If you’re like us, you’re probably ecstatic to see 2020 almost in the rearview mirror.
The past year has been full of stress, anxiety, and unwelcome changes to the way we work and live. Yet one thing we’ve learned is that when life becomes uncertain, the best thing to do is invest in yourself.
As entrepreneur and writer Darius Foroux told us in an interview earlier this year about building mental resilience during a crisis:
“You always want to focus on the things you can control. And the most powerful things you can control are your effort and skills.”
With the end of the year upon us, we decided to take this advice to heart.
Instead of wasting space with a list of most-read blog posts, we’ve dug deep into our research to uncover the hidden gems you can take into 2021 that will help you rebuild your focus, develop mental resilience, and find a sense of calm in an otherwise stormy world.
1. Develop an “indifferent” attitude to the things you can’t change
A global pandemic has a not-so-funny way of forcing you to realize how little control you have. Unfortunately, it’s not just massive external events that make you spiral into feeling overwhelmed.
There are numerous mental biases that add to the stress of your workday. Two of the worst offenders we learned about this year were:
- Time anxiety: The feeling that you never have enough time and/or that you’re not using the time you do have to the best of your ability.
- Productivity shame: When you never feel like you’ve done enough and/or that your work isn’t visible enough, so you work more and are constantly available on email and chat.
You can’t control how much time you have in a day or other people’s expectations in the same. Yet, paradoxically, it’s because we can’t control these elements that we focus so much time and energy on them.
Feeling confident and calm–in work and in life–requires living with these issues that are outside of your control. But how do you do that when they’re in your face every single day?
A few months ago, we spoke with entrepreneur and writer Darius Foroux about how to develop mental resilience during a crisis. However, rather than suggesting some modern productivity app or system, Darius turned to ancient philosophy: Stoicism.
Specifically, Darius spoke about the concept of indifference:
“In Stoic philosophy, there’s an idea called indifference. The basic premise is that you become indifferent to things that you label as indifferent. For example, if my copier breaks, instead of getting angry, I label it as indifferent. It’s not an important thing and doesn’t deserve your attention.”
It’s easy to label small annoyances as indifferent. But what about major concerns?
While no one’s saying you can ignore a crisis of health or at work, you can help to minimize the impact by instead focusing on what you can control: your strengths, interests, and purpose.
This starts with understanding what really matters to you–an important insight for all of us right now. If you’re unsure where your passion lies, try this exercise that Darius suggests:
- Focus on your strengths: We’re more motivated and focused when we do tasks we’re good at or find personal meaning in. When the rest of the world feels crazy, focus on what you can control.
- Uncover your hidden passions: If you’re unsure what brings you personal meaning, ask these two questions. The only answers you’re allowed to keep are ones that meet both criteria:
- What are you good at?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- Use your journal to analyze your beliefs: Self-reflection is a key part of developing mental toughness. That’s why Darius suggests journaling daily as a way to work through your thoughts privately and question your choices.
Put together, these actions create a sort of passion feedback loop–helping you to uncover, assess, and then reflect on what matters to you most.
2. Deprioritize tasks that are bringing you stress without any return
Prioritization is the key to productivity. So it comes as no surprise that one of our most popular posts of this year looked at how to prioritize your tasks. However, there’s a dark side to prioritization that people don’t like to talk about:
Once you’ve called something a priority it’s incredibly hard to stop working on it (even if you know you should).
In other words, what’s to say that what was a priority a month ago still is today? Especially now, with so much uncertainty, being able to rapidly reassess what’s important to you is a skill that deserves more attention.
We like to call this deprioritization.
If prioritizing is moving items to the top of your big list of things to do, then deprioritization is taking things off that list entirely. Yet while it’s easy to deprioritize some tasks, our brains hate to throw away the work we’ve put into things that felt like a priority at one point. (For this, you can thank more mental biases like the sunk cost fallacy, completion bias, and the Zeigarnik effect.)
Working on the right things is empowering and can help us stay motivated through even the hardest of times. So how do you find and then deprioritize those tasks that don’t deserve your attention anymore?
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Set limits on how long you’ll work on projects and tasks: Create friction at specific intervals to force you into reassessing your priorities.
- Create a ‘not to do’ list: What are you sure you don’t want to be doing now (or ever)?
- Use a weekly review to reassess your priorities: A structured process is a great way to ask ‘is this still important to me?’
- Isolate only the most impactful elements of important tasks or projects: Remember that prioritization doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
- Ask your team or boss what they think is important: When you’re feeling stuck, ask for outside input.
3. Rebuild your passion and curiosity after burning out
In many ways, learning to thrive in a post-pandemic world is a lot like coming back from burnout.
When you’re professionally burnt out, you lose all motivation to work. The things you do feel like they don’t matter. And it becomes harder to focus and be creative.
Likewise, the pandemic has been mentally and physically draining, and it’s impossible to think that you can push it aside and operate at 100%.
But millions of people have come back from burnout and found new ways to be motivated, focused, and creative. So what can you learn from them?
For your focus: Build your day around an “anchor task”
You’re more likely to feel unfocused when you’re overwhelmed or have too many things to do. Instead, making progress on a task–no matter how small–is a powerful way to rebuild your motivation and help you stay focused.
Atomic Habits author James Clear calls this finding an anchor task:
“Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done. I call this my ‘anchor task’ because it is the mainstay that holds the rest of my day in place.
The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that responsibility.”
For your passion: Focus on helping others.
In a study of workers across five generations, one of the most common qualities of people with high levels of job satisfaction and happiness was helping others.
Helping others can shine a light when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. However, it can often be hard to see how your work directly impacts others.
Instead, Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, suggests you should reflect on the people you work with and why you feel good about connecting with them:
“When people have shared values and connection they are more likely to feel positive about their work.”
For your creativity: Give yourself permission to fill the well
It’s hard to feel creative when you’ve been stuck indoors for months. But as architect and designer Emily Fischer writes,
“You have to feed yourself creatively. You have to give yourself that creative fuel.”
How you fuel your creativity is up to you, but try to find things that bring you joy and help you disconnect from work. You could go for a walk in nature, play a game online, or even take off an afternoon to watch movies.
As Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler says:
“We’ve all learned to answer email on Sundays, but none of us has learned to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.”
4. Take advantage of the flexibility of remote work by matching your internal clock to your workday
Early in the pandemic, we wrote about how the “new normal” workday should be shorter—50% shorter, to be exact.
This wasn’t just some clickbait-y title for those looking for an excuse to slack off. But a deep dive into the psychology of why the 8-hour workday should be a thing of the past and how to move forward productively.
Time and time again, research has shown that you only have 2.5–3 hours a day where you can be truly productive. Yet, a major source of stress for most of us is the fact that we’re expected to be producing thoughtful and creative work for 2–3X as much time a day.
Much of this comes down to the 9–5 office culture we’ve become accustomed to. However, with the rise of remote work expected to continue into 2021 and beyond, the question becomes:
Why keep working in a way that is essentially unproductive and stressful?
If your role allows it, one of the best things you can do as a new remote worker is to change the way you approach your day. Take advantage of the autonomy and flexibility to build a schedule that works for you.
Specifically, this means understanding that productivity is rarely a time issue, but an energy one.
You aren’t lacking the time to do things. You’re lacking the energy. Yet because we think we can control where our time goes each day but not our overall schedule, we choose to focus on the former and ignore the latter.
In one of our favorite posts from this year, we looked into how to uncover the workings of your internal clock and discover the window of time during the day where your energy levels are highest.
What we discovered is that your daily energy levels are dictated by your chronotype—a variation in your circadian rhythm that determines when your body needs rest.
While the most common chronotype is people who sleep from midnight to 8 a.m., 69% of others have a naturally earlier or later bedtime. This means 7 out of 10 people are being forced to work during times when they’re naturally tired and unenergetic.
Once you know your chronotype, however, you can match the start of your workday to the start of your first energy cycle. So how do you figure that out?
If you’ve got 5–10 minutes to spare, you can take the Automated Morningness–Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). Otherwise, try this 3-question test from author Daniel Pink:
- What time do you go to sleep on days when you aren’t required to be up by a certain time?
- What time do you wake up on those days?
- What’s the midpoint between those two times? (For example, if you go to sleep at 1 a.m. and wake up at 9 a.m., your midpoint is 5 a.m.)
Your midpoint will determine your chronotype:
- Before 3:30 a.m.: You’re a lark (i.e. you prefer an earlier wake-up time)
- After 5:30 a.m.: You’re an owl (i.e. you prefer a later wake-up time)
- In-between: You’re a “third bird”
Chronotypes don’t just impact when we should wake up but also when our energy levels peak during the day. At these moments, we’re most alert and are more likely to be productive, come up with creative ideas, and stay motivated and focused.
5. Use the “scientific method” to find your ideal working habits
Up to 40% or more of your daily actions are powered by habits. However, throughout the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to adjust and rebuild our habits (and have most certainly picked up a few bad ones).
Moving forward, it’s important to find the habits that work for you. So how do you do that?
This summer, we thought about all of the habits we’ve failed at building over the years. What they all had in common was that we didn’t have a clear process in place.
Like most people, our “process” for trying a new habit went like this:
- Pick a new habit to try and build
- Focus intensely on it for a few days
- Give up or forget about it
Instead, we started to think about how a scientist approaches a problem.
Unlike you or me, who wake up and decide to try some new “hack,” scientists run their experiments in a controlled environment. This way, they can track results and know exactly what happened and why.
This process is called the Scientific Method and can be used to answer any question—even “What methods or techniques make me most productive?”
To use the Scientific Method for Productivity, just follow these steps and use a productivity tracker like RescueTime to see your data and results.
- Question: What do you want to answer? At a high level this is probably “How do I get more done with the time I have?”
- Research: Build context around the question by reading blog posts, listening to podcasts, or looking elsewhere for potential solutions.
- Hypothesis: Pick a strategy to try and suggest what you think will happen. For example, “If I [try this productivity strategy] then [this result] will happen.”
- Experiment (and track data): Set a time period and some rules for your experiment and make sure you can track your results using a tool like RescueTime.
- Analyze results: Dig into your data. Did your hypothesis come true?
- Adjust, try again, or form a new hypothesis: If it didn’t work, why not? Choose a new hypothesis, adjust your experiment, and try again!
6. Create hard boundaries on excessive emails, all-day Zoom calls, and late-night work
Finally, one of the hardest things about the past year has been the full-on collapse of boundaries between work and the rest of your life.
Your home is now your office, gym, and social club, and it’s all too common to be confused whether it’s Monday afternoon or Saturday morning.
But we need boundaries in our lives. Not just to make sure we can leave work at work, but so that we can spend time on the people, projects, and interests that fill our lives with meaning.
What are your goals for 2021?
New Year’s resolutions have always been difficult to keep up with. But 2021 feels different.
After a roller coaster of a year (or dumpster fire, depending on your situation), we’re optimistic that we can get through the next 12 months better, stronger, and happier.