Staying focused during a pandemic

During the first quarter of the year I had been hitting the marks on my work goals. Submitted a collaborative grant, visited the University of Montreal and attended the B cell Keystone conference in beautiful Banff, Canada, where I gave my very first invited Keystone seminar. The feedback on Stefano’s project did not disappoint and we came back exhilarated to finish our paper. 

That’s when everything came to a screeching halt (record scratch sound effect) and it turns out that our conference was the last one before all subsequent conferences were cancelled due to the Covid19 pandemic. Suddenly, along with fellow scientists all over the world, I was scrambling with administrative work in preparation for a shutdown of our lab. New instructions came from the University on a daily basis during the first weeks and I left work each day without knowing whether we would be allowed to come back on the next. As of now, the government mandated shutdown never happened here in Sweden. Instead, we are instructed to work from home whenever possible and hold all meetings digitally to maintain social distance. 

Scene from post-pandemic labmeeting, my living room, Lund, Sweden.

It was confusing. Sure, I was relieved that our precious work could in theory go on. But in the face of so much horrifying news from around the world, and neighbouring countries in full shut down, what responsibilities did I have as the head of the lab to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of our personnel? Should new experiments be set up and if so at what risk for the trainees? 

I must admit, I found it incredibly difficult to focus at first, particularly on creative and mentally demanding tasks. I still don’t have a magical formula, but here are three things that I normally swear by and that have not failed me during the current dystopian circumstances.

  • Focus my attention on actions within my control and ignore the rest. My husband calls it my ‘Jedi-mindtrick’ to be able to decide what not to care about. During the pandemic this has been extra difficult, but being 100% convinced that unproductive worrying is a complete waste of energy helps.
  • Cultivate mental agility. Since becoming a group leader, I have found mental agility, the ability to swiftly adapt to new situations, to be incredibly valuable. Not just for scientific creativity but also from a leadership perspective to be able to absorb setbacks, buffer stress and navigate through crises. For me, never compromising on sleep, keeping a journal and limiting excessive media consumption is a winning recipe.
  • Get the most important work done before 7am. I know it’s cliché, but in my life, somethings never get done if I don’t manage them before external demands start pulling on my attention. I use this most precious hour before 7:00 on the important but non-urgent tasks such as paper reading and manuscript writing. Basically tasks that develop my thinking. That way, already I feel some sense of self-fulfillment by the time my three-year-old commander yells out her first orders from her bedroom. 1 hr might not seem like a lot, but done consistently (7 days a week) and used wisely, makes a big difference.

Today, 7 weeks into the pandemic, one grant submission and another major unforeseen lab crisis later, a lot of uncertainty continues to loom over our existence. But I am finding comfort in a new rhythm at work and hold on to the belief that the current challenges will accelerate the evolution of our society in a positive direction in the long run.

If nothing else, everyone will understand the importance of antibodies.