And everything’s hardest in the messy middle. Here’s why: When the pandemic hit, we were collectively freaked out — and energized. We bought groceries for our neighbors and protested peacefully. We massively changed the way we work, educate our children, shop and socialize.
In the midst of crisis, we saw anew how dire racial injustice is in our country and how little support our society offers those who are struggling, including the unemployed and working parents. It’s a lot to tackle at once. For many of us, our surge capacity became depleted. The adrenaline is gone. We need a hug — from someone outside of our household.
This is what happens with all big change, and the bigger the mountain we’re climbing, the more tempted we are to lose focus for something shiny or delicious, to seek short-lived hits of pleasure rather than keep our eyes on long-term goals.
This messy middle is hard, and 2021 is not going to be anything close to normal. Instead of just waiting for it all to be over, we’ll do better to reengage with the things that bring us meaning. So put down that cookie (I’m talking to myself here) and use this checklist to set your mid-pandemic course correction on the best possible path.
Even if it feels like all you’re doing is trying to survive, this checklist may help you gain a sense of control amid the uncertainty.
1. What do you want to take with you when this is all over? While I’m sure a lot about 2020 was bad for you, this is the time to reflect on what was good. Did you find purpose in peaceful protest? Did you shop for someone who is elderly? If you didn’t leave the house much, what do you like about being home more? Many teenagers are benefiting from increased family time and more sleep. What were the bright spots?
2. What are some goals you can set for yourself? Not the easy ones. Research shows that setting specific, difficult goals consistently leads to higher performance (if that’s what you’re after). Where in your life would you like to step things up? Perhaps you’d like to continue donating to a food bank or helping people who can’t leave their home. Maybe you want to set up a gratitude practice, or spend less time on social media. Where can you do better despite the pandemic (and everything else)? The goal is not to add more pressure to an already difficult time, but to identify goals that could help you feel better and feel like you have more time and energy at the end of the day.
3. What new habit have you wanted to try? Maybe you want to check in with friends more regularly. Perhaps your doctor wants you to be more active. Limited travel can make our daily routines more consistent, and that makes this a great time for many people to establish a healthy habit.
4. How can you invest in yourself? What “deferred maintenance” do you need to take care of? What most of us really need right now is less stress. Could you resolve to go to bed earlier a few days per week? Or would you have more energy if you improved your diet? Remember, when you are depleted, your most valuable asset is damaged. In other words: When we underinvest in our bodies, minds or spirits, we destroy our most essential tools for leading our best lives.
5. What do you want to feel more of in 2021? Perhaps you want to feel less overwhelmed and more at peace, or maybe you want to feel more connected to others and causes and less isolated. What behaviors or habits have, in the past, elicited the emotion that you are looking for? Maintenance habits (like cleaning up or getting to inbox zero) might make you feel less overwhelmed. Finding purpose, taking our focus away from ourselves, make us feel more connected.
Talk with your friends and family about these questions. Then make a list of your answers, and cross off anything that isn’t realistic. Unrealistic goals will only bring anxiety.
When done correctly, habits can make us happier, healthier and more connected to those around us. These are worthy goals in any year, whether we are in a pandemic or not.
A version of this piece was originally published in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It has been adapted, with permission, for the Inspired Life blog.
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