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Getting the Laundry Done Might Be Good Enough

Why you're under-appreciating what you've learned during the COVID-19 lockdown.

If you're on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve likely seen the ambitious agendas, plans, and accomplishments of friends who’ve used their time during the lockdown to start learning a foreign language, master French cooking, or become an app designer. A widely circulated "motivational” message, for example, proclaimed: If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either a new skill or a new business, you never lacked the time, you’ve lacked the discipline to get things done.

While this seems like the kind of ‘tough love’ coaching we all need, as an expert in adult learning, I believe it’s a message that's likely to be counterproductive. Why? Because it denies the kind of dramatic learning we must do every day to simply make it through our newly hatched COVID-19 routine—a routine that has included homeschooling, endless hand washing, social distancing, Zoom meetings, and making sense of an avalanche of traumatic news. Even as some of us are in communities where businesses are starting to “open up”, we’re having to learn what it means to navigate and engage in the COVID-19 era. For each of us, we’re learning what it means to be in a new normal.

Underlying the “motivational message” is the idea that the things we’ve been doing during lockdown—such as learning to work at the kitchen table or use new collaboration platforms, being without colleagues, friends and family—are not significant pieces of learning in and of themselves.

We certainly could have challenged ourselves to do more during lockdown or now berate ourselves for not accomplishing more over the past few weeks, but is that necessary? I believe the new habits we’re having to integrate now may already be pushing us to our emotional and physical limits.

As many of us are grappling with the ways in which we’re feeling worn down, rather than beating ourselves up over a “lack of discipline” we should ask the question why, given the ways in which our time has been reallocated, might this time during the pandemic lockdown make us less productive? Why during this period might we have a more difficult time learning something new?

Our struggle to “just do it,” to force ourselves to accomplish something beyond what we’re doing to navigate each day, is at odds with the ways in which our brains are already at work right now. We’re currently learning a lot of new things every day at a rapid pace—some of which feels profoundly meaningful, while some feels rather simple—and for many of us, it feels exhausting!

As this pandemic wears on, we’ve been forced to change our behaviors in a significant way and our brains may be working against us. Because of the effort necessary to create new neural pathways, our brains go into self-protection mode and create a kind of unconscious resistance to new habits and ideas.

Neuroscience tells us that adult learning is linked to habit. Meanwhile, 40 percent of behavior is habit. When we try to do something different, our habits get in the way of changing our behavior. To get the brain to change, to create new neural pathways, we have to create new actions over and over again. It can take two to three months for the new neural pathways to override existing ones. Learning within the context of a global pandemic has strained our ability to reflect and take in new insight as we build the proverbial bicycle while riding it.

The pandemic is a challenging time for each of us. The upending of our mental models in the wake of COVID-19 has led to a period where we are rapidly trying to make sense of the flood of changes occurring around us—it has sapped more of our energy than we realize. Trying to take on ambitious new learning in the midst of this challenge can feel particularly difficult. This difficulty can then manifest itself as physical and emotional fatigue.

It will take time, more than we think, to adjust to our new reality. Before trying to learn a new language or start a new business, let’s continue to give ourselves the space to take in and make sense of the ways in which we’re learning and adapting to our new reality. Let's take time to reflect and integrate our new learnings before we take on new and impressive goals that we can trumpet on social media.

For now, getting the laundry done just might be good enough.

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