During a crisis, we need to take care of ourselves and then support each other. But it’s hard to be completely cognitively effective when there’s so much information coming at you, fewer resources are available, and you’re stuck at home teleworking or have an essential frontline job.
Even if we can’t necessarily change the situation, NLI’s research shows that shifting our mindset in a few key ways can help us stay focused and productive, even during a crisis. Below we’ve outlined three essential habits that anyone can develop to stay focused. Doing so will help you (and your team) deliver what really matters.
Adopt a growth mindset
Research indicates that how we respond to change, a challenge, or setback depends in large part on the mindset we have in that particular situation. Scientists refer to these mindsets as a fixed mindset and growth mindset.
When we approach a particular situation—for example, finding out we can no longer work in the office and have to work from home—with a fixed mindset, we tend to get bogged down in details, lose focus of the overarching goal, and ignore or dismiss feedback. This happens in part because we are focused on proving ourselves—showing that we have what it takes—and maintaining the status quo. As a result, we become resistant to change.
When we approach a particular situation with a growth mindset, we feel motivated by challenge, feel energised by curiosity, and seek improvement. This happens in part because we are focused on improvement and development. As a result, we are more adaptive in the face of change, even though the journey might be a bit rough. It’s important to remember that the growth mindset is not a destination to be reached; it’s about being receptive to change and improvement, and to trying new things.
In a crisis, you’ll be forced to try things that you’ve never done before. When you adopt a growth mindset in a crisis situation, the path to change will be less arduous. You can do this with just a single, simple word: yet. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and are having trouble focusing, instead of saying “I don’t know how to focus during a crisis,” you could try saying to yourself “I don’t know how to focus during a crisis, yet.” Make this a psychological habit with anything that challenges you.
At the risk of getting overwhelmed, you need to rigorously commit to eliminating “priorities” that aren’t actually priorities.
To do so, collect your tasks and projects, and chunk them into categories. Science shows that this helps our brain make sense of information to better sort and manage individual pieces. Whatever your strategy, ruthlessly prioritising is about distilling incoming information down to what’s essential rather than what’s exhaustive. By ruthlessly prioritising, we can free up our finite cognitive capacity not just to focus on what matters, but actually to do it well.
Choose your focus
Observations of behaviours within organisations led to the formulation of the five levels of focus: vision, planning, detail, problem, and drama. In any situation, our brains shift between these levels of focus. In a crisis, our sense of threat shoots us into the problems, details, and drama, making it hard for us to focus on the why and how of the given situation.
To overcome this, you need to start with a vision. You want to connect the conversation about why you and your team are doing something, what the outcomes are, and how to do it. Stay firmly grounded in questions like, “What’s our goal here? What does success look like for us?” This will save you time by lifting people’s thinking out of the details and the drama and inspire them with bigger, more important questions.
In trying times, we don’t know what comes next. But as long as we take care of ourselves, look after each other, and deliver what matters, we will all be in the best position to help thrive through crisis.
By Jonathan Grinstein, PhD