Bad News, Self Care, and How to Stay Productive

Life doesn’t know when you’re trying to be productive. Life throws curveballs. Sometimes those curveballs are illnesses or deaths of loved ones, and sometimes they are prominent political and social movements. What should we do when we want to be productive but life distracts us with something else that’s more important in the grand scheme of things?

Undergoing certain traumas and life situations do cause a dip in productivity, and according to some research, the effects could last as long as five years.

Does Bad News Really Affect Productivity?

I’ve written about a particular study by Oswald, Proto, and Sgroi before, in which a group of people were asked to complete a fairly standard test used for productivity studies. Subjects in this study who had suffered a traumatic personal event within the last five years got two fewer correct answers on the test and made fewer attempts at answering questions. They were also asked to rate their happiness and reported being on average half a point less happy than the control group.

What this study says to me is a “bad life event,” as the researchers called it, definitively reduced productivity. But it does not indicate that we can do anything to change it.

Productivity is relative. In trying to be productive, we’re usually trying to be more productive than we would normally are. So in the face of real trauma, maybe it’s okay to accept that our productivity will be on average slightly lower and we should have more reasonable expectations of what “more” productive means.

Self Care

Since the U.S. election (and the referendum in the U.K. to leave the European Union, and other world events that compound the general political atmosphere), I hear a lot of buzz on social media about remembering self care. Do not neglect to love yourself and take care of yourself, people say, to remain well in the face of so much stress.

They’re right. To stay productive, to be able to continue working and contributing to society, we certainly do need to take care of our selves. What does that mean, though?

When it comes to staying productive, a large part of self care is rest and relaxation. The going theory about stress and how we cope with it goes like this: Everyone has internal resources, but those resources are finite. In managing everyday stress, which includes work and personal issues, we use our resources. Before they are fully depleted, we need to rebuild them (Hobfoll, 1989). We rebuild our resources by taking breaks from work and engaging in activities that we enjoy.

There is hard research on this, too. Eschleman et al. (2014) showed that certain kinds of activities have a greater net positive effect on helping us recuperate than others. They found three things were most valuable: mastery, control, and relaxation. Mastery means developing skills, which can very well have nothing to do with the skills needed at work. Think of practicing a musical instrument for fun. Control means having agency over our leisure time. In other words, choosing how you want to spend your relaxing time is as important as making sure you get it in the first place. Relaxation is pretty straightforward. Say you try to have a relaxing weekend but end up having car trouble. The weekend turned out to be not so relaxing, and therefore you won’t have reaped all the possible benefits of the time off.

What Can You Do?

It’s perfectly reasonable to be distracted by world events and to feel like your productivity is dipping as a result. When remembering self care, be sure to cultivate skills, do activities you enjoy, and try to minimize extra stress while doing them.


Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barely, A. (2014) Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., & Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and productivity. Working paper. JOLE 3rd Version: 10 February 2014.


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