Health and Wellness

Struggling to focus right now? Here are a few tips to help get your mojo back

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There are a number of reasons why you might be struggling to focus on work despite having only recently returned from a Christmas break.

The New Year promises the chance for a fresh start, so it can be frustrating to feel like you haven't hit the ground running. However, experts say several factors could be hindering your ability to concentrate.

First of all, it's important to think about concentration like a muscle, according to Stefan van der Stigchel, a professor of cognitive psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

He explained that while rest was key in order to avoid overtraining this muscle, it can also take time after a break to return to your optimum level of focus.

Van der Stigchel said another possible explanation as to why you might be struggling to concentrate is that your home environment was likely not designed to encourage you to work, unlike an office. For instance, he said that seeing other people work, as you would do in an office, acts as a motivator.

A lack of "transition" between tasks while working from home is another factor, van der Stigchel suggested. This is because of "working memory," he explained, which is the system in the brain that is responsible for "executing complicated actions."

Van der Stigchel compared this system in the brain to a workbench, with different tools laid out for each task. Between tasks the brain needs to effectively clear and "load the workbench," and this mental transition time is called a "switching cost," he explained.

The commute to work is one example of transition time that many have lost while mainly working from home over the past two years. So van der Stigchel suggested building that back into the day by taking a short walk before and after work. He also recommended ensuring you take 10 minutes between meetings to mentally recharge.

"Be aware that those should be in your working day, they're part of your working habit, because at the end of the day … you will be mentally extremely tired if you didn't plan your day in advance well, without any breaks or without any movement," van der Stigchel said.

Anxiety and concentration

Persistent anxiety about rising cases of the omicron Covid-19 variant might also be affecting your ability to concentrate.

A study published in 2018, conducted by psychologists at the U.K.'s University of Roehampton, used functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanning to track how worry affected the parts of the brain that are important for concentration.

Participants in the study were given tasks that required different levels of concentration. The functional MRI scans showed that more anxious participants saw "reduced connectivity in the regions of the brain important for attentional control," also known as concentration.

Our brain likes novelty, our brain likes new experiences.
Sabina Brennan

Professor Paul Allen, who led the study, explained during a video call with CNBC that the brain's "prefrontal cortex" is key to our ability to focus and in highly anxious people, this area was found to act differently.

Allen said the effect of working from home on mental health for a prolonged period, the feeling of isolation that can come from socializing less amid the pandemic, as well as how people tend to feel in the winter months, could all contribute to anxiety.

Contrast effect

Similarly, neuroscientist Sabina Brennan, author of "Beating Brain Fog," said that if people are chronically stressed or anxious then that can suppress neuroplasticity in different areas of the brain, like the frontal lobes. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to form new connections, which are important for skills such as learning and memory.

She said that people can also experience "contrast effect" after a vacation.

"It's kind of a form of cognitive bias, where the perception of difference is enhanced or diminished," she explained. For instance, someone who had a stressful Christmas break may have been looking forward to the return to work, but the reality of it may have disappointed. Brennan said this could make someone more anxious or depressed, thereby affecting their ability to focus.

"Now, eventually, you kind of do come back down to your baseline level of wellbeing [but] if any of those feelings are prolonged, then it's a good idea to see a doctor because it may be something else rather than this sort of switch over from the holidays," she said.

In addition, Brennan pointed out that this New Year is "just more of the same," as many people continue to work from home due to the spread of the omicron variant.

"And that's monotonous, and that's going to make it kind of difficult to concentrate because our brain likes novelty, our brain likes new experiences," she said.

Exercising at lunchtime was one way to boost concentration, given our alertness tends to dip naturally in the mid-afternoon, Brennan said. Going on a walk at lunchtime with a friend who is working from home close by, was another suggestion she made, as this may also help to make up for the loss of opportunities to socialize with colleagues in the office.

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