What we as a fitness industry have been preaching for years is that behavior change is a decidedly nonlinear process. There will be false starts, ups and downs and lots of detours, and true lifestyle change requires forethought, planning and persistence. One of the things that made 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic so difficult to navigate was that it forced us all to flip a switch that we’ve been telling our clients doesn’t even exist. Everything in your life changes . . . NOW!

Suddenly, our home lives, work lives, academic lives and social lives merged into one and then were forced into a single location—our homes, apartments or even dorm rooms. On top of all that, 2020 featured a wildly contentious presidential election and widespread social upheaval. 

I know, that’s quite a hot take: 2020 was rough. 

The truth is, modern life is full of distractions, and last year only served to heighten that reality. If you were fortunate enough to continue being able to do your job, you likely had to do it while also overseeing your children’s education, sharing workspace with your spouse, keeping the dog quiet during Zoom meetings and having one eye on the constantly breaking news.

It’s important to make a distinction between breaks, which are planned interruptions and can be vital to maintaining focus and productivity, and distractions, which are unplanned and can make you more error-prone and derail even your best efforts to stay on task. That said, not all distractions are created equal. For example, being interrupted by an Instagram or Twitter notification that someone liked or commented on your last post is very different from being interrupted by a phone call telling your child isn’t feeling well and needs to be picked up from school. What the research tells us is that those smaller, short-term distractions are not too harmful in terms of productivity, but longer, more disruptive distractions can increase stress levels and cause extended breaks that lead to errors and declines in productivity.

Life, in some ways, is starting to get back to normal and some of those larger stressors have begun to ease. That said, some of the changes 2020 brought are likely here to stay. Many companies are allowing their employees to continue to work from home, at least some of the time. In the fitness industry, virtual coaching, personal training and group fitness classes—while they have long been available—are going to be a more prominent feature of most business plans. 

So, what can we learn from 2020 about managing distractions while staying productive and pursuing goals, whether they are personal, professional or health- and fitness-related? Here are seven strategies that both you and your clients can use to manage the many distractions modern life has to offer.

1. Get organized and make a plan.

The number-one tip from everyone I spoke to for this article was to get organized, establish a schedule and then do your best to stick to it. Hardly a groundbreaking concept, but creating task lists and deadlines is the first step toward staying productive when distractions abound. 

Knowing yourself and when you’re at your best is also important. “The earlier I start my day, the better the chances I will be productive,” says Venus Davis, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer who offers personal coaching and executive wellness coaching at The Strong Academy in Washington, D.C. “Making a to-do list each day is essential for me. It helps me prioritize and stay on track with my day.” Also, don’t underestimate the motivational power of crossing items off that list. “It’s an epic feeling when I cross stuff off,” says Davis.

Angel Chelik, a fitness consultant and adjunct professor at Southwestern College and an ACE Certified Health Coach, Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor, ends every day by mapping out the next. She writes down appointments and sessions with clients and then identifies what she wants to accomplish with the remaining blocks of time. “The simple act of scheduling [something] makes me commit to getting it done,” she says.

2. Eliminate or manage distractions.

Some distractions are unavoidable—a sick child, a dog that needs to go out, an urgent phone call from a client or boss—while others can be anticipated and managed. You may even find that certain distractions can be eliminated entirely with some forethought. 

Managing your distractions starts with acknowledging that they exist and understanding that they may be very different from what they were prior to the pandemic, says Chris Gagliardi, Scientific Education Content Manager at ACE and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor and Medical Exercise Specialist. He recommends making a list of your distractions and thinking about how to minimize their impact. Eliminating some may be as simple as turning off notifications on an app that pulls your focus from the task at hand or putting your phone in airplane mode, so it doesn’t ring during a coaching session or when you’re doing some high-focus work. 

Some opt for what others might consider more drastic measures to get their distractions under control. For example, Pete McCall, faculty in the Exercise Science Department at Mesa College and ACE Certified Personal Trainer, is a bit of a political junky and found himself so distracted by the Presidential election and the 24/7 coverage of the pandemic that he opted to cancel his cable subscription in 2020. 

Gagliardi also recommends putting everything into your calendar, even your distractions. Are you shopping for a home and find yourself daydreaming about real estate? Schedule 15 minutes of Zillow time each morning to get it out of your system. Do you enjoy having breakfast with your kids before they head off to school? Then put that on your calendar and leave your phone on your desk during that time. 

If you plan your distractions, they suddenly transform into tasks or events you can check off your list.

3. Establish boundaries.

Erin Nitschke, EdD, NSCA-CPT, an exercise science professor at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, found herself absorbing the stress, fears and concerns of her students and clients, leaving her little time or ability to process her own emotions, not to mention those of her husband and children. Her clients were having a hard time setting boundaries in their lives, as well. With the distinction between home life and work life blurred, clients wondered where and how to draw the line. Some wondered if they even had the ability to say they were unavailable for a meeting or phone call when everyone knows they were home and near their desk. 

