How to remain focused & productive in uncertain times

1 September 2021|Resilience, Success

Truth be told, no era has ever been completely stable, there’s always something going on somewhere. While that’s true, it’s also true that thanks to a global pandemic that appears to have no solid end in sight, times have been a whole lot more uncertain than many of us have ever known or imagined. Staying focused on the things that really matter to us and continuing to work towards the attainment of our goals can be difficult when life is so full of questions and uncertainty. Conversely, sometimes uncertainty lights a fire under us, prompting us to work and focus more powerfully.

There’s plenty of advice online and offline to guide us through uncertainty and support us to stay on our path. The key to success is to be able to implement it. Knowing things and actually implementing it can be two different things – ask anyone who’s on a diet. So while it’s useful to know the best advice for staying focused and productive through uncertain times, it’d also be helpful to have a few tricks for turning that advice into action.

What is it about the uncertainty that makes things so tough on us?

Why staying focused in uncertain times is so hard

Our brains are wired to look for stability. This is because we burn more energy when we’re trying to figure out our actions or next steps on top of all the other things that vie for our attention. We’ve evolved to conserve energy, and that’s why when uncertainty pushes us against our natural grain, our mind becomes hyper-alert.

On top of this, uncertainty can easily be interpreted as a threat. When the future is doubtful, we have a natural tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios.

When this happens, it is helpful to pause, remember where we are, and be present rather than start contemplating an awful future. Here is a quick fix to snap you out of that fight or flight mode:

Try following three sets of breaths – 

‘Breath In…. Breath out… Take a deep breath… let your breathing be slow and intentional… smile… release the tension and the pressure that you are feeling’.

The simple act of calming and slowing our breathing lowers our cortisol levels, stops our minds from racing ahead to create catastrophic future scenarios, and provides space for us to focus on what is right in front of us at that very moment. In short, it’s a quick and simple re-set we can do literally anywhere.

Turning advice into action

As mentioned earlier, advice and intentions are one thing, taking action is a completely different ball game. Action is the hurdle at which so many of us stumble. When it comes to putting the sage advice of so many behavioral scientists into action, try the following…

  1. When it comes to acknowledging the situation and focusing on what we can control, consider your daily activities. Be mindful of the choices you make. For some of us, the simple task of grocery shopping is an anxiety-inducing ordeal. Step one is to accept and embrace this fact. Step two is to understand what, about that activity, is bothering you. Step three is to make small changes to that routine. For instance, if the time of the day is a challenge, maybe heading out late in the evening will reduce the stress. Step four – stick to what works. It’s time to re-evaluate our routines and adjust them to suit our present needs. Remember, these are routines we have created for ourselves, and we can change them as we wish.
  2. Self-care can be difficult when so much seems to be shifting under our feet. Remember that the world will not end if you take a 30-second break to simply listen to your breath. It will still be there if you take a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood. Setting and sticking to bedtime and wake-up time will help you calibrate your internal clock and have more space in your head to manage your day. Prioritizing your self-care means setting boundaries and defending them if necessary. Set clear expectations for yourself – eat lunch each day (not at your desk…working meetings are off the table too), take an afternoon break, ensure a reasonable bedtime – and let them be known to people around you too so they can support you.
  3. Even if you are self-isolating or locked down in a city, staying connected with others is not impossible. It’s even more important for you to maintain connections in these circumstances. Schedule time to catch up with the people you care about. Ask them how they’re doing and take your mind away from your day-to-day. Make time to stay in touch with your personal and professional networks regularly by phone, video call, or any other means that is easy and enjoyable for you.
  4. Not everyone can get outside to recharge, but we all have access to natural views on our computers or in books. Music streaming services can bring the sounds of birdsong or bubbling brooks to our ears. Try streaming some natural sounds as you work and enjoy the mental relaxation and increased focus it brings. When you break throughout the day or finish your day, take a brisk walk through a park or just around your block. Make notes of what made you feel one with nature during that walk. It could be a mental note or in a journal, or on your device.
  5. Self-compassion is integral to our emotional and mental wellbeing. How we speak to ourselves has a massive impact on how we think and feel about ourselves and the people around us. Begin by just noticing how you speak to yourself – do you berate yourself for mistakes? When you notice yourself being less kind to yourself than you would a close friend, don’t get annoyed, simply rethink and reframe. It will help change your internal voice to a kinder and more compassionate one.

Staying focused and productive through uncertain times is mostly about giving ourselves a little more space. Space to be who we are, be certain of our purpose and space to be kind and find our way through the new and uncertain landscape of today. We do this by openly communicating what we need to the people around us, setting and maintaining our boundaries, and remaining aware of our internal dialogues as well as what is going on around us. 

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