It's the end of the world as we know it and I can't get anything done
June 3, 2020 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I and a lot of other people I know are having difficulty with accomplishing much during this time. This is not the first time of crisis in the world; surely someone has has come up with some ideas at some point.

We text each other about how we can't focus, we're glued to the news/social media, we can't stop crying, we're lonely and worried. No one's getting enough sleep. My car insurance is overdue, but it hardly stands out in the swamp of "stuff I should be doing, should have done 2 months ago really" and I wind up hyper-focusing on a craft project. I don't need to be a star right now, but I want to maintain enough productivity to avoid work problems, and stay on top of my life basics.
posted by bunderful to Work & Money (14 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I feel you hard.

But the fact that you're already in contact with a lot of other people means that you have an advantage, and you may be able to all collectively help each other. Try this:

* Start small. Each of you pick out one thing that absolutely has to get done, and then pick one other person on the group to hold you accountable to it. Like, you ask Sid to remind you to send in your car insurance payment, Lucy asks you to remind her of the doctor bills, Sid asks Lucy to remind him that he needs to get a birthday card for his niece. Stuff like that - just one thing.
* Then, you check in with each other once a day about the thing you were supposed to remind each other about. Of course, there should be no shaming if anyone hasn't done their thing yet, just a daily reminder that "hey, just checking if you've sent out the car insurance payment yet."
* If any of you finally does The Thing, then you can ask your reminder-person to remind you of something else you have to do and repeat.

The reason why I think this might work is: right now what is making us feel all flaily is that we feel so helpless, and giving each other a task to do that will let them help another person will a) take you all outside of yourselves for a minute, and b) do something concrete that will help another person at a time when we need to put more good in the world ("I can't solve racism, but dammit, I can help Sid remember to send his niece a birthday card!")

Also, I was kinda on the receiving end of this way back in the 9/11 aftermath, when it was my cat's repeated daily reminders that "hey, you need to feed me" that helped pull me out of the "the world is burning" funk. Having the outside reminder to tend to life stuff helped, even if it was coming from a cat.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:09 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]

A thing you can do is compartmentalize your engagement. When I need to do work, I put my phone in another room and I actually put it in a sock because if I walk through the room and see it, I'll pick it up. Pulling it out of a stupid sock gives me a moment to reflect on what I'm doing. I put a blocker on my browser that blocks three things - metafilter (sorry!), Facebook, and Twitter. I use it to set a "nuclear option" which blocks my 3 productivity killers (and anxiety makers) for a period of time. If I don't do these two things, I won't/can't focus.

Truthfully, we can catch up and donate to causes and respond to these issues on a daily basis at a set time. There's too much information and it actually is *not* productive to keep up with all of it. Our anxious brains make it feel like it is productive but it is not. Start by forcing some media-free time and let yourself do whatever you need to do. Self-care. Work. Craft. Clean. Get a piece of paper and start writing down all those things you must do in your life (pay a bill, check on the plants) that you're not doing and put it on paper so you can stop your anxious brain from trying to remember it all. After a day or two of strict corralling of media, you may find you're able to get the things done that you need to get done in your own life and find a tiny bit of balance.

Sending you good vibes! About to hit my own "nuclear option" for the day.
posted by amanda at 10:13 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]

One of my tactics is to make a list of things I need to do, and keep it short (but not too short, otherwise Parkinson's Law jumps in). It's normally around 5 items long. If I feel myself spiralling, I'll stand up, stretch, take a few deep breaths, and commit to the next thing on the list, whatever that is.

Sometimes, I'll come up with an action to support a cause (donating to mutual aid, for example) and add that to the list, so it doesnt feel like I'm just wringing my hands.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 10:14 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

I’ve had a few weeks of this, not least because I wasn’t manic with work so I started going to bed really late and getting up really late and having afternoon naps because the shift in bedtime was a lot bigger than I could push my time to get up. Well, still working from home but the pace is definitely picking up. So the bedtime is creeping back to more normal because I am being scheduled to be in meetings at 8am...and I have a lot less time to play on the internet, read the news or whatever. Good thing, too, because the lack of productivity also spilled over into all aspects of my locked down personal life. My home is tidier and cleaner when I work 65+ plus commute outside the house than it is bring on the paid work and hopefully this will help regain some structures for my personal life, too.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:23 AM on June 3

