Ensure That COVID-19 Will Change Your Life for the Better
Just because most people won’t change doesn’t mean that you can't.
Posted Jun 25, 2020
Well, I certainly received some blowback from my recent COVID-19 post. I was accused of being negative, cynical, and hypocritical; not labels I care to be associated with. I was scolded for having a career based on idealism, optimism, possibility, and potential to evolve, grow, change, and become the best you can be. Then I write this COVID-19 post, in which I basically say that all of the positive changes that many of us have experienced during this period of shelter-in-place will disappear once our lives return to normal.
The aspersions that were cast on me notwithstanding, I do stand by my general statement that most people won’t change because of their experiences during this lockdown. In my view, there are simply too many forces that will push most of us back to our old behaviors, habits, and routines.
But (and a very big but, indeed), just because most people won’t change doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of using the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to make significant changes in your life. It certainly won’t be easy, but I would be negating my professional life if I didn’t believe that you could take the healthy lessons you learned from being forced to change your life during the pandemic and continue those changes as you leave the safety of your own home and return to life as we have known it.
The challenge is how, despite the forces stacked against you, can you make those changes you want permanent? Let me begin the “how” of making the changes in your life permanent (or at least enduring beyond the shutdown) by reminding you of the obstacles you face in making significant changes to your behavior:
- Your behaviors, habits, and routines are deeply engrained through repetition and reinforcement.
- The institutions (e.g., work, school, extracurricular activities) that you are likely forced to return to after the shelter-in-place is lifted.
- There is implicit pressure from those in your various communities to conform to the social norms that everyone else is returning to.
- You will have a plate full of activities that you haven’t been able to do during the lockdown that you need to do now that our world is “re-opening” again.
- There are many activities that we want to do that we couldn’t during shelter-in-place.
- Most of us chose our lives before the COVID-19 crisis which means that we enjoyed many aspects of who we were and what we did.
With those challenges identified, I want to provide some perspective on how the degree of change you want to make will impact your ability to make those changes. I’ll start with the premise that few of us are going to use this opportunity to turn our lives upside down.
For example, it’s not likely that many of us will sell our worldly possessions and move our families to northern Idaho and live in a yurt (or some equivalent thereof). Again, given that you had chosen your life before the pandemic, the changes you might want to make are likely more around the edges than a wholesale recreation of your life.
I also want to establish some realistic expectations about what lies ahead for you if you are truly committed to making significant changes to yourself and to your life as the COVID-19 crisis winds down (hopefully). I’m going to say it simply and clearly so you don’t miss the message: Change is difficult, very difficult; otherwise, we would all change every unhealthy behavior, habit, or pattern we’ve ever developed. Despite my cynicism, I do believe that people can change themselves and their lives for the better; gosh, I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t!
Having established a realistic perspective and reasonable expectations, now we can dive into a process for how you can actually make the positive changes you’ve made during the pandemic stick while living in the post-pandemic “new normal.”
Step #1: Identify the Way You Have Been
With the simpler and less busy life you’ve been leading during the lockdown, the aspects of your life that you have seen as unpleasant, unproductive, or downright unhealthy likely came into sharp relief. You’ve likely learned that you don’t like some aspects of yourself and this downtime showed you that you are capable of not being that way; for example, you might find that you are less stressed, more fun, or healthier.
The first step in the change process is to clearly identify what elements of yourself or your life you don’t like and don’t want to continue post-COVID. You can gain this understanding by recognizing your past less-than-desirable self (thoughts, emotions, behaviors, interactions) and observing your much-more-desirable current self.
I also encourage you to get feedback from family and friends about your past and current self. Hopefully, this juxtaposition will demonstrate starkly the way you don’t want to be and the way you want to be, which will hopefully inspire and motivate you to make the changes you’ve made during the COVID-19 crisis permanent.
Step #2: Identify the Change
You want to identify the very specific aspect of yourself that you want to change. It might be a counterproductive way of thinking (e.g., too self-critical), feeling (e.g., too angry), behaving (e.g., overeating), or interacting with others (e.g., too authoritarian with your children).
