How to care about big picture issues and still be productive

Put your mask on first

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Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Recently, I made a mistake that many people around the world are making, and it was killing my productivity.

I paid too much attention to news of the pandemic as it unfolded, as my family, friends, and colleagues were among the front lines of healthcare.

I became anxious, demoralized, and I felt like I was operating at quarter-capacity. I tried to stop paying attention to the news after the first week, but that didn’t help: I couldn’t exactly turn a blind eye when the news might affect my loved ones.

Of course, in such turbulent times, it’s more than okay to have a few slow days when times are troubling. But for me, it wasn’t days: it was weeks.

Ayodeji Awosika sums up this feeling better than I can.

It bothers you to see an unequal society, injustices, and straight-up tragedies in the world because you’re a good person. I get it.

But carrying the weight of a pandemic, geopolitics, race relations, and the fight against the entire system squarely on your shoulders will keep you in a loop of anxiety and kill your productivity.

I can’t begin to answer the solution to all of these large-scale problems, but I can speak about the productivity piece a little bit.

I eventually was able to figure out a way to keep informed without becoming distraught by the news.

And the key to do this is something you’ve heard every time you’ve boarded a flight: “In the event of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first.”

Have you ever wondered why they instruct you to do this? The answer is simple: unless we take care of ourselves in moments we have to act, we may pass out and be unable to help ourselves or anyone else.

While you’re unlikely to pass out reading the news, there is another real danger that comes from repeatedly taking in the negative stimuli (like the news) without doing anything. It’s a phenomenon called learned helplessness.

This is when you feel like you have no control over your situation and you can’t take any actions, so you may begin to behave helplessly.

This might be the smoker who assumes they’ll never be able to quit smoking because they tried to quit and failed twice.

Or, in my case, the worker who believes they can’t do anything because the news is focused on problems they can’t solve.

Symptoms of learned helplessness include low self-esteem, poor motivation, anxiety, depression, and procrastination.

And it’s a major reason that many people feel stuck and unhappy with their life.

Right now, it’s easy to feel helpless: there are tons of big-picture issues such as geopolitics, race relations, and a global pandemic which one person can’t solve by themselves.

So what can you do about it? Put your mask on first.

Let’s say that you just read a news piece on how people aren’t trusting public official’s comments about wearing masks, given their previous statements.

Imagine that it makes you feel angry, and you want to take action. What can you do?

You might think that I’m asking you to take action to start up petitions, write to your local congressperson, or begin evangelizing to everyone that you should start wearing masks.

That would be nice, and might positively impact the world. But I’d classify that as putting the mask on someone else first.

Now imagine that you didn’t have the time right now to do that: what might you do?

Well, then you might say, I can’t do anything. But that’s not true. Because let’s review that statement once again:

Imagine that it makes you feel angry, and you want to take action.

If we are making sure that we’re putting on our mask first and taking care of our mental and emotional health, there are things we can do.

We could exercise, meditate, write down how we feel. We could vent to a co-worker or friend, or we could do many things. The previous actions might save the world, but these actions are things to save yourself.

Now imagine that you don’t do those things. What happens? Well, you may be angry at the news, but that anger doesn’t dissipate: it intrudes into your meetings, your social life, your projects.

If this is something that you do often enough, you may find yourself constantly angry, anxious, fearful, or depressed. And your productivity may plummet as a result.

One of the key fundamentals to avoid learned helplessness is to remember that you always have a choice in the actions that you can take.

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away-it can only be forgotten.” — Greg McKeown

If you’re going to keep informed with the news, then ask yourself these simple questions first:

  1. Can I take action right now?

Don’t check the news 5 minutes before bed or work. At that point, you probably can’t take many actions, and as a result, whatever emotion the news makes you feel will affect you.

2. Did you come to this deliberately?

One technique that helps to reduce stress and anxiety is to mindfully choose a time and location to indulge in the news. Rather than choosing to infinitely scroll, you can choose a time and place for you to both start and finish reading the news. One of the downsides of infinite scrolling is that you can easily get caught up in a negative spiral if you’re not careful.

3. How does this make me feel? How can I address that?

After reading the news, before scrolling to the next piece, think about how you feel from this, and what you can do in response to that. Often, there is a mix of emotions you might feel when reading news pieces, but you may not be able to identify exactly how you feel right away other than being in a negative mood.

Being able to step back and phrase your emotions (“it makes me feel angry and want to take action.”) is a major factor in taking relevant actions to help you address these emotions.

Right now, there’s a lot of negative news out there, more than usual. And for many people, the simplest solution is to stick their heads in the sand and ignore everything bad that might come their way. But maybe that’s not an option for you. Maybe you care, and you want to make a difference.

In that case, you need to be smart about caring for yourself in the meantime. Put your mask on first, and then you can save the world.

I write about Productivity, Psychology, and UX on a weekly basis. If you would like to become better at UX, you can check out my online courses about UX Research Planning and Design Communication.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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