Right now, we're in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it's hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people's fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we're all so grateful for the healthcare workers and other essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.
I'm writing from my own experience, at this moment, in New York City.
In episode 267 of the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I suggested, "Write a letter of congratulations to your future self."
For this "Try This at Home" idea, you write a letter to your future self, to say "Congratulations!" for having achieved whatever you want to achieve. You make the letter as detailed as possible, by outlining the steps that allowed you to be so successful, how you handled predictable challenges, and you include all the changes you made in your surroundings, your habits, and your schedule that made it possible.
This isn't an opportunity to talk about "I hope," "I will," or "I plan," but rather "I did," "I accomplished," "I succeeded." You project yourself into the future, to reflect on what you did.
We recorded that episode before the COVID-19 situation took hold, but we realized that this idea could be adapted for these strange circumstances.
Of course, sadly, a huge number people are struggling to make it through this difficult period. People who are sick or taking care of those who are sick, healthcare workers, essential workers, parents with young children, single parents, people who have lost their jobs or facing financial emergencies...for many, they're so worried, they don't have the time or energy to think about anything else.
At the same time, many of us, while safe at home, are struggling to maintain the habits that will help us stay healthy, energetic, and focused during this period of housebound limbo.
One challenge for many people is to eat healthfully. We're stressed, we're home all the time, our usual habits of sleep and exercise are disrupted, our cabinets may be stocked full of treats...there are many reasons why it's hard to eat right.
This is a big challenge for my sister, and because she's a type 1 diabetic, what she eats really matters to her health.
My Sister's Letter to her Future Self
Dear Liz —
You made it! You’re back in the world! I’m so proud of you for conquering the apocalypse loophole and remembering your word of the year: Lighter. You completed "No Alcohol April." You ate the most vegetables you’ve eaten in your life. And you even managed to mostly get a handle on your "burst snacking." Plus, you stayed on that treadmill! You’re emerging from this stronger and lighter and now you can go out and enjoy your friends and the life you love so much. Good job!
(Our parents and I call Elizabeth "Elizabeth"; everyone else in the world, including herself, calls her "Liz.")
Elizabeth mentions her "Word of the Year"—in episode 254, she explains why she chose the word "Lighter" for 2020.
The "apocalypse loophole" is Elizabeth's term for what I call the "This Doesn't Count" Loophole in the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting in Better Than Before, my book about habit change. It's the loophole we use to tell ourselves that we don't have to worry about our habits because "this doesn't count;" we're in some sort of emergency, like a pandemic, or a special situation, like traveling. The fact is, everything counts.
"Burst snacking" is what Elizabeth calls her tendency to eat a bunch of snacks at one time—especially right before bed. (I get the sense that right-before-bed snacking is more common than I'd realized.) To make the letter stronger, Elizabeth could've outlined the steps she took to get a handle on the burst snacking. Did she keep a certain bedtime? Did she stay out of the kitchen? Did she put the snacks in an inconvenient place? This letter might be even more powerful if she detailed those ideas for herself.
In terms of my Four Tendencies personality framework, I think this letter-writing exercise might be particularly useful for Obligers—Elizabeth is an Obliger—because it's a form of outer accountability, and Obligers require outer accountability, even to meet inner expectations. The letter makes our current selves are accountable to our future selves. Now-Elizabeth wants the chips, but she skips them because she feels accountable to future-Elizabeth who gets the letter.
Don't know your "Tendency"—whether you're an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take the quick, free quiz here.
Another benefit from writing this letter: This is a hopeful exercise to do right now, because it's a reminder that this terrible time will end, and we will emerge into the world to resume our lives. Elizabeth is projecting her mind into the happy time when she'll go back out into the world.
What would you like to congratulate yourself for, when this terrible time comes to an end?
If you want more ideas for eating healthfully, check out 7 Strategies to Curb Snacking While Safe at Home During COVID-19.
You can read more about the 21 strategies for habit change. You can get the "Checklist for Habit Change" one-pager here (scroll down to "Better Than Before"). Note, this one-pager is more valuable when you've read Better Than Before, my bestselling book about how to change habits, because you understand how to use each of the strategies.
To check out all my resources related to coping during COVID-19, click here.
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