Before COVID-19 entered the picture, staying focused was a challenge we talked about a lot—because, while it is an issue for almost everyone, it can become very acute for people during and after treatment. Now that we are all also experiencing the risks and unknowns of this pandemic, and the massive changes that come with being in quarantine, concentrating is even harder.
Stressors impair our focus. They’ll divide up the priorities in our brain and make us struggle to choose where to place our attention. Thoughts like ”how can I send that e-mail right now when it feels like it’s more important to check the news again?” enter our brain, whether we realize it or not. Stress can also paralyze us, leave us in a fog, losing time for a minute or more wondering where it went and what we were thinking about.
Remember that these are radical times and it is okay to struggle to adapt.
Also remember that concentration is agile and ongoing. It’s a process. You don’t just “maintain” it. You might fall off this wagon. And that is also okay. I am working to appreciate the moments when I do get those cognitive wheels spinning again, because that is a huge win! Each time you’ve re-found your focus you’ve done it at your own pace, in your own way, based on your own response to this situation, the cognitive challenges you may be facing, and your own overall needs. And that’s the best any of us can do.
To that point, we thought we would share some personal notes from the Cancer and Careers team about how our concentration has been affected, and how we continue to adapt, while working from home.
I find that the days I’m best able to focus are the days that start with taking some dedicated time to focus on something in my personal life that I’m excited about. Some days, it might mean taking a leisurely socially distanced walk while listening to an audiobook. Other days, it means finding 10 minutes catching up with a friend over video chat, or sitting on my couch and knitting for a while before I sit down at my desk. The idea is to engage with an activity that creates a separation between the waking-up/getting ready part of my day from the working-from-home part of my day – similar to the way that my usual 45 minute commute created space to focus on things that exist between work and home. It’s a way to purposefully shift gears to cue my brain to go into work mode while also engaging in self-care, and it lays a good foundation for a productive day.
I have been approaching work like I approach my at-home workout—in pieces, with time for each exercise, time for stretching, and a pause for appreciation, since none of this is easy. I also try for a little variety—not all my meetings in the morning, not all meetings on Zoom, not all my most favorite or easiest tasks first. To focus more, it takes doing one thing at a time, doing it well, and then coming up for air because muscles and minds fatigue. I am quarantining with my parents who are retired, so that adds some perspective. They are happy to see me when I come into their space, and they are first to tell me it’s time to log-off and help with household chores.
Working from home has definitely presented a few challenges for me in being able to focus and concentrate during the day. I feel that since I am working from the comforts of my home that it is easy to be distracted by things that normally wouldn’t exist in the office – snacks, that new Netflix show, family, my cat – as example. But, what I have started to do is schedule my day with all my tasks on my calendar. It was rough at first to stick to the plan, but as the days continued, it helped to keep me organized, focused, while prioritizing what’s most important and urgent, and making me feel like an adult conquering the work from home space! I also find playing some soothing music like jazz helps me to calm down so that I can focus on work, just to have as background noise. It removes some of the stress from the tasks ahead of me as well.
In the beginning of the quarantine, I found it hard to focus on work while also staying up to date with the news. I felt that I had to be tuned in all the time because there were so many constant changes and updates and that the more informed I was, the more I could protect myself. Not only was this disruptive to my workday, but I realized it was causing me extra anxiety and stress. Trying to remember everything I need to do for work, around the house, and to stay healthy and in compliance – is a lot, and if you add constantly reading every news article on a vaccine update or treatment trial, it can be overwhelming. Now, I subscribe to news round-ups -- I get an email each morning with highlights of the news from the prior day, so I feel like I am still keeping up and staying informed with how I can best protect myself and others, but can focus the rest of the day on my work and mental well-being.
When I’m stressed or anxious, my ability to concentrate tends to wane. Having the mental capacity to juggle competing priorities becomes a lot harder and things take extra effort to accomplish. During this time, it’s not as easy to separate the professional and personal priorities – lines can become blurred when you’re constantly at home with limited physical connection and increased concern for yourself and those you care about or care for. The most effective way for me to improve my concentration (or reset), is to take deep breaths and focus on something that is seemingly inconsequential. Maybe that’s looking out my window for a few minutes or staring at a plant or piece of art. It helps me re-center and get back to the task at hand with a clearer head.
Going on week 8 of quarantine, I find it helpful to create a schedule each night for the following day so that I can motivate myself during this time at home like I would in the office. I set an alarm every morning to wake up as I would for work, have my coffee and make sure my laptop is on at 9am to feel like “I’m in the office on time.” I have my dedicated workspace (aka my kitchen table) ready to go and then throughout the day, I make sure to get up and take a few breaks so that I am not sitting in the same spot for the entire 8 hours. It has definitely been a struggle for me, but I find the more tasks I put on my schedule, the less time I have to procrastinate. I have even caught myself saying sometimes, “how is there not enough time in the day for everything I have to do.” Here’s a tip: when creating a schedule, make sure you put everything on it including any household chores, the time you plan on prepping/eating dinner or even the time you plan on watching TV.
I have to write a list; it is almost never organized in a way that someone else would find functional but it works for me. This was true before the shelter in place, and what I have learned since is it is even more important now. Because when I have to transition from “home” to “work” in my small apartment’s multipurpose living room, it is the lists (strewn about my work zone on lots of different post-its—some on the desk, some on a bulletin board, some in a notebook) that ground me to the work part of my home life. Not to mention the ever-satisfying feeling of crossing items off as they are accomplished—and on a really good day throwing whole post-its out because all items were completed. This feeling is even more important to me now, it is a sign of progress at a time when it can be hard for some of us to see any.
And for me, “agile” means a lot. Because sometimes I don’t “succeed”. And I just try to stay on my toes and adapt. One day a digital to-do list seems like too much, so I switch to writing on paper. Another day I may need to stand and move away from the desk more often than the others. Some days it is a coffee and soda party to stay alert. But each day, minute to minute, it’s different.
Be sure to check out our Ways to Counteract Chemo Brain at Work one-sheet for a list of simple things you can do to help combat cognitive challenges, focused on getting back to the basics and increasing concentration.
And we would love to have you at our upcoming events:
- Ask the Experts with Kathy Flora, Career Coach - Thursday May 7th at 3pm ET / 12pm PT
- Webinar: Job Search Strategy During COVID-19 - Tuesday May 12th at 1pm ET / 10am PT
- Ask the Experts with Ali Schaffer, LCSW - Thursday May 14th at 1pm ET / 10am PT
Balancing Work & Cancer Webinars
- Working Through Treatment - Wednesday May 6th at 6pm ET / 3pm PT
- Occupational Therapy & Vocational Rehab - Wednesday June 3rd at 6pm ET / 3pm PT
- Enhancing Your Skills: Prepping for Successs - Wednesday July 8th at 1pm ET / 10am PT
- National Conference on Work & Cancer - Friday June 19th - 8:45am - 5pm