Behavioral Strategies to Stay Productive during COVID Isolation

We are in the middle of an unprecedented global health pandemic. As more and more people across the world practice social distancing, sanitizing, stockpiling, and quarantining, it almost feels like we are preparing to face an impending apocalypse. Amidst the chaos, older people remain the most vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus, requiring extra precaution and care from their families and societies. But, though their physical risk may be lower, young people will also bear a heavy emotional, psychological, and economic cost from the fallout.

Every summer, as graduates transition into a lifestyle that is quite arduous in comparison with the bubble-enclosed, fun-filled college experience, they are forced to learn how to face the challenges of the “real world,” without a myriad of friends and mentors around to comfort and guide them. Students of the graduating class of 2020 are unexpectedly making this transition in March, without even getting a chance to say their goodbyes. Their spring semester plans have gone down the drain, those who have missed on-campus recruitment opportunities are fearing joblessness, and the majority have been forced to return home for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile, recent graduates (myself included) are suddenly navigating travel-less work in travel-heavy professions, contemplating the visa and immigration challenges associated with going home, dealing with online meetings at ungodly hours, and wondering if our career plans for the foreseeable future now hold any water.

This sudden unpredictability is perhaps the greatest long-term existential concern for young people. Though the economic dislocations will hit every demographic, a potentially protracted recession would likely have a disproportionate effect on younger people. This was the case in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that led to the highest rates of unemployment for young adults [1]. That in turn, had lasting negative effects on their mental health [2]. While our physiological immunity to the coronavirus may be strong, our emotional immunity to its effects might be lower than what our parents, employers, and institutions would like to believe.

The good news is that insights from Behavioral Science can help equip the young to become better at dealing with these tough times. With the right approach and intent, we can implement practices that help enhance our own well-being and also allow us to care for others in need. Here are a few behavioral nuggets to chew over:

Stay curious & avoid operating from your Defensive Mode:

Unfortunately, our brains do not always distinguish between indignities and genuine physical threats. We might not be living on ancestral savannahs anymore but our survival circuits are still wired to protect us on a daily basis. When we feel challenged, our freeze/flight/fight responses can be triggered, and we might find ourselves behaving in ways that are self-damaging (e.g. getting scared stiff in the middle of a meeting, disengaging and zoning out, or worse, snapping at our coworkers). We operate in one of two modes: discovery or defense [3]. While our discovery system helps us scan our environment for potential rewards (like praise or money), our defensive system is constantly looking out for threats to our safety. Operating from the defensive mode negatively impacts our intellect and prevents us from thinking expansively. Unfortunately, in the present circumstances, we seem to be using our defensive mode by default, constantly stressing about getting infected by the dreaded virus.

Snapping out of the defensive mode and into the discovery mode requires conscious effort and practice — we need to train ourselves to look for potential rewards in all situations, even those we feel stuck in. As more and more universities begin online classes and workplaces implement “work-from-home” policies, we can practice operating from our discovery mode more often.

Activities that help make this switch include: finding humor in a less-than-ideal situation and sharing it with classmates or team members (which triggers a social sense of belonging and recognition [4]); learning new information, getting answers to our questions and gaining new work-related knowledge (all of which have been shown to activate the brain’s reward system [5],[6]); and developing competence and autonomy e.g. by setting and meeting daily goals & taking responsibility for our deliverables (which spurs intrinsic motivation and in turn, helps enhance our performance [7]).

Do not neglect your SNEM: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, and Mindfulness

The way we treat our bodies impacts both our cognitive and emotional functioning. The current circumstances require us to stay at home and maintain social distance. While these are precautionary measures we must comply with for our own and others’ safety, they can arouse upset, especially among school and college seniors who just wanted to have fun in their last couple of months on campus. What still lies in our control, however, is how we choose to deal with the given circumstances. The first (and perhaps the hardest) step is to acknowledge that our health and safety supersede our fantastical ideas of what could have been.

The reality is that we will be expected to be productive even while working from home, and for that to happen, we will have to plan out new daily schedules. As we do so, we must prioritize making time for a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising, and practicing mindfulness. These additions to our routine can help us feel more productive and support us in achieving our goals. We must not be quick in blaming the closing down of our local gyms and salad shops as events that are discouraging us from taking care of ourselves. We would serve ourselves better if we instead choose to find and implement new ways of prioritizing our well-being, even in the confines of less-than-ideal spaces. We live in a world with tons of information at our disposal. Some ideas I am personally incorporating into my daily house arrest are: doing guided meditations right as I wake up, recreating healthy recipes for my meals, and following along home-friendly workout videos on YouTube.

