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Why Is It So Hard to Get Work Done During Challenging Times?

Two messages our brain is telling us which may be holding us back.

Katie Moum/Unsplash
Navigating challenging times
Source: Katie Moum/Unsplash

Our mind is an incredibly powerful processing center. In uncertain times such as those we are currently living in, the mind continues to do what it does best—think, process, and churn out what-if scenarios. However, the busy mind is an enemy to the calm mind, and a busy mind can keep us in a constant state of anxiety.

I do not mean to suggest that we should not feel any anxiety right now—we are indeed living in uncertain and unprecedented times. But our busy minds may be subconsciously reinforcing some key messages to us, and these messages are likely contributing to even higher levels of anxiety and stress.

Below, I discuss two of these key messages and suggest helpful and practical tips to reframe these messages. When we reframe these messages, we will be able to work through challenging times, and ensure those around us can as well.

Our brain is saying: everything is different.

It may seem as if almost everything has changed. The leisure activities we once enjoyed—such as watching sports and going to the movie theater—are unavailable to us; we are working from home and perhaps juggling work and family responsibilities throughout the day; containment of COVID-19 hinges on our full embracing of social distancing which may contribute to our feelings of isolation, and our sense of financial security has been reduced as businesses close their doors and thousands of employees are out of work, not to mention the toll financial markets have taken on retirement plans.

However, the key is to re-write this narrative—yes, our current environment is quite different, but we must focus on what is the same. Namely, what is important to us, what we value, and what we stand for have not changed, and we must remember to focus on these things. If we focus on these underlying values, then the outward manifestations of how we work, how we spend our free time, and how we interact with others can be adapted to retain the original values we hold dear. This is similar in concept to Steven Covey’s third step of highly effective people—putting first things first. We must first ensure we take care of what matters most to us before we move on to addressing the other details.

In times of challenge, we must return to a focus on what we most value—such as quality time with people, family, learning, or exercising. Once we have focused again on these underlying values that are important to us, we can begin the work of adapting the how to reinforce these values within our current context.

For example, if we highly value quality time with others, we can establish a daily practice of reaching out to others via phone or video call to check in with them and connect. If we highly value physical exercise as a pillar in our life, we can take up running or walking outside, jump-roping, or utilize many of the fitness apps that bring fitness routines and classes to our smart devices. Yes, the "how" might change (i.e., we may exercise in front of our TVs instead of at the gym), but the "what" does not need to change.

While our brain may be focused on the changes that have occurred recently in our lives, focusing intentionally on what has stayed the same is empowering. It also reinforces the creation of new routines and structures that maintain our overarching values and provide the consistency we need to work through challenging times.

Our brain is saying: I need to do things perfectly.

In times of uncertainty, we often get overwhelmed and don’t know what to focus on. As our routines change and we have to shift our behaviors or even the day-to-day tasks that we do, we end up spending a lot of time “preparing” to do the tasks that need to get done rather than actually doing them. And we also spend a lot of time switching between tasks, perhaps nudging each of our tasks forward toward completion, but not tackling any of them in a disciplined or intentional way.

The result is that we feel that we are not accomplishing as much as we should be which adds to our feelings of anxiety and further contributes to our perception of a lack of control. For example, as educators move toward virtual instruction, the choice of which technology tools and platforms to use represents an important issue to consider, but the tendency may be to over-focus on which tools to use rather than to remember the overarching goal of ensuring students feel connected and engaged with the subject matter. This reinforces the first discussion point above—we must remember to focus on the what and avoid the urge to get too caught up in the how.

In uncertain times, exhaustively considering all the ways to move forward is paralyzing—indeed, it creates an “analysis paralysis” situation. Rather, we should focus on “satisficing” or evaluating our options and pressing forward with our best at the given moment. By ensuring we are not so focused on perfection that we further add anxiety to our lives when we don’t make any decisions, we keep our work moving and regain some control over the sense of uncertainty we feel.

The take-home lesson is that in times of uncertainty, we need to focus on what hasn’t changed—namely our underlying values and what we care about. We need to repeatedly direct our attentional energy on reinforcing these values and not getting caught up in figuring out how best to proceed, but rather that we proceed. We need to focus on the core of what matters to us and our work, be kind to ourselves in the process, and get tasks done—by putting these three together, we have a formula for higher levels of well-being during challenging times.

 Matt Flores/Unsplash
Re-focusing on what matters
Source: Matt Flores/Unsplash

Here are some final tips to put this content into action:

  • Block out some time in the morning that is only for you, and don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of this time. During this time, remind yourself of what’s important to you and think through how you can reinforce these values throughout the day even as your surroundings and context might have changed. At the end of the day, reflect on how you did with regard to acting on these values and make a plan to improve tomorrow.
  • Remind yourself of times in the past in which you successfully worked through challenging situations. How can focusing on what hasn’t changed (i.e., your past successes and your underlying values) help you meet the challenges of today?
  • Commit some time to focusing on how you can shift from a mindset of getting tasks done perfectly, to getting tasks done and keeping them moving. Forward progress and gaining some “wins” is vital for us to overcome feelings of anxiety because it contributes to our feelings of control.

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