When Productivity Takes a Backseat to Survival

Since early February, we’ve all been dealing with extreme stress and uncertainty. No one knows how the pandemic will affect them in the short or long term. The virus can feel simultaneously very far away and right at our doorstep. You may be worried about money or toilet paper or what will happen if someone you love gets critically ill. And the cherry on top is you probably also feel like you’re not being productive or creative enough with all of your new-found “free time.”

Hyper-arousal Kills Productivity

One of my fellow coaches put together a whole list of tools to help people build new skills during the pandemic and asked me to look at it. I did and then told her, “It’s great! But none of it applies.” Here’s what’s happening to you right now on a biological level: you are living in “survival mode.” The parts of your brain responsible for high-level executive functioning have shut down so that when it’s time to “fight, flee or freeze,” reason won’t get in the way of life-saving action. Your muscles are tense, your digestive system has slowed, and you lack the ability to tackle complex problems or be overly creative.

If you’re not considered an essential worker (they require an entirely separate post and all of our appreciation), all you need to do right now, apart from regular life and work obligations, is make time to move your body and pay attention to your emotional well being. Everything else is optional.

Creativity and Our Basic Human Needs

It’s so important to recognize that this pandemic has robbed many of us of our basic human needs for safety and security. Additionally, we’re cut off from connection to other people. Yes, we have phones and video conferencing tools and that is a beautiful saving grace. But the fact remains that we are biologically wired to crave human touch and to share physical space with others. Without the foundational elements of physical safety and community, it is very hard to pursue our higher desires.

However, while it might seem impossible to sit down and work on that novel you’ve wanted to write for the last ten years, certain activities can help you achieve the feeling of safety that your mind and body crave right now while providing a creative outlet.

Focus on Play and Tangible Results

It’s become a joke that no one can find flour or yeast anywhere because the entire country has taken up baking as a stress reliever. But there’s a real reason for this. If you follow the recipe’s instructions, you’ll end up with tangible and edible results in a specific amount of time. You don’t have to do too much thinking and it feels creative.

Kitchen projects in particular help you tap into the muscle memory of your childhood and connect the dots between now and then. Good smells awaken positive memories that can help you emotionally. But if you don’t like to cook, you can find solace elsewhere. When you garden, paint, knit, or even doodle for five minutes, you simultaneously connect to your body and focus your mind.

Short activities with tangible results can be very soothing as they promote a state of flow and relieve anxiety. Even if you’ve never considered yourself a “creative” person, you can go back to the activities you participated in as a child to find an island in the storm. Maybe you loved board games, or built incredible structures with Legos, or loved playing catch in the backyard. Remove any “objectives” from the creative pursuit and do what feels fun or playful. If the activity involves physical exercise, that’s even better.

Connection is the Pathway to Meaning

In her book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, author Emily Esfahani Smith writes, “When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they describe connecting to and bonding with other people in positive ways. They discuss finding something worthwhile to do with their time. They mention creating narratives that help them understand themselves and the world. They talk about mystical experiences of self-loss.”

Meaning and connection is what we’re all looking for right now, which is why activities that allow you to express yourself and share your gifts with others feel like such a blessing.

Nicole is a coach and educator based in California. Read more of her writing and learn about her offerings here

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