If you struggle to read a page of a book without picking up your phone, finish a task without checking your email or watch a movie without scrolling through Instagram, you’re not alone.
Around 10 millions residents are currently living under lockdown conditions, and according to scientists, it’s wreaking havoc on our ability to focus.
A study of 4,000 Italians who were locked down in early 2020 found that 30 per cent experienced a change in their daily cognitive functioning.
Another study during Scotland’s two month lockdown in 2020 found that people in lockdown had poorer memory, attention and decision-making skills. This worsened with less online interaction.
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“Complete isolation is really very bad for our cognitive functioning, but if we can keep up that level of interaction to some degree with whoever is in our house or online, that seems to be good for our cognitive functioning,” UNSW School of Psychology Professor Brett Hayes said.
It’s a problem that likely comes down to the unchanging nature of lockdown living, he added, noting that these challenges are exacerbated in people already experiencing mental illness.
Why are we worse at focusing in lockdown?
When we’re in lockdown, the framework upon which we store memories isn’t as solid, as every day blurs into one. That means the context that we hook memories onto isn’t as clearly defined, Hayes said.
“When the context is changing, which it does normally in everyday life when we are moving around and visiting different places in different times of the day, then it’s easy to lay down memories and recall them,” Hayes said.
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“But when you are in lockdown, your opportunities to move around in the environment and engage in different activities are very limited.”
However, inserting physical exercise outside of the house can go some of the way to delineating between the days and helping us focus, particularly if we exercise in different areas each day.
“Keeping up regular exercise is good to try and keeping our memory and decision making in shape as much as you can during lockdown,” he said.
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“There’s some evidence that even if you are really restricted – even doing something like playing Exergames (online exercise games) where you watch a screen and jump around, that does show some benefits. The nice thing is that you can play with your family and so there’s a social dimension as well.”
What happens when we go back to the office?
While our ability to focus will likely increase, experts from Portland State University are concerned that workers will be ruder to each other upon their return.
That’s because workers have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication, associate professor of industrial-organisational psychology Larry Martinez said.
“That can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it because people are out of practice of not having to have difficult conversations,” he said.
"These spirals that we're seeing might be stronger in a post-pandemic world."
Uncivil behaviour ranges from publicly criticising someone, rude behaviour, arriving late to a meeting, being on a device during a meeting, ignoring or interrupting colleagues, or deliberately withholding information.
Martinez and HR research scientist Lauren Park found incivility went more unchecked in Zoom or chat messages, and that it was also more prevalent among workers with little control over their workday, younger workers and workers with civil colleagues.
The researchers said businesses need plans to support employees returning to the office to avoid starting “vicious cycles”.
“There will inevitably be some conflict as people might be meeting coworkers in person for the first time or they'll be working together again in the same physical space," Martinez said.
“Relationships will need to be renegotiated in different kinds of ways and the likelihood that people are going to be able to address these situations in a conducive manner as compared to before the pandemic will decrease.”