How to Stay Productive When the World Is on Fire
It feels impossible stay productive and get anything done right now. Here’s how to keep your head above water—without falling into the busy trap.
BETWEEN A GLOBAL pandemic keeping many of us at home and a constant stream of videos of police brutality, political corruption, and Twitter hacks, it’s pretty difficult to stay focused on any one thing. It feels like the world is burning, and yet somehow we’re all expected to keep doing our jobs, keep showing up every day, and keep everything together. First of all, you’re doing a great job—I’m proud of you. Second, if you need a little help keeping it together, let me see what I can do.
Some of these tips will focus on people with access to technology while they work—those of us who work in front of screens all day also have access to a tool to offload our brains a bit and remind us when we need to do a thing, like take a break or get a glass of water. But even if that thing is just a phone in your pocket or a timer on your watch, there’s a lot of things you can do to try and both accomplish your goals and care for your personal well-being.
Take Breaks. Lots of Them
It may sound counterintuitive, but taking breaks is actually key to stay productive. After all, the law of diminishing returns applies to us while we’re working too. The harder and longer you press yourself to stay productive, the less productive overall you’ll be.
There’s plenty of data to back this up. Back in 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois pointed out that brief diversions vastly improve focus. The findings have been duplicated several times, to the point where remembering to take breaks to stay productive. Researchers at the University of Melbourne even suggested that when you do take a break, getting outside into some nature is your best bet.
Why does it work this way? Elizabeth Grace Saunders, an author and time management coach, explains. “Our brain can only handle a certain mental load before it starts to slow down and seek relief,” she says in an email. “This is particularly true when we’re doing work that we find mentally draining. It’s important that we take time for intentional breaks such as getting up and stretching, getting water, going on a quick 5- to 10-minute walk, or doing something else rejuvenating before we’re completely mentally exhausted. If we don’t, we’ll end up taking ‘unintentional’ breaks like surfing the internet or getting sucked into our phone because we’re searching for relief.”
It’s also important to take those breaks before you’re drained, she says. “According to research cited in this article, if you take more frequent breaks before you’re mentally exhausted, you can recover more quickly. But if you don’t take breaks, then you end up needing a much longer one to recover.”
So what should you do on your break? Consider a walk around the office or even your apartment. Maybe use it as an excuse to stay hydrated and fill up your water bottle. Saunders suggests journaling or a quick walk around the block before you come back and start in again.
Set (and Enforce) Your Personal Boundaries
If you’re working remotely, even part of the time, you’ve probably already struggled with trying to get your work done while taking care of yourself and your household. Some people are dealing with work and children at the same time, some of us are just trying to keep on top of a new world of household duties, now that we’re all inside all the time.
All of that would be easier to deal with if we didn’t also have to deal with our jobs intruding on our personal lives. Our days start earlier and end later than ever, if they end at all. You’ve probably gotten your share of after-hours Slack pings and emails you have to respond to late at night or before your day really starts.
That’s why it’s even more important to set your personal boundaries, so you have dedicated time to take care of yourself and your needs, the needs of your family or household, and of course, your professional responsibilities. You won’t be any good to your family if you’re constantly jumping up to respond to work, and you won’t be energized for work in the morning if you’ve been up all night responding to after-hours emails. So how do you set those boundaries?
“Yes, this is a much bigger struggle for many, especially if there are a lot more people at home throughout the day,” Saunders says. “The key to success is deciding on expectations and then communicating those to others. For example, many of my coaching clients have had to work with their spouses to come up with an agreement of when they’re working and not working, or on who is responsible for the children at different times of day throughout the week. And even if you don’t have anyone else in your residence, you need to get clear in your mind of when you would like to be working and not working.” Perhaps you dedicate a space in your home as the “office” or “working space,” and when you’re there, you communicate to everyone else that you need privacy or need to be left alone. It’s also important for each of us personally to decide when during the day we’re “on” and when we’re “off,” so you can fully dedicate yourself to what you’re doing at any given moment—whether that’s a big project at work or dinner with your spouse—without worrying about what you’re missing out on elsewhere.
“Then once you’ve decided on those boundaries, communicate them to the relevant people in your life. That could look like talking to your spouse and kids about when you’re available, or communicating with your roommates or friends,” Saunders explains. “Also, you need to set boundaries with people at work. If possible, stay away from work email and texts on the times when you are “off,” such as after you wrap up for the evening or from 6 to 9 pm on weeknights if you plan to hop back on your computer before going to bed. Just because you’re not out doing things doesn’t mean you always need to be available for work.”
Use Technology to Help You
A lot of these tips sound like they need willpower, and that’s a big ask considering we’re all tired, essentially traumatized, and just trying to get through the day the best we can. That’s where technology comes in: We all have the tools in our pockets and on our desks to help us; we just have to use them the right way.
For example, consider using your phone’s built-in alarm for simple things, like when you should take a break, or give yourself a reminder to eat lunch, if you’re like me and often forget to eat. I even have alarms to remind me to get up and stretch, or take my eyes off the screen and look out the window to reduce eyestrain.
