Michelle vanDellen Ph.D.

Too Many Goals

The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends

Why next month might as well be forever and what it means for coping with COVID.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

Kelly vanDellen, used with permission
Long Road into Hazy Valley
Source: Kelly vanDellen, used with permission

When I saw reactions to the pandemic unfold back in March and April, I got worried. People were so focused on the notion that ‘this’ was just going to be for a short time, that if we behaved for two or three weeks, the whole thing would go away. Whether or not 2-3 weeks could have ever been enough to quench the pandemic is irrelevant now. It’s three months past our first major behavioral changes in response to the pandemic and daily rates are over six times higher (at least where I live) than they were when we started restricting gatherings, working from home, and closing schools. We might have been able to stop this with extreme behavioral change (like a real and total shut down) but the time to argue about that is past. Aren’t we all tired of arguing?

Now that we have been waiting so much longer than we expected, you hear questions like: “Will we have to wear masks forever?” and “When will it end?” As ‘the end’ turned from 2-3 weeks to 1-2 months to a vaccine in the winter (a medical feat that would be bigger than getting to the moon or curing cancer), our obsession with the end is getting us in trouble.  

A tricky thing about time is that it doesn't move from us in a linear way. Ten minutes might as well be tomorrow, tomorrow might as well be next week, and next month might as well be forever. Now that the end *may* be in winter, it truly does feel like forever away.

I think one of the reasons many of us are struggling with the pandemic is that we got used to the idea that the pandemic would end soon. We're staring off into a distance that is getting further and further away from us.  

I’d like to gently suggest it's time to turn away from wondering when things will end. The reality is, this winter might as well be forever away. By focusing on what is essentially forever away, we’re keeping ourselves from seeing the present for what it is. Why are we so hesitant to stop thinking about the end?

It's because accepting a new normal is uncomfortable, challenging, downright scary. It makes us feel overwhelmed. And feeling overwhelmed leads to to giving up.  My most memorable moment of giving up while overwhelmed was when my father was trying to teach me to drive a stick shift. It was not going well and it was not his fault. Inevitably, I would stall the car three, four, maybe more, times. On this one morning in my memory, I stalled in the middle of a busy intersection and out of desperation decidedly threw my hands up in the air and declared I was just done, no more driving that car ever. Whether my dad responded with reason or exasperation, I don’t remember. I just remember the take home message that “this is not a moment you can give up.” 

Deep down, I think most of us realize this too is not a moment where we can give up. It will hurt us more socially, financially, healthwise to just decide to stop driving in the middle of our busy intersection. Even though the end feels impossibly far away—like shifting into second gear did to me—we have to accept that giving up is not a choice we have.

Step back for a minute and think about the people, businesses, and organizations that have inspired you over the past few months. For me, it’s the churches who figured out how to do virtual or drive-in services that connect their members to each other and their faith. And my fitness studio who now delivers high quality live streaming online-classes. Or the restaurants building new outdoor seating and trying to figure things out in a business world that’s changing as fast as our COVID numbers. 

Not much about the pandemic has been easy for anyone but it has almost certainly been better for the people who aren’t sitting around waiting for it to end. 

I’m a college professor and almost all of my university and colleagues’ conversations have been focused on what will happen in the fall. Even now, we are still only looking at the next step because we believe things could just magically return to normal. 

Whenever normal might be, it’s so far away that it’s time to turn look somewhere else, Instead of stop-gap fixes, what would your decisions look like if you were thinking of life as the new normal? If you were willing to accept that the end might never come?

Here’s my advice for you as you start to turn your attention away from the hypothetical and maybe even mythical end and back to the realities we’re facing in the present. Instead of waiting for normal, start making your now work for you. Double down on your creative problem-solving skills.

Don’t forget your past life but use it to your advantage—what about your daily routines was working for you? What needed change? Redo your home office and think through other work and daily behaviors that need tightening for you to maintain sanity and productivity

How can you reconstruct social connections? Some people have been avoiding family and friends completely. Can you maintain that for what will feel like forever? Use the two week incubation period to your benefit. Stay home for two weeks—and make sure your friends do—and THEN you can go to the beach house together. Is that miserable? Obviously. But if it gets you what you need—some time away with friends or family—it’s probably worth it. If everyone attending a family gathering genuinely quarantined for 1-2 weeks before getting together, they could dramatically decrease the risks of having that birthday or anniversary party. Focus on better rather than dwelling on how it's not normal. Normal is out of eyesight. 

Not everyone has control over every part of their lives. Acknowledge what constraints you have. But find new ways to live inside them. Find a new way to thrive within your circumstances.

If your neighborhood pool can’t open, can you create a reservation system to allow people to use the pool one household at a time? Surely a few trips to the pool a summer is better than none. We don’t know how long things will have to stay closed so it might be worth fully redesigning your system for use. This isn’t the time to see the only option as normal or closed. 

For me, I’m designing a college course that could always be delivered efficiently and dynamically in a hybrid online/in-person context. Why not? There will always be students who could benefit from only driving to campus once a week instead of twice. If my university weren’t so focused on getting back to normal, they might see how we could use this time to address big long-term needs of students and the changing landscape of higher education.

For those of you with K-12 kids trying to decide what to do this fall with regard to school, I’m so sorry but I don't have advice for you. I hope it helps to step back and stop focusing on when this will end. Whatever you do, give yourself the permission to stop second-guessing. The end is out sight when your decision has to be made and you’re doing the best you can.  

We don’t know when this will end. But we can be sure of the fact that it won’t be here soon enough. Within the next month, the cycle of summer will grind to a halt and we’ll be thrown into a life where we’re trying to create shortcuts or creatively making a new normal. Let’s argue less and get more creative in how we think about solutions. It’s going to take work but with a little luck, the new normal could be even better than the old one. 

References

Georgia Department of Public Health. https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological review, 110(3), 403.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological review, 117(2), 440.

Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American educational research journal, 29(3), 663-676.

Erez, M., & Zidon, I. (1984). Effect of goal acceptance on the relationship of goal difficulty and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 69–78.

Locke, E. A. (1982). Relation of goal level to performance with a short work period and multiple goal levels. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 512–514.

Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive self-regulation of unattainable goals: Goal disengagement, goal reengagement, and subjective well-being. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 29(12), 1494-1508.