Last week’s solar eclipse was greeted with widespread reports about the dollar-value of lost productivity from people scurrying out of their offices to watch the moon pass in front of the sun for 40 minutes or so. But whatever deficit that amounted to likely pales in comparison with the impact of recent news cycles.
Missile tests in North Korea, presidential tweet-storms, and violent confrontations between white supremacists and counter-protesters have made it hard to look away from the headlines during an average workday. If you’re concerned that your focus is slipping and your work performance is suffering as a result of the stress induced just by keeping up with current events, well, join the club–but don’t despair. Here’s how to put it all in perspective and a few things you can do to stay sane, even-tempered, and productive.
It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain
Before you work on regaining your focus, you need to let yourself off the hook a little. It’s not actually surprising or unusual that so many people have been riveted by attention-getting events, whether out there in the solar system or down here on Earth. The human brain is captivated by novelty. It’s normal to pay attention to things that are out of the ordinary and hard to explain. Things that don’t happen often should generate excitement, discussion, concern, or debate as the situation warrants.
When life gets more unpredictable, we’re psychologically wired to fixate on those changes and think harder about them. Why? Simple: Because our brains are trying to make the world more predictable again. Certainty equals security; when we can reliably predict what is going to happen, we can plan for it and act accordingly–in many cases by falling into routines and habits, which we can follow more or less on autopilot, without devoting so many mental resources.
So, if you find yourself sneaking too many glances at your social media feeds these days while you should be working, at least know that you’re in good company. Don’t let guilt or the worry that your focus is steadily slipping out of your hands get you even more worked up. Then try this:
Write It Out
One of the easiest things you can do to cope with any stressful event is to write about it. Lots of research has shown that when we’re stressed or anxious about something that’s going on in our lives, journaling and talking about what’s going on and our feelings about that can be therapeutic.
This expressive writing works for a few reasons. First, it helps to weave events that seem upsetting and inexplicable into a story that feels a little more comprehensible. That lowers your anxiety about those events and makes you less likely to obsess over them during the workday. Second, writing also helps to put the events outside of you. It’s easy to read alarming headlines these days and feel affected personally by the news, and it only makes things worse when national or global events are largely out of your control.
The brain keeps coming back to thoughts that it thinks you might forget if it weren’t to recirculate them through your conscious mind periodically. This, of course, can be exhausting. But when you have written something out, your brain knows where you can go to get back to that information if you need it. As a result, it won’t feel the need to keep the information you wrote about active in your memory.
Manage Your Digital Distractions
Easier said than done, right? News sites and social media are available 24/7, which makes them hard to not continuously refresh, especially when they’re right at your fingertips all workday. But try to remember that stories in the news unfold over time, and most of them don’t require that you keep up with the latest details as they do so. In fact, the initial reports of any incident are often confusing and incomplete as people try to gather information and make sense of what happened.
So there’s a real benefit in engaging with the news cycle only a couple of times a day rather than every hour or two. The easiest way to do that is to control your own IT environment. Block the news and social media sites you visit most often–and yes, start with those, not the ones you think you can most easily live without. (There are a few helpful apps in this roundup that can help.) Turn off push-notifications for news apps, then put your cell phone in your desk drawer where you can hear it ring or vibrate, but can’t just it easily when the urge strikes.
It’s a low-tech solution and it takes some willpower, but if you can stick with it, you can train yourself to rush to your phone less frequently. The less often you check the news, the less often you will feel you need to check it.
Do Some Teamwork
One of the reasons people obsess over troubling news events is because we do so much of our work alone. Even in open office environments, there are long stretches of the workday where almost everyone is alone together, staring at a separate computer screen.
Humans are social animals. Our brains are wired to engage with others and to achieve goals together. Even if you’re anxious or stressed about something going on in the world, it’s much easier to concentrate on what you’re doing when there’s a whole group that’s engaged in it. You don’t have to rely strictly on your own motivation to stay on task–draw on the energy of others to help you.
When you find yourself anxious about current events, organize an impromptu team meeting. Start that group project you and your colleagues have been putting off. At a minimum, instead of than clicking through to that fifth or fifteenth distressing news article, close the window and head over to your coworker’s desk. You’ll both be grateful.