The other day I found myself darkly musing that I would likely never go back in person; that this would be my new normal, forever. This pessimism, fueled by news stories I’ve read with titles like “Will the Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience?,” is completely unwarranted in my school’s case. So I disputed it with the facts. We are, in fact, creating hybrid classes, and planning for an in-person future. There’s a good chance I’ll be back in the classroom within the next year. My odd work situation is tedious, but temporary.
Most likely, your future is also brighter than what you may think at your darkest moments, so dispute your pessimism not with mindless optimism, but with facts. Build a solid case for something other than the worst-case scenario, and argue it to yourself like a lawyer. And while you’re at it, read fewer stories about the pandemic. You probably aren’t learning anything new, but, rather, just trying to get a bit more certainty about the future, which is impossible.
2. Turn constraints into decisions.
For a while in my 30s, I made my living performing military analysis for the Rand Corporation, a think tank in California. When I ran into trouble in my work, my boss used to say, “Turn constraints into decisions.” In other words, start an examination of every problem by listing the apparent limitations on your freedom, and instead of taking them as given, consider how you can change them.
For example, in the case of the coronavirus lockdowns, the complaint about work I most often hear is that with the inability to work in a normal way, productivity is ruined. We can’t perform up to our own standards—whether because of competing child-care demands, being isolated from co-workers, or just Zoom fatigue—and it is maddening. Many people feel like they are stuck in a cycle of frustrating mediocrity.
The answer is to change the definition of productivity. Many of us have a twisted notion of a productive life that revolves around pure work output. Some have little choice in the matter, but most Americans work more than they need to in order to meet their job responsibilities. In 2018, according to a survey from the U.S. Travel Association, 55 percent of American workers did not use all their paid vacation, amounting to 768 million unused days. And when they do take vacation, 54 percent say they feel guilty about it.
If this describes you, you might use this period to reset your definition of productivity. True, many aspects of many jobs have been made more difficult by the pandemic. But other parts of a truly productive life are begging for your attention. You can set goals for exercise, work on acquiring new skills, spend quality time with loved ones, or learn to tame your monkey mind in meditation. This is the sort of productivity that will reward you in the long run and can help you establish a healthier, happier equilibrium when the pandemic is over.