Scenes from a Pandemic Volume 9 – Exhaustion and executive functioning

     I have been feeling exhausted by the pandemic, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. It’s an odd kind of exhaustion, too, and it took some work to even figure out that this is the feeling. It’s starting to make sense, and though I don’t know what the solution is, the first step is always to identify the problem.

     According to new research by Xie, Campbell, and Zhang (2020), coping with the demands of protective measures during the pandemic creates demands on working memory. Let’s start with a definition of working memory, then move to an example, and connect all of it to this latent, pervasive, creeping feeling of exhaustion.

     Working memory, and we will focus on auditory rather than visual working memory, is short-term memory. You hear or read something (yes, reading is auditory, because you hear the words in your head) and store it briefly before you use or change it, and then either you store it in long-term memory or you forget about it. We use working memory for many things, but for our conversation here, we will focus on the use of working memory in functional tasks like following directions and creating plans and holding and evaluating information before acting on it.

     Typical adult working memory can hold about 5-7 bits or chunks of information at one time, for about 20-30 seconds. Working memory is one of the executive functions, or self-regulatory abilities. This category also includes abilities like monitoring (yourself, others) and impulse control, among others. We can put it all together with two examples that help us to see why feel tired.

     Imagine a typical trip to the supermarket, pre-pandemic. The steps probably looked something like this:

1. Park

2. Get cart

3. Find what I want to buy

4. Pay

5. Leave

     It’s pretty straightforward, the kind of sequence that you have probably done hundreds or thousands of times, making it automatic. In this context, the word automatic means that it doesn’t require any thought.  An automatic task or sequence places no demands on working memory, even if it has dozens of steps.  It's all one chunk in working memory. 

     Now let’s look at the same trip, to the same supermarket, during the pandemic. The steps might look like this. The ones in black standard type require working memory, and the ones in blue italics require other executive functions.

1. Park

2. Put on mask

3. Make sure that mask covers nose and mouth but doesn’t interfere with vision

4. Find a clean cart, if they are being cleaned

5. Sanitize my hands

6. Find what I want to buy

7. Maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others

8. Monitor others for maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from me

9. Monitor others for coughing or indications of a fever

10. Pay, keeping my distance and keeping interaction brief

11. Return cart to dirty cart area

12. Sanitize my hands

13. Remove mask carefully

14. Leave

     The black standard type in both lists indicates tasks that require working memory. These are new procedures that aren’t automatic and so they use working memory, which again has a typical limit of 5-7 bits or chunks, most of which is used up by the new procedures. Just remembering and juggling your shopping list (what you want to buy) and finding it (your mental map of the store) put extra demands on your memory. You also have to shift your thoughts back and forth to balance what you want and what society needs (Xie et al., 2020), and that uses working memory, but those aren’t the only demands on your overall executive functioning.

     The actions listed in blue italics are other executive functions. In the store, you are monitoring yourself (3, 7, 10) to make sure that you follow the new rules for the pandemic, which can change. You are also monitoring others (8, 9) to reduce your risk of being exposed to someone who might have COVID-19. We also monitor others to see if they are friendly or unfriendly and that is harder to do with part of the face covered. Is this person staring or smiling or glaring? That’s important for us to know and we are working harder to find out. Shifting your attention, like when you go from looking for the Krimpets to when you check your distance to when you tune into the person nearby, is also work (Kahneman, 2011).

     When you put it all together, there are huge amounts of information and several important tasks to juggle during what used to be a routine, automatic trip to the grocery store. Your brain is working very hard during something that was easy until March, and your brain uses 20% of your energy (Heid, 2018). That’s only one job but the extra demands apply to everything. The pandemic puts an extra load on your working memory every time that you leave your home or bring something into your home.

     That’s why the feeling of exhaustion makes sense. Everything is harder during the pandemic, but it’s not really hard physically, which is why it makes sense that identifying the feeling as exhaustion is also difficult. You can feel tired, like you worked outside in the heat, without having exerted yourself physically, and when that doesn’t make sense, it sneaks up on you. Self-control is like a battery, in that it discharges during the day and recharges at night, so it can be harder to make good decisions for yourself and others as the day progresses.

     I wish that I had a solution. The best answer would be to control the Coronavirus so that all of this extra monitoring and all of these extra steps would be unnecessary and we could go back to moving and working automatically throughout the day. For the time being, it makes sense to put the most challenging and dangerous jobs at the start of the day, when your self-regulatory abilities are strongest, and to realize that this is hard, that you will be tired, to cut yourself and those around you a break.

Be gentle and be safe, all.


Heid, M. (2018). Does Thinking Burn Calories? Here's What the Science Says. Retrieved from,way%20the%20brain%20consumes%20energy.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Xie, W., Campbell, S., & Zhang, W. (2020). Working memory capacity predicts individual differences in social-distancing compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from