In Crisis: What to Prioritise Over Focus and Productivity

— When neither work harder nor work smarter will cut it.

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PIVOT.

This is the message that I am being bombarded with at the moment. From businesses that are pivoting to make shiny new objects that they never went into business to make (and making a healthy profit), to coaches who can help you pivot your business and make more dollah that you can possibly imagine — the message is clear.

You Need To Pivot.

You Need To Work.

You Need To Contribute.

Adapt or Die.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s ace that BrewDog are making hand sanitiser, and Rolls Royce are making ventilators. Though it does raise a tiny question in mind about what the world would be like if we weren’t so attached to luxury items and exotic travel and exploitation, and if our economy wasn’t based on greed and growth and the God profit….

But, I digress.

My main point is that this need to keep going, or pivot to keep going is a bit of a farce. It reeks of profiteering and capitalism.

Again, can you tell I don’t like that scent?

The need to pivot was actually a long time ago, long before Covid-19 came along and upset the apple cart.

But in my humble opinion, the apple cart really did need upsetting.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a deeply troubling time. And let’s be real for a moment, not every business is going to survive this. Pivoting in troubling times isn’t for everybody.

Getting on with it and becoming your best productive self isn’t for everybody. At least not right now.

Rather, now is a time for reflection.

Now is a time to ask big questions.

Now is a time to, before taking massive action, check in and see how you’re actually doing. Fix your own oxygen mask before you dive into work.

Most of us hopefully have never experienced a crisis or a disaster before, and we need to allow a period of reflection, maybe even a period of grief, a period of adjustment, before we try to carry on at a hefty pace.

This process takes time.

Don’t rush it.

In these Corona-times, it might feel like the solution is to be productive. We can rely on the stiff upper lip approach of the British to bloody well just get on with it in the face of adversity.

But this approach denies what we are collectively experiencing right now. We aren’t just working from home — we are at home trying to work through a crisis. It’s ok to feel confused, knocked out, wiped out, and off kilter.

So give yourself some space to get used to that. Don’t bottle up the sensations or numb them out with action or booze and try to railroad yourself into activity. That’s the path to burn out.

So check in with yourself.

What path are you on? What path do you want to be on? Is now the time to pause or to continue on this path, or find a new one?

Know thy path.

Then, and only then, can we think about productivity.

Productivity is a term we use to describe how efficient the labour or capital inputs are to get a certain level of output. It isn’t about how much or how hard or how long you work — it’s about how effective you are.

The efficiency question can be a kicker — because for all we like to think that we’re being efficient, most of what we do is actually heart-breakingly pointless. Right?

Right. Get some perspective. Remember what Joe Rogan says — ‘If you ever start taking things too seriously, just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.’

Most of what we’re doing probably doesn’t even matter.

But as humans, we love to put a whole host of items on our checklist and then bust through them, giving ourselves a pat on the back for our own outstanding work ethic. Yet if you’re not actually doing the important stuff, that’s just straight up procrastination.

That’s why this pause, this time out, this lockdown is is a great time to reflect on what you’re doing, what you think you need to do, and what’s really important.

Without all the commuting, without the distractions of colleagues, or places to go, we all have more time to do this check in before we get cracking. And if you’re worrying about the clock — data actually shows that working from home is more productive anyway — so don’t panic about taking time out to journal or meditate before you dive deep into your tasks.

Relax. You’ve got this.

Taking time to “prime” is a hallmark of Tony Robbins. He famously starts his day with breathwork, meditation and relaxation. Last time I checked, he was into cryotherapy too.

My go to morning routine is similar: meditation, movement and reflection.

I’ll never forget Katy Perry’s declaration that meditation gives her two days in one such is the focus, energy and clarity that the practice gave her.

As for movement — I like yoga, a body weight workout, a run — or even just a walk in the morning. Energy begets energy.

And reflection, my favourite. I use the 5 minute journal method to have a super quick check on on where I’m at — three things I’m grateful for, one priority thing I want to achieve today (a la The One Thing, by Gary Keller), plus three affirmations to self-motivate my ass.

This helps set my focus for the day, and cement my commitment to not get distracted by the shiny things. If I’ve got more time, I’ll lean into a longer form of journaling — 3 pages of stream of consciousness writing. This helps me to identify and work through any blocks, or problem solve something that’s narking me.

And then, if you feel ready and able to work?

Great.

By now, you’re calm and plenty focused, and you’ve brain-dumped and sorted through anything that’s been playing on your monkey mind. Now you can move into work-mode and getting jiggy with productivity.

But first. Focus.

Focus and productivity are very much linked, and that’s a key point to get across. If you have a million things on your radar, you’ll be pulled in all directions, all day, and possibly all night. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately, insomnia is on the increase during these times.

So in order to tune out from the news, from social media, from distractions, it’s essential to be able to focus. Focus is like a muscle and it can be strengthened — it just needs practice.

The One Thing (journalling technique above) was just the start.

Try not reacting to a notification or an impulse to check your phone, or the news — try to surf the urge for a minute, then 5, then 10.

I am a big advocate of the Pomodoro Technique to create focused blocks of time to do deep work. I pair this with listening to binaural beats to really hone my attention on to the task at hand.

Structure and routine is also important to make an easy job of Good Habit-building. Scott Kelly (astronaut) recently gave his advice on dealing with time in isolation — the bottom line for survival is to stick to a schedule.

I personally don’t get on very well with time blocking, but I do find that if I structure my day around tea and coffee breaks, I can fly. And I’m a happier person with my hot-drink fix.

My work day kicks off with a coffee at 9am, green tea at 10.30am and then orange juice with my lunch at 1.30. Afternoon tea and a homemade flapjack at 3pm (and 3.30pm, 4pm and 5pm these days, of course. Who doesn’t love their lockdown snacks).

Creating a routine really helped me get to grips with working from home and delineating work time from personal time long before the pandemic came along. Having had some time out to reflect and adjust, having that routine is keeping me on the straight and narrow now.

And so the last thing I want to mention in terms of productivity is a time tracker — I use RescueTime. This keeps an eye on how I spend my time on my laptop and phone and really gives good insight into how productive I think I am versus the stats and the hard numbers. That was eye opening, until I could be more honest with myself.

Used together, these tools and tricks complete an armoury with which to battle procrastination, inertia and a lack of motivation and anything else that pops up to derail you — distractions, notifications, newsfeeds. As you build good habits, you do get stronger and it becomes easier to stay on track.

But just to double underline this point, while I might measure my productivity with my output, it isn’t really defined by what I do during my work day, but how I set up for it in the first place.

That’s why at a high level, I think we all need to make the most of the pause that the lockdown presents to reflect on where we’re at. It might be that working flat out, or at all, is not the right choice right now. I’ve recently heard stories of parents taking a “second” maternity/paternity leave during these times to step back from work and be present with their families. If that works for you, do it.

But if, like many, you must still work — then consider using this time to prime before you get stuck in. This will pay you dividends almost immediately when you take a look at your outputs.

However you approach the lockdown though, please approach it with care and compassion — now more than ever, we need to practice the highest forms of kindness, self care and self love.

For sure, isolation brings added risks and pressures and gremlins. This is a shitty time globally, and if you’re hard on yourself, it only makes the whole thing harder.

The Buddhist tale of the two arrows seems fitting here: the first arrow is the misfortune, and that pain is unavoidable. The second arrow though, how we react and how we suffer — that arrow is optional.

So before you go hard in the name of productivity and dive deep into your work, take a moment to prime first.

It’s a worthy investment of your time.

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Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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