How to deal with COVID-19 pandemic “Brain Fog”, using lessons from the book Deep Work

Do you find yourself struggling to focus and finding it difficult to concentrate which, in turn, leads to you not finishing work? Do you have problems remembering things, for example, the last meal you ate or where you placed your keys? Don’t fret; you’re not alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly brought heightened health worries, both mental and physical, to most people. In fact, in the United States, Fortune reported that as many as 1 in 5 Americans suffer from symptoms of what’s called “long COVID”: brain fog, muscle aches, and fatigue.

Even if you did not contract the virus, the stress of lockdowns and lifestyle disruptions may “trigger brain inflammation that could affect mental health,” according to a research published by experts from Harvard Medical School.

Symptoms of Brain Fog

What are specific manifestations or symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic “brain fog”? The National Health Service (NHS) of Scotland identifies the following as symptoms of brain fog:

  • poor concentration
  • feeling confused
  • thinking more slowly than usual
  • fuzzy thoughts
  • forgetfulness
  • lost words
  • mental fatigue

Of course, these symptoms may also be indicative of a different illness or disease and experts

Here’s a concise but insightful summary of the book “Deep Work” by author Cal Newport, with lessons and key insights that can help you be more focused and more productive in life!

For author Cal Newport, it is possible to increase a person’s concentration and focus to get more things done despite a busy and hectic schedule. This can be done by incorporating and adopting what he called “Deep Work”.

What is “Deep Work”?

To fully understand “deep work”, let’s first differentiate it from the so-called “shallow work.”

Shallow Work is work or task usually done while distracted. Examples of shallow work are posting photos or updating status on social media, washing the dishes while talking on the phone, or preparing food while listening to the radio. As you can see, shallow work does not create much value and is relatively easy to perform and replicate.

Deep Work, meanwhile, is conducted in a state of “distraction-free focus that pushes a person’s cognitive skills to their limit”.

The goal of deep work is to eliminate distractions in order to focus intently on performing a single task over an extended period of time. Examples of deep work include reviewing for an exam, writing a paper or thesis, creating a new song or music, or solving a tough problem at work.

You can therefore expect “deep workers” to be more productive and to achieve more.

Deep work efforts can “hugely improve skills, create additional value, and are hard to replicate,” the book explains. Deep Work is thus essential to achieve focused success in a world that is constantly distracted.

It might be truly value-adding but you cannot expect Deep Work to just happen. You must consciously set it up and schedule it during the day, making sure you give yourself periods of uninterrupted time to perform deep work.

So how exactly can you go into “Deep Work” mode?

Cal Newport’s book offers three (3) Deep Work strategies that can help increase your ability to focus leading you to produce quality action and results.

Deep Work Strategy #1: Schedule Distractions

Whenever your phone rings or buzzes, do you check it right away? If you do, you’re training your brain to avoid deep work and to give in to distractions.

If your brain is wired to accommodate distractions, you’ll find it more difficult to jump back in to perform intense and focused deep work.

If you want to increase your focus, you need to set up boundaries for your distractions. Set rules for yourself when you go into deep work.

In the same way that you will allot time to do deep work, you should also have a schedule to allow yourself to be distracted by shallow work. During times of deep work, unplug from technology, put your phone in silent or vibrate mode, and make sure you won’t be distracted by TV, social media, or emails during this time.

You can still choose to check your phone (especially if an urgent or emergency matter comes up) but to help you ignore distractions, have a piece of paper nearby and write down here the schedule when you will allow yourself to be distracted by shallow work.

This will certainly be hard at first but just like going to the gym or starting a diet, all good things should start somewhere.

Deep Work book summary by Cal Newport

Deep Work Strategy #2: Develop a Deep Work Ritual

The second useful strategy to achieve deep work is to develop a rhythmic ritual. According to Cal Newport, if you want to get into the rhythm of doing deep work, the easiest way to do this is to transform it into a simple and regular habit, scheduling your deep work at a certain day and time every week at your preferred location.

The book cites research showing that people new to deep work can begin doing deep work for around one hour. To begin this ritual, choose one hour in a given day that you would like to go into deep work.

The author claims early morning is usually the best time to do deep work for most people, since you’re not yet drained by the day and no one is distracting you yet with a lot of requests. Night owls, however, might prefer deep work close to or after midnight, when other people in the house are already asleep.

Over time, you’ll hopefully eventually become a “master of deep work” who, according to the book, can concentrate and perform deep work up to four hours straight throughout the day.

After choosing the time of day you want to do deep work, choose your preferred location as well which should ideally be away from a lot of distractions. It could be a good seat in a coffee shop, the library, the conference room in your office, a quiet spot in your bedroom, or any place that could let you work uninterrupted.

Also prepare “rechargers” during your deep work session. Rechargers are things or incentives that can help you remain motivated and your energy levels high while you’re in deep work. Rechargers could vary per person, but it could be a good cup (or cups!) of coffee, music, scheduled breaks, or simple exercises, etc.

As you continue applying and developing your deep work ritual, you will find yourself working longer with more focus and productivity.

Deep Work Strategy #3: Apply a Shutdown Ritual

Right before you conclude your deep work, author Cal Newport suggests that you apply a “Shutdown Ritual”.

A Shutdown Ritual contains two parts:

(1) A list of unfinished tasks or projects that you want to get done; and

(2) A breakdown of the task into small sub-tasks, making the big task easier to complete.

Writing these things down will help to remove the next tasks off your mind so you can truly disconnect and sleep or go on for the rest of the day without having to think about the things you need to do.

Here’s an example of a “Deep Work” schedule that you can copy to help you get started:

Example of a “Deep Work” Plan

A. Task: Review for the CPA Board Exam

B. Time: 3 Hours (from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM)

C. Location: Library

D. Rules: No cellphone, no internet or social media, recharge break for 10 minutes every hour

E. Rechargers: Coffee before start of deep work session, short 10-minute snacks by 9:50 AM, and stretching exercise at 10:50 AM

Change it to suit your liking!

Deep work is useful as it changes your brain and allows it to produce innovative and creative work that is hard to replicate. In a world full of constant distractions, Deep Work could be your key to remain focused, productive, and geared for success!

*** Looking for another good book to read? Check out Tim Ferris’s book which claims you can be rich and successful just by working 4 hours a week. Here’s a summary of and lessons from his book The 4-Hour Workweek!

About the Author

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