Regular readers of my column will know that I am obsessed — obsessed— with Wordle.
For those of you who are like, “Wait, you have a column? Who are you, again?’: Wordle is a daily online word puzzle that has gone viral. You access it via a simple website. There’s no app, no ads, no fees. You get six guesses to figure out the five-letter word du jour, which is different each day. And you can share your spoiler-free result to social media; you may have noticed cryptic posts with Tetris-like squares in yellow, green and grey clogging your feeds. Welcome to the wonderful world of Wordle. You’re welcome.
Wordle has become a pleasant little morning ritual for me, and it’s also been a gateway drug to the hard stuff, by which I mean the New York Times Spelling Bee and the NYT Crossword (both daily and mini). Spelling Bee is a daily game in which you make x number of words out of seven letters, and, well, you know what a crossword is. In both games, some of the word selections are extremely obscure and will make you very upset. It’s great.
How Wordle works: you get six guesses to figure out the five-letter word du jour, which is different each day. (Screenshot)
I’ve been crowned “Queen Bee” for finding everything in the puzzle a few times. Reader hints are helpful and not cheating, exactly — they are phrased like crossword clues. More puzzles.
It stands to reason that I’d gravitate towards these kinds of games. I obviously love words and I love absolutely demolishing people at Scrabble. Writing often resembles a puzzle, too.
But word games have helped me start to regain my focus, which has steadily eroded over the course of the pandemic. I have the great fortune of having deadlines in my line of work; without them, I’m not sure if I would have written as much as I have in this time.
That said, it takes longer for me to recover from writing. The act of writing itself is often slow going; sometimes finding the right word is like extracting a tooth. I have a harder time ignoring the siren song of notifications on my phone. I’ll navigate away from an article I’m reading, never to return. I’ll toggle from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter to Gmail and back in an unsatisfying loop.
This is pandemic brain. Distracted. Unfocused. Anxiety-addled. All hallmarks of COVID-era cognition.
At this point, many pieces have been published about how the pandemic has rewired our brains. Chronic stress has a deleterious effect on our cognitive abilities, making us feel sluggish and foggy, among other destabilizing sensations.
I’ve been able to read books during This Time, which I realize makes me a bit of an outlier, but I wanted to find an activity that could help me work my problem-solving and creativity muscles, while also providing a dopamine reward. Word puzzles, it turns out, deliver on all fronts.
They also get me thinking in a slightly different way. Crosswords, especially, are useful for that; the phrasing of a clue might be a double entendre or a pun. And I don’t do anything else when I’m puzzling, allowing me to find that absorbing state we call flow.
In last week’s missive, I asked you about your go-to stress relievers. While “being retired” seems to be up there for a lot of you, I noticed some other themes as well. You are meditating. You are going for long walks. You are reading books. You are doing deep-focus, flow-state, mindfulness stuff.
Even before the pandemic, we were living in an increasingly distracted times. Our phones made it hard to simply be where we were. Modern life required us all be “great at multitasking” — to the point that it became a resume cliché, right up with “detail-oriented” and “thrives under pressure” (I’ve for sure used all three, it’s fine, no judgment). I increasingly think this insistence that we should all be multitaskers was precursor to hustle culture — and its nadir, burnout.
Sorry, but no one is “great at multitasking.” I’m not talking about being able to switch gears, mid-task, or have several different projects on the go; those are different skillsets and, more often than not, are how we define “multitasking.” True multitasking — doing multiple tasks simultaneously — is not only almost impossible for the human brain, it’s almost always unnecessary.
Even constant task switching is mostly unnecessary and makes one less productive overall. That’s likely why many office workplaces implement “focus days,” wherein there are no meetings or calls scheduled so that people can do deep-focus work on a project instead of losing all their work hours to time-sucking meetings that probably should have been emails and emails that probably should have been phone calls.
An oft-cited University of California study found it takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task after an interruption. So, you know, you do the math.
For my part, I’m trying to do one thing at a time — which will also mean not letting my word diversions become distractions themselves.
Jen Zoratti, Columnist