If you, like many people, take a break from work by scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, you’ve likely resonated with many viral memes about being wiped out by the pandemic. Some discuss how we’re exhausted, others point to the stress of constantly living in the unknown, and many urge viewers to give themselves grace.
However, for ambitious professionals or those anxious about losing their jobs, performance feels vital. So when one unproductive day turns into a week of procrastination, you may feel frustrated with yourself.
Though normal, it’s important to remember that one of the contributors to optimal mental health is having the tools to meet the challenges we face, says author and licensed marriage and family therapist Jenny Black. Considering the last year has presented one hurdle after another, holding on to the roller coaster may be all you can manage sometimes. And that’s okay! It teaches us to practice an often underrated skill: patience.
Perhaps you aren’t at the level in your career you anticipated, or you had to take a pay cut due to financial constraints, or dip more into your savings than you would have preferred. Maybe you simply can’t be the outgoing, optimistic colleague or manager you were pre-COVID-19. Instead of beating yourself up, practice these strategies from mental health experts and entrepreneurs who prioritize the fine art of patience:
Use your calendar to set boundaries—and provide wiggle room
One of the biggest reasons many people become easily agitated when they aren’t able to maintain creative stamina during the workday is because they’re burned out. Since many continue to work remotely, there’s an underlying pressure to be “on” and available 24/7. Plus, that Zoom fatigue is no joke.
For industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., setting boundaries is a nonnegotiable step in her routine. Because life, and work, never goes as planned, she deliberately places blocks that give wiggle room and allow for breaks. As she puts it, knowing she has extra time will enable her to take a deep breath, regroup, go for a walk, and return to her computer with a renewed perspective.
“I set realistic, timely goals and hold myself accountable for meeting deliverables. But I also pause to reevaluate my goals and timelines if my schedule interferes with the things that truly matter in life, namely my emotional and physical health and the relationships with the people who love me,” she says. “I set a hard stop time to my workday and grant myself the same grace that I extend to others, noting that I cannot help others if I do not practice self-care.”
Accept the “hungover” feeling and work to heal it
Over the past year, Adina Jacobs, cofounder of STM Goods, has actively practiced patience, not only with those around her, but herself. She says the last year has left her with tiredness and weariness that was difficult to shake. Not only was she not as productive, but her brain felt fuzzy and as if everything took more physical effort than it should. One of her solutions to get back on track is to accept that everyone is “hungover” somehow from the wrath of 2020. And it’s a fact of life that will take time to heal.
To move forward, she puts on a guided meditation that provides calmness. And she’s changed the way she exercises, too: “Intense cardio was exhausting me and stripping me of energy instead of setting me up for the day,” she shares. “Now I focus on strength and toning, which works much better for me and where I am right now.”
Redefine what success looks like
If someone asked you pre-pandemic what a typical day looked like for you, it was probably far more active than it is now. And if someone took it a step further and asked you what a productive day feels like, it’s not the same output level you can give today. It’s necessary to redefine what success means to you during extraordinary circumstances, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert for TopResume. It’s a reminder she tells herself constantly.
“Sometimes, success is making it through a day of seemingly endless Zoom meetings without going cross-eyed. Other days, it’s crossing off a certain number of tasks from my to-do list,” she says. “You have to reset your expectations and realize that sometimes “ok” is good enough when times are tough. Being hard on yourself, putting pressure on yourself to meet unrealistic goals isn’t going to help you succeed.”
Remove yourself from the downward spiral
This year has been a lot to handle for everyone, and constantly adjusting to external forces and anxieties can make people catastrophize or indulge in a downward spiral of extremist thinking that leaves them feeling depleted. When you catch yourself doing this, it’s essential to remove yourself from the situation quickly, Jacob says. This may be going for a walk, writing down what’s swirling in your mind, listening to relaxing music, or connecting with a friend. Whatever it is, find your peacemaker.
Engage in positive self-talk and self-compassion
Is that voice in your head always impatient? If so, it makes sense that you will feel frustrated and impatient, says psychotherapist Meg Gitlin. While she says some people are more predisposed to impatience, it’s also something that can be worked on—like any maladaptive habit—by cultivating healthier alternatives. A significant contributor is the way you talk to yourself and the language you choose when you’re having a rough time.
If we are mean to ourselves, it becomes a ritual, since thoughts usually run in a pattern. Gitlin says to try your best to shift the tone of your inner monologue. As an example, instead of saying ‘I’m so slow, this should have been done already,’ say, ‘This is taking more time than I’d like, but that’s okay because I want to do it well.’
Embrace the delay instead of resisting it
Maybe you didn’t get the promotion or raise you were anticipating. Or, you weren’t able to pivot your business as effectively as you had hoped throughout the pandemic. You may be behind on your goals. These are bummers, for sure, but reframing how you think about it can build patience, says Natalie Underdown, Ph.D., an executive coach and organizational psychologist.
To do this, she suggests asking yourself questions like:
- How can I make the most of this time anyway?
- How can I use what I’m experiencing right now to grow?
- How can I allow this to make me stronger/better positioned to get what I really want?
- How can I use this experience to help others?
- What opportunities would never have presented themselves had I not been forced to slow down or take this detour?
Celebrate progress—no matter how slow
Three months ago, it took you two days to finish a task that usually would require a half-day of your time. Now, you can finish it in a day. That’s progress—and it’s worth celebration, even if it’s not perfect or where you’d like to be at this stage in your career.
“It’s easy to get frustrated with yourself when it’s taking longer than expected to reach a certain goal you’ve set for yourself,” Augustine says. “Reflect on the progress you’ve made, rather than getting frustrated at how far you still have to go before reaching your ultimate goal. Each advancement or improvement, however small, is a victory. Don’t discount those.”
Identify your frustration triggers
What’s tricky about the pandemic is that different aspects are troublesome for different people. Some are on-edge, worrying about contracting COVID-19. Others feel suffocated being at home and are missing their social life. We all have triggers that result in frustration, and often they’re a source of our lifestyle habits, says Steven Starks, the senior manager of career advising programs and operations at The University of Phoenix.
“Notice where in your body you feel impatience, so you can detect frustration before it escalates,” he suggests. “Equally important is to recognize the times in which you feel an abundance of patience, so you can pinpoint and repeat the circumstances that allowed it to happen.”
Remember, working harder isn’t the answer
Many people make the mistake of responding to a slow period in their productivity by forcing themselves to work overtime. This usually has the opposite impact and can lead to a big burnout fast. That’s why Jason Myers, a senior account executive at The Content Factory, encourages professionals to take a step back from the moment-to-moment, day-to-day grind and view your work as an average over a more extended scale.
“Working harder is not the same as working smarter, especially if your harder work results in a strain on your health, relationships, or quality of life,” he says. “You’ll feel better about what you’re capable of achieving, and you won’t get sucked into panic mode when the proverbial fish aren’t biting.”