How to be productive when things are going wrong

How to be productive when things are going wrong

A celebrity has just endorsed your direct competitor and you’re nervously refreshing your sales data, praying that the resulting drop will correct itself. Maybe an employee has been lying about their output or perhaps, say, you’re scrambling to stay afloat as your small business adjusts to the new reality wrought by a global pandemic.

At work, things go wrong, and they go wrong often. While these things may differ in scale and severity, they are yoked together by a common factor: how they make us feel.

First, there’s panic, triggering our body’s fight-or-flight response. Your heart beats faster, hands sweaty, as adrenaline rushes into your bloodstream. Your breathing becomes sharper and all of your senses heighten; your stress levels are high as you try to decide on the best course of action.

It may not feel possible, but in those moments, certain techniques and approaches to managing stress can help you focus and work through the situation as best you can.

Be flexible

Psychological flexibility is a measure of a person’s ability to cope with change and difficult situations by shifting their perspective. It is considered a marker of psychological health and workplace performance, and often comes into play when someone is dealing with a highly stressful or unexpected situation. Someone with high psychological flexibility, for example, would make a decision based on long-term values and goals rather than immediate thoughts and emotions.

Thankfully, psychological flexibility can be developed through practices of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Acceptance and mindfulness strategies are used to help people to see their negative responses to stress as appropriate to certain situations, and ultimately to stop avoiding, denying, or struggling with unpleasant feelings. This sort of perspective is invaluable when in crisis mode.

Clear your mind, take a breath

ACT has been shown to decrease stress and improve wellbeing in the workplace, but in a crisis, you won’t have time to ingest the weeks’ worth of intervention we see played out in studies. There are, however, some techniques you can implement on the spot to help you focus and re-balance.

Just 20 minutes of paced breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety levels

Breathing techniques are a quick and effective way to reverse the symptoms of our fight-or-flight response, and have been shown to reduce stress and promote emotional control.

Paced breathing is a slow deep breathing exercise where, through breathing more slowly and deeply than usual, the amount of breaths taken per minute is reduced to around 10. Just 20 minutes of paced breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety levels.

There are different ratios recommended for timing paced breathing, for example, 7-11 (breathe in to the count of 7 and breathe out to the count of 11). If you aren’t used to breathing so slowly or holding your breath, you can try 5-9 and work your way up. Another popular ratio is 4-7-8: breathe in to the count of 4, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale to the count of 8.

Don’t try to sort it out alone

Once you’re feeling calmer and more focused, consider who within your team — and within your personal support network — you can share the burden of this crisis with.

“On our own, we are vulnerable to misjudging the problem,” writes Harvard Business School professor Bill George in his book 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis. “To get through severe crises, you need the full support of your teammates.”

Humans are social creatures, and feeling seen by and connected with others at work is important in motivating us to give our best

George recalls the story of former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, who came on board as the company faced bankruptcy. She met with Xerox’s top 100 executives and asked if they would stay and support the company through the difficult times ahead; 98 remained at her side. A strong team loyalty developed around Mulcahy, reducing the burden on her alone to steer the company out of troubled waters.

Humans are social creatures, and feeling seen by and connected with others at work is important in motivating us to give our best. It should come as no surprise that communication, and having a sense of collectivity at work, have been proven to reduce stress.

Focus on finding the root cause

Some crises happen in ways beyond our control (ahem, COVID-19) but others are due to problems we do have the power to address, for example, from within our organisations or the markets we operate in. When we’re in panic mode, we want to spring into action and fix the problem as quickly as possible, but this may stick a band-aid over a deeper issue that may cause problems for you again.

Looking longer-term rather than settling for short-term gratification can help you develop perspective and make better, more strategic decisions.

Kindred hosts regular productivity, meditation, and wellness events for our community that are currently open to anyone during this COVID crisis. While our physical doors are shut, our commitment to community is stronger than ever. Learn more about joining our community (open to everyone)

Monica Karpinski

Monica Karpinski works with Kindred on digital and content strategy, including brand storytelling. She is the Founder & Editor of The Femedic, a media and research platform for women's health, and writes widely on health and gender inequalities.

Share this article