Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

When Bad Things Happen To Productive People

You relish being seen as the go-to person when it comes to getting things done. You take pride in your ability to deal with a hefty workload and numerous deadlines without getting tripped up along the way. Yet, no matter how accomplished and efficient you are, there will be times when you get overwhelmed by negative or upsetting events.

Times when you are left wondering how you could possibly accomplish almost anything in the near term – be it the client work that still needs to be completed on time, or the myriad of other commitments and responsibilities crying out for your attention. So what happens when your productivity fails you?As hopeless as it may feel, there are very practical things you can do during such times to keep going:

1. Acknowledge that the normal rules don’t apply for the time being.

You might normally plough through half of your lengthy to-do list by lunchtime, but now you are having trouble motivating to complete even the smallest of tasks. Rather than deny that reality, accept it and make some temporary adjustments as recommended below.

2. Focus on the essential tasks, and cut back on everything else.

Your essentials are not your “Should-Do List,” it’s your “Must-Do-To-Survive List.” (If there was ever a time to follow the advice here, now is that time.) If you need to fly out to a family funeral tomorrow, it’s hopeless (and unhealthy) to try and squeeze all of your normal tasks in and around that event. Put those normal activities on hold, and deal with the flight and what comes immediately after it.

Your essentials are not your ‘Should-Do List,’ it’s your ‘Must-Do-To-Survive List.’

3. Make sure you get a lot of rest.

When you’re already stressed about not having enough time to get everything done, resting can feel counter-intuitive. But if you don’t get enough rest, the situation can quickly escalate from bad to worse. Instead of being so sick that you can barely take a call lying down, you might find yourself in the hospital. Nourishing your body – and pacing yourself – is extremely important if you want to be as productive as possible during a difficult time.

4. Ask for help.

Even if you pare your workload down to the absolute minimum, you may still find yourself falling behind. Do the obvious (but sometimes challenging) thing, and ask for help: Delegate work to your co-workers and tap your family and friends for assistance. Your true allies will be happy to help you when you’re in a hard spot: Give them the chance to do some good, and they will.

5. Focus on the positive as much as possible.

We often make the mistake of shutting out the positive as we wrestle with the negative. Try not to give in to this. Hearing those who are close to you say that you are doing well under the circumstances can be a relief. Don’t be shy: If you need a morale boost, kindly request one. You know who is likely to provide such comfort, why not ask them for it?

Your true allies will be happy to help you when you’re in a hard spot: Give them the chance.

6. Reboot yourself.

When it looks like the hard times are letting up, seize the moment and decide how you can do things better going forward. If you were very ill, ask yourself how you can improve your health once you are feeling better. Perhaps it’s starting a new fitness routine, resetting your work-life balance, or allocating more time to your family, your friends, and yourself. If you had a work-related crisis, it might be time to reassess why you do what you do, and realign how you spend your time and energy.

7. Say thank you.

After the clouds pass and the sun begins to shine again, don’t forget about the people who helped in your time of need. Make it a priority to pay back those debts, financial and personal, that you might have drawn on during your difficult time. There are few investments that will pay such good dividends as offering a tangible expression of gratitude to those who took care of you.

What Do You Do In Crisis?

How have you dealt with unexpected negative events that impacted your work? Do you have any tips to share?

More insights on: Energy / Fatigue, Well-being

Bernie Michalik

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Bernie is a senior consultant with IBM. He provides leadership to global teams that create complex IT solutions for his clients. In the years of doing this, he has developed innovative ways to be most effective productively as well as creatively. He enjoys sharing that knowledge with a wide range of people, from deep technologists to UX specialists. Though highly mobile, he is based at the IBM Centre for Solution Innovation in Toronto.
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  • unternehmer in not

    The really tough thing is that for many self-employed a health-crisis goes hand in hand with a business crisis – so you end up quickly in a multilevel-crisis.

