Tips for maintaining motivation and mental energy as the pandemic drags on

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By Leigh Hopper

The end of the pandemic glimmers on the horizon. Deaths and new COVID cases are in steep decline. Many people have been working at home for months instead of driving long commutes. So why do they feel so tired?

USC experts point to one full year of stress brought on by the pandemic — with potentially months to go. In order to thrive, we have to “put on our own oxygen mask first,” said Rita Burke, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It’s critically important during this time to make sure we make time to take care of ourselves, not just those around us.”

Here’s a sampling of advice to help you make it through the marathon.

“Zoom fatigue is real,” said Quade French, a licensed clinical psychologist and consultant at USC Campus Wellbeing and Education. “Technical connectivity issues and delayed timing on Zoom make it harder to pick up and attend to the subtle verbal and nonverbal cues that are so important to us as we connect with others. We are putting so much more psychological energy into processing and being present in conversations. We are taxing our minds like never before.

“If we can step away from all of that for a bit, even for just one minute, we give our minds time to heal and recover.”

During pandemic, pauses are needed to avoid burnout, find motivation

The pandemic can bring loss, grief and suffering, but it can also bring gratitude, meaning and new insights, said Kelly Greco, a licensed clinical psychologist with USC Student Health.

“It’s not an easy task, but it’s possible with prioritizing our mental health,” she said. “Focus on the present moment and embrace what’s occurring. It’s OK in a pandemic to be tired and feel less motivated. Focus on your daily realistic goals, manage expectations and focus on what you did accomplish and your strengths. If things didn’t go your way on a particular day, focus on what you learned, use your resources and make different decisions. A problem-solving mindset helps us thrive.”

Bosses can help their employees stay productive by giving them the time and space to recover fully after hours.

“Employees cannot outrun burnout if their work environment does not support them,” said Patricia Grabarek, a lecturer in psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Companies need to understand the challenges employees are currently facing. Without creating a positive and thriving workplace, companies cannot expect employees to be healthy and productive.

“After work each evening, employees should focus on recovery techniques, including disconnecting from work fully, spending time relaxing and finding a hobby where they can gain mastery. Mastery has been shown in the research to really help employees recharge. Employees can find an activity that is not work-related to learn a new skill — like cooking, learning a new language or practicing yoga.”

High-stress moments don’t mean bad habits win out

Lastly, if you are feeling guilty about being sedentary, lacking motivation or eating too much during the pandemic, you may be failing to appreciate the good habits that are a part of your day.

“It’s not true that we abandon good habits in times of stress and adopt bad habits such as stress eating,” said Wendy Wood, the Provost Professor of Psychology at the USC Marshall School of Business. Wood is an expert in behavioral change, habit formation, healthy lifestyles and habits.

“We have shown in our research that people fall back on good and bad habits when stressed and overwhelmed. The reason is that stress and pressure reduce our capacity to make decisions, so we are more likely to repeat automated, habitual patterns that require little thought. People believe they act on bad habits more when stressed. This is probably because we don’t notice our good habits as much as our bad ones, so we don’t recognize that we are also repeating good habits when stressed.”