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How to stay balanced and productive during uncertainty and crisis

I shy away from writing the "sound bites" style of posts that are common in the productivity/lifehack realm, such as "21 tips to beat procrastination" and "5 ways to listen better." While the format is attractive and accessible (and relatively easy to write!) I've focused more on longer and hopefully deeper ideas and analysis. That said, today I want to provide some targeted help for dealing with a time of upheaval, in this case via a laundry list [1] of ideas for staying balanced and productive.

The news these days in the US and increasingly the world is grim. The possible collapse of our economy, a presidential election that's literally indistinguishable from satire [2], and unparalleled crises in energy and climate. With this kind of uncertainty, I find it extremely difficult to stay focused and productive. Then it hit me that 1) These really are big issues, 2) a drop in personal productivity is natural, and 3) there are things we can do to ameliorate some of the impact on our ability to work.

I'd like to offer up some ideas that I hope will help. I'd love to hear yours too.

In no particular order:

  • Acknowledge this is a big deal: We are in the midst of major changes, ones the severity of which this country hasn't experienced for generations. So cut yourself some slack! It is natural for these to have an impact; you're not alone on this. Also realize that this will absolutely have a significant impact now and in the future, at least for a while. So starting adaptation now is a good investment in yourself.

  • Get perspective: Read your history: We're a resilient species (there's a reason we were able to take over the planet) and we can handle this. Try to step back and analyze the situation from a distance. Give yourself some time to grapple with things before you make big decisions. This regrouping will help you rise above the panic. You may want to review your higher-level goals, perhaps doing a yearly review. What has changed in light of what's going on?

  • Cultivate an attitude of curiosity: I've found it extremely helpful to look at the current situation as an experiment [3]. This changes my fight-or-flight response to one of inquiry, instilling what I call "a sense of healthy detachment." Additionally, having an "I wonder what will happen" attitude acknowledges you don't know the outcome, but gives you the possibility of guaranteed success: You'll find out! I guarantee, no matter what happens in the coming months, you will learn a lot about yourself and your world. Can we look at this as a good thing?

  • Stay present: It's easy to get wrapped up in the unknown of the future, but recall the wisdom behind some meditation disciplines: The past is over and the future hasn't happened yet, so living can only happen in the moment. This also helps us appreciate what we have right now. Yes, things could change dramatically, but can you continue to enjoy all that you have today? It's probably a lot! Related: Living In The Moment, Preventing Regret, And Appreciating Life.

  • Downgrade expectations: Because you've realized you're in a time of change, you should reduce what you think you can accomplish at work and home. Cutting back on responsibilities, back-burnering projects (put them in what David Allen calls a "Someday/Maybe" category), and clearing out your calendar and actions lists can create some needed space for coping. Is this hard? You bet! My clients are smart and ambitious, and have set the bar high. But this may not be the time for maximum performance, so let go of the guilt.

  • Work the emergency: If you're reading my blog you probably have a good system for self-management. This gives you an important advantage over those who don't have one: You're in good shape to maintain control and take action in response to the crisis. Managing the crisis is a new higher-level goal, so track it. Create projects to adapt as you see fit, e.g., moving funds, planning for outages, changing jobs, etc. As my wife put it, if your own house is in order and not chaotic then you feel like things are in hand. This will also help channel some of your nervous energy into something productive.

  • Maintain your health: This can be tricky. On the one hand you need to stay strong and focused, which means continuing to exercise and eat well. OTOH you need to give yourself room to temporarily simplify, including doing less prep for meals (pizza anyone?) You'll also probably enjoy eating comfort foods, but try to limit quantities. Finally, try to schedule some renewal time as soon as you can to take care of yourself.

  • Keep some of your routine: While there's a temptation to let a lot go due to a motivation drop, try keeping at least one activity from your regular schedule to maintain some sense of stability. Read to your kids, take a walk with your mate, or sit down together for dinner.

  • Reconnect with others: One of the healthiest and most supportive things to consider during rapid change is to tap into your social network. And there is evidence that people with wider social networks live longer [4] Let's use the potential of hard times to bring us closer together.

  • Seek out inspiration and wisdom: We humans have gone through massive changes before, and learned from it. Check out some inspiring books that appeal to you - treasured thinkers, religious works, and favorite authors can help us feel better. Earlier in the year when I was dreading having my wisdom teeth removed I found Victor Frankl's timeless Man's Search for Meaning to change my perspective.

  • Comfort yourself: This is a natural time to be comforted. Kids like hugs and singing from their parents, and we should do the equivalent for ourselves. For me, enjoying drinking chocolate does that. Other activities include listening to music, gardening, meditation, being with others, and exercise. A warning about food, though: Going overboard is counter productive. I've found doing things with others adds practical limits, more so than binging alone on a pint of ice cream, say.

  • Tap into humor: It's waaaaaay easy to get serious about this ... serious stuff, so try to balance things by injecting some humor into your life. Take in books, movies, TV [5], or audio that makes you laugh. For me David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) and Jack Handey (see Deep Thoughts On Personal Productivity By Jack Handey) are good stand-bys. Finally, try resetting your Reticular activating system to tune in to funny situations in life (more on that application here). I've played with keeping a humor log and using Twitter for humor training (even though I've sworn it off - see A Late Adopter's Productivity Experiment With Twitter, Plus Some 140 Word Humor). And guess what - it seems that happy people live longer.

