For a small percentage of people, coronavirus is life-threatening. But even if you’re not infected, the COVID-19 pandemic can have a serious psychological impact on the ability to stay calm, focused, and innovative at work.
The reason? All these breaking news updates, stock market alerts, and panicked public health announcements have exploited three basic characteristics of the human mind, leaving us scattered, distracted, and, well, miserable.
The first is “mind wandering,” our tendency to get lost in thoughts about the past or future. Watching a CNN update on the coronavirus is like mind wandering on steroids. It’s full of all sorts of future doomsday scenarios designed to hijack our attention away from what’s actually happening right here, right now, in the present moment.
The second is what neuroscientists call the “negativity bias” of the brain. This is our evolved tendency to fixate on potential threats to our survival. It’s the force, deep in the recesses of your brain, that creates all those horrifying simulations of a future where everything that could go wrong does go wrong.
The third is what behavioral economists call “uncertainty aversion.” We’re drawn to things we know and understand. And that’s why, when faced with the radical uncertainty of a spreading virus and declining markets, we feel such extreme discomfort.
The perfect storm of distraction
Combine these three characteristics of the human brain with news about the markets tumbling and the coronavirus spreading, and you might just have the perfect formula for destroying productivity and innovation.
Mind wandering leaves us mentally time traveling into an imaginary future throughout the day. The negativity bias of the brain ensures that we’re not ruminating on some inspiring or optimistic future state. We’re time traveling into a mental dystopia, a world where we’re all quarantined in our homes, lathering ourselves with hand sanitizer. And uncertainty aversion leaves us addicted to what might just be the root cause of all this suffering: the steady diet of breaking news that triggers our fear and scatters our attention.
The case against being well-informed
There are all sorts of ways to stay focused and productive in the midst of this kind of public hysteria. You could meditate. You could question all these stressful thoughts about the future. You could even move to a remote island in South America. And yet the simplest tool for staying focused in this chaotic time is to stay willfully uninformed.
I realize that sounds like a strange aspiration. “Isn’t it good to be well informed?” you might be thinking. “Don’t successful and productive people stay on top of public events?”
The short answer is “no.” Unless you’re a day trader on Wall Street or a pandemic specialist at the CDC, you don’t need to know about each new case of the coronavirus or each new ominous sign for the health of the global economy.
Staying on top of all this news might give you the illusion of satisfying your uncertainty aversion–the illusion that you’re somehow in control of the chaotic flow of global events. But it’s just that. It’s an illusion. The truth is that your following these events closely does nothing to make you safer or change the trajectory of the coronavirus.
Attending to this deluge of information does, however, have a couple of tangible effects. It does take precious time out of your already busy day. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that this continuous flow of information devours your headspace and attention. It exploits the three forces mentioned above, pushing aside important thoughts about your priorities and strategic objectives, occupying precious mindshare that could otherwise be used to come up with your next big creative idea.
The tactics of staying uninformed
So the strange goal in this strange time is to become willfully uninformed. But you don’t want to take this too far. You don’t want to become totally ignorant of all things happening outside the small sphere of your work and life. What you want is a middle-way solution that gives you more control over the information you consume.
Here are a few tips:
- Turn off all breaking news notifications and alerts.
- Treat your brain like an 8-year-old child. You wouldn’t give an 8-year-old unfettered access to a smartphone. Nor should you afford yourself this kind of daily temptation. Instead, set clear limits such as, “I’ll allow myself to check the news once each day at 5 p.m.” or, if you want to get more radical, “I’ll allow myself to check the news once each week on Friday at lunch.”
- Never watch your news on TV. There’s no need to traumatize yourself through witnessing the gory images of sick patients being wheeled into a hospital or frantic traders screaming on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Better just to read about it instead.
We live in a chaotic time. And for those of us interested in maximizing focus and productivity, this means employing radical measures to ensure that we stay focused on what matters most, our highest priority work, right here, right now.
Nate Klemp, PhD, is cofounder of the mindfulness-based employee engagement program LifeXT and coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.