After two years of pandemic we're all a bit fried.
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February 1, 2022 7:01 AM EST

The past few weeks have brought a slew of confusing data about Covid surges, peaks, another variant looming, whether we’re in pandemic or endemic yet. Some offices have already sent out memos saying you can come back now. Really, this time.

Maybe we’re too exhausted to celebrate that the end of the pandemic might actually be near. Or maybe we don’t believe it. Regardless of what the next phase holds, this intense period we’ve just been through (last few weeks, last few years) brought about changes in our workplace and lifestyle habits that will outlast the pandemic.

We emerge a workforce, overwhelmed. A recent Gallup poll of managers, not surprisingly, concludes they are very burnt out. Nearly half have multiple competing priorities, and two-thirds say they have a lot of interruptions at work. One-third say work demands interfere with family life. The same number characterize themselves as stressed “during a lot of my most recent workday.” The on-demand coaching platform Bravely reports a 700% increase in coaching sessions about stress and burnout.

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Last week’s column focused on the need for more people to step back and outright cancel commitments. “Pull an Adele,” I advised, inspired by the megastar postponing dozens of concerts in Las Vegas. Today’s column is the second half of that discussion: How to muddle through. Busy people shared hacks on how they’re holding themselves together for what is hopefully the beginning of the end; I categorized them by the themes that kept coming up over and over.

Schedules

“Your time is your most valuable asset,” tweets product manager Upasna Gautam. “If you don’t respect it, then why should anyone else?”

The need to set boundaries came up over and over, understandable given the merging of home and work in the pandemic. During a recent workout, Peloton fitness instructor Cody Rigsby says he’s been sticking to his New Year’s resolution of not using his phone for the first 30 minutes of the day.

Some other rules for schedules:

Try a dual-calendar system, says Raven V. Faber, who runs a design firm and a sexual-wellness company outside Denver, Colo. She keeps a hard-copy paper planner in addition to Google calendars. “My paper planner is handy for creating my to-do lists, taking notes, and keeping track of my meetings and such,” she says. She uses her own digital calendar for personal and business use and keeps a shared calendar with her team. “My husband and I share our Google calenders with each other, and that prevents us from booking things on top of each other’s meetings,” Faber, a mother of two kids, says. “The commitments in my paper planner are always in sync with what’s in Google.”

This need for pen-and-paper planners, or even just notes or scrap paper nearby, in addition to software surfaced over and over. Janna Willoughby-Lohr, owner of eco-friendly stationery company Papercraft Miracles, similarly organizes one week at a time with bullet points of goals and people to contact. “Writing it all down helps me to focus my mind on what needs my attention at the time instead of making mile long to-do lists that are overwhelming,” she says.

Self care

The hardest part of an exercise routine is just doing the thing. One hack to make it unavoidable: go to bed in gym clothes and place your workout shoes by the bed.

Among those who actually have an exercise or care routine down, what’s clear is that they schedule time for it. “As far as self-care, I map that out in my paper planner,” Faber says, citing everything from vitamins to baking to fitness. “If I want to make sure I take time out to go out with my husband, spend the morning baking, take the day off, whatever…I put it in my calendar so that I can see it’s there and I’m not tempted to fill an ‘open spot’ with work that I don’t actually want to do.”

Other things people say they schedule now: manicures, threading your eyebrows, poetry open mic nights on Zoom, showers, and washing your hair.

Creativity and actual work

One challenge of back-to-back meetings is making time for actual, well, work. Jessica Shelley, co-founder of online education portal DailiesPods, sets up “Maker Blocks” on her calendar. This is time for creating new content, doing administrative tasks, and tackling big projects without being interrupted by meetings. “It is very challenging to have your day split into so many pieces, so having time to focus on projects has been especially helpful in the new year,” she says. She recommends three or four blocks of two to four hours per week on the calendar. “Knowing that I have this time helps me reprioritize tasks and have clearer timeline goals for when I am able to complete projects.”

Sleep

Busy people often find the early-morning hours their most productive. Nicole Van Lun says that her 5am wakeup time ensures she gets at least seven hours of sleep every night. “I can read, stretch, meditate and just be in silence,” says Van Lun, who runs Gorgeous Confidence, a skin-care company in Las Vegas. “It’s honestly mandatory that I do this.”

Oh yeah, the children

Screen time has its limits, as both a babysitter and an activity for kids, says Jacqueline Schafer, founder and CEO of Clearbrief, a legal tech startup in Seattle. She found a book series that could keep the kids engaged (David Williams is a favorite) and also recommends that “a box of kinetic sand, several colors of playdough, and a table setup with markers could buy us 30-minute chunks of uninterrupted work.”

Setting aside specific time to be with the kids is another recurrent theme. Some parents have a strict end time to work now, say 5pm, and they won’t log back on till their children are in bed.

Because children also need routines, Keren Sachs, the founder and CEO of a production platform called The Luupe, shares an email and calendar with her husband in order to keep track of their children’s schedules, too. “All activities, sports, playdates go to the email and straight to the calendar,” she said.

In Shelley’s case, she sets aside one morning a week to just be with her kids and do something they want to do. Right now, that’s Wednesdays at the library. “It is roughly one to two hours, but it is something we have grown to look forward to,” she says.

This special time is what Haley Lieberman calls her “no-fly zones.” She established these do-not-bother periods during the pandemic. “As work-from-home becomes more prevalent, there’s a tendency to work or share ideas and responses around the clock,” says Lieberman, a Connecticut mother of twins and CEO of ShopTomorrows.com. “I manage the inbound communication by informing my teammates that I have consistent ‘no-fly zones’ which are designated for family time, and I do not respond to text messages or emails at that time. It’s what is most healthy for me and helps me be a better mother by allowing my mental state to be in one of motherhood, not executive-mode.…I soften; I focus on them; I laugh.”

Setting boundaries

Stop saying sorry, says Sarah K. Peck, founder and CEO of Startup Parent.

“The best hack I have is to give up trying and give up apologizing,” she says. “We will never win the email rat race, and trying won’t satisfy us.”

She’s also the author of a book called Do Half and advocates for people to cut their to-do lists and accept they are “good enough.” There are fewer decisions to make at work, and the principle of doing less can also apply to re-wearing the same clothes, using microwave dinners, having fewer toys so there’s less cleanup, picking one social-media platform to engage on versus mastering all of them, says Peck.

We’re all in this together

What’s struck me in more than a dozen interviews with stressed-out mothers is how alone and defeated they feel. There’s no extra unemployment benefit or clanging of pots and pans at 7pm anymore. The Zoom calls with the college roommates ended long ago, and just as in-person reunions were resuming, the Omicron surge ushered in uncertainty, again. But we can still be kind, reminds Betsy Johnson, cofounder of SwimZip, a sun-protective swimwear line based in Boise, Idaho.

“I have recently started trying to find a friend or stranger and go out of my way to make that person extra happy,” she says. Examples: buying someone’s donut order behind her in line, booking a rideshare for someone waiting outside. “These times are really hard, and I hope if I can make someone smile during these hard times,” she says, “maybe things will get easier.”

 

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