Life was hectic enough without COVID-19. Now, the chaos seems overwhelming at times. In a world of social distancing, homeschooling, and economic uncertainty, people have plenty on their minds. Yet whether you’re working from home, toiling on the front lines, or seeking new employment, you may be feeling a lot of pressure to stay productive.
If you find yourself reaching for the latest time-management tools, realize that they won’t help if you ignore the true core of your ability to stay on task: your psyche. The essential steps for spurring productivity begin with identifying, accepting, and managing your emotions. Even before the outbreak, the 2019 Mental Health at Work report offered by Mind Share Partners showed a direct correlation between on-the-job productivity and emotional well-being. Nearly two-thirds of survey participants (61%) admitted that their output varied depending upon their mental states, and one-third of respondents noted the impact of the physical work environment on their mental health.
The anxiety, unpredictability, and isolation fueled by the coronavirus pandemic have ramped up your distraction levels far beyond the level of ordinary stressors. Scientists have cautioned that there will be a serious psychological toll on society that lasts beyond the pandemic itself. Indeed, your mental health may have already taken a hit, so be gracious with yourself as you manage daily priorities. You shouldn’t expect to catapult out of survival mode and suddenly become the most productive worker in the world.
Hitting the pause button isn’t the answer, either. We can’t afford to put our entire lives on hold. Instead of allowing yourself to fall into a state of total hibernation, never making any progress, try these strategies to stabilize your mood and get your work done:
1. Emphasize self-care.
In recent years, the concept of self-care has been elevated as a viable, practical way to minimize apprehension, improve cognitive function, and refuel your emotional wellsprings. After all, when you feel less burdened, you can give more to all aspects of your life, including your career.
The key to making self-care work best, though, is to quantify it. According to Seth Casden, CEO and co-founder of Hologenix, a company that creates and markets health and wellness products like Celliant, “Self-care without data is like having a map without knowing where you are.” He goes on to explain that “in order to track health, measure progress, and achieve goals, we need to know our baseline and define how we want to measure our goals and define success.”
Not a science-minded person? Quantification doesn’t have to be tricky. It can be as simple as logging measurements, such as your blood pressure, heart rate, or sleep cycle. In fact, tracking your sleep with a wearable device such as a Fitbit can show whether you’re getting the three to five non-REM and REM sleep patterns recommended by the National Institutes of Health. Enough rest will improve your ability to deal with each day’s stressors and power through your do list, so if your numbers are off, you’ll know to adjust your strategies.
Once you’re clear about your baseline, make it easy to reduce stress by adding a stress app to your phone and creating a stress reduction routine. Apps like Headspace and Calmcast can provide the bite-sized, anytime anywhere self-care routine you need.
2. Avoid mental confinement.
Humans are social creatures who generally thrive on face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made getting together with friends and family impossible for most of us. This in turn begets a feeling of restlessness and lowered creativity, particularly if you work best when brainstorming with colleagues.
During a Vox interview, Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, expounded on the link between improved imagination, human contact, and forced isolation: “Most creativity is done in face-to-face environments. It encourages you to be ambitious and motivated.” He adds, “Full-time at home can be pretty miserable. Most people don’t enjoy it, you know, week in week out.”
The good news is that we have a technological advantage that wasn’t available during the 1918 flu or other pandemics: telecommunication. From Zoom to FaceTime, you can virtually interact with anyone else. And you’ll still get most of the feel-good vibes that come from being in the same room. Try staggering daily meetings with co-workers at regular times so you can check in with everybody as a group for some chitchat. If you’re a group leader, set up individual meetings every few days with your team members to stay connected and ensure everyone’s tasks are humming along. Having a chance to speak freely about what’s on your mind is far from a waste of time; in fact, it’s the key to regaining your focus.
3. Draw a line in the sand.
OK, don’t literally draw a line on your floor (unless you think it’ll help). However, if you’re working from home, you’ll do best if you establish structural boundaries between work and your personal life. Otherwise, you may find it tough to turn off Slack and tune your attention to personal matters.
Even if your home is crowded or tiny, set up a dedicated work zone. Make sure everyone you live with understands that when you’re in that spot, you’re essentially in the office. It may take your kids, partner, or roommates a few days—and a few discussions—to acquiesce, but they’ll come around.
In addition to designating physical areas as work-versus-home, use your calendar to set time barriers. Make sure your boss and team members understand when you’re on and off the clock. For instance, you may want to walk away from your workstation from 1-2 p.m. for a late lunch with family. On the other hand, you may set up mini-breaks all day so you can be available in the evening for last-minute business calls or inbox cleanup. Tweak your schedule until it meets your needs without sapping your efficiency or effectiveness, but make sure that you keep your promise to yourself to have daily bona fide downtime.
No doubt about it: We’re living in unforgettable times and dealing with incredible mental strain. Nevertheless, we’ll get through the COVID-19 crisis one step at a time—and the first step is to take care of your mental health.