  • Jessica Webster

    Not what I do, but what you might, if the need should present:

    If the Bad Thing is violent crime, particularly the gendered sort, and especially if said Bad Thing may have been caused or arranged by your go-to gal’s husband, let me tell you: by the time she asks for help, she’ll need it. You might panic: the person who helps needing help isn’t covered in your emergency plan. What can you do? Anything. Knowing the best local trauma center, and how to get there, is good, and actionable even days after the event. Ask if she’s been. Hide your horror. Help.
    I’m about to stop grappling with failures of systems meant to administer these things from high-impact-horror down to regretable-tragedy, nrly three years after calling folks I help for help. Without diverging into mechanisms for social isolation, know that this is a nasty device. Should you hear a call like mine, heed it. What’s required may be as simple as restoration of structure: when prosecution fails, when victims are blamed, when doctors report surgery schedules to husbands despite the HIPAA act, and orders of protection, when everyone knew what the caller for help would say, before she said anything, what she needs is expectations set, and met. And if you want to swing by with dinner, or to do dishes since you heard her hands were cut up, call first, say what you can do and when, then do it. Listen if she talks, no matter how breathless miles a minute, and when its time to reply offer up notions of her strengths and character and etc. identity, and hasten its return  Odds are others’ Just World syndromes, and institutional dearth of funding,  have done their part in support of too-easy’ narratives, toward what could be ultimately tragic. Offer timelines of things to expect, and realize them. Say you’ll call, every day, to make sure she’s ok, then do it.  Its magnificent medicine, the sort that will allow a sense of ease when she confronts her contacts database, ready with the delete key. And if you have the power to get her back to work, or otherwise in some swirling social milieu, do that.  She’ll likely jump in and take it from there, and you’ll have your go-to gal back ASAP, ready for action.If not, start brainstorming now for the reboot. I’m about to move my gaze from failures toward re-vision, reinvention, and relaunch. Without others’ reflected points for reference, without some non-cash-based, non-obligatory social engagement the agonizing work [especially given lost assets,  income and and medical benefits]  the work seems way beyond lonely, frought with frivolous conceit.Bad things like this are too common, in our society, with no real demographic patterns to point to but attended by myriad presumptions of victim guilt. I hope you can’t fathom what those DV PSAs are for, but file the how-to-help guidelines away with the locations of flashlights, water, and first aid kits.   If it happened to me, well… best don’t ponder that possibility. Instead, be the change and shift the factors of probability.

  • KatyCowan

    I’m currently going through a personal crisis. Family death that has devastated us all. But instead of taking time off, I’ve been throwing myself more into my work. It’s helped. But I think I do need to take a step back as I’m clearly exhausting myself. Thanks for reminding me that it’s ok to do this, and I can’t be expected to be my usual productive self during this difficult time. Katy

  • iceblueaccent

    Great article! I wish I’d had these words of wisdom a few times throughout my life!

    I am in the process of being assessed for an auto-immune disease, which I’ve likely had for decades. My health waxes and wanes, but when I’m healthy, I’m a serious go-getter. When I’m not well, the fatigue and pain are ALL consuming for months at a time. I have a strong work ethic, so without a diagnosis I would push myself to go to work clinging to two primary daily goals: Keeping myself adequately medicated with OTC meds to survive the day, and getting to the END of the day so I could go home and collapse.

    I’m healthy at the moment, but with a medical diagnosis (FINALLY) pending and the realization that my illness can be managed but not cured, I’ve already begun to think about the various options I can choose from when my illness flares again. I will no longer push myself like I did in the past. Instead I will redefine my interpretation of what is ‘reasonably healthy’ as it relates to my work ethic, and I will make ‘getting well’ my top priority. Sounds easy – but I suspect making these two simple changes will be easier said than done, because after so many years – I’m much better at pushing through than practicing self-care.

    Thankfully, I have a great medical plan, a very flexible workplace that will accommodate health needs, and I am considered to be a ‘desirable’ employee – so all of the support structures are in place (Plan B). In a worse case scenario, I can retire (without penalty) in about 1.5 years, although my intention is to stay until my husband retires in 8 years (Plan C).

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