What does it mean to be Pandemic Productive?

The stakes have changed, and so have we.

2020 has thrown a lot our way, and it’s not even over yet. In addition to a devastating pandemic, the worst wildfire season on record, political chaos, economic uncertainty, severe and repeated police brutality, unrelenting gender discrimination in the tech industry and beyond, not to mention whatever is going on personally for each and every one of us, it’s a wonder any of us are still standing. Being productive under these circumstances? That’s next level.

If being productive used to mean crossing items off our to-do list, now it means making it through the day with our sanity and maybe even dignity still intact, and ideally with enough energy left in the tank to do it all over again tomorrow. Some days it feels like a win just to crack open our laptop and sign into Slack. Still, we have to pay the bills, get groceries, ensure the boss men and ladies know we are indeed still working, and generally try to operate like fully functioning human beings despite everything that’s happening in the world and in our homes competing for our attention. If you’ve been feeling unmotivated, overwhelmed, too anxious to continue, or like your to-do list (if you’ve gotten around to creating one) is out to get you, you’re not alone.

How to manage? We have to be what I call pandemic productive.

Being pandemic productive means doing the best we can, knowing it’s the best we can do. It’s getting things done — albeit at a different pace, with different stakes, and with different gusto than before — and being kind to ourselves in the process.

It is not comparing ourselves to the colleague who feels more comfortable with a nanny than we do, and who is working more regular hours than we are as a result. Nor is it pretending that everything is normal and berating ourselves for not feeling more motivated at work. And it is definitely not looking at our to-do list with 2019 eyes, as if we could possibly accomplish everything we used to be able to do in the same amount of time, before the world lit on fire. Productivity in 2020 looks different because it has to: when the world has changed, we can’t expect to live and work like we did before.

Somehow, despite the chaos that is life now, in the past year I’ve managed to have a baby, write a book, ramp back into my 9–5 as a working parent, change roles, move across state lines, and keep my marriage and friendships in tact. (But don’t worry, I failed in many ways, too.)

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that though it certainly isn’t easy, it is possible to find a way through. Here are my top 10 tips on how to find your own slice of pandemic productivity amidst the chaos:

  1. Reset your expectations on what productivity looks like. (AKA: Lower your bar.) It is an understatement to say that we are dealing with a lot right now. If you’re staying healthy, you win. If you also have a job, you’re lucky. If your loved ones are safe, healthy, and employed, you’ve won the lottery. If any of those things are uncertain — even for a minute — it’s going to be hard to get anything done. Being productive during a pandemic is only possible if you’ve got the basics taken care of: health, safety, financial stability, and emotional wellbeing. If any of those are called into question, it’s time to reset expectations for what is possible. If my parents are at risk of getting ill, I won’t be able to concentrate. If a direct report doesn’t have an air purifier and the AQI has hit 200, I’m going to expect her work to take a hit. If news about gender discrimination at your company breaks and you have any women on your team, they’re going to be affected by it. And so on and so on.

Rather than try to power through and ignore your feelings about the state of the world, society, or home, give yourself the space to be human without feeling guilty about what you’re not getting to. Having some perspective and being gentle with yourself about what’s possible in these times goes a long way. You’ll be much more effective at whatever you’re trying to achieve if you give yourself space to process and allow the dust to settle first.

2. You must ruthlessly prioritize. Assuming your wellbeing is taken care of, the next most important thing is to practice supreme prioritization. Prioritization has always been fundamental to getting things done but the pandemic has introduced many more distractions and raised the stakes: You cannot afford to work on the wrong thing when you have a crying child, barking dog, overflowing inbox, etc, competing for your attention. So pick the 1–3 things that need to get done per day, week, and overall and stick with that. In my case, my top three were book, baby, and 9–5 for a long time. That’s why I went dark on so many friends (sorry), why I didn’t send out newborn announcement cards until my son was well past the newborn stage (better late than never?), and why I did not pick up any pandemic hobbies like bread-baking, origami, or whatever else everyone out there was having fun with.

To prioritize, I recommend considering two axes: Urgent x Important. If it has to happen immediately, it’s urgent. If it has clear value — back to you personally, or to the business, team, company, family, etc., it’s important. Ideally there is some overlap between that which you personally value and that which external parties (family, your workplace) value. This will likely leave you more motivated, and yield better results.

Ideally you work on a mix of high urgency + high importance (feeding your child, answering your VP’s request for information) and low urgency + high importance things (spending time with loved ones, baking a cake because it improves your mood, taking on future-oriented work). The goal is to avoid high urgency + low importance work (these are often requests that come from others and seem more important than they are, and cause us to be reactive in our work) and low urgency + low importance projects (like unnecessarily reformatting a deck for the third time as a way to procrastinate taking on the difficult stuff).

3. Forget trying to have the perfect schedule. Shit is gonna break. Your wifi is going to stall out, your dog is going to go bonkers during an important meeting, your child is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of what is supposed to be your heads-down time at work, the news you read will throw you in a tizzy, and it will be difficult to concentrate, much less get anything done. It’s OK, everybody. It’s going to happen! Try not to dwell, and move on.

4. Done is better than perfect. You are operating on limited time and energy. So send the email without re-writing it a billion times, get the kids dressed even if their outfits are wrinkled, or whatever else your version of done vs. perfect is. Maximizing is not a good use of time right now — you need that time to tackle other priorities.

