Staying focused, productive and retaining your competitive edge can be difficult in stressful times. We may find ourselves bombarded by negative messages and anxiety-provoking news. We may bounce from task to task doing the easy things first, or the seemingly urgent things, or just as commonly, paralyzed and doing nothing at all. And that is not going to help any of us.
In this article I will share a personal story of my own failure to perform well under stress. In addition to avoiding the mistakes I made, I will provide 12 tips for you to retain your focus and stay productive during times of stress and uncertainty.
My Failure at a Stressful Time
A few short weeks before I was concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, my father passed away of pancreatic cancer. From the time of his diagnosis to his passing was less than 6 weeks.
My Dad chose to remain home rather than die in a hospital. I am grateful that I was able to spend some time with my Dad during this time. It wasn’t all pleasant bedside conversation though – my Dad needed help in his last days. While my two sisters did the lion’s share of the work, toward the end they told me that Dad needed help from one of you boys (I am one of 5 surviving “boys”). They supported my Dad during the day but needed help with restroom breaks and overnight help and I was happy to help.
At first, things went fine, but then suddenly they weren’t. In less than 2 weeks my Dad went from being able to eat and shower on his own to dead. I was caught completely off guard.
My overnight stays with my Dad went from difficult to sleep to entirely sleepless. Occasionally I would nap during the day to make up for it.
But we had other things going on during the day. My siblings and I decided that since we were all there during the day, why not get my Dad’s things in order and prepare his house for sale. In particular, those of us from out of town thought that would be better than coming back at some unknown later date to complete what turned out to be a massive undertaking.
So I was spending my days working to clean out, donate and throw away all my parent’s possessions. I spent my nights helping my Dad to the restroom or whatever else he needed. My self-care routines, which normally include sleep, exercise, meditation, and community all went out the window. I kept telling myself that there would be time for all that later. (There almost wasn’t).
The one bright spot was that I had some super sweet time with my family and my Dad. My siblings and I worked hard together as a team and shared our meals together. But the cost was high – too high – and I was a physical and emotional wreck. And I am still fighting my way back.
The COVID-19 Pandemic May Feel Like a Threat to Our Survival
Which leads me to the current situation facing most of us during the pandemic. We are likely to be out of our routines, working in an unfamiliar place, with more people around us and bombarded with more negative news than we can digest. We may literally feel like a threat to our survival. This can easily lead to a loss of focus and productivity that will only further hurt us and the people we work for.
It reminds me of a concept called Amygdala Hijacking that I wrote about in my book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers. The idea is that during times of stress, our primitive brain system goes on hyper-alert. It thinks we are under attack, shuts off critical thinking and puts us in a fight or flight mode designed to protect our survival.
This primitive brain, sometimes called the lizard brain, is made up of the amygdala and the limbic system. It was our earliest form of protection and though it is crude, it is also fast and efficient when it comes to surviving.
We have a second more evolved brain commonly referred to as the frontal lobes. These frontal lobes serve executive functions and help us to make good decisions.
It is important to note that primitive brain operates faster than the executive brain. Under times of stress, our primitive brains may take over more of our functioning since they operate faster than the frontal lobes. We will literally act without thinking. We will react to situations without thoughtfully considering the impact of those actions. And that can lead to things like burnout, freaking out, road rage and worse.
Calm the Amygdala Down so You Can Focus and Stay Productive
The key to being able to focus and be productive is to keep our amygdala in check. We can do that through taking good care of our own emotional and physical well-being. You might think of it as everything to do which is the OPPOSITE 0f what I did while taking care of my Dad.
Let’s get specific with some action steps you can take now to get yourself into shape and make sure you retain your focus and stay productive. I am providing a lot of choices here so please experiment to find what works best for you.
#1 – Breathe
Yep, the first action you can take is super easy. Breathe. By just slowing down and breathing deeply, you can quickly change your emotional state and calm down an excited amygdala. I find that it works best for me if I take at least 3 deep breaths, holding them slightly and then slowly exhaling and purposefully emptying my lungs.
If you have a device that monitors your heart rate you can actually watch your heart rate go down as you apply these breathing techniques.
There are more advanced breathing techniques of course (see some here from Healthline.com). And if you currently practice meditation or Yoga those are also excellent.
#2 – Get Your Sleep
Most of us were probably not getting enough sleep before the pandemic. I am sure it is harder than ever with the disruptions we face in these trying times.
Sleep is the force multiplier. It allows our brains times to rest and heal. It restores our bodies and readies us for the next day. It combats stress.
If you are unsure about the correlation of sleep and focus and productivity, head over to the US Dept of Health and Human Services website. This quote was one of many that caught my eye:
If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.
#3 – Limit Your Exposure to Negative News
Please don’t read this as put your head in the sand or ignore or deny that we have a health crisis right now. By “limit your exposure”, I mean put some limitations on negative news. There is a big difference between understanding your government’s recommended steps to deal with the Pandemic and being laser-focused on every detail of the spread of the virus and the missteps of our elected officials. Think of it more like “Hey we are currently in a pandemic and we should stay home to avoid spreading it. Great, I will tune back in tomorrow.”
