Feeling Blah During the Pandemic? It’s Called Languishing

A pun in the early morning catapults me into the river. A nightly Netflix binge sometimes does the trick too – it puts you in a story where you feel connected to the characters and concerned about their wellbeing.

While finding new challenges, positive experiences, and meaningful work are possible remedies, finding a flow is difficult when you cannot concentrate. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people used to check email 74 times a day, switching tasks every 10 minutes. Over the past year, many of us have also struggled with interruptions from kids around the house, colleagues around the world and bosses around the clock. Meh.

Fragmented attention is an enemy of commitment and excellence. In a group of 100 people, only two or three people can drive and store information at the same time without affecting their performance in either or both of the tasks. Computers can be made to process in parallel, but humans are better at serial processing.

That means we have to set limits. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple guideline: No interruptions Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday before noon. When the engineers managed the border themselves, 47 percent had above average productivity. However, when the company put quiet time as an official policy, 65 percent achieved above-average productivity. Doing more wasn’t just good for work performance: we now know that the most important factor in everyday enjoyment and motivation is a sense of progress.

I don’t think Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are anything magical before noon. The lesson from this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to be protected. It removes constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that draw our full attention.

The pandemic was a great loss. Try to start with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a unit or the rush to play a seven letter word. One of the clearest ways to flow is a barely manageable difficulty: a challenge that will expand your skills and increase your determination. That means taking time each day to focus on a challenge that is important to you – an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it is a small step to rediscover some of the energy and enthusiasm that you have been missing all these months.

Language isn’t just in our heads – it’s in our circumstances. You cannot cure a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health problems but stigmatizes mental health problems. As we move into a new post-pandemic reality, it is time to rethink our understanding of mental health and wellbeing. “Not depressed” doesn’t mean that you aren’t struggling. “Not burned out” doesn’t mean you’re cheered. By recognizing that so many of us languish, we can give voice to silent despair and pave a way out of the void.

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, author of Think Again: The Power to Know What You Don’t Know, and host of the TED podcast WorkLife.

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