Dealing with anxiety during a season of uncertainty
Finding motivation during layoffs, tragedy, worldwide crisis, and more...
Watching announcement after announcement of layoffs across the tech sector over the last few weeks, one can't help but feel anxious about whether their role is next. I've had many conversations with friends and coworkers over the last couple of weeks about the future of our roles and how unnerving it is to watch these major companies like Amazon, Meta, Stripe, and Twitter letting go of many incredibly talented people. My heart goes out to the many people who have been affected. I also know many who haven’t been laid off are feeling feeling increased fear of the unknown for their roles while still trying to show up and do their best every day. Trying to be productive while not sure you'll still have a job tomorrow is an awful feeling.
The uncertainty of this period reminds me of watching the daily updates about COVID back in March and April of 2020. My motivation for work fluxed daily, and my mind often wandered away from work. I was worried about the future, of the unknown, as I am also feeling now. I suspect others may be feeling similar. So today, I am sharing an updated post I made in 2020 on finding motivation while working from home. I've made some updates with the hopes that you'll find this post an encouraging reminder of how to stay grounded when you're feeling anxious.
Be kind to yourself and your coworkers
Before getting into how I stay motivated, I want to encourage you to be kind to yourself and others during times of collective uncertainty. Coworkers will miss deadlines; you may fail to meet your goals. And here's the tough truth: that's okay. We're all trying to survive and do our part during this pandemic. Give each other grace and empathy. There are points in our lives where we have to pause on our ambitions, and that's okay.
Communication and vulnerability are more critical during times like these. Try to share how you’re feeling with your manager and discuss your priorities if you feel overwhelmed with the committed deadlines and expectations. Reassess what matters and what can wait. As my mom always taught me, you can't get what you don't ask for. Give yourself the grace to ask to push a deadline back or for help in making a tradeoff between where your time goes. During the pandemic's start, my team looked after each other; some people pulled more weight when other people's situations were more complex. We had a lot of empathy for each other because each person's situation looked different.
More focus on smaller tasks
On days when my energy is lower, I find myself returning to my to-do list more often. I review my priorities more frequently to see what I can say no to. While I usually hold a high bar for managing my time and priorities, this becomes even more critical when I feel more anxious. Much of my work relies on others who aren't committed to my work and persuading them to care and spend time. This is never easy, but it's been more challenging during the pandemic.
I evaluate my priorities a couple of times a week using GTD (Getting Things Done). In these moments of unknown and anxiety, I've learned to do it more often, even several times a day. Instead of tackling an enormous task over multiple days with just one to-do, I'll take time to break down larger tasks into smaller ones. Smaller to-dos give a greater sense of accomplishment for each one you complete, giving you more focus on what to do next. For example, when I'm socializing my work with others, I may constantly hear new ideas and feedback I need to incorporate. A simple task may be "review feedback and update work." However, this task may sit on my to-do list for weeks because new feedback keeps coming in. Instead, I make the to-do more specific such as "Incorporate feedback from X review." While going through the feedback, I may find some suggestions aren't immediately actionable (i.e., I can't immediately update my work based on their input). When this happens, I create additional to-dos to consider later with more thought.
While I manage my to-dos digitally, I know friends who find value in the feeling of physically crossing things off their to-dos. Find hacks that bring you motivation and joy. Another option is the Chrome plugin Momentum, which prompts you to set your focus for the day.
Avoid the news and find your self-care routine
While learning to deal with anxiety and finding motivation during the pandemic, the two best things I did were avoid the news and exercise daily. I don't want to be ignorant of what's happening or pretend everything is great, but I've noticed a direct correlation between my motivation and the news. When I'm sad or anxious, I tend to be hypersensitive to the news and what's happening in the world. Creating space allows me to find myself again, and I reengage when I feel ready.
Routine and self-care are more important now than ever. I can only find motivation in my work if I take care of myself physically and mentally. Self-care helps us de-stress, feel rejuvenated, and store our energy. Before the pandemic, I didn't think much about self-care. I've learned that self-care reduces my anxiety, improves my mental health, and makes me feel more engaged at work. There are a lot of ideas on this out there, but here's what helps me:
Exercise: There's a lot of research on the mental health benefits of exercise. My routine includes running and working out with dumbbells and YouTube at home but find a routine that works for you (gyms, personal trainer, running, dancing, biking, etc). I also take walking 1:1s in person or remote 1:1s on the phone where I can take a walk and talk.
Stretch: Stretching, even for just a few minutes, is a good moment to pause, breathe, and relieve stress. I try to stretch before bed every night. A small hack I use is stretching before I use the restroom. Not sure where to start? Here are a few simple stretches.
Get into nature: There's a lot of research linking improved stress and anxiety when you're around nature. I'm grateful for the many Seattle parks that help me disconnect.
Read: I struggled with making reading a habit before I got a Kindle a few years ago. I read before bed, giving my eyes a break from blue light, which improves sleep.
Connect with friends and family: Because I can't just grab coffee with a coworker during the day, I've been more diligent about scheduling coffee chats, calling family, joining our team virtual happy hours, or even just jumping on quick Zoom chat as a way of connecting with folks.
Reflect and journal: Life can feel packed with so many things that we leave ourselves with little time to pause and reflect on how we're feeling and what we need in that moment. One way to start is with a gratitude journal. Your journal doesn't have to be an extensive "Dear Diary" journal or take you a lot of time. A few minutes every day can do wonders for mental health.
Find a therapist: A good therapist is hard to come by, but worth investing the time to find one. Keep looking even if your first (or tenth) therapist doesn't work out. (And as a bonus, many therapists are covered by insurance.) Through therapy, I've found better patience and emotional intelligence in my work and overall feeling happier. Here's a starting point on Psychology Today to find one.
Just a small reminder: it’s okay to take sick days if you’re not sick.
Give back to others when you can
Everyone's situation looks different. Sometimes you need to ask more of others because you aren't able to put in the effort you need. And other times, you may be fortunate to have more energy, more time, more ability, and can pull more weight for your team. In seasons of uncertainty, look for ways to give back, pick up more, and help others out. For me, this looks like mentoring more, helping colleagues out when they need something reviewed, or offering to pick up new projects to help the team.
There are also simple ways to give back. Find ways to be encouraging to a coworker. Publicly praise someone's work in a meeting mentioning how much you appreciate their contributions. Write someone a thank you note for something they did for you or your team. Give a compliment. Message a coworker and see how they are doing.
Do what you can to help others. And ask for help when you need it.
So to summarize, these are my tips for staying motivated:
Be kind, give yourself and your colleagues grace, and be okay with losing motivation sometimes.
Take a hard look at your priorities and what needs to be lower in priority. Look at your task list more often to stay focused on what matters.
Break larger tasks into smaller ones to give yourself a greater sense of accomplishment.
Avoid reading the news, especially during the workweek.
Get outside daily and create a routine to stretch and exercise, such as during small breaks between meetings.
Write down your self-care routine, and make sure to take care of yourself.
If you have the capacity, give back more to your coworkers who have less bandwidth.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are your tips for staying motivated during uncertainty? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.
Thanks for reading! I write a few times a month if you want to get these by email.