They say variety is the spice of life, and for those trying to thrive in lockdown, the age-old adage couldn’t be more important. No matter how mentally strong and resilient you usually are, it’s tough to shake a sinking feeling when you’re facing health-mandated restrictions on what you can do, who you can see, and how you usually shape your weekly schedule. It’s tempting to build a routine and churn through it while waiting “it” out, but a recent study suggests you’ll need to do more to fight the lockdown Groundhog Day effect to make sure it doesn’t muddle your focus, impair your memory, and wreak havoc on other cognitive processes.
Working from home might be de rigueur moving forward, even when we’re no longer trapped in a cycle of lockdowns, but if you don’t figure out how to nail the dramatic change in context for the better, you won’t be very effective in, well, anything.
A recent study on people in Italy, who were locked down for months last year, suggests that the insidious effects of lockdown are lingering memory problems, which would range from forgetting small things like where you left your smartphone, to trouble with attention when trying to read a book or stream a show. If you find your mind wandering a bit more than usual, it seems you’re far from alone.
Out of 4,000 respondents in the study, 30% had reported some degree of change in their everyday cognition. This is obviously going to be accentuated in people with underlying emotional issues like depression and anxiety, but even for those without any such conditions, these cognitive issues were very common.
The implications for productivity are dire, which is why you should be across the more granular details when it comes to this so-called lockdown memory fog. You can’t fight something effectively if you don’t know how it works.
The Groundhog Day Effect
The above study suggests that the reason our everyday memory is on the fritz is that we are living through a kind of Groundhog Day, and this makes it harder for our brains to properly encode memories, not only make them more difficult to retrieve later on, but messing with our sense of time.
Attempting to explain the results of the study, Professor Brett Hayes from UNSW’s School of Psychology references the recently refined contextual-binding theory of memory. This basically states that memories form by linking experience to context.
“What we know about human memory is that the context is really important”, said Professor Hayes. “You might be doing a job at home, chatting to a friend, or watching a movie…. when we have those experiences, we might be focused on the main part of the experience, but our brain is actually encoding a lot of other things just incidentally, like where that’s happening, the location, where and when it’s taking place”.
Read more Fitness
Our brain is hyper-sensitive to these contextual cues, and it’s what helps us better lay down memories in a way that’s easily retrieved later on. Lockdown strips away much of the variety in our weekly contexts; we’re no longer having dinner out with friends at different restaurants, trying new outdoor activities, working with spaces that allow for variety, and so on. Sleeping on different sides of the bed each night, or working out in different rooms of the house. doesn’t count.
Most of us have then sunk into a cycle that allows for very little repetition outside of incremental variations on the same ol’ shit. Even Bill Murray had more freedom than this in Groundhog Day, and when we’re limited to very few contexts between days, that’s when time can blur and those memory and attentional issues come to the fore.
Of course, most of this may be obvious to a lot of you. But knowing there’s increasing experimental evidence sitting behind this should at least make you feel a bit more… normal. I know I’ve been making far more spelling mistakes than usual lately, and while having too many tabs (web browser tabs, open) usually overwhelms me, this time it’s straight-up murder to my mind.
Routine, Variety, & Socialising
Having a routine – especially a morning one – is always going to be important. Your personal rituals are crucial for daily structure, and just about every successful person in the world will tell you that. But mixing them up and balancing them with variety should hold equal importance, especially now that your range of contexts is severely limited.
Maintaining a level of social interaction is important, beyond whoever you happen to be locking down with.
Another study on a two-month lockdown in Scotland last year required respondents to test their memory via a number of online tasks across memory, decision making, and selective attention. Results suggest that performance was not only poorer during lockdown, but people who were able to maintain their online interaction during those lockdowns did better at all tasks.
People, particularly blokes, don’t like to admit when they’re feeling lonely, whether it’s due to a fear of being seen as weak and emotionally unstable, or being a burden to others. That should stop, if even for the sake of productivity in other areas of your life.
While keeping up social interactions and changing contexts wherever you can is important, it’s a bit harder to put it into practice. This goes beyond just changing your Zoom background every time your mates host a virtual poker sesh, that need for variety should extend to your exercise as well.
“From a memory point of view, if you are able to exercise outside the house, vary those exercise paths from day to day to just allow a different context for your brain to encode those different days, if you want to be able to remember what you did from day to day a bit better,” suggests Prof. Hayes.
“Variations on exercises and activities in your house or apartment will also help you avoid the memory fog”.
From nutrition to sex, variety just leads to better overall experiences and performance. You don’t need an article to tell you that (I would hope), so bring a little bit of that thinking into more areas of your locked-down life. You might be limited to the same context each day, but it helps if you play around with the space between those boundaries to try and switch things up. Trust the process and you’ll see results.
Although if you’re worried this lockdown Groundhog Day effect might bring about some permanent changes, you shouldn’t get too stressed. The above studies also found that once restrictions were eased, particularly the social isolation, and people started experiencing different events in different places, the memory fog effect dissipated quickly.
Hang in there, you’ve got this.