Countering Collective Blur in the COVID-19 Crisis

Do we have sufficient focus?

The ability to resist impulses, exercise self-discipline, work concentrated on one task at a time, control attention and maintain cognitive control is what I call focus. From this follows presence, attentiveness and empathy. In my work I have seen a lack of these traits over the last few years.

This in turn brings a lack of direction and clarity for both individuals and organizations. In simple terms, focus is about doing the right things, doing them with clarity and ignoring that which is irrelevant.

Isn’t that just what we need in the current crisis? Isn’t that just what so many of us are looking for, now more than ever before? Yet perhaps we do not see that the shortcoming lies with us and that the solution for a constructive everyday life actually starts with our own intellect?

As an expert on focus I am now encountering anxiety, uncertainty, irritation and, in some cases, anger and helplessness. The crisis is hitting society hard and no one can predict how deep the crisis will be or how long it will last. It is true that it will pass and that we as individuals will adapt to a new normal life, but this is of little help to already troubled minds, to laid-off employees, to businesses at risk of bankruptcy, to overburdened health care workers or to the decision-makers on whose shoulders a great responsibility now rests.

As many of us, in my opinion, are not particularly well-equipped with focus, the question is how in this situation we can regain focus and thus fend off uncertainty, information overload and fragmentation in a constructive way.

Amidst a flurry of distracting and irrelevant thoughts, disinformation and anxiety about the future, this article is a way of using my knowledge and experience to contribute to a little more serenity, a little more kindness and a little more cognitive control.

Why we are lacking in this vital ability

We have long lived with countless distractions that compete for our attention. A growing noise around us and an accelerating attention economy have made it difficult for us to find and maintain focus. Time constraints and thoughtlessness have gained ground and we have become used to an eternal roaming and to directly responding to what has “gone viral”. The laziness of operating on the surface instead of in depth has been palpable. Wise common sense has had to make way for short-sightedness, quick fixes and shifts from one task to another.

Now, when the importance of our intellectual potential is great, but when many are seeking external information instead of reflecting for themselves, it is worth reminding ourselves that news feeds and social media are designed to appeal to our impulses and remove focus from our inner selves where lucidity resides and where common sense prevails.

How do we regain focus now when we need it most? 

Free the mind of irrelevant opinions

Our capacity to be able to think forward and backward in time is unique, but sometimes also takes us out of focus. It makes it possible for us to conjure up images of future scenarios that are more of a hindrance than a help.

We can reflect on why something turned out as it did, didn’t turn out as we wanted, how something will turn out, or worry that it won’t happen. We can jump from one solution to another, respond on digital streams and continually look for new ones. This fragments our minds and we lose the focus we so badly need to function well and to act together in line with the set guidelines.

Exactly this is happening to many of us now – a frightening number of thoughts are being spent on irrelevant opinions.

What can we do about this?

Re-connecting to the underlying basis for a mind in focus is a first step.

The starting point is the fact that, simply put, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time and that this is an advantage. A thought can wipe out irrelevant noise.

The mind is then free for a while of disturbing thoughts of the past and the future and of things not pertinent to the task. It is undisturbed and alert, and our actual intellectual potential is not being hindered by irritation or anxiety.

The point is powerful: If we can get into this focus, we have the ability to break the trend and guide ourselves in the right direction at any time we are entering into a brooding or distracting pattern. This is how we pull ourselves together and fend off irrelevant noise, disinformation and endless worry.

This is where decisions are made on sensible grounds. This is where lucidity, authenticity and the ability to achieve that which we are capable of doing reign.

When nothing is the same anymore, let this insight guide decision making at home in the kitchen, in workplaces, in boardrooms and in the political sphere. 

Let it help us to comply with directives and guidelines instead of arguing about whether the measures were right or wrong. Let it help us to more easily identify what is distracting and to distinguish between what is important and what is less important.

Discipline of what can be done now

In today’s fast-moving society we have got used to constantly striving for the new and the better ways, instead of finding the internal capacity we already have and constructively working with what we know and are best at right now.

Now, when signs are that certain goals are not compatible with our actual capacity or resources, we desperately cling on to the objectives we once set. Perhaps we are ashamed of the fact that the vision needs to be changed, instead of being proud of being able to make a sound assessment of the prevailing state of affairs. Our focus ends up forward in time and not on where we are, on what we can do and on what is needed to be done now.

This is precisely what is happening to many people right now. But for a constructive focus the mind needs to be disciplined for what can be done now, it needs to ditch much of what we have become used to and to follow orders.

The way in which this is done is up to the individual. The main thing is that the strong bond to future scenarios is cut for a while and the mind gets access to other thought patterns than that which is continuously chasing individual perfection and success. So we act astutely here and now in spite of the noise of uncertainty and thoughts that are stuck on a dream that is not realized.

This is how thoughts of what will happen and what has been done right or wrong are changed to what we can do now, for ourselves, for others and for a world in crisis.

A unified focus requires empathy

In some places in society there are tendencies to selfish behavior. Irritation is prominent and everyone seems to know what is wrong and what should be done. There is an abundance of advice in spite of the fact that there are very many of us who know very little.

The greater the inability to focus, the easier to be ensnared by irrelevant noise and meaningless opinions.

Because we are used to responding to what goes viral (and avoiding deep reflection) we continue to do so, even though it is relatively ineffective in this context. This risks creating a collective blur instead of a unified focus.

A unified focus is desirable in what is happening now. A unified focus requires guidance, but also self-responsibility and empathy. The link between focus and empathy may seem remote but is very close.

The moment we feel empathy, compassion or, to put it another way, solidarity, there is no room for other feelings, distractive or selfish thoughts. Notice how difficult it is to think in egocentric ways and at the same time have empathy for someone else. Or to be annoyed with someone and at the same time feel empathy for them. Empathy thus creates a shortcut to our own focus, and who does not want to be alert in the current crisis?

Choose empathy as a means to dispel irritating, worrying and futile thoughts. When we think of others we help ourselves. Follow guidelines – for the sake of others. That is how the individual can function in a focused way and at the same time be happy about participating in a global perspective.