Hacks for staying motivated amid stress and sad news?
August 12, 2020 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I like my job, and really want to do it well. But with the combination of working from home -- which has its perks, but makes it difficult to separate personal and work life or connect with coworkers, personal stress, lack of sleep due to parenting a young child, and my close family going through difficult times far away, it's been hard to concentrate. Give me your tips to help me concentrate better and work effectively.

I work in tech in an engineering/lead role.

Most people tell me to take it easy, ask my manager for flexibility, take time off, etc, but I don't want to! I'll be even unhappier. I just want to work effectively, because being productive will make me happy and hopeful, and there's not much else in my life that will right now.

I avoid the news and too much non-work screen time, but some of it works its way in somehow.

I have childcare during working hours.
posted by redlines to Work & Money (8 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Create work space that works for you. Not just technically and ergonomically but also one that has the right vibe to help you concentrate and feel professional.

I finally (four months in) realized that I needed to make an effort to really "own" my workspace - instead of just perching on a chair in front of a table that was already there, I am in the process of reorganizing and redecorating the room to make it more of a space where I can think and be in the professional identity instead of just me working in the spare bedroom. I'm not painting walls or getting rid of the giant queen bed but I changed curtains, added plants and art work and moved out clutter that no one else is going to need for months (if not much, much longer)
posted by metahawk at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've been struggling with this too, and have went back to the basics of checklists and the Pomodoro method to get in the zone, and remind myself to take breaks.

I'm working from home every other day, so my checklists need to be portable. I have an index card I write things I want to get done during the week - that travels with me. I also have a scratch pad at home and at work where I write down the little things that pop up during the day. If those don't get done in one workday, they go to the index card.

Something with the hand-written list that's in my view and crossing things off is very motivating.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 10:24 AM on August 12, 2020

I'm struggling with a lot of the same things, and I haven't figured it all out yet, but here's what I've done:
  • Improved my physical workspace, as suggested above
  • Offloaded as much of my mental burden as I could to checklists, calendars, etc
  • Delegate! This has become SO important for me. It's hard to let go when I know I'd do a better job than whoever I delegated to, but I have to remember that they may do it well enough anyway.
  • Really reduced the number of things I was working on for work. I was spread too thin, which made it hard to concentrate on any one thing. It would have been hard to juggle all those projects in the before times, but it was practically impossible these days.
  • Turned off my email notifications. I don't know about you, but since going remote my email volume has really skyrocketed. I was letting email interrupt me every 5 minutes. Now, I check and reply to email during natural breaks in my regular workflow, and it's so much better.
  • Stopped multitasking during meetings (unless it's really a meeting I can safely ignore 99% of the time). It's really a microcosm of my second suggestion -- split attention is less effective and more draining, even if it feels like I'm getting more done. This was also counter to what my boss suggested when I told him I was stretched too thin, but it ended up working for me. When I do multitask, I try to pick something non-work related like dishes or picking up after the toddler, so the two things occupy a different part of my brain.
  • Be gentle with myself. You sound a lot like me -- I place a lot of self-value on being a high performer at work. But the pandemic has really brought home that there are other ways to bring value to the world. Being a loving parent and a supportive family member also puts good things into the world, even though capitalism doesn't place a monetary value on those things. In addition, when I'm stressed and unhappy, my coworkers can tell, and it puts a burden on them. If I can relax, I may not be as productive, but I'm not spreading (as much) negativity to the rest of my organization.

posted by natabat at 10:34 AM on August 12, 2020 [13 favorites]

It's worth bringing this up, in whatever way you're comfortable with, with your manager/supervisor/boss/whomever is in a position to help you with the internal-structural side of this problem. I've had conversations about this with my boss, and it's led to some very helpful things like a days-long period for everyone to essentially stop pushing our direct projects through (at least internally) so that we can get a handle on our organization, file management, projects that require a lot of focus, and the like.

I'll second the "claim your space" advice. I live in a teeny tiny San Francisco house. Working from my dining table and sitting in a Salvation Army chair had been making me physically uncomfortable not just when I'm working, but in my life after working hours. I wanted my dining table back, so I'd stop eating on the couch. I needed better routines, better senses of spaces with their own special purposes, better control over my small space. Since I don't have room for an office, I downsized my dining table, built a standing desk into a corner, bought a lift for my laptop and a swing arm for a second monitor. Now my office pod is my office pod, I can eat dinner at my dining table, and being able to move through those spaces without having to rearrange everything is a real improvement.

I also have a therapist. Attention and concentration are really slippery subjects. It can help to have a few sessions with a professional to voice your concerns and see if they can help you find any insights into the root causes of your discomfort and mitigating factors you might not have considered. For me, for instance, I *know* that working in at least a few miles' walking or running or cycling every day will make my evening and following day better. Same with avoiding drinking, and paying close attention to how many calories I'm shoving into my face. Do I do these things consistently? No, I don't, even though they make me feel better. The therapist is helping me address why that is and, honestly, it's been very compelling so far. I think there's some real fairness to his observation that difficulty with focus/procrastination/etc. suddenly feels like a pandemic of its own, and that these things belie emotional discomforts that we don't often delve into.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:44 AM on August 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you have money to throw at the problem, one thing that's been helpful for me is subletting therapist's office a few days per week (e.g. every Tuesday) to have a dedicated work space. Therapy offices are furnished, quiet, have internet, access to a kitchen space, and are basically empty right now. A simple search for "psychotherapy office" on craigslist brought up a bunch of listings in my area.
posted by marbb at 11:56 AM on August 12, 2020

Two things I don’t see above (I skimmed so apologies if I missed them):

1. Walk to work. I walk around my block to start my work day.
2. When doing heads down work create an appropriate music track. I use “atmospheric movie soundtrack music” but ymmv. This helps me get in the zone and using the basically same playlist has created a Pavlovian response.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:29 PM on August 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

This isn't answering your stated question, but despite that I'm going to recommend reading Ada Palmer's disabilty-informed recommendations in addition to others.

Pull quote:
The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work. He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity. Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:46 AM on August 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

-working hours. Set them and keep them. Make sure/try to ensure others LET you keep them. Context switching is a bitch of an overhead.

-actually prepare for and then start work. Commuting to the office (and the inverse, coming back) put you into/release you from a mindset. You don't have that, now. So set your alarm every day, shower, dress for work. Yeah, WFH. Yeah, no pants. But dress just a bit differently so that you know you're "at work". And take it off when done. Wearing pants (or socks/shoes/shirt) == work, removing them == not work. This allows for mental release. And a signal to those at home that you are in 'work mode'.

-create a schedule that works for you ... and then stick to it. You're at home. Start later, extend lunch, then work later, if that works for you. Or start normal, have shorter lunch, stop earlier. Whatever. But stick to it. And office time is office time. Lunch/coffee breaks is your own time. But try to do the same every day (it's like sleep hygiene).

-If possible, have a separate workspace. Again, it's like sleep hygiene: only use the bed for sleep and your body/mind will associate it with sleep and that is what you will do there. Maybe have a 'work position' at one end of the table and only sit at that place when you are working.

-take some time to decompress after work. When you take off those shoes/shirt/socks to denote you're off work ... do something for yourself, without other people. Take a halfhour shit with a book. Run. Bike. Whatever. Just have some 'me' time.

>but I don't want to! I'll be even unhappier. I just want to work effectively, because being productive will make me happy and hopeful, and there's not much else in my life that will right now.

-Seriously consider you might be heading for burn-out. Be VERY careful. Talk to a professional. You might need a month off. Even if you don't want to.
posted by MacD at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2020

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