Written by: Ken Haman
Of all the disturbing impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the financial-services industry, one of the most distressing has been the requirement for social distancing and the need to work from home.
For many of us, our office is a haven of comfort and creativity. Unlike our home, we can control the flow of people in and out of our office, which in some cases is a custom-designed space that expresses our professionalism and supports our ability to take care of our families.
Being cut off from the familiarity and structure of our office and getting relegated to a space in our home have shattered our normal work routines and replaced them with a complicated and distracting environment. Now our patterns overlap with those of our spouse and our children. We can literally bump into them throughout the day. Where before there was an orderly boundary between work and family life, now the two are forced to blend, sometimes uncomfortably. While some of us have the good fortune to have a dedicated workspace in our home, others live in more cramped quarters and are forced to take over a table or even share space with a spouse and/or school-age children.
To help you through the challenging time, consider these four ways you can improve your adaptability and take advantage of the opportunities that are embedded in the crisis.
#1: Be More Mindful About Managing Your Body
The COVID-19 crisis is a multifaceted challenge, not only putting each person at some health risk but also stressing the entire healthcare system, the global financial markets and the world’s economy. This means that a huge amount of disturbing information will be channeled into your brain, activating stress hormones and the natural fight-or-flight instinct. There are several steps you can take to look after your body and achieve greater resilience in your health and general wellness:
- Get up and move at least three or four times a day; once an hour would be ideal. At least once a day, move energetically for a minimum of 20 minutes. A good goal is to take at least 5,000 steps a day.
- Be thoughtful about your diet. Increase your lean proteins and greens; reduce your carbohydrates. Be mindful about extra sugar, alcohol or anything considered a treat.
- Think about your breathing. Stress increases your heart rate and causes your breathing to become faster and shallower. Stimulate clearer thinking and activate the calming forces in your body by taking five to 10 minutes several times a day to close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly. This is a wonderful time to learn how to meditate. There are several good apps available to help you.
- Protect your sleep patterns. When the structure of your life has been interrupted, your brain can become highly activated and vigilant. This can make it harder to relax and fall asleep. Sleep experts agree that you should maintain a standard period every night for sleeping (go to bed and get up at the same times each day) and that you should get at least eight to nine hours of sleep each night. It helps to keep your room as dark as possible and eliminate screens and other sounds (turn off music and the television), although some people find white noise to be useful.
- If you find your brain churning through information and trying desperately to figure something out, write down the thoughts your brain is processing. Then tell yourself, “We will work on these things tomorrow.” For many people, creating a list allows the brain to release the thoughts with confidence that they’ll be revisited in the morning.
#2: Be More Mindful About Managing Your Thinking
The human brain naturally gravitates toward negative information in the environment. This survival instinct developed over thousands of years as our primitive ancestors coped with life-threatening dangers. In ancient times, it was very helpful to scan the world for possible dangers—because they could be anywhere. Today, this instinct can cause us to outweigh negative information over positive and lose our balanced perspective. Here are tips for managing the quality of your thinking and balancing your perspective:
- Turn off the television (or at least reduce your dosage of TV significantly). Your clients will also benefit from this advice because television programs have steadily increased their focus on stimulating negative emotions and creating vigilance in their audience. Every news program that airs today must compete for the attention of an audience in order to maximize revenues. To get this attention, they stimulate feelings of concern and dread to create vigilance.
- The prudent advisor limits her exposure to this kind of information and advises clients to do the same in order to protect their rational thinking skills. In a similar way, it’s helpful to limit conversations with negative-thinking neighbors and to avoid polarizing websites and the news feeds on LinkedIn and Facebook. Many people are awash in strong feelings and irrational fears; it’s best to avoid exposure to those stimulants. They don’t improve your ability to cope with the situation.
- Build a reliable set of data sources that are thoughtfully curated. A good rule in this situation is to avoid video and auditory input and concentrate more on reading information prepared by research-based sources. Your firm and many of your asset-management partners have large groups of researchers working hard to understand the mechanisms of the markets and the processes that are unfolding. Feed your brain and build your professional point of view on solid, fact-based material from reliable sources. Become a highly discriminating user of information.
