How Do I Focus on Work When Everything Happening in the World Is so Stressful?

Here’s what you can do to set yourself up for productivity in your work and life.

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(Image credit: Westend61)

Every month, career coach Liz Bentley will be answering your candid questions about work, so you never have to stress about the office.

Do you have any tips on how to focus on work when everything happening in the world is so stressful?

Today’s work and life environment is incredibly stressful, which makes it hard to stay focused and avoid being overwhelmed by unproductive fear. Every time we turn on the media, we hear about the devastation the COVID virus is causing and see people who are suffering. Most of us are now physically isolated, trying to navigate relationships and new routines from our home as grim news surrounds us.

During these challenging times, it’s difficult to stay productive and innovative and yet it is critical. Turning our mind to work and being able to keep building toward the future—despite all the uncertainty that faces us in the present—will help us stay calm and in a growth mindset, which is what we all need to move forward.

Here’s what you can do to set yourself up for productivity in your work and life.

1. Know what you can control and what you cannot.

As the famous serenity prayer says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Having that wisdom right now is critical. We have to live in the moment and work with what we can control instead of panicking over what we cannot. So let’s get clear on what we have control over like how we manage our safety, our health, our fitness, our free time, and our work. We had control over many of these same things previously, but the difference is that the environment in which we control them has changed.

While you may be separated from your colleagues and working at home in sweatpants, you still need to establish routines in order to exert control over your "new normal." Remember, you control when and how you start your day, where you set up your work space and what distractions you choose to allow in. You need to be purposeful about everything that has an influence over your thinking, your relationships, and your work product. Of course, there are things you cannot control. For example, if your children are home and there is ambient noise during a videoconference call, most everyone will understand these days and take it in stride. Just remember to control what you can.

2. Stay out of unproductive fear.

While fear can be our friend in that is pushes us into action and warns of necessary danger, it can also work against us by shutting us down. This can essentially freeze our action, creating anxiety and paralysis instead. COVID-19 can feel so scary that many people have allowed their fear to overwhelm them. But when fear works against us, three detrimental character traits surface:

Pay attention to your own fear levels and whether they are impacting your ability to work in the moment. If you find that any of the above negative thinking patterns are surfacing throughout the day, take a few minutes and just breathe. Then try to shift your thinking by reflecting on what you are contributing to our collective battle against this pandemic by social distancing, how the brave frontline workers are keeping us safe and fed, and what you are doing to weather this storm. And remember, now more than ever you need to have faith—the belief system in yourself and your ability to succeed no matter the obstacles. Faith is what keeps us going during the hardest of times as it helps us believe we can survive anything.

3. Shut down your bad habits.

This is not a time for your bad habits to surface and control you. You do not want to come out of this time 20 pounds overweight, an alcoholic, or whatever your vice is. Now is a time for discipline and structure. Your mindset is critical to your success so if you are engaging in productive behavior, you will feel great. But if you get sucked into laziness, your mood will downshift and you will start to feel depressed and fall victim to your bad habits. Remember that self-discipline is something you can control which by extension will help you control your productivity.

4. Take a break from the news.

While it is important to watch the news and get the latest updates, do not get addicted to it. While we know this is a very serious situation, watching the drama unfold all day can be a mindset killer. Designate specific times to check in: for example, first thing in the morning and/or before dinner. And definitely avoid watching or reading about bad news before bedtime, as that can impact your ability to sleep, which is critical to staying healthy and focused. Also be sure to seek out positive and humorous stories as they can lift your mood and connect you with the best and most resilient part of humanity.

While there is so much in our lives out of our control, there is so much still in our control—it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. Now more than ever we need to adapt to these times quickly so that we can stay productive and manage our lives successfully. It is our time to rise. In hardship, we show our true colors, and it is in the struggle that we are forced to grow. So take this time to be the best version of yourself and stay focused.

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Liz Bentley

Liz Bentley is the founder of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs for individuals and companies. Drawing upon her background in psychology, previous experience in sales and management, and a lifetime of experience in competitive sports, Liz has a unique appreciation of mindset and the power it has to change patterns of behavior. Liz received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia and her coaching certification from New York University.