Oh! Another reason why I think that "asking someone else to remind you" might work is: I also have issues with sticking to a deadline if it's a self-imposed one, and sometimes knowing someone else is going to hold me to it is what spurs me to get off my ass because I still get that grade-school fear of "If I don't do my homework I'll get in trouble with the teacher". Even if it's just a little thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]

I'm reading this with interest because I'm in the same boat -- I can't even read books these days because I lack focus. One of the things I've found helpful is to set a timer for 15 minutes and tell myself I'm going to do the thing, whatever it is, for 15 minutes. Then I sometimes keep going and do more of the thing, but if not, at least I did something for 15 straight minutes.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:35 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]

I saw a similar question on another site recently, and a bunch of people said they use the Forest app, so I downloaded it, and it's helping me a lot.
You set it as a timer for however long you want. During the time you're supposed to be focusing, it grows a little tree. When the time is up, the tree goes into a forest. At the end of the day, you have a cute little forest to look at with a little tree for every time you concentrated. If you open up something else on your phone during the time you set to concentrate, the tree dies.
It's a silly little game, but I'm finding it incredibly useful. My inner child seems to be having a lot of influence on my life right now, so giving it a game to play seems somehow appropriate.
I also think it's good that it's a baby step thing. I worked with a lifestyle coach for a while, and one thing he taught me is that if you end up not achieving a goal you set for the day, it means the goal was too hard and you need to dial it back. So if you can't do ten minutes, do five. If you can't do five, do one. Everything, and I mean everything, counts.
posted by FencingGal at 10:48 AM on June 3 [14 favorites]

Stop watching the news. Seriously. It's bad for you. Humans are not designed to drink from a firehose constantly, or be hyper-aware of threats 24/7, which is what excessive news consumption forces your body to do. It's not healthy, it's not sustainable, and it is OKAY to step away for your mental health.

Same with social media. My mental health has become so much better since I quit Facebook and Twitter. I only use Whatsapp and Discord to talk to friends, and we have a strict 'no despair spirals' rule.

Second. Grab a piece of paper, brain dump everything you need to do. No judgement, no shame. Use markers and glitter pens and a giant piece of paper if you like. Then pick ONE of those things. On a separate piece of paper, break that one thing down into steps. For your car insurance, step one would be checking to see if there are late fees. Step two would be writing the check/logging into your account to pay. So on and so forth. Break every task you have into manageable bits and reward yourself as you complete them.

Third. Make it a point to regularly consume happy things. Puppy gifs and videos. The Good News Network. Fun Zoom streams and Youtube videos. Fill your well so you can draw from it when you need to.

Things are going to be okay. It may not feel like it right now. But humanity's survived this far. We'll make it through this one too.
posted by Tamanna at 10:50 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]

Contain your exposure to the craziness. It would be nice to drop out entirely but that’s not the way some of us work. Still, things are moving on a scale of days right now so giving yourself one hour out of every 24 to immerse yourself in what’s going on outside is probably enough.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:01 AM on June 3

Your lack of focus now is adaptive. Previous plans you have made assumed a predictable future.

For example if you studied hard and got good enough grades you had a decent shot at getting into a school that would train you in the field of choice. Just at the moment though nobody is sure if the schools will be teaching remotely or hold classes, if they will be reducing class sizes and thus admissions, if some schools will go bankrupt and close, if you will be permitted to travel to get to an out of state/area school, and if your field of choice will even exist in four years time. Until you have a better chance of predicting those things it may be wise not to devote hours of time to studying hard.

Extend this to every project you might be working on in your own life. Earn and save money? We may get hit by mega inflation as a result of massive government spending resulting in a deficit that they deal with by printing money. Hang out with friends and do art and coast and wait until it all blows over? Those who do not figure out which way things are going early and make the right adaptions may become those with no employment and no income in three years. Everything is now unpredictable and fraught and all the obvious motivators are weakened. No decision is obviously good or definitely over-reacting.

