With the coronavirus pandemic causing many of us to work from home for weeks on end - while simultaneously managing a household, dealing with childcare or coping with other impacts of the crisis - it can understandably have an impact on productivity, motivation and enthusiasm for the task at hand. Here, executive coach Lisa Quinn shares her invaluable advice for tackling procrastination, increasing concentration and dealing with an overwhelming to-do list.
What advice do you have for increasing concentration?
If you are finding it hard to concentrate at the moment, know that you’re not alone. Having to deal with everything that Covid has thrown at us, while having to adjust to being back in lockdown again, affects our ability to concentrate. We’re all different, and so what helps one person concentrate might be someone else’s hell, but one technique that seems to be universally beneficial is the Pomodoro Technique. It’s very simple. You set a timer for 25 minutes (an old-fashioned one is great, but your phone will do). You then make a start on the piece of work, and you tell yourself that you only have to do it for 25 minutes. At the end of the first 25 minutes (which is called a Pomodoro - no idea why), you then have a five-minute break, before going again. At the end of four Pomodoros, you have a proper break. Our brains work better within a specific time frame, and most of us can convince ourselves to do 25 minutes of work. And, once we start, that’s often the hardest bit.
What are your tips for snapping out of procrastination?
We procrastinate because we’re trying to avoid uncomfortable emotions. I’ve noticed this tendency is heightened during lockdown – which is not surprising as we’ve all got so much more to deal with. Get curious about the emotion that’s underneath your own procrastination. What are you avoiding? Sometimes, it’s because our inner critics are getting in the way (our negative inner voices that tend to catastrophise, or create worse-case scenarios). So, spend a few minutes trying to get to the bottom of what your worse-case scenario is. Are you procrastinating because you are worried your work won’t be perfect? Or is because you find it boring? Or something else? Quite a few studies show that procrastinators tend to be night owls. So, if you know that about yourself, rather than setting yourself the task of starting something in the morning, pick a time that suits you to get going.
Should we be forming new daily routines, and how do you get them to stick?
The first question to ask yourself is, 'What’s underneath the desire to create this routine?'. I’m seeing quite a few clients put additional pressure on themselves to create new habits during lockdown – and I don’t think that’s helpful.
It’s great to know what sustains you and what you need to help you thrive, but I’d always invite you to start with self-compassion – particularly at the moment. So, if you were being compassionate to yourself, what do you know then about starting a new habit? Is it going to serve you? Or be another stick to beat yourself with?
If you do feel that the time is right (and for some people it may well be) a good place to start is with a great book called Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. He’s a behaviour specialist at Stanford and his theory is that only three things will change behaviour in the long term.
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
There’s an argument that lockdown might well be a trigger for both Option A and Option B. I’m seeing this with some clients, who, now that they are out of the work environment, are reflecting on whether their work gives them what they need. And I am a big fan of C – take baby steps. It’s an approach that seems to work with clients who feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
How often should you take breaks, and are they important or do they interrupt concentration?
We aren’t built to work for sustained periods without taking a break, and if we do work continuously, our productivity and concentration are lowered – even if we don’t realise it. When you start your day, try and block breaks into your diary. One mid-morning, one for lunch, and one for mid-afternoon. They can be short, but breaks definitely increase productivity. Even though it might feel counterproductive, all the research shows otherwise.
When should you power through a daunting task, and when should you let yourself off?
Daunting tasks tend to be daunting when they push us out of our comfort zone. Being out of your comfort zone sometimes is a good thing; it’s a sign that we’re growing.
But there is a big difference between a “stretch” zone, and a danger zone or “panic” zone, and everyone’s individual zones will be different. What I have noticed with my clients is that, more often than not, the thought of the daunting task tends to be worse than actually doing the task. Our inner critics can spend a lot of time ruminating about how daunting something is, which is not helpful. We’re usually more creative, resilient and resourceful than we think we are. A useful approach is to look at the task from a different perspective. Imagine you’ve done the daunting task – how would you feel then? Or imagine you’ve let yourself off the hook – how do you feel? And what does this information tell you about what to do next?
What's your advice for prioritising an overwhelming to-do list?
When we’re overwhelmed, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. We can prioritise things because they are easy, or they’re at the top of our inbox - and are quick to do, rather than important.
It can be helpful to look at your to-do list from a different viewpoint. Imagine it’s the end of the week. What will be important then? Or the end of the month? Also, spend a bit of time to plan your day. I need structure, so when I am feeling really overwhelmed I break my day down into hourly blocks. I spend 15 minutes firing off quick and easy things to do, and then 45 minutes tackling a big task.
Is it helpful to identify the times of day that you're most productive? Or should you just knuckle down and get on with it?
