We’re over six months into the pandemic — a crisis that has filled our lives with a constant sense of uncertainty. It’s no surprise that events in the world around us can be distracting and can take a toll on our mental health, but what is it about this crisis that makes it particularly difficult to be productive? The coronavirus pandemic is a novel experience for all of us, and while it is affecting our mental health in new ways, there are some well-known techniques rooted in psychology that can help us adjust to this new normal as best we can and remain on track in our daily lives.

Understanding why the pandemic is affecting us this way

When it comes to the effect of the pandemic on our productivity, there are many factors that can play a part. As humans, we rely on routines to automate mundane activities. When these routines are thrown off, it can be exhausting for us to process new information we are not used to spending energy on. Imagine learning how to do a new task for the first time every single day. During the pandemic, you are learning a lot of new tasks and building new habits — from working from home to remembering your mask when you leave the house — learning these new routines is hard at any age!

At the onset of the pandemic, some of us may have adjusted to these new routines fairly easily. Perhaps you increased productivity, started work sooner with no commute to the office or made yourself available at all times while staying home. However, as the weeks and months wore on, it is difficult to maintain, largely due to the changes rooted in uncertainty and fear and the endlessness of our current circumstance — a concept called “learned helplessness.” This is a psychological phenomenon where feelings of powerlessness arise from repeated exposure to a traumatic event in which you feel no escape from, despite your ability to change the outcome (in this case some aspects of the outcome). These emotions are further compounded by the uncertainty of when we will be able to return to our old lifestyles, despite our desire to do so.

But wait, there’s more

Our new consolidated environments also have an effect on our productivity. It can be hard to segment work-life from home-life when physical boundaries do not exist. Many people are also now without the routines that had served as unintentional coping strategies, such as using commutes as a time to relax or decompress, and it can be difficult to find a new routine that has a similar effect when stuck in one location day in and day out. 

Additionally, as many of us have experienced by now, with remote work comes the notion of  “Zoom fatigue.” Increased screen time can cause eye strain and even migraines, which can make you feel physically depleted. There’s a good chance that the accumulation of meetings, virtual happy hours, and a desire to maintain a sense of connection, even if it is over a screen, is wearing you out.

Any one of these factors can affect your focus and productivity levels as the pandemic continues. While these issues can be overwhelming, there are also ways to address them to produce more pleasurable outcomes.

A change of pace

In order to regain focus, it is important to not resort to all pre-pandemic routines. You may have been comfortable rocking those back-to-back meetings in the office, but this pace may not translate well when you are working from home. Take note of what works for you in this “new normal” and put boundaries in place to regain control of your schedule. 

Creating a new routine can be a great way to achieve your goals while implementing new and healthy habits. If you’re someone who decompressed during your commute, perhaps creating a new routine that breaks up the work day from your evenings at home may help. Taking outdoor walks before or after your work day when you’d normally be in transit can be a good way to fill the transition time and add structure to your day. This could also give you a chance to set and maintain boundaries that ensure you are meeting all of your basic needs, like sleep and time away from screens. 

To make sure you are meeting these basic needs, don’t forget to take some time for yourself! Everyone’s mental wellbeing is under pressure right now, so self-care is more important than ever. Whether it’s taking an online meditation class, indulging in a relaxing bubble bath, or just opting out of the next virtual happy hour to create some “you time”, choose an opportunity that will allow your mind to get a much-needed break.

And a change of space

Creating a dedicated workspace can help maintain boundaries between work and home life. When assessing your work-from-home environment, it might be helpful to sit down and reflect on what an ideal workspace might look like for you. Is it a clutter-free space filled with natural light? Do you have a chair that supports your back? Once you have a clear idea of what is needed for you, it is easier to determine if your space is conducive to productivity.

If the only space you have is already designated for another activity (i.e. the dining room), see if you can dedicate a specific place where you can separate work from home, perhaps by storing your laptop and work materials away at the end of the day. This will help signal both to your mind and body that work has ended and help contribute to a healthier work-life balance.

Set goals…but make them realistic

Be realistic when you are setting goals during this pandemic. Maybe you can learn something new every day, but for others, it may not be possible to master a new language or try a new hobby right now.

In any situation, start by identifying a goal, breaking it down, and evaluating potential barriers. Understanding what your end goal is and why you want to get there will help you identify the steps it takes to get there and can help aid in motivation. Once you know what you’re working towards, evaluate how it’s going and adjust based on your observations. 

It’s best to start small with anything new. Your first step may be as simple as shutting your computer off at the same time each day or going to bed at a consistent hour every night. These steps despite the size can help you begin to adjust to this temporary new normal. 

If you are not able to accomplish everything you want to right away and all at once, that is OK! Staying consistent and remaining committed to finding a mentally healthy way to be productive through this pandemic might take time. Remember to show yourself compassion and grace as you navigate this uncertain time.