  • Practice selective ignorance: During these times there's a role for faith. Trusting things will work out (even if you're a natural "black hat," as Edward de Bono puts it in Six Thinking Hats) is comforting. I think of this as conscious suspension of the perceived facts, or selective ignorance. Try starting a daily gratitude practice such as keeping a journal of things that went well each day.

  • Go on a radical news diet: In our family it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day changes in the crisis, esp. with the primarily fear-based media in our world. This tends to feed on itself and create more anxiety. So try this: Stop listening to the news for an entire week. Often either nothing significant changes, or if anything big happens, your friends will tell you. Talk about useful delegation! Here's more from the Subtract section in Productivity Lessons From Basic Math:
    Try going on a media diet by cutting out TV and news. TV is mostly crap (sorry!) and news is rarely important or durable. Try this: Remove all news from your life for a week - radio, TV, papers, and web sites. I'd wager that very little of what you missed is still important now. And relax: You'll find out about big things from your people.

  • Help someone: Nothing gets you out of your head quicker than helping someone else. It feels good, gives you a sense of accomplishment, and can be relatively easy to do. I like this thought of Frankl's:
    The truth is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.
    Kindness is essential during chaos or a crisis.

  • Look for opportunities: Cliches about silver linings aside, in times of great change opportunities open up. Mark McCormack in What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School suggests that during a crisis we: 1) Don't react, 2) give yourself time to think about it, then 3) analyze for potential opportunity.

  • Realize you are the hero: There's a new story being written, whether we like it or not, and we're the protagonists. And crisis is one of the the classic story types. Cliff Atkinson identifies ten of them in Beyond Bullet Points: historical narrative, crisis, disappointment, opportunity, crossroads, challenge, blowing the whistle, adventure, response to an order, revolution, evolution, and the great dream. Great list! Even if we can't "Envision it a quest, not a crisis" (from Listening to Midlife), maybe we can still give ourselves a little credit for having the courage to take this on.


  • [1] In "The secrets of consulting," Gerald Weinberg compares laundry lists and checklists. Laundry lists remind you of different items that you might have forgotten, but would be useful. Checklists are similar, but contain items that must be present. Clearly I haven't teased this apart well enough yet... Thoughts?
  • [2] The Republican choice for vice president has been good fodder in particular. Consider this Countdown analysis (full spoof here).
  • [3] In fact, treating life as a series of large and small experiments is a major shift in my thinking, and is the topic of a my new book project - applying the scientific method to living. Stay tuned!
  • [4] For example: Friends 'help people live longer', Make friends, live longer
  • [5] For me, Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have been a godsend to help me stay sane. Thanks, folks!

Reader Comments (10)

I feel that this kind of tips are as needed for individuals to cope and the economy to revive, than all the concrete actions done by governments and financial institutions.

Actually, if you look at the word "crisis", it has roots in the ancient Greek word "krisis", which translates to decision or choice. At the time of a crisis, the individual is forced to exercise his or her power to shape the future. And ultimately it is the collective action of masses of individuals, that end up defining what will happen.

I would like to add to the downgrading of expectations, that although it's very important not to burn yourself out, you also need to focus your efforts to things which are crucial to your work or your home. One of the side effects of an economical crisis is that the production capacity lowers. This has to be acceptable as long as the customers who still have money remain happy. So by focusing on your "customer interface" at work and at home, you will be able to skip lower priority and "some day/maybe" category items.

Myself, I like to go to the epigrams of Ashleigh Brilliant for wisdom and humor. http://www.ashleighbrilliant.com/

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterErkki Tapola

Much appreciated! And I love Ashleigh Brilliant's "Pot Shots." I've seen the "Parts of me..." T-shirts, of course.

> the individual is forced to exercise his or her power to shape the future

Well put. In that sense it's a real test.

> And ultimately it is the collective action of masses of individuals, that end up defining what will happen.

Yes! I think we've here in the states led comparatively comfortable lives, which is not a motivator for change. "When the status quo is good, why change it?" I was in the same boat until Nader kicked my butt this weekend when I saw him speak at Umass. Time to get cracking...

> focus your efforts to things which are crucial to your work or your home

Thanks for including that.

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Matthew, thanks a million for the reference to [ The Secrets of Consulting. | http://www.geraldmweinberg.com/Site/Consulting_Secrets.html ]

I learned about laundry lists vs. check lists from Herb Hellerman, many years ago. Stealing ideas from others is an important item on my laundry list--but it always includes giving credit when I can, as you obviously do, too.

At the very least, references help readers trace back to the original--and tracing ideas to origins is always a centering idea for me in panic times. Let's you feel how you are part of an unbroken web--a web that will probably survive the current "crisis."

Anyway, I'll be referring lots of readers to your marvelous laundry list. Thank you, Jerry Weinberg

October 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGerald M. Weinberg

Thanks for your comment.

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thank you for reminding me how to get back to my life. The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. It's so easy to get caught up in crises, whether it is as serious as this or even smaller, that you needs to stop and get grounded.

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSilke

Much appreciated. P.S. I liked the pumpkin forms - a good lighthearted activity to take my mind off things. Thank you.

October 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Matthew -

We at www.welleducator.org would like to link to your page. Teachers are under a great deal of stress these days, and the information you provided here on staying balanced in times of crisis is really valuable!

Wonderful posting!

Thanks, Fran. Link away!

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
These are some great tips that I've used to great effect. In fact, I'm in a middle of a media diet which is working wonderfully.

Top-notch advice!

I actually prefer the thought out articles because they offer so much more value and immersion to the reader.
June 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
Thanks, Andy.
June 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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