It can be really helpful to know when certain tasks suit you. For me, if I have something I need to write, first thing in the morning works best. Or, between 7 and 9 in the evening. So, if you know when your best times are for performing certain tasks and you can move your schedule around, do it. Having said that, there are always times when we just have to get on with things, and for that, it’s about what you can do to get yourself in the right frame of mind. Doing some exercise first can help – even a quick walk around the block, or some quick stretches can reboot you. Or, sit in the sunshine for a few moments if you have access to outside space. And, as I mentioned before, the Pomodoro Technique is brilliant.
How do you approach a big task that feels overwhelming, or too big to tackle?
Well firstly, get clear about the emotions that are underneath the overwhelm. Name them (see exercise below). Get them out there and surface them. Then once you have identified those feelings, make a plan. Break it down.
Again, it might feel counterproductive, but spend some time planning out how you are going to tackle it. And then just start it. Often the thought of starting something takes energy; we’re ruminating, getting ourselves into a negative mindset, which isn’t helpful. Don’t spend too long making your plan perfect – as the marvellous Gretchen Ruben says, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Make a rough plan, but then get going. Tell yourself that you are going to spend 25 minutes on the project and then review. But the main thing is to make a start.
What advice would you give someone who might be being too hard on themselves? These are, after all, particularly difficult and stressful times.
Don’t hold yourself to your normal standards. Being in lockdown is not normal! You might be thriving in lockdown, or you might also be finding it harder to focus, to concentrate, or to motivate yourself. Our brains are on high alert for an invisible foe. That’s exhausting. Plus, so many of the things that we need as humans – being part of a group, physical contact, autonomy – are not always available to us in lockdown. So take all this into account and be compassionate to yourself. Beating yourself with a big stick because you aren’t as productive as usual isn’t helpful.
How do you get back into the work 'zone' if you're constantly being interrupted by children or family?
Ask yourself this question: 'If I had a magic wand, what would I do to help me get back into the work zone?' and see what your answer tells you about what you need to help you create a work 'zone'. While you don’t have a magic wand, it is likely that your answer will give you some clues about the small changes you might be able to make which would help you. And again, be compassionate. This is really hard. For you, and for your family.
What tips do you have for getting over that 3pm slump?
Firstly, give yourself a break. The fact that you’ve managed to work until 3pm requires a little celebration during lockdown.
These are not normal circumstances! We’re currently allowed out once a day to exercise, so you might want to schedule your exercise for when you know your energy is likely to slump. Or, if you don’t feel you can spare an hour, or 30 minutes, can you go for a 10-minute walk? Or do something completely different. Phone a friend. Watch an episode of your favourite comedy. Read a book to your kids. Play with your cat.
How do you set goals that are realistic, or achievable, given the current circumstances?
I think you accept where you are starting from, which means acknowledging how you are feeling. There’s a powerful exercise which takes a few moments to do. Close your eyes and then ask yourself "What am I feeling?". Just list whatever emotions are there – whether they are "good" or "bad" (there are no good or bad emotions in this exercise; you’re not judging your emotions, you’re just exploring them with what Harvard psychologist Dr Susan Kay calls "gentle acceptance"). And then notice how that feels. This exercise calms down our brains. Then, once you know how you are feeling, you can set your goals from where you actually are, rather then where you think you should be. Personally, at the moment, I am setting my goals on a weekly basis, and then reviewing. I’m finding that short-term approach helpful. I have my longer-term goals, but I am holding them lightly, rather than holding on to them like grim death. That’s a very coach-like answer, but I’m hoping you can feel the difference!
How do you switch off if you're finding that you're working longer hours, or into the evenings?
It can be difficult to have boundaries when you're not physically leaving the office. It’s hard. For some of my clients, who are juggling childcare with a partner who is also working from home, or who work across different time zones, working in the evening is sometimes the only option they have. But, if you can, try and be intentional about it. If you know you are going to have to work in the evening, is it possible to take some time off in the afternoon to go for a walk? Get out in nature and breathe some fresh air. It can also help to have an end-of-work ritual. I try and take the dog for a walk at the end of the day. Or have dinner with my family, and not work after dinner.
How do you maintain a sense of authority when not physically present with the team?
Start with the outcome you want to achieve with that authority. What do you need? What do you want or need your team to do?
How do you need to be as a leader to enable that? Successful teams have high levels of trust and lockdown can actually give us a great opportunity to connect with our teams on a more human level. Numerous video calls (where you might be interrupted by a team member’s cat, child or partner) where we’re getting insight into each other’s homes can take our connections to another, more open level – which can be positive thing.
Does what you wear really make a difference if you're working from home and no one can see you?
That all depends on you. And it might vary from day-to-day. Some clients are absolutely thriving not having to wear make-up or put on a suit every day. Others like the structure and the routine of wearing more formal clothes to work in than they’d wear at the weekend. Try and explore whether it’s your inner critic (our harsh, judging, negative self-talk) that’s dictating what you wear. Are you dressing up because you feel like you should? And if so, what’s the truth that you need to? And what would happen if you didn’t?
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