A current problem for me with the COVID-19 outbreak is the information overload that is occurring- from the data about new cases and CDC recommendations, to the outpouring of self-help information and webinars. All of this information is helpful- but how does someone filter through what really matters? My brain hurts from time to time. Admittedly, I am guilty of putting another “thing” on someone’s information load by writing these articles, so this current article hopefully will acquit me of some of my addition to the information burden.
Attention is the ability to focus on a particular object in an environment for a certain amount of time and this ability is a limited resource. Ever get the feeling of exhaustion after sitting in a meeting for an hour? Some of it is due to the amount of information we receive, and some of it is because it is boring and we need to use mental energy to keep ourselves engaged!
Attention is the lens of our consciousness. Think of a video camera- it records everything in its frame, from light to sounds, to sequences and patterns. It takes a lot of skill to frame a good shot. Otherwise, when replaying the tape, it’s just a reel of “stuff” that doesn’t make too much sense. Essentially, our attention sets up the shot. It helps to pinpoint what the focal point, the fringe, and the margin of the shot are. It also helps with how wide the “zoom” is (and typically, the wider the zoom, the slower the bandwidth or more pixelated the shot becomes).
What’s in our lens
So how do we know what to focus on? We can focus on filtering based on a hierarchy of our needs, starting with what matters for our physiological needs, next to safety needs, then to belonging and esteem needs. This may be too wide of a focus for some, so there may be other filters to put on that initial list. It’s like online shopping- where you filter out products based on color or price, etc. Maybe "time" is a filter for approaching the COVID-19 information- does this matter for me now, versus a week from now, versus a few months from now? Maybe there is a "caregiving" filter- how does this affect my children now, what do I need to plan for with the summer? What does this mean for my older family members? The values-based exercise in my last post can help with selective attention too- it filters information based on what we really care about at our core.
What can I do?
Mindfulness is a great tool to help calm our lens and our camera hand. When there is a lot of stimulation, our lens and camera hand will try to capture as much data as they can, oftentimes because of the stress we experience. The key takeaway with any mindfulness exercise is to notice thoughts and experiences, not to get “hooked” by them. If you practice this noticing and detachment from the things that “hook you,” your attention will become clear and sharper. I am a big fan of Headspace, especially because of its free content that teaches the "how" and "why" of mindfulness. One of the best ways to do mindfulness is that, just do it. Practice stopping yourself for a minute, to unplug from the overload, and notice what’s happening. Maybe this leads you to schedule your time for COVID-19 information (e.g., World News Tonight only), to limit time or purpose on social media, or doing something unrelated to screen time in general, like reading or doing a puzzle. Then with enough stopping, enough time to notice, your film will be less of a mess and more of a meaningful movie.
Sean Snyder, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical worker practicing and teaching in Philadelphia. He enjoys Phillies baseball.