Advice From A Nice Girl: How Do I Stay Productive Right Now?

Welcome to Refinery29’s career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Every month, readers can ask Fran Hauser, bonafide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, their hardest career quandaries, from managing your overly emotional boss to overcoming your biggest work fear.
For so many right now, it’s nearly impossible to focus on work and be productive when there is an unprecedented amount of distractions. "I can’t get anything done, can you help?!" is the question I’ve been asked the most lately. I’ve realized that the days I feel the most frenetic and frazzled are the ones when I’m bouncing between homeschooling my two boys, carving out time for professional work, cooking, scouring the internet for paper towels, and taking care of never-ending home to-dos. And once I get distracted, it is a struggle to get back to the task I was currently working on. For me, multitasking is nearly impossible.
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Research has long shown that multitasking is stressful and unproductive and that the majority of people cannot switch back and forth between complex activities (only 2.5 percent of all people can do this, says one study). There’s a part of your brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), which helps with your working memory and ability to process and store information in the moment, writes Dr. Jud Brewer, a neuroscientist and author of The Craving Mind. For instance, it’s activated when you remember an email you need to reply to, the stats on your latest newsletter, or the fact that you need more bananas. When you’re anxious, your worries move to the front of your brain, which limits the available space to focus on your work even more and it can take extra time to remember what you were working on.
Dr. Brewer likens your dlPFC to a computer: “If your computer has a lot of RAM, you can run a bunch of programs at the same time. If it doesn’t have that much RAM, it gets slower as you start to use that space up — signaled by that spinning wheel of ‘hey, you are overtaxing me right now,’ and eventually it crashes if you keep pushing.” So how can you reboot your brain so you can have a saner day?
Stop multitasking. It simply doesn’t work. In times of crisis, it really doesn’t work. Instead, as best as you can, try to schedule your time in chunks: homeschool for X hours, work project for Y hours, and so on. Group things together that make sense to be together. This is especially true for your inbox. I am so much more productive when I address all emails related to a specific project, instead of addressing them chronologically (you can search by sender or topic to sort). It’s my version of the Pomodoro method, which encourages you to get in the zone for one specific task or project for 25 minutes. Focusing on one to-do or group of to-dos helps you get through your work much more quickly than switching from topic to topic.

Keep a notebook with you at all times. You realize that you may be low on toilet paper and run to check your supply and boom, you’re thrown in a panic and off track. Keep a notebook, a Google doc, or notes app active to quickly jot down what is on your mind so you can address it later.

Try meditation. A daily meditation practice has been shown to improve memory recall and shorten the time it takes to refocus and get back on track. It can also boost creativity. You can try apps like Meditation Studio to get started, but I also know that meditating can be really hard for some people. If that sounds like you, try a deep breathing practice. One mindfulness lesson they teach in my sons’ school is the starfish or five-finger method: Start with your pinky and trace your fingers up and down, breathing in on the up, and out on the down. It’s amazing how quickly this works to lower your stress. When you breathe deeply, it sends a signal to your brain to relax, which then sends a message to your body to do the same.

Create realistic expectations. I read an essay recently that said Satisfaction = Experience - Expectations. When you give yourself permission to only tackle what you can versus starting five different things and not doing any of them well; when you agree to mono-task and move anything you can’t get to until tomorrow; you will feel more focused and less frenzied. These are not normal times — there is no playbook for what we are going through. Be kinder to yourself, find that self-compassion, and you will find your focus.

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