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As a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety and habit management, Jud Brewer has seen a lot of change over the past two months – very little for the better. People have succumbed to their vices, be they food, alcohol, social media, work or television.

The culprit is anxiety, which for evolutionary reasons leads us to such distractions. As anxiety has increased on a societal level, our survival brain, which was set up to scan territory for both food and danger, has been activated.

A restless contraction in your stomach or chest might let you know that something is off. “Your brain says, ‘Do something,’ and the action, or the distraction, makes you feel better. To you, looking at cute puppies on YouTube (again) may seem like a strange choice when you still have a big project to do. But to your brain, it’s a no-brainer. It’s survival 101,” he explains in the Harvard Business Review.

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Except these days, it’s not hugely helpful. You could become accustomed to these distractions, and they could become addictions.

If you’re stuck in an anxiety-distraction habit loop, he advises you to map out the process of trigger-behaviour-reward that creates and perpetuates your unwanted habits. That involves noticing the anxiety trigger, what distraction follows (such as eating, drinking, watching TV), and the reward you experience, presumably feeling better because you have been distracted from that anxiety. Pay attention to when it occurs – certain parts of the day or a certain context.

Then explore the relief you have received. What does it provide you? How long? Does it plateau and then send you back to anxiety mode? “It is important to note that not all distraction is bad. It becomes a problem when the reward you seek stops being rewarding. You can explore what it’s like to eat a little versus a lot of chocolate when you’re nervous. You can explore what bingeing on five versus two episodes of your show du jour feels like,” he writes.

The final step is to find what he calls the “bigger better offer” – an alternative behaviour more rewarding than the distraction. He stresses that doesn’t always mean adopting an entirely new behaviour. Perhaps you can determine how little of the current activity is enough – stopping it before it shifts from being helpful to harmful. If your goal is to step out of your habit loop entirely, then you do need to explore a bigger, better offer – such as mindfulness – that deals with the anxiety so distraction is not needed.

Una Dabiero, an editorial associate at Fairygodboss, adds these five conversational techniques to the arsenal of what she calls the emotionally-intelligent remote worker:

  • Say good morning and make small talk on video calls: “Water-cooler talk doesn’t get less important simply because you’re remote,” she insists.
  • Ask your boss if any priorities or goals have shifted: Working in the office, this information might come more casually. Now, if you’re smart, you’ll check.
  • Ask your direct reports or team members if there is any way you can help. As well as building rapport, she says during such a challenging time colleagues may be handling personal issues you have no idea about.
  • Follow up on video calls to confirm action items and ask clarifying questions. This used to happen as people were leaving the room. Now while still online, check with participants on how they intend to approach their action items and what questions they have or are lingering in the group.
  • Ask team members how they are holding up: “Whether you ask someone how their day is going or how they’re holding up, reminding them that there are humans on the other side of the screen is more important now than ever,” she says.

Quick hits

  • As college students contemplate the fall, entrepreneur Seth Godin says they should be open to a gap year: “It’s a chance to step off the carousel of conformity and lockstep obedience and actually commit to a path of your own choosing. Keep your tuition money and put it to work for you.”
  • Another technique for dealing with remote work: Zapier organizes pair buddies, weekly random pairings of two to three people on a team so they can catch up on work, life or anything else.
  • Consultant Sherry Knight asks you to consider the possibility your supervisor may be experiencing some of the same challenges as you, such as lack of child care, concern about the future of the organization or even edginess over their own role.
  • Executive recruiter Gerald Walsh warns against volunteering any negatives about your own background in job interviews. It doesn’t help you. At the same time, he says nothing displays more confidence than admitting your mistakes.
  • A brisk walk can be as effective as a cup of coffee in boosting your cognition, recent research suggests. A lunch-time walk may ward off the afternoon slump.

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