Relatedly—or maybe it’s just a different vocabulary—I’m also fascinated by how we make and break habits, and I tackle that question in my book Better Than Before.
So I’m constantly talking to people about happiness, resolutions, and good habits. I hear from readers of my books, listeners of the Happier podcast, commenters on social media and on my daily Instagram Live “Coping with COVID-19 Conversations,” by email, friends I see at my book group, my colleagues, people I meet randomly…I’m endlessly fascinated to hear about people’s experiences with habits and resolutions.
And this issue is being hotly discussed in the context of COVID-19. For just about everyone, our usual habits and behaviors have been disrupted, which gives us the “Clean Slate” that allows new habits to rush in. For better, and also for worse:
- For some people, healthy habits have been disrupted. “I can’t go to my favorite spin class, so I haven’t been exercising.”
- For some people, unhealthy habits have been disrupted. “I’d been going out with friends so much that I’d started drinking a lot. Now that I’m home all the time, I’ve cut way back, and I feel better.”
- For some people, healthy habits have been formed. “For years, I’ve wanted to get back into meditation. Now I’ve been able to stick with it for weeks.”
- For some people, unhealthy habits have been formed. “All day long, I know the ice cream is in the freezer, just waiting for me. I can’t keep away.”
Many people are sick or on the front lines of COVID-19, or otherwise don’t have the luxury of worrying about their habits during this time (single parents, parents of young children, people losing their jobs or their businesses, dealing with an existing health condition, etc)—they’re just trying to make it through. We all feel so much gratitude and sympathy for those who are working and struggling.
But for many people, safe at home, it is possible to think about habits and actions right now, and how we’re spending our time during this unprecedented experience.
And I’ve seen two schools of thought emerge: “I want to go easy on myself” and “I want to do better.”
“I want to go easy on myself”: “Look, this is a pandemic. This isn’t the time to worry about my habits. It’s not the time to expect myself to make much progress on my big project. I’ll feel better when I ease up on expectations.”
“I want do do better”: “I’m safe at home, I have all this time. I want to improve a certain habit. I want to make progress on my big project. I’ll feel better when I focus on something I can control.”
Really, I think, this is a false choice. It’s one of my aphorisms: We can accept ourselves, and expect more from ourselves. We can show compassion for ourselves, and we can also look for ways to make it possible to grow.
On the one hand, it’s extremely important that we’re realistic and kind to ourselves about what we can do it in the current situation. We need to recognize the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of the times. None of us have been through something like this before, and people’s different circumstances and temperaments can make it harder or easier. Also, research shows that people who feel less guilt and are compassionate toward themselves tend to do a better job of sticking to good habits, over the long term, than people who really beat themselves up.
On the other hand, the fact is, this time “counts.” What we do now will have consequences for our future. It may seem like we’ll be stuck in this housebound limbo forever, but we won’t. The wonderful day will come when things start to get back to normal, the unimaginable future will become the present, and we’ll confront the present day.
How will our future-selves wish we’d behaved during this time? Sadly, the future will be difficult, too. Are there things we can do now that will make that time easier for ourselves? Can we use this time mindfully and well, in a way that will make us happier, healthier, more focused, both now and in the future?
For instance, in episode 267 of the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I talk about the value of writing a letter of congratulations to your future self. In that letter, you outline the actions that allowed you to be so successful, how you handled predictable challenges, the changes you made in your life. You could write the letter of congratulations that you’d get from yourself when the COVID-19 situation resolves. (If you want to read more about this idea, as well as the letter Elizabeth wrote to her future self, click here.)
Or perhaps you can use your Tendency to figure out a better approach to sticking with a new behavior. Different vocabulary and approaches tend to resonate better depending on whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. For instance, maybe you benefit from using a to-do list; maybe you don’t. Maybe you benefit from an accountability group; maybe you don’t. Your Tendency will explain why. My Tendency (I’m an Upholder) explains why I find such comfort in giving myself a strict routine each day—and also makes it clear to me why other members of my family aren’t particularly eager to join in.
We can accept ourselves and be kind to ourselves, and also expect more from ourselves, as we all struggle to get through this difficult, unprecedented crisis.
Are there any healthy habits you hope to form (or unhealthy habits you hope to break) during this time?
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 all the 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.