How To Stay Calm, Motivated, And Productive During A Crisis
It seems I’m a fraud.
For years, I’ve advocated and even profited from preaching about the evils of distractions and enslaving yourself to the crisis news networks. Productive people don’t glue themselves to social media and cable news. They don’t stress over transitory bullshit. They put their heads down and get to work.
I felt justified in preaching as I had almost universally followed my own advice. That win-streak ended on January 6 when rioters stormed the capital. I became the person I advised not to become, immersing myself in headline news, checking Twitter for constant updates because mainstream media felt like clay-tablet technology.
Had this become the new me? Would it last forever? You know that adage, “This too shall pass.” It’s true. Everything passes, even the good times, which always seem to zoom by, while the crises linger indefinitely.
Even my brain rebelled, surreptitiously contriving justification for my lack of motivation. It’s a throwaway month. It’s okay.
When thoughts like those started to make sense, I knew I had to reassert sanity. Thankfully, I regained my senses. It wasn’t willpower or refrigerator magnet proverbs that helped me. It took a lesson from a former boss who coached me after 9–11.
When the first tower fell on September 11, I left my office and raced back to my apartment. There I stayed for a good 48-hours, clinging to the 24-hour news, drinking wine from a bottle. The next morning, the scent of burnt ash and charred metal seeped through my window.
The events, the sounds, the scent. It so consumed me with fear, outrage, and angst; The commentary of pundits and news anchors proved addictive even though I knew it would only worsen the tension.
Two days into the melee, an exec at my company called, and we spoke for ten minutes. That might not sound impressive, but he had over 100 people who worked under him. For several days he made sure he spoke with every employee, promising us we’d still have a job, motivating us to stay strong, and projecting an unwarranted reassurance that somehow, everyone accepted.
When the crises passed, he explained that being the one everyone else leaned on made it easier for him to focus on his day-to-day without getting caught up in the minute by minute drama. It forced him to set an example for everyone else to follow.
It was a brilliant lesson and one I’ve followed during various crises over the last twenty years. It doesn’t require any special skill or willpower, only a small amount of effort and a desire to help.
Be the one everyone else leans on.
In times of turmoil, we crave certainty and reassurance. We’ll accept it even when we have reason to discount it.
When the executive calmed me after 9–11, I knew he lacked the power to guarantee his promises. Still, I bought his reassuring words because I needed to believe them. And as he later told me, fulfilling the role of the leader that everyone else leaned on reassured him as well.
There are three components to this technique, none of which require more than basic interpersonal skills.
A close friend of mine is the most anxious person I know. We used to live a few blocks from each other. I could walk into her apartment cool as blue and stumble out two hours later as though she’d injected me with an IV of caffeine. Always on edge, she lived life as if every decision were a life or death situation.
When you’re in the presence of someone like that, you can’t help but absorb some of their angst. Studies show that other people’s emotions can and do infect us. That’s why you need to project an air of calm when you designate yourself as the one others rely on.
Your calmness infects those around you. It encourages them to stick by you because they feel reassured. Their calmness, in turn, contributes to your emotional state. It’s tough to be productive and creative when you’re agitated. You act out of emotion instead of logic and make less thoughtful decisions.
Offer yourself up
When you put out the message you’re available for others, you thrust yourself into a leadership position. You become a person of authority and responsibility.
Once anointed, we tend to act in a way that’s consistent with that label. As Robert Cialdini writes in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, we have an obsessive desire to act (and appear) consistent. “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpernal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
The mere act of declaring yourself as the person who will be there for everyone else influences you to act in a way that’s consistent with that manner. Done correctly, it encourages you to demonstrate the skills, behaviors, and diligence your followers expect of you.
Plan for the post-crisis world
Never pretend the crisis doesn’t exist. Don’t dismiss anyone’s concerns or fears. You’ll destroy your credibility and antagonize the people you mean to support.
Nobody likes to feel belittled or dismissed. They want to be heard and reassured.
Put on your listening caps, as your school teacher used to say. Recognize their concerns, and then shift focus to the post-crisis world.
By focusing on the future state, you communicate your belief in an imminent post-crisis world without explicitly saying so. I’ve found it even helps to show apprehension or nervousness about the post-crisis reality.
Those who depend on you will worry their sweat glands dry. But you’ll also communicate a subtle certainty that whatever angst stands in their way now will soon end.
A crisis, even a short one, can throw off even the most disciplined. Once you find yourself off your game, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that as the adage goes, this too shall pass. Then, commit to being the one others can lean on. It forces you to set an example for everyone else to follow.