5. Take meaningful breaks. Every hour of the day cannot be filled with A Task To Be Done. We’re humans, not robots, and we need breaks to refuel. While writing my book, at a certain part in the editing process my brain turned to mush. I could no longer tell if my changes were making my manuscript better or weaker; I was wasting time trying to be productive. It became clear I needed a meaningful break — something that would help me to stop working so that my brain could rest and recover. This is how I wound up baking the same strawberry cake three weeks in a row; I couldn’t think about edits while measuring out ingredients. Later, I could come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes and be much more productive. (Below, peak strawberry season and a helpful break from edits.)

Meaningful breaks are not only restorative, but they also make us better at whatever we were going to do next. They are behind why our best ideas come in the shower, or in moments when we are not trying to be productive. Baking, taking a phone-less walk, going for a drive, playing with the kiddos, catching up with friends and family can provide a welcome respite from work and free your brain to do what it needs to without your active involvement. Give your brain a rest and let it do its thing. Remember, taking a break is productive.

6. You need a strong support system. There is no way I could have written a book, had a baby, and managed my day job without the following:

  • A husband who took on all the grocery shopping, cooking, dog walking, erranding, and baby watching whenever I was not working on my top 3 priorities
  • Direct reports who continuously checked in on how I was doing sans childcare, and were always flexible when I had to move a meeting or get back to them during off hours
  • A manager who never made me feel guilty about having to work odd hours so I could also balance taking care of my family
  • Friends who regularly checked in on me and sent messages of encouragement that helped me stay motivated
  • My therapist
  • My family’s constant WhatsApp stream of messages, filled with all the right emojis to keep me going
  • The dog walker we hired when my husband and I realized something had to give
  • The babysitter we hired when my husband and I admitted we were struggling to keep up
  • Our neighbors, who became a pocket of sanity as the world got stranger and stranger, and offered just the excuse I needed to take breaks and relax

It is time to set aside the “do it alone” mentality, and put to bed the myth of the solo genius tinkering her way to discovery. The truth is, you can’t get anything done without being taken care of in other ways. Having a support system to nourish you emotionally, socially, mentally, and physically is part of what enables you to be productive.

7. If you can, outsource what you are not good at or cannot spend time on. See above. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford certain services that will get you time back, by all means do so; you’ll be supporting your local economy and small business owners while getting help at the same time. If finances are tight, look to your network. Maybe you have an in-law, neighbor, or family member who has offered to help with childcare, and you think it’s too much to ask. Let them help. Remember that while generosity and altruism benefit those on the receiving end (you), because it feels good to help out, givers get something out of it, too. Receiving help from loved ones can be a gift — for you, and them.

8. Design positive reinforcement mechanisms. I am someone who is motivated by seeing the output of her work. I love a to-do list I can cross off to see the fruits of my labor, and find going from a blank page to a ten-page document thrilling, even if I know I will later have to edit it down to half that amount. Seeing my progress in this way encourages me to keep going. That’s why when it came to writing my book, I built a giant spreadsheet to track my progress. When I work on the book, I log what I worked on (editing, writing, illustrating, etc.) and for how long. I mark deadlines, monthly milestones, and set tasks for each day. Is this excessive? Maybe, but it works for me: The more progress I see, the more invested I am in seeing my project through. Of course, a giant spreadsheet of this kind is not for everyone. Find what keeps you motivated and design a system to support that.

9. Connect with others. Intensely focusing on my top three priorities certainly made me productive, but after a while things didn’t go so well. I was so zoned in on taking care of the baby, finishing the book, and keeping my team happy at work that I began to neglect other priorities — like my relationships. I was a Book Robot/Nursing Body/Consumer of Calories on autopilot, and not very fun to be around. I had to make some changes to make sure I was still taking care of the relationships that matter most to me. Reprioritizing my relationships helped me realign my actions with my values (family first) and pass the time more meaningfully with others. Not only that, but doing so forced me to be more creative and disciplined about how to use my time effectively. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy time with my family guilt-free or make that important deadline. Finally, though connecting with cherished friends and family can feel at odds with finishing our work, it’s also true they are ultimately what sustains us to do great work. Many of us often do better work after restorative conversations with loved ones. Rather than distract us from achieving our goal, they can give us the energy we need to tackle our projects with more gusto than dread. Especially in times of crisis, these relationships can be nourishing.

10. Don’t forget to recharge. Firing on all cylinders all the time isn’t sustainable. Even though I understood this intellectually, I did not do a good job of recharging my batteries along the way. I know because when a new opportunity came my way at work, instead of being energized by the chance to work on something different, I was exhausted just thinking about it.

It is hard — especially given the circumstances — to rest and recover from this moment. Whether we are feeling like our most productive or least productive selves, the usual outlets for recovery — travel, seeing friends and family, treating ourselves to a good meal, a night out, or a trip to the nail salon — can these days bring more stress than relief, if they are possible at all. And though Zoom calls are plenty, they rarely fill our cup the way pre-pandemic hang time could.

But we have to find a way to recover from the stressors of our day-to-day — plowing through won’t take us far. Do your best to find ways to recharge, no matter how small. It doesn’t have to be fancy (who can be fancy these days, anyway?). In my case, watching the laundry machine run with my one-year-old turned out to be a surprisingly calming activity, and the occasional bubble bath felt perfectly indulgent. And ice cream. Lots of ice cream.

If 2020 is meant to teach us something, it’s safe to say it’s schooling us day after day. Right now, it’s okay to be a little less motivated, a little more distracted, and a little less productive relative to your normal output. We can still get things done in our own way.

What are you doing to be pandemic productive while still staying sane? Send recs, ideas, hunches, and hacks my way.

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Author, Listen Like You Mean It. UX researcher, TWTR, PINS, etc. I write about the intersection of technology + society + personal growth. ximenavengoechea.com