- Consider the Stockdale Paradox, a concept Jim Collins coined in his book Good to Great. James Stockdale was the highest-ranking military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He’s credited with saving hundreds of his fellow soldiers’ lives by the way he led while in captivity. He accomplished this by offering two commitments a leader must make to his people during a crisis: first, a credible leader must be brutally honest about the situation the group is in; second, the leader must find a rational reason for hope.
- To find this delicate balance between fear and hope, it’s helpful to organize your information flow with two questions and to scan the world while alternating between these two perspectives: Is there cause for concern? And is there reason for hope? (For more on how to maintain this kind of balance, see the AllianceBernstein Advisor Institute’s blog “The One Question That Will Help You the Most Today,” which will be posted on this website in the upcoming weeks.)
#3: Be More Mindful About Managing Your Time
Every seasoned advisor has experienced the dynamic tension between his business plan and the demands of his practice. As Prussian Army field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”
Even during normal markets, our best intentions rarely last past the first incoming call from a client. Now, when strong emotions are stirred up in ourselves and in our clients, it’s even more important to manage your time and control your effectiveness. Here are ways to do so:
- Stop trying to figure out what is happening with the virus in both the markets and the economy. It’s natural for your brain to scan the world, pick out important information and come to conclusions about what to do next. The drive to do this is quite instinctive; however, during an unprecedented situation, there’s too much uncertainty to make a quality assessment or generate meaningful conclusions. This means that your efforts to absorb commentary and figure out what’s likely to happen next are futile: there just isn’t enough information to work with yet.
- Focus on what you can control. Use your time to take care of yourself, your family, your living space and then your clients. After you have prioritized self-care, set aside several blocks of time each day to proactively have 10- to 15-minute conversations with clients. Focus first on existing clients and then, as time permits, on individuals who are in the “extended family” of your practice or who aren’t yet clients. (For guidance on speaking with clients and prospects, see the AB Advisor Institute’s blog How to Manage Client Conversations in Volatile Markets.)
- See your time as a precious resource that should be budgeted and spent wisely. Set aside time for movement and breathing (as discussed above). Block time for calls, and commit to talking with clients at least twice a day. Spend time processing well-curated information from reliable sources, but limit those efforts.
#4: Be More Mindful of the Moment and Take Advantage of the Opportunities
No one likes when the normal routine is interrupted, and it’s especially distressing when our freedom to act is constrained. Being cut off from our normal patterns and confined to the house can feel dreadful at first, but here are some ways of thinking more positively:
- If you’re forced to stay at home, perhaps in a less-than-ideal space, practicing social distancing and avoiding restaurants and large events give you a great opportunity to mindfully invest your time and energy into some of the relationships you might otherwise take for granted!
- Eat with your spouse and/or children, if you’re with them, and cherish those relationships. The crisis separates us from our work colleagues but draws us closer to our families. Take time for breakfast, lunch and dinner with the people who comprise your innermost circle.
- Bring your children and/or spouse closer to your work self. It can be powerfully informing and even inspiring for your children to hear you at work—or even watch while you work. Most of us cut off entire aspects of our work personality from our home life. This is a chance for your family to see what you do.
- Appreciate the power of digital tools to enable you to connect with others at a distance. Invite older family members to get online. Reach out to friends, distant family members and even people you’ve become disconnected from. Social distancing means staying physically apart from strangers to slow the spread of the virus, but it provides a great reason to reach out and connect to people who matter to you.
- Tackle some of those projects you’ve been putting off. Many of the ways we spent our time in the past are no longer available. Allocate time to making home improvements or reorganizing your personal space.
- Renew your appreciation of reading, listening to music or watching movies. Our digital age makes it easy to acquire the books you wish you had read and to access the great entertainment that has been produced over the past century.
- Use the time you spent commuting to develop new patterns. Go for a walk or run, try meditation or deep breathing, and/or initiate a new exercise routine with videos or online sessions offered by your gym.
Remember that these challenges require each of us to be patient, resilient and—most importantly—more mindful. When the normal patterns of life are so profoundly interrupted, know that you can become more adaptable and take advantage of opportunities that today’s environment is presenting.
The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams.