The Myth of a Productive Pandemic

On 23 March, the UK went into lockdown to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. As a result, a large majority of people are forced to spend much more time at home either by themselves or with the immediate people they live with.

People have unfortunately lost their jobs, others have to work from home and some simply have much less work to do.

Unfortunately, this has lead to far too many articles on “how to be productive while you’re at home” or “How to start a business from home” articles.

Generally, it’s fine to want to be productive (whatever that even means…) but there is an unnecessary environment growing which pressures people to be productive simply because we’re now at home.

While time has been gained because we’ve lost our commute times (on average, we’ve gained back one hour), it doesn’t mean we can, or even need to, utilise that time “productively”.

There is a lot we do not know

Many of us have never had to live through a viral outbreak that shut down the world’s economy. We are learning more about ourselves and interactions with one another as lockdown’s around the world continue. It raises a number of questions:

Will the structure of the economy look the same after the pandemic?

What will the end of the pandemic look like?

Will remote working become more commonplace?

Will we learn anything?

Big questions that everyone will end up considering. It isn’t something we can ignore and “leave for the politicians and academics” because it directly impacts all of us.

Because of this, we will also figure out how we best adapt to long-term working from home. We are not simply “at home“. We are “forced to stay home during a pandemic“.

It’s an important distinction even though, right now, it often doesn’t feel like it exists in practice.

We are in unknown territory at the moment. Emotionally, socially, and physically.

If you feel pressured to be productive, remember, most of us won’t be. Especially at the beginning

And those who claim to be productive, will be far less productive than portrayed.

Prioritise family and self-care. Allow yourself to experiment with healthy coping mechanisms.

But do not get lulled into the idea that we need to boost our productivity by 1000% to be valuable.

Most importantly, wash your hands and stay indoors. Boring, but effective. 

How Chronic Illness Ruins Your Motivation (and what to do about it)

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If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.

Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.

Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.

How chronic illness ruins motivation

Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.

Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.

When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.

The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…

  1. their pain was too severe?
  2. they no longer valued food as much?
  3. they lacked motivation?

More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.

Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.

There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.

Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.

What can we do about it?

Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:

  1. Forgive yourself

There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.

To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.

2. Start small…

…and stay small.

I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.

For example:

  1. 5 minute daily walks
  2. 5 minute meditation
  3. 20 minutes of reading

The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.

What does “stay small” mean?

It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.

Pain ratings:

Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE

Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.

And repeat.

We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.

If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.

3. Take time to slow down

Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.

Whether that is through:

  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Stroking our hands lightly
  • Eating and drinking mindfully
  • Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)

We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.

Why bother?

Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?

I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.

To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…

May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.


As always, thank you for reading!

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Further reading:

12 Ways to Cope with Chronic Pain and Depression

Decreased motivation during chronic pain requires long-term depression in the nucleus accumbens

Study reveals brain mechanism behind chronic pain’s sapping of motivation

How to Create Plans You’ll Stick To

There are two easy ways to create feasible plans:

  1. Pretend you have 30% the energy you usually have
  2. Copy a plan you’ve completed successfully before

Note that I’ve left out the most obvious way – looking at a calendar and the things you have to do then filling up the hours.

Why don’t we stick to plans?

I’m probably one of the biggest culprit of this which is what led me to figure out how to stop this from happening again as it was becoming a huge source of frustration.

It’s simply too difficult

For some reason, if we imagine a free day we imagine a lot of time. But we also assume our energy levels will match that. It often doesn’t.

Cramming the day with loads of activities is only going to make you tired quickly and far more likely to stop doing them even in the middle of the day. If it’s a long term plan it’s even less likely to continue.

We get distracted

Distractions are a huge problem. As research shows, after a distraction, it takes about 25 minutes to get back into work.

It makes our work far less efficient and moves everything in the plan forward. Therefore we work longer, become more tired and start putting things off.

We don’t give ourselves enough time

We might assume that we can get an essay done in 3 hours but sometimes we might get stuck which means we have to take a longer break. Or we can’t find the book we want.

Same with side projects you might want to do after work/studying. If we expect to do all of them in a minimal time then we’re either going to drop them completely or reduce them drastically and feel guilty about it.

We procrastinate

Looking at a large plan for the day can be intimidating and cause us to procrastinate. Therefore we don’t do anything we aim to. Here’s one simple way to stop it.

Making plans work

  1. Assume less energy than normal

This point relies on assuming you have less energy than your plan assumes

If we try being superhuman then get intimidated or worn out by our plan, it’s not a useful. On the other hand, if we’re more modest, we have a much easier starting point, procrastination is less likely and we will complete things.

Let’s take one of the plans I’ve had in the past (and I’ve had many):

Capture 4 Capture 3 Capture 1

This is actually a simplified version of a plan I had at one point in my first year of university.

Looking back on it, it’s surprising to think that I considered it then even more surprising is that I was annoyed when I couldn’t complete it! Nearly 9 hours of difficult (and unnecessary!) work I had planned. That’s on top of being social, dealing with chronic pain and you know, trying to not hate books after my first week.

The plan didn’t work for a variety of reasons:

  • I didn’t have the energy to complete them
  • I ignored other factors (like having friends and going outside)
  • It was boring
  • It wasn’t flexible

Creating the plan with the mind that you’ll have less energy means you plan to do fewer things, increase flexibility and still complete things. So the plan above might turn into this (assuming there’s a 9am start):

Capture 2

And that’d be it.

The first plan has nearly 9 hours of mentally tasking work while the second has 4 hours with large breaks in between. It’s much easier to start and I found I got more work done with the second plan overall.

  1. Copy a previous plan.

The second condition is easier to implement. If you’ve successfully created and completed a plan before, copy it and use it again.

However, it’s important to take into account new factors when doing this because your past plan might have been completed under much different conditions. For example, if you’ve caught a cold, your energy is going to be lower than it would be normally so you’ll complete less work or it’ll take longer to complete the same amount.

But remember to be reasonable. If you’ve planned an overnight stay at your library or a general rush till exams, you won’t be able to sustain it for a long period. To combat that, refer to point one.

An impromptu Q&A session

“But you’re doing so little work – you’re obviously doing a Philosophy degree this doesn’t apply to me!”

Fortunately, it still does. If you’ve ever planned anything and never completed it (although you feel you should have) then it applies. Creating unrealistic plans is normal and unless you actually have unlimited energy, it’s fine to plan less and complete more.

Dealing with chronic pain means I’ve had to change how I view plans and making my time more efficient. This is one way I’ve managed to stay with the crowd despite being in pain all the time.

“But what if I can’t plan less! I have so much more work to do than you”

That’s where the second condition comes into place.

Not every plan can work on such little energy. Deadlines and loads of work exist. If you’ve actually completed a plan that meets the demands of your current situation, mould it around that. As Scott Young says, you’re allowed to experiment.

If not, continue to assume you’ll have less energy when creating it. And stop procrastinating.

“What if I have scheduled commitments?”

If you have a variety of things you want to do (clubs, learning new things, blogging etc), reducing the amount of energy you’ll have to complete it seems ridiculous. It isn’t.

In this scenario, you have to exercise prioritising and say no to some commitments. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you won’t do them, get frustrated at the ‘little free time’ you have or burn out very quickly and blame yourself.

Admittedly, it is difficult saying no to things especially when you seem to have a lot of time for trying new things. Those things won’t disappear straight away and there’s no point in planning them if you’re too tired to complete them.

It’s alright to say no.

“Am I allowed to continue working past my smaller plan?”

Yes. A minimal plan makes it easier to start working. It doesn’t necessarily put a limit on how much you should continue working. Though, it should make you more efficient with the hours planned – reducing the need to continue working much more.

The next day, return to the minimal plan. A good plan is sustainable.

“I’m rubbish with times. What if I oversleep?”

Ignore times and focus on activities. Instead of planning the hours, aim to work on a project for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.

If that is too difficult, aim to do an hour of the project during the course of the day. The earlier the better of course as you don’t want tiredness to excuse you from working.

“Did you write these questions yourself?”

Some things are best kept secret.

Action Steps

The take away from this is to reduce the amount of energy you’ll need to finish a plan so it’s easier to start and easier to complete.

What can you do now?

  1. Create a plan for your ideal day
  2. Assume you’ll have less energy than normal
  3. Create a new plan.

A small amount of completed work is better than a large amount left wished to be completed.


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Stop Watching Motivational Videos (and what to do instead)

They fade from black with one person as the focal point. The music is starts calm but it’ll build up to something. It’s a Hans Zimmer score, after all.

You see a fit person running up some stairs or someone boxing. If you’re lucky, you get to see scenes from The Pursuit of Happiness again with a speech from Rocky Balboa layered over the top.

As the video progress, more stuff about getting up after a fall and dreaming big is shown. You’re told you’re worth it and can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. You’re reminded of all the rags-to-riches stories that exist like J. K. Rowling living in a council estate to earning millions a day and getting rejected a number of times before finally being accepted.

You feel good.

You’re motivated.

But motivated to do what? Finally start on your goals? But only after one more video…

Stop watching motivational videos

They’re akin to depending on sugary energy drinks rather than a good night’s sleep to combat tiredness.

Motivational videos (and images) feed procrastination in a special way.

They make us feel productive without all the work required in between. They might lift our mood temporarily but do nothing to combat the problem. The problem might be perfectionism. It could be that you’re simply trying too much and the goals need to be broken down. Or a number of other things that continues procrastination.

Motivational videos do nothing to solve these problems. It’s far too easy to continue doing nothing at all to further progress.

Hell, there’s even a chance you’ll feel guilty because you still haven’t done anything.

Since the improvement in mood is temporary, we always need to be motivated to even consider working. That in itself is unsustainable. After a while, they lose their desired effectiveness and become boring like any other entertainment.

It leads to only doing work when we feel like it and waiting for magical inspiration to strike us on the head. Such things don’t happen. To work consistently towards something, you’ll have to do it when you don’t feel like it.

Depending on how we feel in order to start working is a poor strategy. With all the quick entertainment and instant gratification at our fingertips, when will we ever feel like working if we haven’t already become disciplined enough to make it a habit?

In this case, dependence on motivational videos is actually detrimental.

Clichés, clichés and more clichés.

If you’ve watched many motivational videos, you’ll hear many of the same things over and over again. You might repeat them a few times but if it doesn’t result in any action, it’s literally just an empty chant. For example: “When you breathe as bad as you want to succeed, then you’ll be successful” is a reasonably new phrase that’s creeped its way into motivational diction.

I don’t want to say it’s useless but it is somewhat unhelpful. It hides the work actually needed to be done in order to achieve those levels of hard work.

Let’s say you want to exercise and embodied that phrase.

Does it inspire feelings of moderation or extremes?

After hearing that, do you want to aim for a huge personal best every gym session? Or do you want to start running for a few minutes and try a few more the next day?

The first choice is inspired by these motivational videos. It’s unrealistic for a beginner and unsustainable. The second is achievable but doesn’t fit too well in a catchy phrase.

Small starts and consistent work isn’t shown in such videos because their nature isn’t to show you the hard work. They show the end result and say ‘just do it’.

Small starts and consistent progress is how we actually achieve our goals.

But of course, that isn’t as romantic. Discipline is rarely romantic. But it works.

What should I do instead?

Start small – Make the goal so small you can’t say no. Or work for 3 minutes and decide if you want to stop afterwards. For example, this article was started by simply writing the title.

Be kind – Don’t berate yourself with hatred and negative thoughts for not doing something. It only serves to make you feel bad and does nothing to further progress. It actually makes you less likely to do anything. If you feel like you’re worthless, why bother starting anything?

Be specific – A huge reason why we procrastinate is because we don’t know what to do. Saying ‘get fit’, ‘read more’ or ‘write essay’ doesn’t mean much. Saying you want to write 500 words by the end of the day or lose 10kg in 3 months makes the goal much more real and attainable.

Conclusion

Motivational videos aren’t helpful unless what we’re looking for is to feel good for a few minutes. If that’s the case, we should admit we watch them for entertainment rather than their life-changing abilities.

We simply don’t need to be intensely motivated for everything. It’s fine to just go for a run or write some words without becoming your own personal cheerleader in the process. It’s called being normal.

Consistent progress will beat motivational videos every time. That’s what self-discipline grants us.

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The Courage to be Wrong

Realising we’re wrong can be quite worrying. If we’ve erred there must be something that is wrong with us even if it’s a small thing. It is usually greeted with feelings of shame, anger, sadness or even apathy towards our development. If we get something wrong now, why bother trying again?

Even though, we understand that humans are fallible beings, it is still difficult to accept the feeling of wrongness. We may even look at various motivational quotes say things like “failure is the path to success” or “I can accept failure but I can’t accept not trying” but still close the door on being wrong.

Why does being wrong feel bad?

In light of all of the opinions we have about being wrong and how it’s okay, we’d probably expect to have different attitudes towards it.

The reason why being wrong is viewed negatively negative is due to the various cultural attitudes we have towards it. We view wrongness as harmful, unable to be salvaged or improved upon. When we hear about important mistakes and how they’re damaging to either people’s lives or finances or anything you can think of, we hope to never been in their position.

These attitudes  are also found in our education.  The person who does poorly on a test or ask really simple questions is often viewed as dumb person in the class. They hold back the smarter students from progressing, they mustn’t have studied and they may even frustrate teachers. So when someone gets something wrong they feel like they’ve failed themselves and they’re going to disrupt other people.

It results in a fear about being wrong.

Is Being Wrong OK? 

Of course it is! Failure is the path to success etcetera etcetera. We all ‘know’ this but should we really believe it and take it seriously?

I think so.

When we find we’re wrong, a few things happen. We’re given the choice to keep our false belief or accept a new one. We might fear that we’ve slipped down the ladder of knowledge and can’t climb back up.

These situations aren’t bad. They’re just difficult to handle which is why we sometimes react so negatively to being wrong. But that may not be necessary.

Being wrong about things gives us an opportunity to further knowledge rather than wallow in how little knowledge we apparently have. We have to overcome our resistance to changing our minds.

Embracing our ability to be wrong is difficult and obviously isn’t as simple as just being happy with being wrong about everything. I’m not asking we think being wrong is the best thing possible. As some people may object, getting some things wrong affect the well-being of people in drastic ways and should be chastised rather than encouraged. Here they point to a surgeon making a mistake in a surgery or a bank charging the wrong person exorbitant fees. To that I say:

1) They happen all the time and should be corrected.

2) It’s unrealistic to expect perfection in all decisions regardless of their importance. Such an expectation creates the excuse we see wrongness as inherently bad.

3) Most people can be wrong about things without any severe consequence.

Embracing our ability to be wrong means that we view it as a normal part of decision-making and belief forming. It isn’t something that should create the fear of being judged as stupid and unable to change our opinions.

Fearing wrongness paralyses our progress and prevents us from trying to improve. We’re far more likely to just stay in our comfort zone where mistakes are less frequent and echo chambers are especially loud.

It takes some courage to admit being wrong and use that experience to further ourselves rather than viewing it as an unrepairable fault.

If it offers any comfort, I could be wrong about all of this and we can continue shaming people who get things wrong and feeling bad when we make mistakes.

***

This post was inspired by Kathryn Schulz who gave a brilliant TED talk on being wrong. She also wrote a book about it called ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error’. I read it last year and thought it was great and can recommend it without reservation (unless you just hate non-fiction books).

So if I write more about wrongness, blame her.

 

Why I read

A 13 year-old student asked me how he can start reading more. He said he’s had a library book in his room for the past two years and never opened it let alone made an attempt to finish it.

