An early morning pun catapults me into the flow. A late-night binge on Netflix sometimes does the trick too – it transports you to a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned about their well-being.
While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences, and meaningful work are all possible cures for languor, it’s hard to find a flow when you can’t focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people usually checked their emails 74 times a day and changed tasks every 10 minutes. Over the past year, many of us have also struggled with interruptions from kids at home, coworkers around the world, and 24 hour bosses. Meh.
Fragmented attention is an enemy of commitment and excellence. In a group of 100 people, only two or three will even be able to drive and memorize information at the same time without their performance suffering on one or both tasks. Computers may be designed for parallel processing, but humans are better off for serial processing.
Give yourself time without interruption
This means that we have to set limits. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: No interruptions Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday before noon. When engineers managed the border themselves, 47% had above-average productivity. But when the company defined calm as an official policy, 65% achieved above-average productivity. Doing more was not only good for performance at work: we now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is the feeling of progress.
I don’t think there is anything magical about Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays before noon. The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to be kept. This eliminates constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.
Focus on a small goal
The pandemic has been a great loss. To transcend languor, try starting with small victories, like the small triumph of finding a thriller or the rush to play a seven-letter word. One of the clearest ways to go is with fair difficulty to manage: a challenge that expands your skills and strengthens your resolve. It means taking time each day to focus on a challenge that matters to you – an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step towards rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve been missing all these months.
Language isn’t just in our heads – it’s in our situation. You cannot cure a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health issues but stigmatizes mental health issues. As we move towards a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and wellness. “Not depressed” doesn’t mean you aren’t struggling. “Not exhausted” doesn’t mean you’re excited. By recognizing that so many of us are languishing, we can begin to give voice to quiet despair and lead a way out of the void.
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, the author of Think about it: the power of knowing what you don’t know, and the host of the TED podcast Working life.