Many of my clients are asking me some version of the same question: Why can’t I get anything done right now? In spite of having more free time at home, they are totally lacking motivation to do work. Others want to get work done, or spend time on hobbies or reading, but are finding they can’t focus at all because their minds keep wandering (often to anxious thoughts). I’ve just identified two key problems that are roadblocks to productivity: one is boredom, the other is stress. As a therapist working with clients who struggle with ADHD and anxiety disorders, I have over a decade of experience coaching people on strategies to increase their motivation and reduce their stress in order to be able to focus and function productively in school and at work. Even if you didn’t suffer with inattention or anxiety before, these problems are very real now, and finding effective strategies to cope and to function better are incredibly important as we move forward.
Here is the bottom line: To get work done, we need to be “in the zone” where we are both motivated enough to do work and calm enough to tolerate doing it. What I’m referring to here is the “Arousal Theory of Motivation,” or the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This theory states that there needs to be enough arousal to perform a task (a little stress helps alertness and focus), but not too much or it will impair functioning (too much stress makes us overwhelmed). When there’s no stimulation, there’s no adrenaline so there’s no productivity – it’s like hoping a match will light when there’s nothing to strike it against. When there’s too much stress, it’s like a fire alarm going off in our brain – our thoughts get hijacked by our anxiety and the cortisol (stress hormone) coursing through our bodies undermines our ability to focus. But when there is enough stress/stimulation/arousal, and not too much of it, we can find ourselves in the optimal zone for productivity and performance. Here’s what that looks like:
So here’s the pandemic productivity problem: COVID19 has most of us in a state of boredom and heightened stress, often at the same time. We need new strategies to find the “optimal zone” of arousal and tolerance – enough motivation to start focusing, and calm enough in order to tolerate focusing. We are personally, and existentially, stressed by multiple factors related to this pandemic – whether it is our own financial uncertainty, or distress about others’ suffering, or fearing for a loved ones’ health, our stress right now is globally through the roof. It’s pretty hard to focus when we are so upset and worried. Meanwhile, we are stuck in our homes, without commutes, social contact, routines, travel, etc. -i.e. we are totally bored. Boredom might not be the biggest problem right now, but it has a real impact on our ability to feel motivated to get anything done.
Here are some solutions to find your “Optimal Zone” for productivity:
First, get a read on each of these two measures for yourself. Then use some strategies for reducing your stress, and increasing your motivation.
- Stress Reduction: If your stress is on a scale from 0 to 10, you want to be below a 7 in order to do work. Your two options for reducing stress are reducing stressors, or reducing your stress response. Reducing stressors looks like outsourcing tasks (asking your partner, friends, colleagues for help and/or assigning it), or choosing to say no or let go of certain goals or tasks (can a project be turned down or deferred? Can you loosen your expectations for homeschooling your kids?). Reducing your stress response involves interruption of the stress state with relaxation strategies to try to turn off the fight-or-flight response, and mindfulness strategies during lower stress states to prevent the fight-or-flight response. These are my top recommended strategies: Top 10 Coping Strategies to Reduce Stress
- Increasing Motivation: If your motivation on a scale of 0 to 10 towards starting a task is at below a 3, you are going to really struggle. When you are bored and drowsy, you are not about to start or finish a big pile of work! There are three ways to increase your motivation: change your environment, change your mindset, change your physical state. Look at your work environment – do you have a home office or a desk (don’t try to do work in bed- it impairs your work and your sleep!)? Is it a clean space that looks inviting and interesting to work in? Do you need to add anything to decorate it, or put up sticky notes for visual cues (reminders, motivational quotes, etc)? Examine your mindset – are you encouraging yourself to do work or making excuses to procrastinate? What larger goals is your task linked to? And lastly, rev your engine physically by doing a burst of cardio before setting out to do your work- that adrenaline can help get you into a more productive state for work. For those of you who have a lot of trouble with focus, here are my top recommended strategies: Executive Functioning: Top 10 Strategies