult time and it can be heartening to see how your community pulls together.

Remember, this crisis will pass and we will soon be able to get back to business as usual.

This is an unusual time on our planet where we need to pull together as a global community to protect ourselves and each other. It is genuinely important not to panic and to stay focused on what we need to do every day as employers, employees, sisters, daughters, partners, parents, carers and members of our communities. Let’s move forward with positivity and levelheadedness.