Check your assumptions:

Most of us have a tendency to only see what we are looking for, noticing what we have decided merits our attention and blindly ignoring the rest. This kind of selective attention is known as inattentional blindness. When we encounter situations or behaviors in line with our beliefs, our automatic system [8] will make sure we are aware of it. On the contrary, when we encounter something that runs counter to our expectations, our automatic system will probably discard it. This well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias can indeed prove useful in times when we need to conserve precious mental energy, but it can also stop us from developing new mental models about the world. It can even cause us to distort what we hear and see to match our expectations.

The next time you feel strongly attached to a negative expectation about a situation or person or event, try to recognize that you might be filtering out countervailing evidence. Make sure you are self-aware enough to become more open to new information. You can practice this by actually listening to what that person in your class (whom you’ve always found annoying) has to say in your Zoom course discussion, or paying closer attention to the feedback a reserved coworker may be trying to give you. They might not be as wrong or indifferent as your bias probably has you thinking.

As an example, consider this: If you’re feeling particularly annoyed about having to spend all day in front of your computer and taking meeting calls online, you might catch yourself expecting a terrible day full of technical glitches. Check your assumption right there and bring to your awareness any thoughts that may challenge your opinion, e.g. “video conferences are now easier to conduct than they used to be as recent technological advancements will ensure a smooth live lecture/conference.” Then, challenge yourself with more open-mindedness, for instance, by setting a goal that forces you to get rid of your assumptions, e.g. “I will choose to notice the strengths of this setup. If any glitches arise, I will do my best to resolve them and bring the meeting/discussion back on track.” Further, make notes of when your negative expectations do not actually happen — rather than just noting when they do play out.

Set implementation intentions:

Have you ever found yourself having positive intentions but failing to act on them? You’re not alone, as most of us often find it hard to act on our positive intentions [9]. With final exams to take and papers (or worse, theses) to submit, students might be struggling to motivate themselves to get everything done on time, having to work harder to create simulated work environments at home. Office workers might also be struggling with the sudden environment shift and the lapses in productivity that follow. It is thus of prime importance to ensure we are able to set realistic and achievable goals for ourselves as we continue to work from home.

One behavioral hack is to create implementation intentions. When setting goals, think about not just what you want to do but also when and how. This is probably news for all my fellow planner-addicts. Most of us only jot down our to-do tasks in long list formats complete with checkboxes, but with no action plan for the when and the how. Take your organization game one step ahead by setting implementation intentions, which usually take the form of “if X then Y” e.g. “if I find myself getting distracted by my phone, then I will put it away for 30 minutes and work on a pressing task” or “if I find myself getting anxious, then I will reorganize my environment into one that helps me power through my coursework.”

Mapping out exactly what behavior you want to engage in (e.g. “writing a paper”) at what time (e.g. “2:30 to 5:30pm”) and how (e.g. “creating an outline, writing the introduction, writing 3 paragraphs, writing the conclusion section”) will help make the task feel more concrete and give you the confidence to complete it.

Take happy breaks:

  • Express gratitude: take a moment to think about 3 good things that happened to you today. Here are mine: I spent some quality play time with my adorable dog, I caught up with two close friends from college via Facetime (now that we are all at home, it was easy to find a mutually suitable time), & I relished a delicious home cooked lunch.
  • Perform a random act of kindness: I came across this postcard bid [10] that a woman in the UK has designed to help neighbors who are self-isolating. Offer help to your neighbors — they might really need it. Plus, you’ll feel like a million bucks afterward too!
  • Make time for healthy human connection: many families are experiencing sudden reunions as workers travel to their homes. As you socially isolate together, make the most of the time you have with each other. Look after the elderly members of your family, help with household chores, and be generous with your expressions of love & gratitude. Those who are not around their families, who are living abroad or alone, can still find ways to stay in healthy contact with the world. Try to find local nonprofits that could use your help as a volunteer (provided you work in safe conditions), give ‘digital dinners’ a go, tune into live concerts or host an online happy hour! Even as we rev up our self-preservation efforts, let us not forget to lift each other up. Ultimately, it is through caring about one another, and not through avoidance and neglect, that we will successfully overcome this epidemic.

Making use of what we know

As I conclude, I want to briefly reflect on the GI Joe fallacy [11] — the idea that “knowing is” actually not “half the battle,” but much lesser. Just knowing about our biases will not prevent us from overcoming them, but the knowledge is still powerful. Changing our behavior for the better will require deliberate practice. The unique situation of dealing with a global pandemic is providing us with a chance to focus on our own and our loved ones’ health and behavior. I hope that we, the young around the world, will make the most of this opportunity to develop skills and behaviors that empower us to care for our emotional and mental well-being. These times may be tough, but we are tougher.

Cover Photo: Berlin, “Keep your distance” (source: New York Times)

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