How to Stay Happy, Healthy, and Productive During a Pandemic

by Edmond Lau

I felt the tension bottled up in my chest, my entire body holding tight. I was eager to be done and to leave Whole Foods, but I kept telling myself that I just needed to power through to get the groceries I needed for the week. I could feel in my body the collective tension in the air.

The signs that said to social distance and stand at least six feet apart, the masks that covered people’s faces as they carefully navigated the aisles, the gloves that the employees wore to avoid germs, the bulk aisle containers completely stripped of everything — they were all physical manifestations of the fear, worry, and panic left by a pandemic spreading throughout the world.

45 minutes later, as I walked back to the car, I needed to scream into my hands several times in the parking lot just to shake off and release the trapped energy in my body. And, even as I was driving home, I just wanted to curl up into a ball and cry.

The GPS said it would be a 55-minute drive, and I wanted to power through until I got home, like I usually do. But at my friend’s encouragement, I let myself pull off the next exit and take a few moments to allow the tears that wanted to flow.

I felt so much happier and at peace afterwards — as if I had let go of all the efforting I was doing to hold everything in — and I felt lighter and more equipped to take on the rest of the day.

I used to believe that I needed to power through everything. That I always needed to stay strong and hold it all together. That letting my emotions show, whether it’d be anger or sadness, wasn’t acceptable.

Growing up, my mom powered through things. Even when she was sick and with a fever, she’d still be expected to be up and in the kitchen cooking dinner for the eight people living in my household. There was no time or space for emotions to be felt or for any self-care she would have wanted.

And as the oldest of three children in an immigrant family, I also knew I didn’t want to be the one adding more stress and anxiety to parents who were already working six days a week, ten hours a day, at our family store in San Francisco Chinatown. And so I powered through too — not bringing up emotions and wants and needs that felt like they might be a burden for them.

When we power through things, we don’t acknowledge the emotions and needs that we’re feeling. That actually drains our energy because our bodies and minds expend energy trying to suppress and hold back what’s there, and having less energy hurts our long-term effectiveness, health, and happiness.

With quarantines, shelter-in-place, and work-from-home orders happening all around the world, the level of tension in the air has been much higher. Emotions are elevated — it’s easier to feel angry, annoyed, frustrated, sad, depressed, and more. Things that wouldn’t have ticked us off before might now trigger an avalanche of emotion — just like that 45-minute Whole Foods shopping trip unleashed a wave of emotion for me.

It can be tempting to just try to hold everything in and power through things on our own.

A few years ago, when I was making a guest appearance at a book club meeting for The Effective Engineer, someone had asked me how I dealt with situations where the highest-leverage activity wasn’t something I felt excited about doing. I didn’t have a good answer back then. I just shared that sometimes you have to balance the things you enjoyed with the things you didn’t and that you just had to power through the things you didn’t, for the sake of effectiveness.

I imagine that situation might resonate with many of us — it might be hard to focus and get excited about work when there’s so much uncertainty in the air.

Since then, I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying emotion — the science behind it, its psychological impact on our behavior, the art of processing it, the language to express them, and tools to release them.

And here’s what I now know.

Unexpressed emotions are energy that gets trapped in the body. The longer we hold onto them, the longer they impact our behaviors in unconscious ways — often hurting our health, productivity, and happiness. The most effective path comes from healthily expressing and releasing them in the moment, so that we can consciously choose how we show up going forwards.

Because effectiveness isn’t just about getting the right things done, as I used to think — it’s also about getting ourselves in the right emotional state so that our bodies are effective at doing the things our minds and hearts want them to do.

And there’s no more important time to learn this lesson than now.

Some of us might be forced to work from home and struggling to stay happy, healthy, and productive — perhaps feeling isolated or lonely or not used to feeling so disconnected from the world.

Some of us might be worried or concerned about the health of friends and family members — particularly elderly members or those in countries where the virus is worse.

Some of us might normally be positive and optimistic and find it uncomfortable to be ourselves when we’re surrounded by people who might be feeling tension and fear and panic.

It’s easy to not take time for yourself, to believe that you need to power through the emotions that might come up.

And, in these times, it’s important to remember that you don’t always need to power through, and that it’s not only okay, but critical, to prioritize self-care. Make sure you’re still eating healthy. Get fresh air every day. Do exercise to take care of your body. Call people to get your needed dose of connection. Meditate to clear your thoughts. And take the time you need to process what’s happening.

In the past week, it’s become clear to me that I want to spend more of my creative energy figuring out more ways to help supporting the people in my community.

This Thursday, March 26th 9am PST, I’ll be holding my first-ever Facebook Live event, focused on How to Stay Happy, Healthy, and Productive During a Pandemic.

I’ll be sharing some of the highest-leverage and life-changing personal practices that I’ve learned in the past few years that help me perform at a high level — while staying happy, healthy, and productive — even during a time of pandemic. I’ll also be taking any real-time questions you might have about how to not just power through — but to thrive — through this time.


“A comprehensive tour of our industry's collective wisdom written with clarity.”

— Jack Heart, Engineering Manager at Asana

“Edmond managed to distill his decade of engineering experience into crystal-clear best practices.”

— Daniel Peng, Senior Staff Engineer at Google

“A comprehensive tour of our industry's collective wisdom written with clarity.”

— Jack Heart, Engineering Manager at Asana

“Edmond managed to distill his decade of engineering experience into crystal-clear best practices.”

— Daniel Peng, Senior Staff Engineer at Google

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