mental health

Overcome anxiety and stay productive with these brain hacks

Ceej Tantengco

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Overcome anxiety and stay productive with these brain hacks
Here are some psychology-driven techniques and tools to help you stay productive and feel better about working from home


MANILA, Philippines – Working from home sounds easy: no time spent on the road, the kitchen is right there, and even on video calls, you could be wearing your oldest pambahay shorts and nobody would know. But it’s harder than it sounds  – especially when COVID-19 has us all feeling anxious and worried.

The good news is that while adjusting to a new work routine is challenging, it’s possible. As a freelance writer, I haven’t worked in a traditional office since 2015. While controlling our lived environment, such as setting up a home office, helps, understanding how our brain works gives us a better sense of control to overcome distractions.

Here are some psychology-driven techniques and tools to help you stay productive and feel better about working from home.

Practice mindfulness meditation

First off, it’s normal if you’re feeling sad, anxious, and stressed. These are difficult times, and it’s not the usual work-from-home setup in which we choose to work at home because that is the most efficient way for us to function. For many, this time feels less like working from home and more like coping from home. And that’s normal.

Mindfulness meditation is an effective practice that has been used by CEOs and recommended by therapists even before our current health crisis. It teaches one to stay in the moment – that is, not worry about the future, and not obsess over the past – to sharpen our attention, memory, and even emotional intelligence,

“Multiple research studies have shown that meditation has the potential to decrease anxiety, thereby potentially boosting resilience and performance under stress,” says the Harvard Business Review.

Apps like Calm and Headspace offer an easy introduction to mindfulness meditation. Locally, podcast network PumaPodcast has also has started a guided meditation series called Meditation Muna, specifically made for Filipino listeners in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Use classical conditioning to be productive during work hours

When I first moved to a work-from-home setup years ago, I noticed I wasn’t as efficient as before. Without the time pressure of having to finish tasks within defined office hours, there was a false sense of complacency: “I can always continue after dinner.” So I’d end up less productive during the day, but stretching my work into the night. Not good!

Setting clear work hours at home is the first step. Step two is training yourself to be productive during those hours. In classical conditioning, two stimuli are linked together to produce a learned response in a person. (You might recognize this from Pavlov’s experiments with dogs!)

At home, what worked for me was lighting a scented candle at 9 am while I answered emails. I’d turn it off during my lunch break and light it again in the afternoon until 5 pm. The scent of vanilla became tied to productivity for me, and so even when I stepped outside my room to grab a snack, it was easier to snap back into work mode when I came back to the scent.

If scented candles aren’t your thing, try it with scent diffusers, a work playlist, or any cue you like.

Reward yourself for accomplishing tasks

If classical conditioning deals with linking stimuli to create a learned response, operant conditioning deals with how the consequences of our actions affect our behavior.

Actions that are followed by positive reinforcement will be strengthened and are more likely to occur again in the future. So reward yourself for accomplishing your tasks! This can be as simple as keeping a notebook to list your accomplishments at the end of each day or rewarding yourself with a snack after a particularly difficult task.

Similarly, negative reinforcement discourages us from repeating certain actions. So try and be aware of your bad work habits and give yourself a negative consequence if you catch yourself. Maybe you stop to look at social media too often? If you look at social media at a time when you should be working, you’re no longer allowed to look at social media during your lunch break.

Procrastinating? Pomodoro it!

Unlike offices, nobody knows what you get up to at home. When you hit a mental block, it’s so tempting to click away to watch YouTube videos or open Netflix in another tab.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break down work into set intervals separated by short breaks. The system is named after the Italian word for tomato, as Cirillo originally used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

Using a timer tricks your brain into having a sense of urgency, creating periods of focus where one can get in the zone and overcome distractions – “work with time, instead of struggling against it,” as their website puts it.

The Pomodoro intervals are traditionally 25 minutes each, but variations have popped up over the years. Some suggest 90-minute intervals, based on a 1993 study by performance researcher Anders Ericsson that found high-performing young musicians practiced in increments of 90 minutes each, with a break between each stretch. Others, however, suggest personalizing your intervals to your natural “flowtime.”

Working from home is no bed of roses. Like a regular office, there will be good days and bad days, days when you’re in the zone, and days when it feels like a struggle to even start.

But like a regular office, it’s possible to overcome these challenges and end your day feeling fulfilled and productive. –

Ceej Tantengco is a three-time Palanca Award-winning writer, reporter, and gender equality advocate. Working as a courtside reporter for four years inspired her to create Go Hard Girls, a podcast that tells the stories of incredible yet underrated Filipino athletes. She is also a consultant for the NLEX Road Warriors basketball team, for which she recently won an Anvil Award.

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