The question resonated with me because I’ve been in that situation before. Over the past five years or so, I’ve slowly lost the esteemed title of ‘book worm’. Reading fell out of favour and was replaced with videos, gaming and short articles. I still read a bit so it’s not like I’ve become completely illiterate otherwise I’m just getting really lucky writing all of this.

Back to the point, I didn’t significant value in reading books.

Yes, reading improves vocabulary, improves critical thinking and all sorts of wonderful things. However, these were all just nice things. I could probably find similar things to justify my gaming habit or even just watching videos all the time.

Books didn’t become less interesting. Other things were just more appealing. The issue, then, wasn’t with time or energy since I could find a lot of time to waste but none to read. The value I found in books was decreasing.

With this in mind, I didn’t recite statistics and I recalled something I was told before I started my philosophy degree.

You get to have a conversation with authors.

We write about them in the present tense because, even though many of them are long gone, their ideas are still engaged with and remain influential.

This spread into all areas of writing for me. By reading we get to have conversations with other people.

When we read fiction, we’re invited into the world the other person has created. They’re telling us a story that engages our imagination and curiosity.

When we read non-fiction, we’re informed, convinced or simply presented with a view you’re left to think about. While we may not engage directly with the authors, we’re able to think about the issues presented and come to a conclusion about it.

Sometimes, the story makes us happy or the argument makes us angry but the important thing is that we’re able to experience these things. There are billions of people on the earth with a variety of experiences and many have shared them with us through writing.

The added benefit of thinking about reading like this is that it’s opened me up to more genres. I’m granted access to millions of different worlds! Some people are trying to help me with the help of their own experiences. Some want me to experience the world of a crime lord. Others just want to make me laugh.

I’ve even started to grow an appreciation of children’s books! A lot of them are actually funny and entertaining. Some have good messages I’m sure I would have missed as a child. Authors and illustrators put in a lot of effort to talk to children and engage their imagination. Reading that while I’m a bit older is just fun. Simple, calming fun. There aren’t many other places you’ll find a bear being friends with an annoying duck and think it’s perfectly normal.

Every time I open a book, I begin a new conversation with someone else. This isn’t to say that all conversations are even good or useful. Not every conversation works like that in real life but that isn’t to say we’re better off talking to no one at all.

Reading means that I’ve opened my eyes to the world in front of me and, more importantly, to the people who live in it.

One step at a time

Currently, the tagline for this blog is ‘becoming better one step at a time’.

I chose that because I thought it was the best way to explain how we get through any kind of journey whether it is long or short. We move forward one step at a time.

Over the past few months,  I can’t confess to have forgotten that idea but to have lost the appreciation I originally had for it. Mainly because taking any purposeful step seemed painful, difficult and almost impossible. As I alluded to in my post ‘I’m 19‘, my mental health has taken a turn for the worse which paralysed my motivation and killed my slow walk forward. In fact, I feel like I’ve taken a few steps backwards.

I’m still in this position but having to force myself to move, write, and generally not become a complete recluse, I’m beginning again to find my appreciation of becoming better one step at a time. Although the appreciation often slips out of my hands as quickly as a bar of soap, while it’s here, I’ll explain the reason for my revived appreciation.

These steps forward need not be large, exciting or even particularly important. They can and probably will be very difficult at times. Sometimes it’ll feel as if you’re trying to walk through mud with bricks in your pocket. Nonetheless, it’ll still be a step forward.

These small victories are invaluable. Whether that victory ranges from putting on your shoes and stepping outside to writing significant portions of an important paper, remember them. Write them down if you must.

They’re a reminder that you can move forward.

It will take some time but you’ll get there and maybe even pick up a light jog along the way.

We’ll all face difficult times when we’re trying to reach whatever goals we have. If you feel that it is becoming overwhelming, remind yourself that you only need to take it one small step at a time.

Even if the step is tiny, it keeps us moving.

We’re all going to become better one step at a time.