Thinking is hard work in a pandemic

Why is it so hard to get things done these days?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Creeping mental fog; rapidly racing thoughts; at worst, complete burnout. The pandemic has upended nearly all aspects of life, and perhaps most alarmingly, our ability to think. What is going on here? One key factor is our motivation, an essential ingredient for thinking.

Thinking is hard work

The type of thinking that allows us to get things done is not easy: we must stay focused on our goal and string together the correct sequence of thoughts or actions to accomplish it. Even the seemingly simple task of ordering groceries online requires us to keep our shopping list in mind as we navigate to and select each item, occasionally switching tabs to look up a recipe or compare a price. We also need to ignore distractions, like notifications from Twitter or the news. These goal-directed mental processes are different from the thinking that we do automatically because they feel effortful. That is, they feel like work and can eventually leave us feeling mentally fatigued.

Motivation makes us willing to do the hard work

Because goal-directed thinking takes effort, we don’t always want to do it. We can think of our willingness to exert mental effort as a decision: Our brain registers the effort required as a cost and weighs it against the benefit we can receive from the task. To make matters more difficult, we compare the costs and benefits of the goal-directed task to those of other alternative tasks we could be doing (e.g., Twitter). Thus, the task that we decide to pursue depends on what we value the most at that very moment. If we are in need of social connection, the value of checking Twitter may outweigh the value of groceries, which makes it extremely difficult to stay focused on the groceries. The consequence is that we cannot carry out goal-directed thinking if we are not sufficiently motivated.

Pandemic conditions undermine our motivation

The pandemic has fundamentally altered our motivation in several ways:

  • Different surroundings: Many people are staying home where there are plenty of tempting distractions and fewer interactions with friends and colleagues, which normally bring value and inspiration to our tasks. Goal-directed thinking thus becomes less valuable compared to the alternatives.
  • Lack of mental rest: People seek a balance between mental work (i.e., goal-directed thinking) and mental leisure: After a long period of mental work, the value of relaxing mental activities increases and people are motivated to take a break. The current circumstances make many restorative activities, like dinner with friends or a trip to the gym, impossible. So, we have less opportunity to reset the balance and constantly feel like we need a break.
  • Changing priorities: The existential stress of the pandemic can lead to a seismic shift in our priorities, which can make the importance of our daily tasks seem minuscule compared to checking in with loved ones or maintaining our health.

When our motivation takes a hit, as it has in the last year, it becomes difficult to muster the effort for goal-directed thinking. On some days when we sit down to do a task, we may find that we simply can’t. Trying harder isn’t going to help. Acknowledging the impact of our changing motivations may help us re-orient ourselves as we cope with the remainder of this pandemic and beyond. At the very least, it can help us be understanding with ourselves and others in a truly difficult situation.

Author: Rebecca Calcott

Buddy: Kim Beneyton

Editor: Marisha Manahova

Translator: Jill Naaijen

Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

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