Nobody likes to feel like they’re sitting in the passenger seat of their own career—but that seems like your standard mode of operating this year. The world has been turned on its head, and the unexpected twists and turns have most of us feeling more out of control than usual.

One study from Harvard Medical School found that 55% of Americans said they were more stressed in May than in January. Those rising stress levels aren’t a localized phenomenon, with mental health issues spiking in Europe, Australia, and all across the globe.

Your environment constantly shifts, and you feel like you’re spinning out of control. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to curtail a global pandemic, patch up an entire economy, or repair all of the major issues the world is facing. You’re only one person. 

However, there are a few things you can do to feel a little more in control of your own day—or even your entire career. 

1. Set your own career goals

You’ve likely heard the horror stories of mass layoffs and furloughs as companies slash their budgets to make it through the pandemic. laid off 25% of its global workforce. LinkedIn laid off 6% of its staff. GE began taking steps to reduce its global workforce by 25%. The list goes on and on. 

Is your heart racing? I get it. You recognize that you have less control than ever over your career future. Take a cursory glance around, and you know it’s not the time to chase a promotion or ask for a raise.

That doesn’t mean you need to stagnate. You can take back a little bit of control by setting some career goals for yourself. These should be goals that external forces will have little to no influence on. 

Maybe you want to sign up for an online course to learn a new skill. Or perhaps you want to tackle a passion project like starting a personal blog. Or maybe you want to get exposure to a different part of your company by volunteering to chip in with a cross-functional project.

There are other ways you can grow and develop in your career that will be of little to no cost for you or your employer. Jot those ambitions down so you can feel like you’re working toward something bigger—rather than just making it through the day.  

2. Limit your self-imposed distractions

It’s time to take control of your time and give yourself the opportunity to really zone in on the tasks on your plate. One of the best ways to do this is to eliminate the notifications that are constantly demanding your attention:

  • Silence all notifications on your phone or put it in another room while you’re working
  • Set your instant message platform to “do not disturb”
  • Close out your email tab

Those incessant pings and dings might seem harmless, but they can actually have a major impact on your brainpower. You might think you’re able to multitask effectively. However, what you’re actually doing is rapidly switching between tasks. That constant switching of gears eats up your brain’s glucose (read: it’s mentally draining).

Plus, it takes a surprisingly long time for you to refocus after you’ve been distracted. A study done by Gloria Mark at the University of California Irvine discovered that it takes a little over 23 minutes for us to recover from an interruption.

Even better? Limiting your notifications and self-imposed distractions means less exposure to all of the bad news that’s constantly being thrown your way. 

3. Use a time management method

Starting your workday can feel daunting. You look at the long list of things you need to get done and just start slogging through—with no method or strategy.

A time management method can help you bring some much-needed structure to your day, while also empowering you to be as efficient as possible. A couple of popular ones include:

  • Time blocking: Divide your day into blocks of time, and then assign each block to a specific task or project. 
  • Pomodoro technique: Work in 25-minute increments, with short breaks in between. 

Rather than taking a haphazard approach to your day and to-do list, a time management method will help you feel like you’re the boss of your schedule—rather than the other way around. 

4. Revamp your to-do list and deadlines

You know those big, hairy goals you used to set for yourself? When the future feels like it’s on shaky footing, those faraway objectives can feel more discouraging than motivating.

It’s time to think about things in the near term. Rather than imagining what you want to accomplish by the end of the year, ask yourself what you want to accomplish by the end of the day. 

Science backs up the beauty of shorter, more immediate deadlines. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California found that deadlines that are set in days (rather than weeks, months, or years) better connect our present selves to our future selves. So, those deadlines are far more motivating.

Thinking in this shorter timeframe is way more manageable for your brain, as you’ll identify what you actually need to take action on right now.

For most of us, our to-do lists “don’t let us distinguish between stuff we want to do, but don’t have time, and stuff that we have a reasonable chance of actually completing,” explained Professor Andy Miah, chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford, in an interview with The Guardian

“Instead, they are becoming almost like wish lists—little love letters to ourselves about things we ought to be doing. The items are all equally urgent and that sense of urgency seems also a distinguishing characteristic of our times, exacerbated by a life that is always online.”

So, if you combine the concepts of shorter deadlines and a more focused to-do list, you can ask yourself: What are my most pressing priorities for today? Then use the 1-3-5 rule to hash out a to-do list that explains:

  • One big thing
  • Three medium things
  • Five small things

...and that’s it. Sounds a lot more doable than your current scattered wishlist disguised as a to-do list, doesn’t it? 

Control what you can (and feel at least a little bit better)

You want to be in control of your own life and career, but that feels like a pipe dream when the ground is shifting beneath your feet. 

There’s a lot happening in the world right now (how’s that for the understatement of the century?), and a good chunk of it is beyond your control.

That’s overwhelming, but obsessing over it won’t do you any good. Instead, focus on the things you can control, like your self-imposed career goals, your immediate work environment, and your to-do list. 

They’ll help you feel like you’re the one back in the driver’s seat—even if the road you’re driving is full of unanticipated twists and turns.

Kat Boogaard
Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.