10 Ways to Function at Work When Your Life is a Mess

In the summer of 2014, my life got crazy overnight. Both of my parents got sick at the same time and in a matter of months I dealt with seven hospital stays, four moves, two terminal diagnosis and hospice. And through it all, I had to go to work – and function.

If I could have quit my job I would have. Not only because I had so much to handle in my personal life, but because it is really hard to give a rat’s ass about marketing plans, best practices for recruiting, value statements and productivity software when you are literally dealing with life and death. To manage, I used a lot of my vacation time and I even cut back my schedule for a while. But I couldn’t altogether quit; I needed to earn. The thing about life and death is that life goes on.

Most of us do need a paycheck and women especially need to hold on to their incomes. Due to the gender-based wage gap we are projected to earn between $700,000 to $2 million less than men over our lifetimes. We risk losing money if we take time off to care for our children and again if we take time off to tend to a sick or aging relative. (A study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an estimated $324,044 in wages due to caregiving.) But we are projected to live an average of five years longer than men, so we need every penny we can earn for our retirements. But it can be incredibly difficult to work through tough times.

During that crazy summer I learned a few things (some the hard way) about how to keep it together at work when your life is a wreck. Here are 10 things you can do:

1. Go ahead and vent. You will need to release your stress and complain about your crisis, your family, your coworkers. But don’t vent at work. Ask one of your friends, who you don’t work with, to be your listening partner.

2. Break down work tasks into manageable assignments. Writing a 12,000 word white paper will feel daunting. Writing the intro or table of contents will feel less so. When I’m having a hard time focusing, I set a timer on my iPhone for 20, 30 or 60 minutes – whatever I think I can manage. When the timer goes off, I take a break.

3. If big tasks just feel like too much no matter how you approach them, tackle some smaller assignments. Clean out your inbox. Organize for a future project. Just do something because a) it will make you feel more in control and b) you are getting paid to work after all.

4. Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Take notes in meetings. Make to do lists. You cannot rely on your memory right now.

5. Take a personal day. If you keep thinking, “I just need a day to handle all this stuff in my life,” take it. One productive day out of the office is better than five distracted and unproductive days sitting at your desk.

6. Use email rather than the phone for personal correspondence whenever possible. Optics matter so pay attention to how you are showing up at work. Of course you’ll need to deal with personal issues on company time, but be discreet about it.

7. Find, or ask for, a buddy at work. When I reduced my hours, I struggled to coordinate with some of my team members who were working in another time zone. So I asked my boss for backup. She assigned another coworker to support me. He knew what I needed and followed up with our teammates to make sure I had it by the end of the day.

8. Remember your clients are not your friends. You may have a warm, friendly relationship. You may even socialize outside of work. But when you are on the clock, the customer comes first. If they ask how things are going, give them the Cliff Notes, not War and Peace.

9. Respect the flex. During a crisis, you need flexibility. Remember it’s a two-way street. If you ask for flexibility, you have to be flexible. It’s your responsibility to make sure your flex schedule meets, not only your needs, but your organization’s needs too.

10. Change your perspective. Try thinking about work as a mini-break from whatever you’re dealing with in your personal life. Wear nice clothes. Go out to lunch. Life will be waiting for you when you get home.


12 comments on “10 Ways to Function at Work When Your Life is a Mess”

  1. Katy Kozee Reply

    These are great tips that we all need at one time or another. You’re so right about how optics matter – I think it’s very important to be seen as strong at work. It’s good to remember that.

    • admin Reply

      Thanks Katy. I see positive shifts in many workplaces – creating space for people’s personal lives. But we still need to show up for work when we’re at work.

  2. Roxanne Jones Reply

    Fortunately, i work for myself, at home, so haven’t had to deal with some of the workplace logistics you have. These are great tips, nonetheless. I’ve also found that when life’s “stuff” piles up, sometimes work can be a much-needed diversion, if only for a short while. Thanks for sharing your hard-won wisdom.

    • admin Reply

      Thanks Roxanne. I try to think of it as diversion when I’m in chaos mode. But sometimes you just can’t get your head in the game. But there’s always something productive you can do.

    • admin Reply

      It’s tough, right Carol? We come to work with our whole selves and whole lives attached. As far as I know no one has developed a technology to change that. So how can we put ourselves in the best frame of mind when we get there?

  3. Cathy Sikorski Reply

    As a caregiver for 7 different family members and friends over the last 25 years (yeah..how the hell did that happen?) this advice is invaluable. I was lucky to work for myself, but nonetheless there are golden nuggets here for any caregiver, even one who could quit her (and I say “her” because 70 % of caregivers are ‘her’) job needs the perspective you share here. Great post!

  4. Brenda Pace Reply

    So sorry you had to go through this. 🙁

    I remember when I had a stress period a few years ago, my sick days and vacation days were my best friend. My mind was blown and no way could I handle work. I managed a few days and then took off some, blowing almost all my time. However, talking to my boss about my situation made it more workable at work. I was giving a bit of leave way to get my head together again.

    These are great tips to help anyone through some bad times. I’m passing it along.


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  6. Robin Rosner Reply

    I can so relate. More and more I am disinterested in work, yet it is essential for survival. BUt I have never been more distracted, exhausted and just wanting to have 3 day weekends to be caught up. SOmething always has to be cleaned. And my brain is so tired of working and thinking of everything. My toe hurt the other day. Couldn’t imagine what I had done…then realized when I took 10 minutes to paint my toenails I couldn’t find my toe separator thingy, so I used my set of yoga toes…which obviously resulted in too much of a stretch…no song is going to make me feel better, but it’s good to know we’re not alone.

    • admin Reply

      You are not alone! Songs don’t cure but singing along LOUD can actually alter your brain state for a while – science!

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