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Feeling unfocused? Rotman experts on staying energized and productive during the COVID-19 crisis

April 7, 2020

Rotman professors share practical advice on how to take control of our time and energy.

The last few weeks have been tough. In addition to our ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the health of our communities, many of us are adjusting to extra childcare responsibilities and new work-from-home situations.

While it can be difficult to stay optimistic and focused, we can find ways to cope during these difficult times. In their recent webinar, Building Resilience Now: Moving from Coping to Taking Control, Professors Julie McCarthy and John Trougakos outlined effective strategies for taking control of our time and energy so that we are equipped to take on the new challenges that come up at home and at work.

This virtual talk is the first in a new webinar series called Managing Uncertainty: Adapting to and Learning from the COVID-19 Crisis. In each episode, Dean Tiff Macklem speaks with experts across the Rotman School on evidence-based approaches for how leaders and organizations can adapt quickly and stay resilient during the pandemic.

“Emotions are contagious. If you are a leader, be aware that you can set the tone with your team.”

—Julie McCarthy, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management

This series got off to a strong start with this first episode, where McCarthy, who is a professor with the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough with a cross-appointment to the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management area at Rotman, discussed why exercise, relaxation and good social connections are crucial to resilience building. Trougakos, who is an associate professor with the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, with a cross-appointment to the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management area at Rotman, explained how we can optimize our time by taking control of our schedules.

The two also shared preliminary findings from their recently launched well-being study, which involves tracking the effects of the crisis on more than 700 workers across Canada.

Here’s what we learned from this webinar:

Maintain healthy sleep habits.

“Many of us might be experiencing high levels of insomnia or restlessness. Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure that we are rejuvenating our energy through sleep,” explains McCarthy.

If you’re struggling to get the recommended seven or eight hours of quality sleep each night, she recommends taking naps (that are 30 minutes or less) during the day, minimizing screen time before bed and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule.

Keep up the fitness routine.

With so many fitness facilities and parks closed, it’s tempting to forego the usual workout routine, but regular exercise is critical during a time like this.

"Exercise stimulates chemicals that feed our brain, like endorphins and serotonin, and lowers the risk of illness and disease, and alleviates depression and anxiety,” says McCarthy.

She urges households to get creative with their fitness by designing activities that involve the whole family and by taking advantage of online exercise programs.

Maintain healthy interpersonal connections.

Though we need to keep a physical distance from others, we can still maintain connections to our communities by keeping in touch virtually. However, when connecting with friends, family and coworkers, McCarthy says to keep the conversations positive and avoid fixating on fears and anxieties.

“Emotions are contagious,” she says. “If you are a leader, be aware that you can set the tone with your team.”

“It’s important to stay calm and collected to minimize panic and stress within your workforce.”

Take control of your time.

For many of us, the last few weeks have felt disorganized and messy — especially as we attempt to complete work in very distracting home environments. To take back control of our time, Trougakos recommends strategic scheduling. That means: making a plan each day, creating boundaries between work and home life, and paying attention to the optimal times of the day to complete certain tasks.

Create boundaries where you can.

While it might feel impossible to complete focused work in a bustling home, Trougakos recommends communicating with the entire household on how everyone can be productive and respectful during the working portions of the day.

“Sit down with your family members and say, ‘I have to get these things done today, let’s make a plan so that we’re working as a team on this,’” he says.

He also suggests marking a space in the home as a workplace, if possible, and defining your work hours so that your family is clear on when you’re in work mode.

Design strategic breaks.

Though many of us feel guilty about taking breaks or fear getting distracted, we need to build in time away from our work to stay focused.

“The most productive people take a 17 minute break for every 52 minutes of work,” says Trougakos. “The best performers work in short, high-efficient productive bursts and then take relatively long breaks to recharge themselves.”

He suggests incorporating three kinds of breaks into your day:

  • Micro breaks (lasting 20 to 30 seconds), for quick stretches and moving around
  • Short rest breaks (lasting 5 to 20 minutes), which could include going for a walk or focusing on something not related to your work
  • A lunch break (about 30 to 60 minutes long), which should be spent eating a healthy meal away from your workspace.

Watch the full webinar for additional insights on how to take control of your energy and time:

More Rotman Insights | More from this webinar series

More from this webinar series

Managing Uncertainty: Adapting to and learning from the COVID-19 crisis

Watch past or see upcoming webinars →

Meet the researchers

Julie McCarthy

Professor of Organizational Behavior & HR Management

Read her full biography →

John P. Trougakos

Professor of Organizational Behavior & HR Management

Read his full biography →