March 17, 2020
We are in an odd place in academic medicine. We are ‘working from home’ on all of our research and administrative work, yet also gearing up to be fully ready to answer the call on the clinical side.
Nothing is normal and there really is less time, less space, and less focus with all of the upheaval.
I want to share some strategies if you are with me in this soup:
Decide IF you want to work at all. Seriously. After a day of calling and cancelling patients, for example – I had nothing left. Working on academic things held no interest. I went home, had wine, chocolate and binged Netflix (show: Next in Fashion…I won’t spoil it, but you MUST watch the final runway). Every day you have this choice. Slow down, ask yourself the question, and make a conscious decision. If you decide not to work, don’t binge social media – skip down to #6 below instead. If you decide to work, don’t fight reality. Move on to step #2.
Start now with assuming you have no more that 60% of your usual capacity ( or 25%, or even 10%). Then, before you start working, cut your to-do list down by the same %. Just follow the math. Cut the bottom 40% (or 75%…or 90%) off. If you don’t – and you try to squeeze 100% in 60%, you *create* overwhelm. And the most common reaction to overwhelm? Paralysis. Start with drastically limiting your productivity goals, so that you can actually get started. Between time taken by COVID activities and the brain fog from the global anxiety, I am definitely at lowered capacity. I put all of my lower priority items on pause or cancelled them. I put it in writing to make it real. I gave myself a starting chance.
Yesterday I had nearly 6 hours – almost a full day. Today I have 2 hours and no childcare. What has helped me is not to freak out or resist either. Because of the cutting from #2 above, yesterday felt generous and I was able to work without pressure. Because of #2 above, today feels reasonable because there’s only 1 thing I am aiming to do. Assess the day realistically and claim whatever time you have to be free of scrolling headlines, commiserating about the chaos, or any other time-wasting activity that is not helping you work. Those things are not just taking your precious time away, they are creating more anxiety and proof that you ‘can’t work.’ This will be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you let it. Choose not to. Instead, side-step that negative spiral with #4.
When time gets constrained, our minds are drawn towards quick wins – something to prove we are still doing *something*. The problem is that these are often small menial tasks for work that is not critical at the moment and leave the big goal (a paper, a grant, an analysis, what have you) untouched. Don’t assume you can’t write or code or analyze data. Open up the document and give your fingers a chance to start typing. Try turning on dictation mode and talk out loud to get the juices flowing. If all else fails, start with small tasks *within your high priority project* to get going, then when momentum catches, switch immediately to the writing or analyzing that takes more mental focus. I start within my top priority work – the stuff that aligns with my values, is inspired by my purpose, and move me closer to all of my career goals. Why? Because this is the work I love – doing this work is why it feels good to work and not scroll about the surrounding chaos. If you are going to work during this time, make it tied to the work that *matters* to you.
Say and believe this: I will do the best work that I can within the time I have. I will start working even if it feels slow or hard or just ‘off’ and see what happens.’ Then don’t do anything but start working on your priority project. No ‘quick, small thing’ first. This approach has now worked several times for me during this upheaval – know that the momentum WILL come and just commit to getting started. If you just get started, you will keep going. Remember this is when you have *chosen* to work and want to be productive. When you need rest, REST.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are not going back to normal any time soon. What adjustments will soothe and support you? Do you need to carve out alone time that you usually get from working in your office? Do it. Do you need to be on audio only calls because it’s too exhausting to be on video for the 3rd or 4th hours that day? Turn your camera off. Is your home ‘desk’ char a kitchen stool? Order a new chair!
Energy is infinite but it must be renewed. What refills your mental cup? Your physical energy? Your emotional wellbeing? Your sensory needs? Apply liberally.
And *please limit your screen/scrolling time*! It is terrible, highly addictive, anxiety provoking behavior. You can stay engaged and informed without being attached to the next awful headline. Give your brain a break.
I deeply hope this was helpful. It’s 6:30am in Seattle, WA and the kids are about to wake up and take over my day.
Love y’all, take care, be kind to yourselves, and enjoy the work that you can in the time that you have.