Nitschke, who also is an ACE Certified Health Coach, suggests taking full advantage of the scheduling tools on your phone and computer. It took some trial and error, but she eventually set “blackout” time in her Outlook calendar. During these blocks of time, she accepted no meetings, emails or phone calls so that she could process her own stress and become more intentional in how she guided her students and clients. She would also set a timer to remind her every 90 minutes to get up and walk away from whatever she was working on, leaving her phone at her desk, and setting her computer to “do not disturb” so she wouldn’t hear email alerts and be pulled back. She’d stretch or go for a quick walk. “I come back cognitively clear, less stressed and able to be more intentional with the rest of my day,” she explains. She was certainly not stress-free, she adds, but was better able to function.

One additional boundary-related tip from Nitschke involves defining and respecting family time. Her family has what they call a “tech tote” where she and her husband put their phones and other devices during mealtimes, trips to the park or games of Candy Land. This sets a clear boundary and helps them truly focus on their children.

4. Stay focused on your health.

For many, working from home often means spending more time sitting, taking fewer steps and grazing on higher-calorie foods. “It is so important to encourage our clients to just keep moving every day,” says Davis. “Remind them to take breaks throughout the day. Stay hydrated. Walk away from your workstations and just stretch or walk. Schedule your breaks/lunches/workouts, just as you would a Zoom meeting. Keep your health a priority.”

That sums it up nicely, but it’s very easy to lose sight of the importance of our personal health and well-being when work and family obligations start to pile up. This brings us back to making a plan. Living a healthy lifestyle takes forethought and work—from meal planning and cooking dinners to carving out time to get up and move. Remind yourself and your clients not to let personal health and wellness slide too far down on the priority list (more on that below).

5. Remember, not everything is urgent.

Some of us have a bit of a Pavlovian response to alerts chiming from our phone or computer, and so we’ll find ourselves grabbing our phone to respond without even realizing it. It sometimes feels as if our phones are always chiming for one reason or another, which creates the illusion that everything is urgent. This constant connection blurs or even obliterates the line between personal time and work time. 

Gagliardi suggests you ask yourself whether it truly matters if you respond at that moment or wait until you’re back at your desk later that day or the next morning. “Check your own thoughts and beliefs and make sure you have good, open communication with the people you work with,” he recommends. Perhaps things that are truly urgent can be marked as such in line 1 of the message. Otherwise, request that you be given an idea of when a response is needed.

McCall recommends blocking out a handful of times each day when you will respond to emails and putting that into your calendar. Also, turn off the audible notifications on your phone and computer so you’re not tempted to take a quick look, thereby interrupting what you’re doing and ignoring the boundaries you set up for yourself.

Finally, it’s important to remember that no one actually expects you to be available and instantly responsive at all times. “Assuming that puts a lot of pressure on yourself that may not need to be there,” says Gagliardi.

6. Set priorities.

Think about budgeting your time as you would your money. You likely can’t “afford” everything, so determine what is most important to you and allot your resources accordingly. For many people during the pandemic, their priorities likely centered on work, family and simply staying sane during insane times. Therefore, exercise and healthy eating may have slid down the priority list. 

If everything feels like a top priority, then nothing is. That is, if you have eight things that you feel you must accomplish each day to feel successful, failure is all but inevitable. When mapping out their day or week, urge your clients to think about what’s most important to them, beyond those things that are truly essential. Perhaps it’s meal planning and food prep. Maybe it’s a high-intensity workout. Or maybe it’s a game of Candy Land every day after lunch. 

The lesson here is to avoid all-or-nothing thinking and remember that small accomplishments build up over time. Not everything is top priority, and no one—not even the most focused and productive among us—is capable of doing everything, every day.

7. Be kind to yourself and others.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that self-care is essential and that it’s important to be as kind and forgiving of yourself as you tend to be toward others. As Nitschke puts it, honor your own boundaries and celebrate your resiliency. You don’t expect your colleagues, clients or anyone else to be available to you 24/7, so understand that they don’t expect that of you, either. Your time and availability do not define your value. 

Finally, be aware of your own etiquette and processes and how they might affect others. Be mindful that everyone is being pulled in a thousand different directions, so be respectful of other people’s boundaries and time, just as you would ask they be respectful of yours.

Freedom to Choose Your Own Path

One of the positives that’s grown from the trials of 2020 is that the fitness industry has tapped into its creativity and innovation in terms of how health coaches and exercise professionals deliver and consume content and do their jobs. The industry has embraced virtual coaching and training and become more strategic about how it engages with clients. With that sea change comes challenges, but also, for some, a new level of freedom to map out unique paths within the industry.

Perhaps the most important lesson to carry forward is to be proactive about how we manage and use our time—and respect our limitations and shifting priorities—rather than having to figure things out in a time of crisis. Hopefully, we’ll never have another year like 2020, but if we do, we’ll be better prepared to face it with resiliency, creativity and, perhaps most importantly, kindness and respect for one another.