Up until about three months ago, I was optimistic that 2020 was going to be an incredible year. Both my personal and professional lives were on the upswing, I had exciting trips planned, and I felt healthier and more productive than I had in years.
Then, the pandemic changed everything.
With so much uncertainty, it’s understandable that we’re more anxious and stressed than ever before. I think many of us have a new outlook on life. Why did we burn ourselves out at work when we could have been spending that time with loved ones or doing things that bring us joy?
Suffice to say, it shouldn’t be surprising that productivity has taken a major dive during the pandemic. In fact, data from Aternity, a digital experience management company, found that in the U.S., there’s been a 7.2 percent decline in productivity.
But there’s a silver lining here — there are ways to counter this decline.
Is Everything Really a Priority?
“Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it,” wrote Justin EH Smith, a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Paris, in an essay published in The Point magazine. “You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice.”
That really struck me. Like so many other people, the pandemic has made me realize that not everything is a priority. That’s been helpful in not only staying productive, but also in maintaining my own well-being in these turbulent times.
Instead of worrying about trivial items, I’m only focusing on my three most critical tasks for the day. These are the important things that will move the needle closer to my goals. I then make them nonnegotiable by adding them to my calendar so I don’t fill those time slots with anything else.
Because I’m only focused on three items, I still have the flexibility to spend quality time with my family and engage in healthy self-care. As for everything else? I either schedule it for a later time, delegate it, or delete it from my to-do list.
While a daily routine can get redundant, it also provides much-needed structure. This is especially true during stressful times, when routines are often abruptly disrupted.
“When people don’t have a routine or structure to their day it can cause increased stress and anxiety, as well as overwhelming feelings, lack of concentration, and focus,” explains Dr. Rachel Goldman, psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
The good news is that it’s possible to establish a new routine — even during a pandemic. The first step is strengthening your resilience through meditation, revisiting your goals, and focusing only on what you can control.
After that, try following usual patterns. For example, if you started your day by checking your messages, reviewing your calendar, and then diving into work, continue in that order — even if it’s not on the exact same day.
You can also reset your routine by adopting a consistent work schedule, taking breaks around your energy levels, and setting up a dedicated workspace.
Rethink Your Mornings
Every successful person has a morning routine. Why? Because it sets the rest of her day up for success. For example, if you don’t plan and organize your day in the morning, how will you know what needs to be accomplished as the day goes on?
How else should you spend your mornings? Exercise, a healthy breakfast, and setting daily affirmations and intentions are all worth trying. Reading, writing in a gratitude journal, and practicing mindfulness could also be included.
A recent addition that I came across on the Harvard Extension School Blog is having a house or family meeting so you can coordinate schedules, share plans, and manage everyone’s expectations.
Develop Laser-like Focus
Between working from home and wanting to stay updated on the latest news, it’s never been easier to let distractions come between you and your productivity. One way to combat this is by enhancing your focus.
If you’ve prioritized your list and set up a schedule, you’re on the right track. However, I also suggest that you avoid multitasking and minimize distractions. That’s often easier said than done. But turning off your phone and working in a quiet place are proven techniques. I would also schedule blocks of time for household chores so your mind doesn’t wander.
I’ve also found that during breaks, taking a walk outside clears my head. I leave my phone behind so I have a reprieve from technology.
Schedule Regular Check-ins
If you’re worked remotely for years, I don’t have to tell you about the drawbacks — mainly the isolation. But that’s a recent phenomenon for a lot of us. In fact, according to one study, 19 percent of remote workers reported loneliness as their biggest struggle. Considering that research shows that loneliness and social isolation can be “twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity,” that’s cause for concern.
What’s more, according to research from Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, working from home may get in the way of innovation and keeping teams focused and motivated. “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation,” he says. “The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth.”
The solution to both concerns? Schedule frequent video calls. It’s a simple and effective way for teams to check in with each other, socialize, brainstorm ideas, and collaborate on projects together.
It’s OK to Do Nothing
“There’s a huge push of people thinking that because we are home right now, we can be productive and that we’re all going to be able to stay as focused as we were a month or so ago,” says productivity expert Racheal Cook to The Washington Post. “But that’s just not the case.”
“We are going through a collective trauma experience,” adds Cook. “Anxiety is up, depression is up. From a productivity standpoint, it’s challenging, because we’re navigating these huge emotional hurdles with an uncertainty that most of us have never really experienced in our lifetime.”
In addition, many of us are homeschooling our children, caring for elderly family members, helping the community any way we can, and still adjusting to new schedules. We’re also experiencing Zoom fatigue, taking up new hobbies, and worrying about the future of our businesses. That doesn’t exactly help improve productivity or performance.
If possible, Cook suggests doing nothing to counter this.
“Everyone’s situation is different,” Cook says, “but if that’s an option for you — if you don’t have to work or you want to spend time with your family at home or if you can scale back and just take some pressure off a bit — go for it.”
She explains that we’re at a point where foundational self-care is one of the first things people should implement to ensure that when things settle down, we can be productive because we didn’t just plow through. She says, “We need to be sure we’re doing things that will help us navigate this not just from a productivity standpoint but from a human standpoint.”
Ultimately, if you want to remain productive during the COVID-19 pandemic, you really need to rethink your priorities so you’re working smarter, not harder. This is the time to focus on your health and well-being so you can come out the other side stronger.