How to Focus, Be Productive and Maintain Balance During a Crisis

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First and foremost, coronavirus is a health crisis. If you or someone in your family gets sick, fairly much everything else will take a back seat until you are through this part.

Health crisis or not, the other problems have piled up for many people:

  • Most everyone is struggling financially. Losing your job, your business, your retirement savings, your house, your dreams that depend on money…all disasters in their own right.
  • Maintaining social distancing and the worry that comes with this crisis will be challenging for most, but it will be debilitating for some, all the way to life-threatening as anxiety and depression grab hold.
  • Even if you can work from home, can you physically do that? Do you have the right technology? Childcare? Eldercare? Environment? 

For those who know my family, you know we’ve been through this before. We lived at Boston Children’s Hospital with our son, Ari, for years, eventually losing him to complications from a heart transplant. At the same time, we had no choice but to try to work while living in a cardiac intensive care unit (of necessity…we couldn’t lose our health insurance), and then lost our house to mold damage in the middle of the worst time. 

Nothing about that was easy. Nothing about this is easy.

However, we learned a few things about how to cope and keep things going in a prolonged health and financial crisis. We had to be productive in tough times or even more parts of our lives would fall apart for us. (This might feel familiar right now.)

In conversations with dozens of folks fighting through this, people tend to agree on the following. If you are working, be extremely productive. You should get everything done that you can in the time that you work, so you can have time for everything and everyone else.

  • Prioritize. If you are going to work, you need to prioritize and get the right things done.
  • Focus. Keep your mind on the task at hand, get it done as fast as possible and don’t get pulled away.
  • Don’t burn out. Work the amount that you should, then stop and live life. Then, when you get back to work, have fuel in the tank to keep making a difference on important priorities. 

Sounds great, but here’s what’s happening to people:

6:32 a.m. First phone check, intending to look for five minutes, but turns into 30.

7:02 a.m. See text that childcare provider can’t make it. You lose care for the day for your two little ones.

7:45 a.m. Everyone has breakfast and is ready for the day. You and your spouse, who both need to work, split the childcare duties and make a plan. You get to work from now until 10 a.m.

8:00 a.m. You get to your desk. One more reflex-like news check. 

8:22 a.m. How did you lose 22 minutes already? Ok, back to it. Email check before getting the big project started.

9:07 a.m. Email closed. That was only supposed to be a 10-minute scan! Ok, now to focus on my big project.

9:12 a.m. Project just gets moving and…quick news check. (Why did you open a browser?)

9:27 a.m. Ugh! Must…focus…on…project! And…ding! Text from mom…

You get the idea. 

You try to work. You try to focus. You lose the time to external and internal distractions. Then you feel behind, get anxious and tell yourself you should have done this, or should have done that. Since you didn’t, you feel like a failure.

How to focus during a crisis

If this sounds like you, here’s what you can do. Start with getting your mind in a good place. If you don’t, no hack or tactic will help. 

First, forgive yourself now. Stop all that failure thinking and say something positive to yourself. This is one of the most challenging crises any of us have ever faced. We’re going to have ups and downs. 

Second, focus on now. Forget what just happened. That’s in the past. Too much thinking about the past and you tempt depression. Too much worry about the future and you tempt anxiety. 

Now, for the tactics to help you prioritize, focus, and avoid burn out.

  1. Morning Routine. Getting the day started off on the wrong foot is a slippery slope that can linger all day. Instead, start your day off right. The Extreme Productivity Morning Routine will help.
    • Read your objectives. Make sure you know what you want to do for the day and read it out loud. This will help clarify what you need to do and reinforce your intent to do it.
    • Ask, “How’s my mindset?” If it’s not in a good place, focus here first! Perhaps you can’t get in the perfect spot, and really, who can, but you at least need to feel good enough to dive into work and leave the rest behind for short stints. 
    • Ask, “Will I?” for critical tasks. Research has proven that if you ask yourself questions and answer them for critical tasks, you’re more likely to do them. For example, it’s better to ask, “Will I finish the Jones proposal?” and answer, “Yes,” versus just telling yourself to do it.
    • Ask, “How will I be better than yesterday?” This one needs no explanation, but only pick one thing.
    • Start with your Greatest Impact Activity (GIA). Know what is most important for the day and start there.
  2. TIME Sprint. TIME Sprinting is a timeboxing technique that helps you focus on one activity at a time to the exclusion of others. There are only three guidelines to Sprint:
    1. Work obsessively on a planned task only for 20 to 90 minutes with a visual stopwatch on, counting up. If you reach 90 minutes, take a break.
    2. Relay: Perform four TIME Sprints in a row (like a relay race) with up to six-minute breaks in between. Each four sprint-in-a-row sequence is a relay.
    3. Block distraction by keeping a distraction capture list. If you feel a distraction, don’t task switch. Write it down and keep sprinting. 

Distractions are like the wind. It’s rarely completely calm. Usually, there is a breeze with intermittent gusts. Right now, the baseline for most people is a tropical storm, with hurricane gusts. 

Sprinting calms the wind down to a standstill for brief periods of time. Sprinting is the key to getting in the zone, the place where you have extreme focus and productivity. And, as a byproduct, getting in the zone feels good, and we all need some of that right now. If you want to get in the zone, put on a stopwatch, focus on one thing, and don’t task switch. 

3. Say No. Some people I know are burning out. Don’t let that happen. There’s enough going on that people think, “I can fix this. I can power through. I can beat this coronavirus and the economy single-handedly.” Maybe you can, but I can’t. I tried. I failed. I know. 

For our families, our businesses, and for us, ourselves, we need to keep the fuel in the tank for what will likely turn out to be a marathon, not a sprint. At some point, we all need to stop working. Read. Play. Watch TV. Do something for yourself. This is no time to burn the candle at both ends. We all need to take Treasured TIME to keep ourselves going. 

What helps many people here is the realization that there’s always more to do that seems like it needs doing. If it’s truly an emergency – if you’re a healthcare worker literally saving lives with every waking minute – this may be true. (And I thank you wholeheartedly for your service and gifts to us all.) 

For those of us trying to keep work afloat, trying to keep ourselves and others in jobs, trying to balance crazy homes in a crazy time: if we fall apart, we can’t help anyone. 

Take some time for yourself and set boundaries so you can give what’s needed to everyone else, and yourself. This might go on for a while. 

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