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How to Manage Through a Pandemic

Whether you’re hunting for your next job or trying to manage the life and job you’ve got, here’s research-backed advice to keep going.

By Susan Brenna

May 29, 2020

An illustration of Sarah Koegler

Sarah Koegler (Bay Area ’98) is an Ohio County, West Virginia, elected school board member and a Teach For America senior managing director who, with the Human Assets team, coaches leaders to prevail through change. Whether you’re hunting for your next job or trying to manage the life and job you’ve got, she offers research-backed advice to keep going.

Q: Your first piece of advice is to shrink your horizon, not to plan too far down the road. Why?

A: People basically go through change in three phases. First is when you know a change is coming and you’re getting ready to shift to your new normal. The next is when you’re actually in the change. It’s a time of uncertainty and you don’t know how it’s going to end up. The third is when the change is over and it did or didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.

What’s unique to this crisis is that we’re all stuck in the second phase. No one who is alive has ever been through this worldwide situation before. So trying to look too far ahead and set some goals around what’s going to be true at the end is overwhelming, right?

This middle phase we’re in is when you have the greatest potential to influence the outcome. So another reason to set short-term goals is so you can be responsive and relevant and pursue the things that are important now.

Q: How do you get in the right mental shape to do that?

A: When I see people trying to act as if things are normal these days, that tells me they’re in denial. To get into the right mental shape, face the reality of what’s happening, of what has changed. Be more connected to people than you usually are. Communicate more than you think you need to with people you rely on, and who rely on you, so you can be clear about what’s really going on with them and make the best decisions about what to prioritize.

Be aware of when you’re delaying taking action because you’re focused on finding the perfect next step. There is no perfect next step, but there may be one you feel pretty confident will get you closer to the future you want to see. In our school district in West Virginia, if we were waiting for the perfect solution, we wouldn’t be doing anything. We wouldn’t be feeding kids. We wouldn’t be trying to do any instruction at all.


“Another reason to set short-term goals is so you can be responsive and relevant and pursue the things that are important now.”

Sarah Koegler

Q: The phrase I keep hearing is “put on your own oxygen mask first.”

A: Science says that in times of change and crisis, we have more basic needs that have to be met. Stress is elevated. Feelings of loss and grief are elevated as people are grieving not just job loss but loss of health and safety and even lives. The instinct to hunker down and isolate is elevated. We’re going to need to be more compassionate with ourselves than we usually are.

So go ahead and do what you need to keep yourself feeling fueled. Be realistic about how much you are taking on and how you’re using your time. A coaching hack we use is to develop some questions you’re going to ask yourself before you say yes to something, to test whether it could take you off track from your priorities.

And this might not be the best time to upend all your systems that you use to hold yourself accountable. Lean into the practices that usually work for you and stop whatever is making life harder. If your morning routine of listening to the news is triggering for you, be more strategic about when you tune in.

Q: Any advice for someone who’s lost a job or whose line of work has been decimated?

A: This might not be comforting to hear, but we have to move through the phases of the loss cycle to get to a place of acceptance, and ultimately renewal. To do that, you need to accept that the future you were planning for yourself might not be your future. It’s hard to hear this, but in every time of uncertainty, there are ways of operating that best position you to influence the outcome. Are there skills you never had time to learn but now you want to learn? Consider the resources available in the virtual world right now, from MasterClass to LinkedIn Learning to the free courses offered by Leadership for Educational Equity. What can you explore?

Is there a way to think creatively about how to bring your best skills and talents to a real need right now? It could be something that might not have emerged as an interest or an opportunity for you unless you were living in this time. A strategy that works in a time of uncertainty is staying connected with other people. So tap into your network now; this is a good time to get in touch with those colleagues who might have left your organization to ask what they’re doing and what’s available.

Illustration by Elan Harris


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