It's hard to focus on work projects between when you have given your two weeks notice and when you leave a job. Similarly it's hard to focus on your work when you don't know if your company will survive and if you will have a job is six weeks which is the case for a great many of us. So instead of focusing on the job tasks because it's your job to do them, can you extend your motivation to focusing on the job tasks because doing them adequately now could mean a reference that gets you a new job, or a job lead through a current co-worker? Can you motivate yourself into doing the work because it makes it easier for your co-workers to get through this week if you have pulled your weight and those co-workers matter to you. Sometimes you can re-frame your motivation to be care-taking or community building or planning for a previously unanticipated future, not just trying to do it because you are expected to do it.

What can you do with your nervous energy that is both demanding you Do Something and making you suspect that anything you do will make your long term situation worse? Look for things that fit that category which will be immediately useful and not long term harmful. Look for things you can do right now that will do you some good and will do you some good if in 2021 we are laughing at how scared we got, and which will still do you some good if in 2021 things are worse than you had imagined they could ever get.

This means first see if you can motivate yourself to look after your two most primary resources: your physical self and your mental health. Whether this blows over or whether this is just the beginning being in good physical health and mental health will make your life better next year. If you go jogging you can tell yourself that this is helping burn off your stress hormones today, will make you healthier to deal with a heavy course load at school next year, and be absolutely invaluable if you are a refugee on the road next year instead of at school.

See if you can motivate yourself to work on your ability to go through stress. Look at history to see what other people did in their crisis years, and look at philosophy to see what other people did to get through their dark teatimes of the soul.

Everyone is paralyzed because they don't want to be the one who runs into the building during a fire instead of the one who runs out of it. Now is the time to work on things that leave your options open, if committing to long term plans is hard. Now is the time to connect productively with family or friends or community because there is almost no potential scenario where having a social network will not be valuable. Now is the time to try different things because the untried is no longer as frivolous as it used to be. Now is the time to look at your routines and see if they are still necessary and still helpful, or if they are just wasteful efforts to control your environment that don't bring you peace and satisfaction. Now is especially the time to get into entrophic labor, and love the moments involved in baking bread that will be gone tomorrow, reading books that make you smile but will be forgotten tomorrow, sweeping the leaves from the path and loving your garden because tomorrow that garden may be gone, but the memory that you had a garden you loved can be carried with you across the next decade of change, and then perhaps later recreated.

When it comes to things this is a time for short term planning. You can't stock up your house with supplies that will keep you independent beyond the summer, so think of the supplies you stock up with as providing enough reassurance that you can sleep safely tonight. For anything longer than this summer keep your options open. We could plant a garden next year, we could even keep chickens. We could move instead. You'll know when it is time to make that choice. The reason you don't know yet is because it's not time. Now you are still keeping your options open.

The stress is probably making your executive functioning evaporate so set yourself minuscule goals. You need to pay your car insurance? okay, this morning you will dig out the paper with the car insurance info and put it on your desk. This afternoon you will find the car insurance website and bring up the tab it is on. In the evening you will log into it, but if you then simply log out you have done the trial run and tomorrow you can log in, in the morning and maybe actually renew the insurance in the afternoon.

Your reaction to the uncertainty is to try to get more information. Again, that's adaptive and not wrong. You don't want to miss anything critical like the approach of a category five hurricane, or a riot marching toward your neighborhood, so you are tempted to keep checking again and again if there are any updates in the media, just in case your neighborhood and your tribe become an epicenter. But this wastes time when you just keep reading more outrage over the same recycled stories because there are usually no real updates and it leaves you anxious and mentally maximizing the bad possibilities in the news. If you read fifteen stories about Covid-19 out of control, even if six of them are duplicates it makes you start to fear bodies in the street and population drops and The Collapse of Civilization. And then you read fifteen stories about the protests and even if six of them are duplicates you are now wired to be thinking civil war and massacres, even if you maintain the honest belief neither of those things could happen, the idea is in the back of your head.

Use the pomodoro technique for your media consumption. Set a timer for forty-five minutes and only gulp down forty-five minutes of media. Or if your social life means the media leaks in because your spouse vents, and the friends in your on-line group are trying to boost the signal, then take forty-five minute breaks from anything where the media and the news and the fear will leak in. For forty-five minutes focus intently on just work, or just gardening, or just studying and hold the crisis at bay, for just that long. Try and do this repeatedly during the day.

