How to Stay Motivated When Your Job Isn’t Saving Lives
A global pandemic can make that sales report due Thursday feel less urgent
Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your name will not be used.)
Dear Laura: I’m having a hard time focusing on my job these days. I spend big chunks of my day reading headlines and feeling anxious. But it’s not just economic worries or concerns about safety. I also feel like my work isn’t particularly important, compared with the magnitude of the pandemic. I’m not saving lives or helping others in a significant way. Any tips for staying motivated?
Plenty of people are having trouble focusing at work these days. Emotions play a huge role in productivity. When we feel threatened, it’s hard to focus on anything except the threat. With our current threat dragging out for the foreseeable future, we have to learn to live with these uncomfortable emotions — and that’s tough.
Fortunately, there are a few strategies that can help with focus, even in challenging times.
First, set boundaries for yourself when it comes to news consumption. You can be an informed citizen by just checking the news once a day. Check the news when you are best able to deal with it — maybe right before you go for a walk or call a friend. Both of these produce positive emotions, which help you process and counter the negative ones.
When you need a break from work, don’t automatically turn to your phone. Instead, do some exercise or meditate, get some low-key housework done, or even just treat yourself to some time reading a book or watching a movie. A break that relaxes you is better than one that leaves you anxious.
Second, create a limited set of intentions for your work each day. When you’re feeling worn down, you won’t get through a 20-item to-do list, but a three-item list may feel doable. Progress is motivational. You might finish the short list and feel good enough to go do something else. But even if you don’t, you can celebrate what you have accomplished.
Third, build enjoyable and meaningful activity into your work hours. Socializing is good for your morale and productivity: That’s why modern offices include common areas for lunch or chatting. So even if you’re working from home, why not plan a video conference lunch with a colleague?
Make sure that each day includes the aspect of your work you find intrinsically motivating. What are your favorite parts of your job? What drew you to the job in the first place? These activities deserve to land on your schedule frequently — especially now that other sources of pleasure aren’t so accessible.
Of course, this brings us to the second part of your question: whether your work is important. Difficult times naturally make us examine our choices. There’s nothing wrong with this. If you have been thinking about changing your career or work life for a while, now might be a good time to mull your next steps (more on that to come in my next column). Set aside some time to think about how you might want to permanently shift your focus — perhaps the time you would have spent commuting each day. Develop a plan. Sit with it for a while. See how it feels.
But if you generally enjoy your work — at least when the world isn’t falling apart — then what you might need is a shift in perspective. Think more broadly about how your work improves the world. You might not be developing a coronavirus vaccine, but maybe your organization sells products or services that make people happy. Maybe your role at work helps people learn or be their best selves. Maybe your income enables your family to have a good life. You can and should feel proud of these things. Reminding yourself of your “why” can help you stay motivated.
You can also take small actions that do help counter the human cost of the pandemic: Text or call an elderly relative; buy a gift card from a struggling local restaurant; or send a thank you card to the nurses at a nearby hospital. If you want to take on some volunteer work, there are things you can do to help coronavirus researchers and people struggling during the pandemic right now, from home. These can all help the days feel more meaningful.
And finally, be gentle with yourself. Few people on the planet have lived through something like this before. Ten years from now, your family will still be telling stories about how you coped through the coronavirus epidemic. You probably won’t be swapping tales of whether that report got written by Wednesday or Thursday.
If you’re a little slower than normal, don’t sweat it. When life gets back to normal — which it eventually will — you’ll have seen what you can do, even in rough circumstances. And that will give you the motivation to soar.