Staying positive and productive in a COVID-19 world

Sharing various ideas that are working for our family

I don’t know how you’re feeling, but I guess most of us are going through various emotional states as COVID-19 continues its global impact. For our family here in the greater Seattle area, we’ve been hunkered down for a while already with schools and colleges closed, mandated work-from-home arrangements and everything from planned trips to church services canceled.

Chatting with various folk in our product team here at Google, it’s clear that people are responding in different ways depending on their personal situations. One colleague expressed that they were experiencing a general sense of burnout and tiredness, caused perhaps by the pervasive feeling of low-grade anxiety, and this resonated well with me.

It’s tough to feel in control when everything else is out of your control.

I’m not writing to tell you what to do, but share a few things we’ve found helpful as a family:

  • Recognize our emotional state with each other — we’ve talked about going through the ‘five stages of grief’ (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and observed it in each other. There are times over the last week when one of us has been irrationally angry with others; where we’ve just not felt like getting out of bed; when we’ve found ourselves trying to ‘bargain’ the world as we wanted it to be. It’s helpful to have a framework for understanding that we’re going through a certain kind of grief as life as we knew it has suddenly changed.
  • Social distance, not social isolation — we’ve all made a point of increasing phone calls, texts, FaceTime video chats to friends near and far, to make sure that we fill some of the gaps. I’ve personally made a point to read social media less but to connect 1:1 more, and that’s helped me a great deal.
  • Get some exercise — whether the weather is nice or foul, my wife has made us go out for a hike or a walk every day (keeping away from others, as per local regulations etc.) Getting outside, getting some physical exercise and and making your heart work a little has proven good for all of us.
  • Do something creative — a colleague added this to my list, and it’s a good one that we’re going to practice as a family over the weekend. When we focus our attention on creating something without pressure of expectations, our nervous system can begin to regulate all the underlying anxieties. And if you enjoy what you’re creating, even a scribble, you release dopamine and counter that fatigue.
  • Look after others — it’s easy to hunker down and concentrate on our own needs, but it feels good at times like this to act. And there are others out there who need our action. We’re trying to check in with our neighbors to ensure they have what they need, as well as donate to organizations that run benevolence programs for those who are struggling right now.

So what about work? Here at Google, we’re all sharing various ideas with each other about what productivity looks like. A few suggestions that might be useful:

  • Focus on your “P0s”. In the software engineering culture, we often order various tasks or work by priority: P1, P2, P3 in descending order of importance, and whether because developers prefer to count from zero or because P1 didn’t seem urgent enough, we talk about the P0 (p-zero) issues as being those that are truly critical at an existential level. In these times, our P0 list will look different than normal; both because it includes some family-related tasks that can’t be ignored, and because the job-related work that was important a couple of weeks ago may have changed. It’s good to pause and take a moment to review what really is existentially important to you in your current situation.
  • Get organized. We’re in this for a little while, at least, so it’s a good time to develop some new habits. The less you’re having to track you’re working on in your head, the more free mental capacity you’ll have for dealing with the unexpected. If you have a free few hours, you might try my article on getting to inbox zero as one housekeeping routine.
  • Create a task list that avoids ambiguity. I try to start each day with a list of tasks that I plan to accomplish that day. I often think about what will “move the needle” — what I will be able to look back at the end of the day as demonstrating forward progress. More important than normal, it’s worth trying to break big ambiguous problems into smaller tasks that have an obvious done / not done status.
  • Choosing between optimum vs. choosing least worst. As one Google exec recently remarked in a town hall meeting, we’re used to choosing the optimum outcome from various reasonably good choices. This crisis is unusual because many of the decisions we’re being forced to make are between multiple bad choices. Our brains are not wired that way, and so when someone picks the ‘least worst’ choice, it’s easy to look at the various problems and downsides and conclude that it’s a bad decision. We need to recognize that in some situations right now, we have to make the best decision available, even if objectively that’s a bad choice by normal standards. That particularly applies to government and healthcare, where it’s easy to identify all the pitfalls of an approach being announced.
  • Give yourself a break. Don’t add to the extrinsic stress levels of the health crisis by adding pressure on yourself. We’re all going through a lot of life changes at the same time, and it’s good to acknowledge that we’re not all going to be working at peak performance for a little while until we adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Let’s keep looking out for each other out there. Stay positive — and stay COVID-negative!

Product Manager for Flutter (a framework for building mobile apps) and Dart (a modern, client-optimized programming language) at Google.

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