Concentration in Times of Crisis
5 tips to sustain focus and drive while working from home
If you don’t normally – or ever – work from home, the “shelter-in-place” mandate can pose a serious disruption to your daily or weekly workflow. With all this extra time on your hands, you might have thought you were going to get more done, yet you likely feel even more distracted and busier than before.
That’s understandable: Your daily rhythms and rituals have been upended, your work and home life have collided, and we’re all waiting with bated breath to see what the news holds each morning. You may feel adrift, anxious, or paralyzed. But rather than letting ourselves become disillusioned or enraged, we have the opportunity to be more open and engaged: in our work, our relationships, and our daily rhythms.
Both high-bandwidth work (that requires deep thought, analysis, strategy, multiple steps, imagination) and personal reflection often get pushed aside during crises. Instead of focusing on our professional and personal growth when we need our inner strength most, it’s easy to immerse ourselves in other peoples’ emergencies – imagined or real – and reward ourselves with the ephemeral dopamine rush of easily accomplished tasks. Emails checked, yes! Client questions answered, yes! Big projects? A shift in priorities? A new virtual service? No.
While we must acknowledge the severity of this pandemic and do our part to flatten the curve, research shows that actively seeking experiences that spark joy, curiosity, and gratitude can broaden our awareness to help us become creative problem solvers and put things – including our own emergencies – in perspective.
The question then is, how do we find the focus and drive to pursue these experiences or endeavors amidst these anxious and uncertain times?
Here are a few grounding tips to help you take the first steps toward fostering creativity – rather than reactivity – amidst this pandemic, so you can open yourself to creative possibilities and focus on your most meaningful work.
1. Recommit to your vision with an in-house retreat.
Before you launch any kind of creative endeavor, you have to have a clear vision of where you’re headed and what you hope to accomplish. With the constant hum of the 24/7 news cycle and the ceaseless allure of clickbait headlines to stoke our anxieties, a 24-48 hour in-house creative retreat may be just what you need to put things in perspective and recommit yourself to advancing your deep work.
We tend to think that retreats have to be in some remote, technology-free locale. But as I explain in this article I authored for Psychology Today, an “in-house retreat” can help you refocus and dedicate distraction-free time to your freedom project. A freedom project is an endeavor that you have volunteered to devote your precious time and attention to. You might gain external rewards upon completing it, but that’s not what motivates you. Such a project is free from responsibilities or expectations because its whole purpose is to feed your heart and imbue your work with meaning.
This kind of high-bandwidth work requires your full attention and flow: a state of extended concentration that involves challenges which in turn call upon your best creative and cognitive faculties. As such, you need to shape time for purposeful solitude, so be sure to communicate with your housemates or loved ones to set physical and emotional boundaries that will allow you to work undisturbed. Set an intention to forward your deep work in some specific way, then carve out some time and space within the comfort of your home to do so. But be sure to take time to yourself outside of your home office or studio to simply be with your thoughts.
2. Shape your environment for success.
Working from home undoubtedly has its perks: You can take calls in your underwear and raid the fridge for a healthier lunch than you might grab on the go or in the office. But this newfound flexibility is a double-edged sword. In your less structured home environment, you will probably feel more easily distractible. One way to mitigate this is to design your workspace for success.
Designate a specific area of your home – whether it’s a specific table, chair, or couch – as your workspace, then fill this space with material cues that will help you get into gear. Gather all the tools you will need for your work so you won’t be tempted to wander through the house in search of supplies, and decorate your workspace with things that inspire (and won’t distract) you. The mind unconsciously associates physical space with specific activities, so the more you can design your space for the creative work you want to do, the better.
3. Create a flexible, time block schedule.
It’s in times of crisis that our mundane routines become more important than ever. Though it may seem impossible amidst such uncertainty, try to map out a flexible schedule to ground you and help you stay on track. Carve out 45-90 minute blocks of time that you will dedicate to specific activities, be it work, chores, reading, or relaxation. Give yourself Post-It sized, specific tasks and make your goals for these time blocks as specific as possible. Then plug these blocks into your daily or weekly schedule and commit to focusing on that one activity for each chunk of time.
Our peak productivity ebbs and flows throughout the day: Some of us may work best before the sun even rises while others don’t get their creative minds in gear until well after sunset. Try to pay attention to your work rhythms, and adapt your schedule accordingly. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention: “we must experiment until we discover the best timing for work and rest, for thought and action, for being alone and for being with people.”
4. Take truly regenerative breaks with wonder interventions.
Too often, our “breaks” from work are just other types of “work” in disguise or brain-draining distractions that leave us more depleted than when we started. Instead of defaulting to social media or mindless email sorting on your breaks, design your breaks with intention and disrupt your work with wonder interventions.
Wonder interventions are practices that can momentarily dissolve habitual patterns of perception, open your mind with surprising delight, and train you to glean fresh insights to daily, spiritual, and creative challenges. Wonder interventions can clear the mental debris that often makes us immune to change and wary of the unknown. And we know that the unknown is the province of true wonder and enchanting creativity. Take walks around your neighborhood or in a nearby wood. Virtually volunteer to help your community. Engage in meaningful conversations with the people you are sheltered with, or schedule regular video calls with colleagues, friends, and family to increase your other-focus and expand your awareness of the world during this insular time.
Actively pursue elevating activities that bring you joy, stoke your creativity, and prompt your appreciation and gratitude. This, in turn, will help encourage creative problem solving, novel ideas, and exploratory thinking.
5. Take care of Flow Foundations.
Most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Nourish your mind and your body with fuel to inspire your work and fend off infection. Take this time to engage in the artistic and leisure activities you normally don’t have time for, whether that’s gardening, reading a novel, or keeping a journal. Enjoy vibrant, fresh foods rich in antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. An alkaline diet can improve your immunity, reduce inflammation, and help with soft focus.
Don’t be tempted to use the lockdown as an excuse to not exercise. Studies show that vigorous exercise for 20 minutes a day can aid sustained focus, so try to move your body at least once a day by finding a practice that works for you. There are countless virtual exercise classes, from yoga to pilates to cardio, and such online communities can help keep you accountable in much the same way gym buddies can.
Finally, I encourage you to try a regular meditation practice. Even if you’ve never done it before, you can take advantage of the extra time on your hands to build 10 minutes of mindful meditation into your morning or evening ritual. Our default wiring will try to amp up the strange comfort of fret, regret, and confusion to distort our perception of the world, our life, and what is possible. Meditation can help you recognize your thought patterns, and when your brain is taking you down a rabbit hole of worry. By practicing mindfulness, you can save mental energy to improve your well-being, increase productivity, and expand creative insight.
I encourage you to test some of these tips for yourself this week and comment – either here or in the Facebook group – on your results.
Be well. Be safe. Find peace. Stay open.
Thanks for running with me,