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The Pandemic Continues

| February 9, 2021

by Jim Bruce

[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
I wrote last about the pandemic we are experiencing two months ago in an essay “And now there are vaccines.” Now the major positive change we’ve experienced is that those two vaccines are now being deployed and more are on the way. On the negative side, until recently infection rates and deaths have generally continued to rise. What this seems to mean is that the preventative measures of working from home, the curtailing of activities where large groups gather, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distances need to continue with even higher rates of compliance. And, as we are become eligible, we need to be vaccinated.
As of February 3, 2021, more than 32 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of vaccine.  It is estimated that 85% of the U.S. population age 16 and over will need to be immune to the virus for the pandemic to end. Having had the virus apparently confers immunity only for about six months. So, to have immunity we will each need to be vaccinated.
Using data that is available, and making some reasonable assumptions, this means that about 350 million doses of vaccine need to be given to achieve community or herd immunity in the U.S. During the last week of January, an average of 1.3 million doses were administered each day according to the CDC. At that rate it will take about 270 days or nine months to reach herd immunity.  This would occur at the beginning of October. If the number of doses administered could increase to 2 million each day, the U.S. should reach herd immunity in mid-summer.
Assuming that these calculations are in the right ball-park, work and school in the U.S. will need to continue for the next six to nine months with restrictions more or less like we have had since last March. Given this, what more might we do to support our teams and ourselves during the coming months? Let me make four suggestions:

1. Stay connected – to family, to friends, to those we work with, etc. – any way you can.  Mental health experts at the Massachusetts General Hospital have written this is one of the most important things we can do. Dr. Ellen Braeten, child psychologist, put it this way: “Bloom where you are planted. … in the worst of circumstances, we can grow, change, and adapt. We all have. Even if we think we haven’t. Even if we are miserable. Even if we didn’t want to keep going. We have. We’ve done our best.” Dr. Braeten’s words are a challenge to each and all of us. Yes, we are going through the most challenging of times that we have collectively encountered. We each need to suck-it-up and perform at our highest potential in every situation we encounter.


2. One of Dr. Braeten’s MGH colleagues, Robert Waldinger, psychoanalyst, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest, suggests that we be more flexible (so much of life is out of my control and relaxing my grip on things I don’t need to control can be such a relief); be kinder (make that your default response), when in doubt, reach out – when you have an impulse to call or text or email someone, just do it. You’ll almost never regret it.


3. Reduce your propensity to procrastinate, a term derived from the Latin verb procrastimare, meaning “to put off until tomorrow” and also from the ancient Greek word akrasia meaning “doing something against our better judgment.” Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, puts it this way: “It doesn’t make sense to do something (procrastinate) you know is going to have negative consequences.” Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary puts it more succinctly: “It’s self-harm.” We focus on managing our negative mood rather than getting on with the task.

So, what might you do to procrastinate less? You would begin by recognizing that procrastination is about emotions, not about the task at hand. When you procrastinate your brain is looking for a better reward than working on the task at hand. So, you need to give your brain a “Bigger Better Offer” or “B.B.O.,” something internal, dependent on only ourselves. Several suggestions include forgiving yourself for not working on the task at hand, treating one’s self with kindness and understanding, reframing the task by considering its positive aspects, being curious about why you are procrastinating, considering and taking the next action on the task at hand, or making your temptations to procrastinate more inconvenient.
So, when faced with the temptation to procrastinate, recognize it for what it is, and find the B.B.O. that will let you move forward on the task at hand.

4. Keep it simple. Understand where you and your team are today in their work. Understand the work’s current status and its ultimate goal. Understand how you are going to get there. Never have more than a small number of tasks that you (and your team) are actively working on at any one time. Confucius said “life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Don’t permit it to become complicated.

The immediate question, then, is how small is small, how many tasks should I be focusing on. I’d say three to five, some may be small and be the responsibility of a single person (perhaps yourself) and others may involve the work of a team. The key here is that you only have three to five touch points to guide and keep track of, or do the work. And, that’s about all a person is really able to focus on at any one time.
As I argued early in this essay, I believe that many of us will need to continue to work from home, wear masks, maintain safe distances and avoid crowds for the next six to nine months. Today’s Tuesday Reading suggests four behaviors – staying connected, being more flexible, reducing our propensity to procrastinate, and simplifying our work – that we can apply during this time to make our work more effective.
I know that the times are difficult now for everyone. Be safe, and urge those around you to be safe, and to not take any unnecessary risks.  .  .  .  .  jim