There are a number of reasons why you might find it difficult to concentrate on your work after only recently returning from a Christmas break.
The new year promises the chance for a fresh start, so it can be frustrating to feel like you’re off track. However, experts say that several factors could hamper your ability to concentrate.
First, it’s important to think of focus as a muscle, according to Stefan van der Stigchel, professor of cognitive psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
He explained that while rest is essential to avoid overtraining this muscle, it can also take time after a break to return to your optimal concentration level.
Van der Stigchel said another possible explanation for why you might be having trouble concentrating is that your home environment probably wasn’t designed to encourage you to work, unlike an office. For example, he said seeing other people working, like you would in an office, acts as motivation.
The lack of “transition” between tasks while working from home is another factor, van der Stigchel suggested. This is due to “working memory”, he explained, which is the brain system responsible for “executing complicated actions”.
Van der Stigchel likened this system in the brain to a workbench, with different tools laid out for each task. Between tasks, the brain has to clean up and “efficiently load the workbench,” and this mental transition time is called a “switching cost,” he explained.
Commuting is an example of the transition time many have lost working primarily from home over the past couple of years. Van der Stigchel therefore suggested rebuilding that in the day by taking a short walk before and after work. He also recommended making sure you take 10 minutes between meetings to mentally recharge.
“Know that these should be part of your work day, they are part of your work habits, because at the end of the day… you will be mentally extremely tired if you have not planned your day well in advance , without any pause. or without any movement,” van der Stigchel said.
Anxiety and concentration
Ongoing anxiety about rising cases of the omicron variant Covid-19 could also affect your ability to concentrate.
A study published in 2018, led by psychologists at the University of Roehampton in the UK, used functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to track the impact of worry on parts of the brain important for concentration.
Study participants were given tasks requiring different levels of concentration. Functional MRIs showed that the most anxious participants saw “reduced connectivity in brain regions important for controlling attention,” also known as focus.
Professor Paul Allen, who led the study, explained in a video call with CNBC that the brain’s “prefrontal cortex” is key to our ability to focus and that in people with high anxiety, this area s was found to act differently.
Allen said the effect of working from home on mental health for an extended period of time, the sense of isolation that can come from less socializing amid the pandemic, as well as the way people tend to feel during the winter months, could all contribute to anxiety.
Similarly, neuroscientist Sabina Brennan, author of “Beating Brain Fog,” said that if people are chronically stressed or anxious, it 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 people can also experience a “contrast effect” after a vacation.
“It’s a kind of cognitive bias, where the perception of difference is enhanced or diminished,” she explained. For example, someone who had a stressful Christmas vacation may have been looking forward to returning to work, but the reality may have disappointed. Brennan said it could make someone more anxious or depressed, affecting their ability to concentrate.
“Now, finally, you’re sort of getting back to your base level of well-being. [but] if any of these feelings persist then it’s a good idea to see a doctor as it may be something else rather than this kind of change after the holidays,” she said.
Additionally, Brennan pointed out that this New Year is “a bit more of the same” as many people continue to work from home due to the spread of the omicron variant.
“And it’s monotonous, and it’s going to make it a little difficult to concentrate because our brain likes novelty, our brain likes new experiences,” she said.
Exercising at lunchtime was a way to boost focus, since our alertness tends to naturally drop by mid-afternoon, Brennan said. Taking a lunchtime walk with a friend who works nearby is another suggestion she made, as it can also help make up for lost opportunities to socialize with colleagues in the office.
To verify: Neuroscientist shares the brain exercise she does for stronger memory – and the mistake that can ‘harm’ it