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Not productive? No problem.

By Tim Herrera, Published Oct. 22, 2020Updated Oct. 23, 2020, 7:00 a.m. ET

It’s a normal part of having a job: the slump.

You don’t feel motivated, your inspiration is just gone, your excitement for work is just not what it used to be. This is all fine! Whatever your job is, this is going to happen.

Pulling yourself out was never particularly easy — as I wrote before here about a year ago — but there used to be a few steps you could take. Find meaning in your work. Change your routine. Learn something new.

But in the year since I wrote that, a pandemic upended every aspect of modern life, a racial reckoning swept through society, more than 220,000 have died and hundreds more are dying every day, millions of people have lost their jobs, a relentlessly divisive election season is consuming our attention, and, oh, right, we’re staring down the barrel a bleak, bleak winter.

Amid all of this, we’re still expected to work? And that’s if we’re even lucky enough to still have jobs? It’s a lot!

So what are we to do? Do those old tricks for busting out still apply? How do we stay motivated right now, seven months into a pandemic with no end in sight? Or, maybe more helpfully: How do we reconcile with the impossibility of maintaining full motivation and productivity as we settle into what will be our normal for the foreseeable future?

Of course you feel less motivated in both your work and personal lives — everything has changed, and acting as if we simply adapt and get back to our normal routines and levels of output only makes things worse, experts said. The cultural disruption we’re facing is unlike anything anyone has experienced before. Accepting that it’s OK to not feel as inspired as you did a year ago can help us adjust to this new way of life.

“Allow yourself some grace,” said Dr. Danielle Hairston, an assistant professor at the Howard University College of Medicine and the director of its psychiatry residency program. “Change and modify your expectations. Everyone is not starting a new business, a new venture, a new platform, doing new research, a new diet or exercise plan during this time. I think that’s what is portrayed a lot, especially on social media.”

She added: “This country is going through a collective grief.”

The perception that we’re not doing enough, Dr. Hairston said, can be damaging to our psyches and can be a demotivator in itself. An important step of just getting through the day is to acknowledge that it’s normal and perfectly fine not to be productive or motivated.

Indeed, the added stress of feeling like you can’t keep up just compounds the problem and makes you even less motivated and inspired, said Arianna Huffington, the founder and C.E.O. of Thrive Global, which aims to help people deal with burnout and stress.

“It’s the productivity paradox: For the last couple of decades, we have just focused on productivity, how do we optimize work flows, how do we have tech tools that make us more productive, how do we get more out of each minute,” she said. “Now what we’re seeing, and there’s some research, is that stress and anxiety kill productivity. So you can have the most optimized work flows and tech tools, but if you’re stressed out of your mind, you’re not going to be as productive.”

Beyond that self-acceptance and grace, there are other factors, both internal and external, that impact our resiliency in difficult times. Studies have shown that while personality and life experience can have some impact on your ability to deal with stress, having a support network of friends and family can help people get through periods of trauma and improve our ability to respond to stress.

Dr. Hairston said that leaning on those networks can help us process the world around us and give us coping mechanisms for dealing with the constant, ambient stress some people are feeling.

“You can still remain connected at a distance,” she said.

Dr. Hairston added that even something as simple as a stroll around your neighborhood can help.

“It might just be going outside and walking and seeing other people with your mask on. Like, ‘Oh, I am alive, there are other people around.’” she said. “Getting outside and seeing people walking around, just switching up your environment” can help remind you that not everything is doom and gloom.

Think back to the early days of the pandemic in March and April. For many people, it felt like constant chaos, uncertainty and unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. Everything was happening all the time, and no one had answers or solutions to any of it.

But as we settle into more than half a year of this, a different type of stress has crept in, said Liz Fosslien, co-author and illustrator of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work.”

“Everything has shifted. Now seven months in, every day is Groundhog Day. We’ve swung to the extreme other end of the pendulum. There’s no spark to life,” she said. “It feels like the color has been sucked out of everything.”

She went on: “It’s this weird place where we’re doing the same thing every day as the world around us moves faster and faster and faster, and that is just exhausting.”

“I feel like nothing is uncertain, and that’s really depressing,” she said.

Ms. Fosslien echoed Dr. Hairston’s advice about giving yourself grace and accepting that sometimes you’ll just feel uninspired, and said that making efforts to break up the monotony may help you grab a little spark of inspiration.

For example: We’ve all experienced something of an identity shift when it comes to work. For some that means working from home for the first time, for others it means continuing to work but in a dangerous and precarious environment, and for others still it may mean not working at all.

But remembering what gave your work meaning or joy in the Before Times and translating it to current times can help you break spells of demotivation, Ms. Fosslien said. If your favorite part of work was your co-workers, make extra effort to schedule a check-in. If it was learning new skills, seek out ways to continue to grow your skill set. Maybe you just loved picking your outfit every day — see if doing that again a few times per week can reinvigorate you.

“The core elements of motivation haven’t changed, but it’s trying to acknowledge that we’re under stress and that there are smaller things you can do that might get you through the days when the high-level stuff isn’t resonating,” she said.

Ms. Huffington uses this idea in her own working life, sometimes focusing on things completely outside of her job.

“I use my reset many times a day, it takes 60 seconds,” she said. “You basically put together the things that are joy triggers. It could be photos of people you love, pets, quotes, landscapes, music you love, a breathing pace.” In just 60 seconds, she said, you can change your mind-set, adding, “gratitude is the greatest antidote to stress.”

One thing we can’t do?

“Live as unconsciously as we lived before the pandemic,” Ms. Huffington said. “People who still think they can live their lives like that have the hardest time.”

Still, even the most qualified among us — like, say, a professor of psychiatry and practicing psychiatrist — are struggling right now.

“It’s definitely challenging,” Dr. Hairston said of her own troubles maintaining motivation and inspiration. “Pretending or saying that you’re OK when you’re not just makes things worse, and sometimes just releasing the expectation that everything’s OK and that you can get through this is the first liberating step.”

She added: “Remember who you are outside of this stress and adversity.”


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