How to Be Productive in Existentially Stressful Times

Micro-control inoculates you against career stress, even when the future is weird and precarious

Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

Whether it’s the unemployment numbers, work-Slack-channel chatter, or the general state of things that’s feeding your anxiety, if you’re a human being with a job in the year 2020, you’re likely feeling concerned about your employment future.

The first time I was laid off — from what I thought was a dream job at a television network — I was devastated. I bounced back eventually, but that was only the first time I was laid off. And here’s what I’ve learned from my decades in the pathologically unstable field of digital media: The problem is bigger than you and, thus, utterly unsolvable by you. Stressing about whether you’re going to be laid off won’t actually help your career (or your mental health). And it ruins your day. What’s worked for me is going small. Call it micro-control.

Here are three small ways to feel more hopeful and be more productive.

Ask your boss uncomfortable questions

When career anxiety is making it hard for you to work well, it’s time to get real with your boss. If it feels possible given your relationship and their management style, try having a frank conversation about the current situation.

Are you worried that people are annoyed that your kids keep Zoom-bombing your staff meetings? Stressed about your industry’s health as a whole? Chances are that your boss is having the same concerns you are and wants everyone to be working as well as possible. Have a proactive conversation with your boss to assess whether your fears are founded and if so, to brainstorm a solution.

Elana Konstant, career coach and founder of Konstant Change Coaching, suggests telling your boss “that you want to perform as well as possible and just want to understand what is expected of you and the company in terms of deliverables given the circumstances.” This might not change anything if your industry is tanking or your company decides to downsize. But at least you will know you did what you could, controlled what you could control, and solidified a professional relationship you may need if a job change is imminent.

Schedule a 1:1 with a friend

An important way to put your stress into perspective, says clinical psychologist Lina D’Orazio, PhD, is to connect with the positive people in your life. True connection can really make a huge difference in your mood. So schedule meetings with people you don’t work with. “Plan at least one pleasurable activity a day. Collaborative activities like playing games with friends (even if it’s on an app) and talking on the phone are particularly helpful as social interactions have decreased or become entirely virtual.”

Grab your phone and take your friend for a walk-and-talk. “Phone conversations allow many people to stop worrying about what they might look like on Zoom and when done during walks can lead to deeper communications,” D’Orazio says. When you’re able to relax with a friend, it paves the way to have a meaningful conversation or vent session. And we all know the visceral relief that comes from just getting things off your chest.

Seize the next 15 minutes

I can now recognize that when I got laid off from that television network dream job, the worst part of living through it was actually the month before those mass layoffs: The office gossip, the constant speculation, and feeling anxious every time senior staff went into a conference room. Engaging in that chatter wasn’t productive and only led to more stress. I should have had my head down and stayed focused on my personal goals.

I’ve always told the teams I’ve worked with that the best way to keep your job is to keep doing your job well. Make yourself valuable and try to stay focused on what you can control — yes, even when you have no faith in the future. (That one’s out of your control, remember?)

If you’re struggling to slog through the workday with the weight of the world on you (and who could blame you?), try breaking up your work into bite-sized increments. Focusing on small, achievable goals will cut down your stress, I promise. As D’Orazio says, “Getting even a tiny task done can make you feel more productive, and feeling good about what you accomplished helps a great deal moving forward.”

Work through chaos by making a daily to-do list of the tasks you need to accomplish each day so that you know what’s next and when you’re done; use the Pomodoro technique of timing focused work sessions and interspersing with breaks; and block off time on your calendar to work on your most high-priority projects so that your day doesn’t get eaten up by little administrative tasks.

Finally, at the beginning of every day, do the small task of going big. Really big. Bigger than your job, your industry, or even your career.

“Free yourself from the trappings of traditional American productivity culture,” D’Orazio says. “Instead, try to accept that how we work might always be different from this moment forward. And that we’re all still trying to figure everything out. … You aren’t alone.”

Your work is important to you, of course. But in the end, you are more than your job.

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