When you do media don't just do the getting-together-with-people-to-lament-or-rage thing, nor go over and over the same stories about the latest thing bad people have done, use your media time to do some research. What is the latest genetic information on the number of Corona-virus strains? What is BLM asking white allies to do? How do you get your hands on chickens to raise for eggs and meat anyway? Look actively for data that will suggest things that you can do, and that might motivate you enough to want to do things. The chaos theory butterfly is flapping in your garden. It might be that you will be the person who reminds your white friend to keep her dumb cranky white teen-aged kids home because they will break windows instead of help at the protest, and by doing so you prevent major violence. First you have to think of the idea of networking with your white friends to share the idea that some kids with cabin fever need to stay at home. If you pay your car insurance your car may remain accessible so that someone can be taken to the hospital, or someone can bring some books to a homeschooling parent whose child will one day be the Secretary for Energy.

Try to move your media time to the media of dispassionate facts instead of the media of high emotions. Try to avoid the media when it is merely someone commenting on what someone else did. Once you know that Trump did it, you really don't need to hear thirty people give their opinion on something. If they agree with you, you'll get more outraged and frantic at the situation, if they disagree with you, you'll get more outraged and frantic at them. Don't ask for the results of tests to get number of cases in your area, ask who is testing and how recent their information is and who is doing research. Don't squawk about evil politicians. Trust me, we already know they are evil. Research what laws are already on the books that could block their evil.
posted by Jane the Brown at 2:00 PM on June 3 [7 favorites]

My car insurance is overdue, but it hardly stands out in the swamp of "stuff I should be doing, should have done 2 months ago really

At this point, only work on shit that is a dire on fire emergency. If you can make a list of actual due dates for things, only handle the most urgent shit (like the car insurance). Anything that doesn't get a due date like "I should vacuum," fuck it. Only get the bare minimum done that you absolutely have to do, because you are out of resources to do more than that. If you have more resources to do more after the bare minimum is done, great, do that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:12 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]

This is a normal response to massive stress. Unconscious systems re-orient because the massive stress must be solved. This works great when we can solve the stressor! It paralyzes us when we can not.

Reduce your exposure to the source of stress. Add friction to any attempt to re-expose yourself. Build more self-soothing into your life.

Log out of all social media & other sources of news or interruptions. Log out of your non-work email. Turn off notifications for all news apps. Unplug the TV if you have to. Do not watch news at all - reading something is typically much lower impact than seeing and hearing it. Have a set time limit for check news, email and social media each day, logging out each time. Do not respond to texts immediately. Turn off text notifications if you have too.

This will feel hard and strange and unsafe and like you're letting people down. None of that is true. You are safer, healthier and better able to help people when you are not caught up in a vicious cycle of emotional self-harm. Put on your own oxygen mask.
posted by Ahniya at 2:16 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]

This has probably been said above, but here is what helps me:

--Make a list of things that are pressing.

--Look at the list, and see if there is anything that can be taken off of it without dire consequences. For example, if "fold laundry" is on there, cross that motherfucker right off. I haven't folded laundry in literally years and I've never showed up naked to anything.

--Pick a thing on the list, and make a small step towards getting it done. (You can list out all the steps, if it helps you, or you can wing it.) Then, between each small step go relax or do something else for a while. Then come back and do the next step.

Like, for the car insurance:
*Find the bill and put it on your desk. Then congratulate yourself and go relax or whatever
*Find a envelope and a stamp, if you pay by mail; or find the website login info. Then congratulate yourself, and go relax or whatever
*Check your bank account/budget to make sure you have the money to pay it; if not, the next few steps will be to look at your budget to figure out when you can pay it. Then congratulate yourself... etc.
*Write out your check (or fill out the online payment form). Then congratulate yourself... etc.

I really think it is important to acknowledge that you've accomplished something as you complete each step of the task. It helps to build motivation and momentum. It may take a day or two to get the insurance bill paid, but that's a hell of a lot faster than you've been moving on it!

You can have two or more of these mini-To Do lists going at the same time. Each list can serve as a break from the others. So you could for example:
Find your insurance bill and put it on the desk > go unload the top rack of the dishwasher > gather up all your dirty towels to wash > answer one email from your backlog > go take a break. Then do another round from each list. Etc.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:24 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

You've got Cyborg Deer Syndrome and need to take a break from news and social media for a while until your amygdala calms the fuck down.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:01 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]

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