Taking things a step further, if you find it difficult to work, then take breaks, and then come back to work. Consider a productivity method like the Pomodoro technique, which is built around the idea of working deeply on a specific task for about 25 minutes, taking a short break—about five minutes or so—afterward, and then working again for another 25-minute session. Each of those sessions is called a Pomodoro, and after four of these cycles, take a longer, 20- to 30-minute break before coming back and starting the process over again. The Promodoro technique is popular among developers, designers, and others who engage in regular deep work. Feel free to adjust the timing to match your work and style, if it works for you at all.
Best of all, there’s an entire cottage industry of Pomodoro apps for smartphones and computers to help you remember when to work and when to take a break. Pomodoro Tracker and Marinara Timer both work on the web, and ToMighty is a free cross-platform, downloadable app you can use in Mac OS or Windows. While the built-in timer on your phone will definitely work, if you want something set up already, consider PomoDone, which has free apps for iOS and Android (as well as desktop apps.)
While we’re talking about using technology to tell you when to focus and when to take breaks, don’t forget to use that same technology to suppress notifications and distractions while you’re working and when you’re off of work. Turn off those Slack notifications after work hours, and enable Do Not Disturb mode so you (and your coworkers) know you’re unavailable. We have more tips to silence all of your devices so you can enjoy your personal time here.
Meter Your Media Intake and Spend Time With Loved Ones
The last thing we want to suggest is that you be less informed about everything going on outside your door, but there’s definitely a point where the bad news can wait, and where you may be spending more time engrossed in that news than is healthy.
Karen Ho, global finance and economics reporter at Quartz, extremely online person (and a good friend,) popularized the term “doomscrolling” to describe those moments when we find ourselves endlessly reading social media or the news, jumping from one traumatic story to the next without giving ourselves time and space to take care of our mental health.
I asked her how she reconciles staying informed with how easy it can be to get overwhelmed, and she explained: “It’s important to take a step back and really think about what ‘staying informed’ means. Am I trying to get specific information about a news topic or figure out what several people are angry about online and ruminating in those emotions? Is there a trusted news source or two I can go to instead of scrolling through social media for updates?”
When I mentioned that people have resonated with her doomscrolling alerts, she said a lot of it has do with how she reminds us to stop. “I try to keep the message simple and relatively consistent. I work hard to avoid sounding mean, aggressive, or patronizing. I take a lot of cues from Tabitha Brown, Jonathan Sun’s Tiny Care Bot, and Josh Gondelman‘s pep talks. I think a lot of people are aimlessly searching for some sort of clarity about the current moment online and in their social media feeds. And the word is easily understood by most people who see it, even for the first time.”
For many of us, the habit of doomscrolling crept up on us without our noticing. “So many of us massively increased our news intake in March, and then we realized that the only way we were going to be less anxious and stay sane was to start detaching from it,” Saunders explains.
“I unsubscribed from having the news sent to my email and have no phone alerts so that I wouldn’t see the news until I went and looked for it.” Saunders also reminds us to put the news in perspective: that while terrible things are indeed happening around us, all we can do is take whatever protective measures we can and look out for those closest to us. In short, do what you can and focus on what you can do—don’t overextend yourself.
Part of the solution is to practice a little self-compassion to push back that urge to always be in-the-know. “I try to remind myself that I’m doing the best job I can to be informed, especially about the topics I cover for my job,” Ho explains. “There’s a lot of information masquerading as news that I really don’t need to know. Finally, I try to focus on specific actions I can do, such as donating money, helping others, reminding myself of my real limits (time, energy, labor) and getting more sleep,” she says.
It’s also important to remember that not all the news is bad news. “I also create my own list of ‘positive headlines,’” Saunders says. “Every time something good happens, I make a specific note of it. For example, two friends who had been unemployed for a year or more found great jobs in the last few weeks. I added that to my phone note of ‘positive news.’ Two friends recently sold their homes for full price and were able to buy new homes they’re really excited about. That goes in the positive news. And so on. I try to make my brain specifically look for, record, and recall the good that is still happening right here, right now.”
Speaking of friends, now is a good time to spend a little extra time with them. Even if you can’t see them physically because they live far away or you’re self-isolating, video chat like Zoom, Hangouts, or FaceTime goes a long way towards making you feel less lonely and less likely to turn to social media for social connection. Many of us have Zoom fatigue at this point, but if you can trade a few work video calls for virtual happy hours with friends, they—and your mental health—will thank you.
Remember, You’re Doing Fine
Finally, just remember: You’re not just trying to stay productive, you’re trying to stay productive while there’s a global pandemic, while dodging the latest political uproar in government, during an election year in the US, in the middle of a modern civil rights movement, and amid a social reckoning on a variety of topics. That’s a lot going on, and a lot for anyone to think about and deal with. If you’ve been productive at all, whether it’s at work or just in your personal life, you deserve a pat on the back.
The goal of productivity is to get the things you have to get done finished so you can spend more time on the things you want to do. Don’t fall into the busy trap, where you judge your self-worth by how productive you are or how much you’ve contributed to your company or manager. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water. I hope these tips will help you do the same.
Read the original article over at Wired.com.