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Swipe This! I can’t focus in quarantine

Can you perform at a normal level of productivity in abnormal times?

May 22, 2020, 4:26 pm*

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Nayomi Reghay 

Nayomi Reghay

“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

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Dear Swipe This!

Lately my productivity has reached a new low. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t focus. My days in quarantine are a mess. I remember when quarantine first started, people were saying how this would be a great time to get things done. I knew that was never going to be me. I’m sharing my apartment with my husband and our two kids, so writing a bestselling novel was never going to be an option. But I thought I’d eventually adjust to this new normal. Now, we’re more than two months in, and I’m finding it’s harder than ever to manage my time.

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I know I should be grateful to be working. Lots of my friends have lost their jobs, and I’m lucky to have a relatively stable situation. But working remotely has been a nightmare. I used to be able to escape to the office for a few hours each day and get things done. To borrow some language from my 11-year-old, staying home sucks. 

The main thing I’m having trouble with is switching between duties during the day. I wanted to break down my day so each hour has a focus, like 8am breakfast and cleanup, 9am emails, 10am yoga. But each day I’m overwhelmed running between tasks. The kids need constant attention, and work never seems to stop. I keep hoping one part of my life will calm down so I can focus on another. But every time I send an email or open a tab, it seems there are a million little follow-up tasks.

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I can’t focus long enough to get things done. Every schedule I’ve tried to create has been an instant failure.

Also, since everything is online now, I’m constantly bombarded with texts, emails, and DMs. The temptation to procrastinate on Facebook and Instagram is very tough to resist. I tried site-blockers and deleted the apps from my phone, but then I just mega-deep cleaned the apartment instead of focusing on work. And of course, a day later, the kids got it dirty again.

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I’m at my wit’s end. How can I get back to a normal level of productivity?

Sincerely,

Lazy and Exhausted

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Dear Lazy and Exhausted,

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So you’re not getting everything done in quarantine, and you want to know how you can be better. You could start a bullet journal. Who doesn’t love a nice decorative to-do list? You could also experiment with productivity life hacks. There are probably at least five TED Talks with your name on it.

Or you could just let yourself be for once. 

These are abnormal times. So how can you expect yourself to perform at a normal level of productivity?

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My personal recipe for productivity in quarantine is extremely mathematical. First, consider everything you would like to do in a day. All activities in quarantine take three times as long as normal. Once you have accounted for this, you must divide that amount of work in half. And that is the amount that you can actually do. That’s it, I’m sorry, there are no exceptions for addition, although you can always continue to halve your work ad infinitum.

I know you want to do more. But trust me: You need to do less.

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That may not be the answer you came for, but it’s the answer I’ve got. As someone with a long personal history of practicing procrastination and self-beratement for sport, I have to tell you, there is no magic bullet for what you’re experiencing. But there is plenty to be gained by easing way up on your expectations for yourself.

My favorite wisdom on this comes from Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn is an incredibly accomplished actress, and she has continued to work and stay very active well into her 70s and 80s. But she loves to schedule days where she does absolutely nothing. In a 2014 Death, Sex and Money interview, she describes what she calls a “should-less day.”

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On should-less days, Burstyn eats ice cream. She watches TV. She naps. She doesn’t call herself lazy. Instead, she tells herself, this is a should-less day.

My friend, you need a should-less day.

Maybe that seems impossible given what’s on your plate. But I would enlist your husband’s help and tell him you need a should-less afternoon, or at the very least a should-less hour. If you’re feeling generous, tell him you’ll return the favor at some point. And then take that time to do whatever the hell you want.

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If you don’t believe me yet, consider this: Doing nothing is good for your health. It stimulates creativity, and frequent doses of “nothing” can boost your overall mood. On the other hand, cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, is detrimental to your health

If you really want to improve your focus, yelling at yourself to get things done will get you nowhere fast. Letting yourself have a little time to meander without shame, however, might actually do you good!

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While I was writing this column, for example, I had to stop because my search for the interview where Ellen Burstyn explains should-less days led me to an interview where she talks about her sixteen-year-old rescue dog, Zoe. And I needed to read about Zoe, okay?

I didn’t yell at myself. I just gave myself a few minutes. And then I gently reminded myself of my task.

Not that striking this balance is easy. Nothing, right now, is easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give ourselves momentary reprieves from all the pressure that surrounds us.

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Learning to navigate the right amount of pressure versus the right amount of rest takes practice and experimentation. But right now, you’ve got lots of practice with putting the pressure on and very little with giving yourself a break. 

So please. Give yourself a should-less day. Your brain will thank you.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

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*First Published: May 23, 2020, 6:00 am