Also, as part of this first step, you want to articulate in detail what you have been thinking, feeling, and doing during the lockdown and what you want to think, feel, and do as you unlock your life; for example, more self-supportive, calm, loving, or active.
Step #3: Identify and Remove Obstacles
A simple reality of this process is that all of the motivation in the world won’t enable you to make the changes you want if tangible obstacles stand in your way. To successfully achieve change in your life after the pandemic, you must clear or at least minimize their impact on your efforts. Referring back to the bulleted list above, first, identify the behaviors, habits, routines, institutions, pressures, and activities whose collective momentum will attempt to pull you back on your pre-COVID life trajectory.
Second, you can look for ways to remove these obstacles from your path to change. Ask yourself how you can surmount those barriers by continuing to remove self-defeating emotional triggers, disrupt your routines, choose other institutions to be a part of, focusing on your values and priorities rather than being concerned what choices other people are making, and deciding that some activities you might otherwise feel you need to return to aren’t really that important.
Step #4: Set Realistic Goals
Recognizing that the changes you want to continue in your life post-pandemic will be difficult, you can establish realistic goals that will encourage you to stay committed to the changes you want to make. Identify the end goal of the life you want to lead and then reverse-engineer more proximal goals that keep you motivated and focused on those changes every day. Then, regularly reward yourself for your accomplishing those goals.
Step #5: Enlist Support
Enlisting support from important people in your life is an essential step in keeping the momentum of change alive as you transition to post-COVID. Another simple reality is that if your significant others don’t support or, even worse, undermine your efforts at change, you’re dead in the water before you even begin.
I encourage you to identify key people in your world, share your vision of change, and ask them how they can support you. Even more powerfully, try to get them on board with the changes, especially your spouse, children, other immediate family, close friends, and co-workers who can have a direct impact on the changes you want to make.
Step #6: Take Action
Without putting the above into play, everything is just talk and you will soon slip back into the old you and your old life. After all of that preparation, it’s time to take action. I suggest that you ease yourself into the changes you want to make rather than try to go “cold turkey.” Give yourself time to become familiar and comfortable with the changes you want to make. Also, recognize that you will likely have setbacks and may fall off the wagon periodically because old and ingrained ways of being and living die hard (but know that they will die in time).
For example, you could put your children in recreational sports leagues instead of the traveling teams that they were on before COVID struck, place them in a nearby school they could walk or bike to, commit to buying healthy food, continue to work from home, prioritize exercise... the list goes on and on.
Step #7: 1 C & 3 Ps
As you make the transition from the COVID-19 crisis to a return to normal life, you need four letters to keep you on track. The first letter is C, as in commitment. For you to make stick the changes you’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, you need to have a moment-to-moment commitment to taking action on your change goals. You can expect to be constantly pulled back to the old road you were on in your life and, when this occurs, you must resist with all your might and choose the fork in the road that will take you down this new and healthier life path.
The second is P, for patience. As I’ve noted several times before, change is difficult and it is also slow. There are no quick fixes or instant successes with change. If you become impatient with your rate of change, you will become frustrated, then angry, then despairing, at which point you will likely give up your efforts at a new and improved you. If you maintain a long-term perspective, recognize that it will be difficult, yet have faith that you can make the change lasting, you will show the patience you need to stay committed to your new life path.
The third is P, for persistence. This quality is one of the most important for changing your life. The people who are successful in any aspect of their lives are those who just “keep on keeping on.” Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, they stay committed and just keep plugging along until their lives are truly changed.
The fourth is P, as in perseverance. This is another essential quality to successful life change because you will inevitably, as I noted above, fall off the wagon, have setbacks, and experience outright failures in your journey to be the kind of person you want to be. It’s simple, though far from easy; every time you fall down, you get back up and keep putting one foot in front of the other toward the person you want to be and the life you want to lead.
In sum, the COVID-19 crisis will, in time, pass. When that happens, you will have to decide whether you want to stay on the same road as you were on before the pandemic or you want to choose another road that involves changes to who you are and the life you are leading.
At that point, you can either accept my skepticism that most of us won’t be able to make the positive changes we’ve experienced during the shutdown stick. Or you can rub my nose in my pessimism and prove to me (and yourself) that you have what it takes to change your life for the better.
The choice is yours.