If you’re still struggling to establish a grounded sense of “routine” or “discipline,”, even weeks into quarantine life, you are not alone. Social distancing has a profound mental and emotional toll, both obvious and subtle. Uncertainty about employment or leadership decisions adds extra weight if you’re trying to maintain productivity at home.
It’s extremely normal to feel exhausted and unable to work faster than the speed of molasses. Simply existing in the world right now requires constant, active processing to both get things done, and consciously avoid doing other things (like scrolling through news feeds too much). It may feel like virtual meetings take more cognitive “work” than in-person meetings, and you might often find yourself literally at a loss for words. If you have ADHD or generally struggled with executive function in normal times, familiar challenges like initiating a task, transitioning tasks, or “staying on track” have likely grown new teeth.
Time is becoming a meaningless concept. Your calendar might look like it has plenty of empty space to get things done, but you may feel like it somehow “leaks out” by the end of the day.
Is it realistic to recreate some semblance of a “normal” work environment? What should you expect of your team? How much of your own uncertainty do you share? How do you maintain your executive functioning ability, when you’re drowning in executive fatigue?
In uncertain times, everyone is working with reduced cognitive capacity. We are experiencing a historical period where some percentage of everyone's mental and emotional energy is absorbed by what might happen tomorrow. Nobody is firing on all cylinders.
Effective Covid time management means being honest about what your system can handle, which is less than before. Your new 100% might be your old 75%, or even your old 50%. Regardless of what you think you should be capable of doing right now, looking at your calendar, be brutally honest in this self assessment. Most Americans are roughly a month into quarantining. Use your personal data to figure out your realistic working capacity.
Then, whatever your new 100% is, aim to do only 75% of that (or 50%). 100% burn is never sustainable. Sustainability is essential as we deal with the possibility of extended social distancing.
This emotional, unpredictable time is going to bring a lot of ups and downs. Building in a "buffer zone" for energy and task time will allow you to be more effective and productive in the long run. Conversely, forcing productivity on an empty tank leads to burn out, crashing, and lost productivity as you recoup and get back on your feet.
Most people plan their schedules by looking at available time, and filling it in with to-dos or tasks to complete. While it seems reasonable at first glance, this is a recipe for failure.
Instead of prioritizing, de-prioritize. This means identifying tasks you WON'T do, just as clearly as you identify traditional to-dos.
We usually prioritize by looking at the most important things first, but with a long list of to-dos, focusing on those top priorities lumps everything else together as next-most-important. Even if you aren’t actively paying attention to those tasks, they loom in the back of your mind as a giant “should” cloud, which drains your processing capacity (mental and emotional energy). De-prioritizing helps minimize this background cloud of impending doom and failure, giving you more energy and ease to make progress on your prioritized items.
Keep a record of your de-prioritized items so that you can re-prioritize at a more appropriate or urgent time.
Being actively, explicitly aware of your own patterns of thought and behavior is called metacognition. “I’m procrastinating on responding to this e-mail because I have anxiety about the fact that I have to find 30 minutes of time to research the information and compile it before I can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” Accurately labeling semi-conscious thoughts develops your metacognitive skills, and is the first step to addressing problematic patterns.
Pick the top three and the bottom three tasks on your list. Label the emotion(s) attached as you think about each one of them. Say, write, or think about one sentence that explains why that emotion is attached to that task. “I don’t want to do this task because I know it will require an hour of complete focus and I just haven’t been able to find that kind of space with the kids being home.”
This is a basic mindfulness exercise designed to clarify your emotional load, allowing you to move forward mentally. Engaging mindfully is a function of developing parallel emotional and cognitive skills to move distractions aside and focus on the task at hand, whether it’s action- or people-oriented.
The above principles for individuals apply just as fully in a team setting. As a manager or leader, implement a practice of labeling concerns and challenges that are affecting each individual on your team. Your tone and statements will be the model for how your team communicates. Be intentional about speaking slowly, using pauses, allowing yourself and your team members more time to consider, reflect, and respond. Acknowledge uncertainty and be honest if you don’t know. At the same time, be direct with what you plan to do, and what you are asking others to do. Using concrete, explicit language creates stable moments of communication, even if the world is chaotic.
Lead with humility and humanity. Own up to mistakes and apologize for the confusion, disappointment, or hurt that they caused. Use "I" statements, not "we" or passive voice, to claim personal responsibility for difficult decisions. Use “we” statements to celebrate team successes and acknowledge the efforts that everyone is contributing. (For a great example of this, see this recent press conference with Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot.) There is no right answer these days, but there is great appreciation and respect for leaders who are doing their best and are willing to be honest with a learning-oriented mindset.
If executive function feels like one more thing on your plate that you just can’t figure out right now, reach out and let us know. Our staff of speech-language pathologists, or as we like to call ourselves, "brain engineers" for cognitive skills, is equipped for videoconferencing and ready to help.