Cook says there are a number of things working against the accomplishment of any tasks, so if you feel pulled in multiple directions and are having trouble focusing, it’s completely understandable.
It's difficult to be productive during a crisis
“We are going through a collective trauma experience,” Cook says, referring to the upheaval, fear and grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “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.”
And the time and energy expended on adjusting our entire lives to this new normal — which may mean working from home while assuming the role of home-school teacher, caring for ill family members, sanitizing our groceries and dealing with the fallout of mass layoffs — are magnifying the intense emotions. “None of these things are setting us up for high productivity or high performance,” Cook says.
For some populations, additional stressors, such as job loss, discrimination and access to health care, may amplify anxiety even more, says Bukola Oladunni Salami, a registered nurse, expert on immigrant health and professor at the University of Alberta. “We’ve seen there are some immigrant communities experiencing backlash,” she says. People struggling to survive or afraid that accessing health care could lead to deportation aren’t looking for tips on reorganizing their spice drawers.
Because individual circumstances differ and people process difficult experiences in a variety of ways, psychotherapist Dana Dorfman says, “there’s no ‘right way’ [to get through this], other than allowing yourself to be your own way.”
You are not obligated to accept every live-stream yoga or virtual happy hour invitation. If you’re carrying any guilt about not producing your best work, writing a screenplay, learning to quilt or putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, you have permission to let that go. Dorfman says if you “respect the range of coping styles and view people’s behavior as their way to manage their anxiety, you can feel less judgmental” — of yourself and others.
(If you are overwhelmed with negative emotions, and fear you might want to harm yourself or others, please visit the Disaster Distress Helpline website or call 800-985-5990.)
Being productive can be a coping mechanism
It’s also okay to dive into a household project, pick up a new hobby or sign up for an online course, if that’s what you’re drawn to. “In the throes of something that is so frightening and can be somewhat traumatic, people often funnel their anxiety into productivity,” Dorfman says.
Being productive can be therapeutic in turbulent times, but Dorfman warns that this coping mechanism can be maladaptive in excess. “Be careful not to overextend,” she says. “And do acknowledge what you’re feeling. That doesn’t mean you need to wallow in it, but labeling your feelings — recognizing you’re sad or overwhelmed in some moments — will allow you to function better.”
Although you might have a surge of creative inspiration to complete a Pinterest project and cook a gourmet meal today, don’t be surprised if you feel differently tomorrow. “You’re going to vary. This is a one-day-at-a-time kind of experience,” Dorfman says. “There are going to be days when you’re less focused and more overwhelmed. And that is okay. This is a very stressful time, and you shouldn’t be operating on all four cylinders all the time.”
Both Dorfman and Cook recommend tempering your expectations for the time being. “Start with compassion for yourself,” Cook says, and then extend the same to others. It’s okay to lower the bar right now, “not because we don’t have high standards, but because we understand that during this period, we need to give ourselves a little grace.”
That may mean starting your day with a simple three-point to-do list. “Focus on getting those tasks done, and then give yourself permission for a break,” Cook says. If you’re feeling stuck, take some time to try something new. You don’t need to master everything, she adds; simply doing something different can “activate other parts of your brain and help you think more clearly when you sit back down to work.”
Doing nothing, if possible, is okay, too
Don’t underestimate the power of doing absolutely nothing if the mood strikes you.
“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.”
This could help not just in the present, but also in the future. “We’re at a point where foundational self-care is one of the first things everybody could implement to ensure that when things settle down, when the rubble is cleared a bit, we are able to be productive because we didn’t try to just grind through this whole situation,” 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.”
And in the downtime, don’t be afraid to find joy. “That has reverberating benefits as well,” Dorfman says. “When we feel good or nurtured or feel like we’re discovering things about our relationships or ourselves, that enhances us as human beings and extends to other people. Despite social distancing, we’re all very connected.”
Although there is a tremendous amount of heartbreak and fear right now, it’s okay to experience positive emotions; we probably need them now more than ever. “You can have two very different, seemingly competing feelings” at the same time, Dorfman says. “Enjoying certain moments does not deny that you are also sad, scared, worried or anxious. Allowing yourself some kind of pleasurable, compassionate, loving moments will replenish your emotional inventory, so you are also equipped to help others.”
As Dorfman puts it: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” It may help to even think of this time as a relay; we don’t all have to be running at the same moment. Some people, such as health-care personnel, may need to put their heads down and work for a period, then process feelings later. “If that’s survival mode, that’s acceptable, too,” she says. “When the crisis subsides, when the dust settles a little bit and you find yourself left with the trauma,” it’s not too late to reach out for help or find ways to understand and channel your emotions.
If, on the other hand, you are someone who wants to produce or contribute in some way, but you don’t have the bandwidth right now, there’s no need to push yourself. “There will be time and opportunities to offer support, to do work, to produce . . . not just in the eye of the storm, but in the reverberating experiences later on,” Dorfman says. “We just need to pace ourselves.”
Fitzgerald is a writer and responsible-travel specialist based in Amman, Jordan. Her website is thisissunny.com.