And this goes for social media as well. You can join the online debates about the effectiveness and responsiveness of your elected officials, or shame those hoarding toilet paper or partying on the beach, but that isn’t going to do much for you and your job. Turn off alerts or close apps like Twitter and Facebook entirely or at least for your workday.
The reason for this is the fear and anxiety caused by the news is only going to keep your amygdala in a state of high alert. Blood will rush to the wrong places and you will be expending a lot of energy looking for the next threat. And you won’t be productive or creative. In fact, fear and creativity cannot co-exist.
#4 – Stay Connected and in Community
Community is one of the ways we can help remain grounded. By connecting with loved ones and family (not necessarily the same BTW), we can share our challenges, our pain, and our success. One thing crystal clear from this pandemic is that we are all connected and if we think the fate of others is not important, just pull up one of the myriads of infection maps.
You may have people in your own house to connect with or use FaceTime or WhatsApp to connect with others all over the globe. People can get psychotherapy and attend worship services online and even have virtual doctor appointments. We are being pushed to be creative and learning what works. (My daughter was virtually binge-watching the Netflix series, Tiger King, with a friend across town.)
#5 – Remember Your Self-Care Routines
Now more than ever don’t forget about the self-care habits and routines you used to have. If you have kids home from school this may throw off your normal schedule. Where possible, don’t stop doing Yoga, meditating, strength training or riding your indoor exercise bike. If you can do it safely, get out into nature.
Routines are our friends during crisis and chaos is your enemy. Establish your own routines and support others who may be living with you to do the same.
If you never had great self-care routines, now is a good time to establish some. Experiment and determine what works best for you and can be done safely within government guidelines.
#6 – Reward Yourself for Productivity
Sometimes it can be just plain hard to sit down and focus. This is where making deals with yourself can be extremely helpful. I had this blog on my mind for days but resisted getting started. Once I started, the words flowed and it was easy and enjoyable to write. The key was that I promised to take a break and get a snack after I wrote a first rough draft.
You can do this with any task and any reward. Do you procrastinate about that report you really should write but find yourself checking Twitter instead? Perhaps you can commit to the outline or rough draft and then treat yourself to something you love.
#7 – Be Kind and Patient
Now more than ever we need to find opportunities to be kind and patient with ourselves and with others. We need to think of and simultaneously care for ourselves and others; to balance me and we.
#8 – Do What You Can with Your Physical Environment
For many of us, our physical environment is going to impact our productivity. We may find our college students home with us and trying to take online classes in the living room. We may find our home noisier and more occupied 24 x 7. Here are some things you can try:
- Set agreements – You may have to negotiate who uses what space for what purpose during what hours, or, who will take care of meals, or “quiet hours”, or childcare hours. Better to discuss upfront than to silently rage “there they go again!” as your roommate cranks that song they really love or leaves a mess in the kitchen sink.
- Avoid Mixing Sleep and Workspaces – For some, they need a distinct place to work that is separate from where they sleep. Most experts agree that you should not take your laptop into bed.
- Move things around – You may have to use your home space differently or move some things around for people to be productive.
#9 – Read or Listen to the Classics
I had a chance recently to listen to the audiobook “The Call of the Wild” and read the autobiographies of Harry Truman and Winston Churchill. These are stories of adversity and challenge and how the protagonist rose to meet those challenges.
Those classics and true-life stories are probably going to be more helpful to you in a pandemic than binge-watching “The Walking Dead” or watching the movie “Contagion”.
#10 – Go Out Into Nature
If it is safe and possible, go outside and be in nature. A walk through the park or the woods on a sunny day is rejuvenating for me.
This has the added benefit that you might get some sunshine. Sunshine has incredible health benefits in addition to providing Vitamin D. Take in the beauty that our world has to offer.
#11 – Think Abundantly and be Grateful
If we look for scarcity and survival, we will find it. If we look for abundance, we will see find that instead.
You probably have enough toilet paper and hand sanitizer, even though the news may indicate otherwise. And this will keep our amygdala on a constant state of high alert, as if we are under a death threat.
So focus instead on the abundance. We can simply look around and notice what is in abundance in your life. Time with family. Food. Clean air. Sunshine. Conversations. Hope.
You can couple abundance with gratitude as well to get a bonus. I am grateful for a hot cup of coffee this morning. I am grateful to be able to walk outside. Etc.
#12 – Use the Serenity Prayer
And finally, I would like to remind you of the serenity prayer which is entirely applicable in a situation like this.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I want to change the things that I can and not worry too much about those things that I cannot change. Stephen Covey’s classic book described a similar idea in the circle of concern vs. circle of control. Let’s focus on those things that are inside our circle of control.
Bottom Line – Stay Focused and Productive
As I said at the start, I ignored what I already knew about these things and burned myself out badly. I am rebuilding slowly. I hope my example and these action steps can help you to stay on top of your game and remain productive through what promises to be a challenging time.
Remember that this too shall pass, it always does.
PS: If you are interested in learning more about emotional intelligence, you check out my archives on the EQ for PM site, take my Prodevia Distance Learning Course or buy my book Emotional Intelligencer for Project Managers.