We can stop baking cupcakes, we're in a global pandemic

Lia Garvin

April 19, 2020

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If you're someone like me, you're somewhere between completely unable to focus on anything related to real work because you are so stressed about the future of the world, and beating yourself up for not having learned a new language after being in quarantine for 21 days. I mean, what the heck have you been doing in there, right?


In the coaching sessions and conversations I have been having over the past three weeks, a theme I continually see emerging is a need to be "productive" with this new-found time many of us used to spend commuting to the office.

At first, I fell right into this trap. I looked at my overfilled bookshelf and thought to myself, "this is great, I can read a book a week." I looked at my hand weights and yoga mat and figured, "This will be awesome, I'll come out of this in better shape than I've ever been in my life." I picked up the stand mixer I got for my wedding nine years ago that I had never used before and said, "Perfect, I'll learn how to bake beautiful and elaborate desserts." And then as the days passed, I did none of those things.

And I started to get into a self-judgment spiral.

Usually when we find ourselves deep in what Marilee Adams, author of the fantastic book Change Your Questions Change Your Life calls the "judger pit," we ask ourselves questions that start with "why." "Why do I always commit to things I don't finish?" "Why can't I read a book in a week?" "Why can't I focus?" While "why" questions might uncover insights into the patterns that surround some of our behaviors, none of these questions pull us out of this pit. Many times when we're in "why" mode, we sink deeper and deeper, our arm-chair therapist selves fast at work at diagnosing, and we don't actually take action.

When I found myself judging myself for not doing the lofty goals I set for myself, I followed Marilee's advice and the advice of my coaching training, and changed my questions from "why" to "what."

What got in my way?

First, I had forgotten to remind my judgy self that I was still working full time. I had quickly replaced the hours I previously spent commuting with video conference meetings, project discussions, virtual lunches, you name it. I didn't actually have any extra time. I was also working full time in a moment when I was (and am) under a heightened level of stress and distraction. Because of this, many things just take longer to work through or finish. Communication styles have to change, sometimes something will take two or three meetings when it used to take one, and there is a great deal of time needed to be spent on continually setting, resetting, and checking in on expectations.

Second, I tried to take on too many things at once. It's awesome to try to read more, but was a book a week really realistic? Did I suddenly inherit a superpower of speed reading while trapped in my house? Spoiler alert, I had not. I had the common tendency of letting my eyes be bigger than my stomach when it came to piling on new hobbies, and the thought of getting started on any of them became too daunting. The bar for success was too high, too unattainable.

Third, and closely related to the second, I didn't appreciate the smaller increments that I had been able to accomplish. I didn't always have the energy to run, but I had been walking more than I had been for years, taking every chance I had between meetings to get outside and take a short walk. I might not have baked a five-tier cake, but I made some pretty awesome cookies that only took about 15 minutes to throw together and bake, and I got to put that stand mixer to work. I carved out 30 minutes on three evenings a week to read before bed. I actually had done a lot more than I was giving myself credit for.

In the life-changing book Playing Big, author Tara Mohr describes the phenomenon of the Sunday vs. the Monday self. Reading this was liberating - it wasn't just me! This is the thing so many of us do, where we have big plans and promises on Sunday night, and then when Monday rolls around, we're thinking, "Who was that person?"

We can turn this around by asking our next question!

What is another version of success?

As we start to find ourselves judging our productivity, let's first ask ourselves "What got in the way?" We have to identify where we might not have been acknowledging what was realistically possible, and then ask ourselves, "What is another version of success?"

As I said, when I reflected back, I actually had done a lot more than I had realized, It was just a different version of success. Before you establish a new set of goals around productivity, what if you defined up front some of the multiple versions of success that would be fulfilling to you?

With one of my coaching clients, I proposed looking at these new endeavors as "free trials" where she puts a cap on all of the new things she's exploring so that she has a way out after a fixed period of time, as opposed to judging the endeavor as a failure if it's not fully completed. I decided to try this myself. With the reading goal, another version of success was to try to explore three books a month, giving myself full permission to put one down and pick up a new one after 30 pages if I wasn't fully into it. With exercise, it was to try to incorporate one different kind of workout per week and see what sticks.

For working parents with kids at home, success is surviving. Many people I know or work with are juggling working full time while homeschooling multiple children. The mixed messages around having so much "more time" are both frustrating and ridiculous to these folks. Surviving this IS success. My ask of working parents (I am one of them as well) is to find time, if only five minutes, for themselves each day, because when we do have less time, the last person we check in with is the person who needs it most. Ourselves.

Whether it's doing some quiet meditation in bed the first five minutes after you wake up, or taking a short walk after your last meeting, it is critical to carve out a few moments so that you're refreshed and able to be fully present with your work, family, and all of the rest of the things going on in your life.

This tees us up for our last question.

What do I actually need right now?

I'll start you off with an answer. We need self-compassion right now. We need permission from ourselves and the people in our lives who are putting pressure on us (partners, parents, bosses, etc.) to feel differently day to day, because this global pandemic is evolving and changing every day. The impacts of social distancing and isolation feel different every day, and none of us have gone through this thing in this way before.

Think about what else you need right now.

- Maybe it's support from a friend, coach, or peer around how to have the difficult conversation with your manager about how to reset expectations around what work can actually get done right now.
- Maybe it's getting lost in a project at work to feel some semblance of normalcy during this incredibly not-normal time.
- Maybe it's finding a TV show on Netflix that gets you excited to watch, and takes your mind off this stressful situation.
- Maybe it really is learning a new skill or hobby, or honing your craft in something.
- Maybe it is all of these, or none of these, or something in between.

Whatever it is, give yourself permission to let it evolve and change, to explore something and move on to the next thing, and to have days when you just feel the feelings.

I have been hearing the saying a lot right now, "Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others," and it really rings true.

We are not on vacation, we are not on a break. We're at home trying to get through this stressful and scary time, that we don't even know how long will last. If we cannot survive this with ourselves, and find the way to support ourselves, however we show up each day, we will not get through this. That opens the door to be able to help other people, to be able to be our best selves, and to come out of this situation better as a society.


Lia has almost a decade of experience working in some of the largest and most influential companies in tech including Microsoft, Apple, and Google. As a Senior Operations Manager at Google, Lia leverages her leadership coaching and program management skills to examine the challenges holding teams back from doing their best work, and develops workshops and resources to help foster psychological safety, inclusion, and effective team dynamics.

Lia Garvin is a Co-Active trained professional coach, and works with her clients on how to use the power of reframing to achieve the goals they have for their lives and careers. Lia has a bachelor of arts in sociology from UCLA, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family.

To check out more of Lia's writing or learn more about her coaching practice, you can find her at www.medium.com/@liagarvin, or www.peoplemakeproducts.com

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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