Finding a New Pace

  • 6 mins read

How has the pandemic affected your pace?

Even the best of the best have experienced challenges in finding their new pace at work. Focus and concentration have been more of a challenge for leaders, managers, and employees. And it’s no surprise: our sense of time has been distorted. Two factors explain this phenomenon:

  • Feeling stuck in a holding pattern
  • Loss of flow

Feeling stuck is not unusual for those who remain at home, or have yet to return to their previous work environment. Research in anthropology and psychology has found that when we are unable to structure or manipulate our experience of timewhen our temporal agency is deprivedwe feel stuck in the present.

Dr. Felix Ringel, an anthropologist of time at Durham University in England, refers to this as enforced presentism, a term first defined by fellow anthropologist Jane Guyer. And for those who do not know when (or if) they can return to work, enforced presentism continues to alter their perception of time.

Fear also alters our perception of time. According to Dr. Sylvie Droit-Volet, PsyD, who has conducted extensive research on emotions and time, threatening stimuli can distort our internal sense of the passage of time. In Subjective Time (The MIT Press 2014), Droit-Volet points to two significant contributors that distort our internal clock:

  • Changes in internal states in response to the effects of drugs or external stimuli (such as a crisis)
  • Attentional processes: when we pay less attention to time, we experience a temporal shortening effect

Leaders, executives, and managers in situations of great pressure work with qualified coaches on self-management strategies. They focus on four psychological skills that can also be used to manage enforced presentism and loss of flow, whether you have yet to return to work, are working remotely, or have made your re-entry.

Self-management Skills

Think positively. While this sounds simplistic, our negative thoughtscall it mind chatter or self-talkerode our efficiency, happiness, and confidence. Notice when you are thinking negatively; when you frame a situation as a problem (and distort it into a much bigger catastrophe). Then, re-think, re-frame, and revise your thoughts to the positive possibilities.

Practice relaxation. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, make time for relaxation: a process that works for you to decrease the effects of stress. For example, I find guided meditation with body scan to be very effective and helpful. Another technique is to imagine a peaceful settingyou’re happy placeand focus on your breath, or mentally scan your body from toe to head. Others find online yoga and Tai chi relaxing. Whatever works for you; the key is to make time for relaxation that is beneficial to you.

Create SMART goals. Most of us have goals at work, but do you have personal SMART goals that reflect your own interests and values? Personal SMART goals can help you stay focused on what truly matters to you, and identify the incremental steps you have taken to reach your goal.

Minimize distractions. Today, this is the most frequently reported challenge. Whether they are external (noises and interruptions) or internal (feelings and thoughts), here are two tips you can implement immediately to help protect your focus and concentration:

  • Use a 30 minute timer. We know that extended sitting is detrimental to our health; add to that tiring mental tasks, and it’s no wonder we are easily distracted and feel exhausted at the end of the day. According to recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, breaks from just one to nine minutes can help you bounce back from tiring tasks. So, get up, stretch, move around, and take a break.
  • Re-think the need to meet. Before you send out that meeting invite (or say yes), consider the meeting purpose and time actually needed. For example,
    • INFORM: If the purpose is to share information, send the information via email.
    • DISCUSS: If the purpose is to have a dialog, send relevant information via email, invite them to read it, and request a phone call to discuss.
    • MEET: If your purpose truly requires a virtual (or in-person) meeting, create an agenda that includes: purpose/goals/outcomes, references (the pre-read resources), action items (a spreadsheet works best) and meeting agenda timeline. If you can keep the meeting under 30 minutes, schedule a 15 minute meeting.

As You Return to Work

For many, a return to work is a great relief: a “normal” routine, friendly faces, a steady paycheck. But the pandemic is not over. New routines will replace the norm, friendly faces may be veiled behind a mask, and hours may be part-time. Trepidation is expected. Optimal performance and recovery depend on our ability to address anxiety and restructure flow.

According to Dr. Erika Felix, PhD, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, who treats and studies trauma survivors, “Most people will be resilient and return to their previous level of functioning.” But by definition, a crisis is something that exceeds our ability to cope. Fortunately, there are steps leaders can take to help everyone cope better.

Return to Work Requires Anxiety Management

In a recent Harvard Business Review (June 2020) article, Dr. Julia DeGangi suggests three strategies leaders can use to manage anxieties in the work place:

  • Allow greater flexibility in performance management. Avoid over-investing in processes and micromanaging schedules.
  • Communicate clearly. Provide clarity, context, and reinforcement of priorities.
  • Demonstrate mental toughness. This means perceiving, understanding, using, and managing your feelings. It requires appropriate demonstration of emotional vulnerability at the highest leadership levels.

Remember: anxiety can be a sign of productive growth. Leaders who communicate appropriately about messy issues can alleviate anxiety and model resilience. This sets the stage to restructure flow at work.

A New Zone Focus

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has studied the phenomenon of zone focus or "flow" throughout his career. “Flow” is the zone state in limited form, but has the same attention characteristics. “Flow” is a sample state of entering the zone that leads to optimum performance.

Based upon his research, Dr. Csikszentmihaly theorized that four elements must be present to get into the flow state:

  • Presence of a challenging activity
  • Perception that your skills match the challenge
  • Clear goals
  • Availability of instant feedback concerning your performance

When these elements are present, an "order in consciousness" occurs. And, it is this phenomenon that helps people immerse themselves in an activity, find a new pace, and have fun doing it.

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