9th April, 2020

How are your concentration levels at the moment? Are you finding it harder than usual to clear your to-do list? Perhaps you’re making a few more simple errors than usual? You aren’t alone. Even for people who already work from home, these are strange and challenging times, and we’re already well-versed in the realities (and associated distractions) of home-based working.

Life isn’t ‘business as usual’ at the moment; every news bulletin provides an update on the number of people in hospital with COVID-19, and announcements of the latest ‘big name in business’ to fall victim to the crisis (not to mention the thousands of small businesses who are already struggling).  We’re allowed a short walk or run every day to put some distance between ourselves and our workplaces, but even these can be fraught with anxiety and frustration, whether you’re just trying to maintain social distancing or have been challenged aggressively by a fellow member of the public whilst out for your daily permitted exercise, despite closely following government guidelines. And don’t get me started on the weekly supermarket visit for necessities…

The link between economic or pandemic crises and mental health is well documented[1], so if you are feeling distracted or ‘low’ recently, the most important thing to do is cut yourself a little slack.  Almost everyone I speak to has experienced moments of this over the last few weeks, so you are most definitely not alone.  And though you may want to curl up in a ball and hibernate until August, I have found that some simple planning activities can really help during challenging times.

One resource that I have found invaluable in my employed and self-employed life (both during ‘normal’ life and now in lockdown too) is Steven Covey’s book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.  In his book, he splits tasks into 4 quadrants based on whether they are urgent, not urgent, important or not important, and stresses the fact that productivity really isn’t about getting MORE done, it’s about getting the right things done.

Most of us when planning what to do in a day, look to ‘what is the most urgent task?’. That is entirely normal – the boss needs a sales meeting ASAP with a potential client, you need to unravel a clash with meetings/calls for tomorrow and so on. These are both important and urgent. But there are other things we know to be important from a health and wellbeing perspective too, like going for a walk, reading a book or even just taking a few deep breaths to calm and centre yourself.  In addition, home-schooling (if you’ve got children at home with you) and making sure you call your family members to check in with them aren’t necessarily urgent but are vital at the current time for not just your own wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of the people around you.  So, if you’ve just got ‘essential work tasks’ on your to-do list, make sure to add in ‘vital’ tasks for your own sanity and wellbeing too, and try to give them the same level of importance that you do your client/work tasks.

Once you’ve addressed your task list, the next thing to focus on is how to actually find the time (and focus!) to do all the things. I recently wrote a blog on the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ (you can find it here: https://www.personallyvirtual.co.uk/blog/86-why-i-have-a-ticking-tomato-on-my-desk.htm), a time and productivity tool that breaks your day down into handy, bitesize and terribly manageable 25-minute distraction-free chunks, broken up with 5 minute active breaks (to make a cuppa, check on the dogs, put a load of washing on, etc.).  By using the Pomodoro Technique, when you sit down to work in the morning the day doesn’t stretch out in front of you as one, long, mammoth work session, but as perfectly do-able mini-sessions, some of which can easily be devoted to ‘things that keep you sane/happy’, without you feeling guilty about spending huge amounts of time on non-work based tasks (which you shouldn’t feel guilty about anyway as they are, as we have established, vital tasks for your own wellbeing!).

And if some of those 25-minute chunks seem overwhelming (in terms of the mind-numbing boredom associated with them, or because it’s a task that you genuinely loathe), why not try a bit of ‘temptation bundling’? The idea was introduced by Dr Katherine Milkman in 2014, and refers to using something you really want to persuade yourself to do something less fun, for example, having a slice of cake whilst you’re doing the filing, or tidying your inbox whilst listening to your guilty pleasure podcast.  The trick is that you ONLY get the good thing while you’re doing the dull thing and you have to do the two at the same time. Trust me, it helped me decorate my entire house over Christmas last year (thanks to the complete Sherlock Holmes boxset…).

What are you doing at the moment to try and keep your productivity, motivation levels and morale high? Whatever you are up to, take care and stay safe!

For example - Uutela, A., 2010. Economic crisis and mental health. Current opinion in psychiatry23(2), pp.127-130. Also Douglas, P.K., Douglas, D.B., Harrigan, D.C. and Douglas, K.M., 2009. Preparing for pandemic influenza and its aftermath: mental health issues considered. International journal of emergency mental health11(3), p.137.



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