When I went to bed a few nights ago, life was strange enough already. Offices and businesses were shuttered. Friends and family were cloistered many more hours each day in our homes. A general unease had us listening to recycled news for hours on end. But I got to sleep. My plan was to hit the treadmill in the morning then write this note to you. All was going according to plan until 7:09 am. As I neared the end of my workout, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake shook my five-story brick apartment building in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elevators ceased operating. Roughly 17,000 of my neighbors lost power. My cell phone screeched a panicky alert. It cautioned me to avoid driving and to prepare for aftershocks. What next?
Your friends at VitalSmarts want to offer both our love and some suggestions for the challenging days ahead. We hope and pray that any encounter with this virus is brief and mild. And we offer our heartfelt sympathy to any for whom it is worse.
Research shows that while times like these bring unavoidable pain and loss, a great deal of our pain is avoidable. The viruses and the earthquakes will happen, but I have great control over how they affect me. I’d like to share some counsel that can substantially improve the way you experience the days ahead.
- Create a Gratitude Ritual. I won’t rehearse the mounds of research that show how gratitude elevates mood and health. Our tendency when crises strike is to focus solely on the threat. In a reflexive attempt to secure our safety, we become hypervigilant about loss—whether we might lose food, shelter, health or loved ones. Since our brains are hard-wired to focus on loss, we must make a conscious effort to turn attention to what we still have, and I daresay, what we may gain through the hardship. I can assure you that if you’ll create and practice a daily gratitude ritual, you’ll be better for it. Yesterday, as I practiced mine, I was struck with the fact that this is the first time in the history of humanity that the entire world turned unitedly against a common foe. We are being presented with an opportunity for future cooperation as we come to recognize that borders are fictions and we are global kin.
- Learn to Boss Yourself. Many of us are now discovering how little of our lives we’ve captained. We have love-hate relationships with authority figures. On the one hand, we all yearn for more autonomy. We want to set our own goals, decide our own hours, choose our own methods. We don’t want to be bossed around. But the ugly truth is we are far more effective when we are. We get more done when we think we “have to.” Imposed deadlines focus our attention. The threat of a bad appraisal makes us redouble our efforts. Knowing our performance will be compared to others’ pushes us. And as of a few days ago, many of those forcing functions have been relaxed. You’re now finding out how much you rely on others to impose structure on you.You’ve got two choices: 1) Become your own boss; or 2) Surrender to atrophy. If you’ve lost the circumstances you have depended on to impose structure on you, this is your opportunity to learn to create it yourself. It’s embarrassingly easy to do. All you have to do is give yourself orders. Don’t start a week without putting your “boss” hat on and making a list of the things you expect yourself to get done. Checklists are a conversation with yourself. They are the executive part of your brain telling the rest of your gray matter what it expects. You know this works. You’ve felt the dopamine rush you get when you put a check mark next to completed items. That is what psychologists call a self-generated reward. In the coming days, learn to be your own boss. Give yourself orders. Create opportunities for self-generated rewards by getting things done that are meaningful to you. Don’t slide into psychological atrophy by allowing the lack of imposed structure to lead to a lack of effortful activity. Trust me, when I check this note to you off my list, I’m going to feel higher than a kite!
- Create a Self-Care List. If you now have more discretionary time than you did a week ago, be sure to use some of it to take care of yourself. As you practice bossing yourself around, be the kind of boss that worries about the overall well-being of other people. Make a list right now of small but high-payoff rituals you can practice daily to keep you mentally, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually well. The foundation of well-being is aligning habits with values. When we care about something, but do nothing about it, we carry a troubling sense of dissonance all the time. For example, if you care about mental development, you can’t feel truly content if you’re neglecting your intellectual muscles. As you put your “boss” hat on, think about how you can turn today’s compulsory down time into renewal time. Assign yourself small and rewarding tasks that will rejuvenate you in every way you care about.
- Create Intentional Connections. The imposed structure of work is responsible for far more of our social rewards than we like to admit. The team we are assigned to, the projects forced on us, even the location of our desks decide our social destiny. You might think your friends are people you were inevitably drawn to because of common interests. But you’d be wrong. They are the people with whom the structure of your life put you in contact. It is from this highly limited pool that you choose who interests you. An old study showed that if you move two people’s desks a mere 15 feet further apart, they tend to interact as much as 70% less. Their relationship weakens not because they lose interest in each other, but because they are sitting farther apart.At times like this, we are vulnerable to loneliness, disconnection and discontent if we don’t act to avoid it. This morning, after the earthquake, I got a call from my longtime business partner and co-author, Al Switzler. He asked how I was, shared some news from his family and wished me well. The entire call took 4 minutes. But it left me with a feeling of love and connection far out of proportion to the time it took. As you work virtually, you won’t have as many imposed connections as you previously benefited from. So, you’ll have to create them yourself. Start today. Start every day running through a mental inventory of names: friends, loved ones, coworkers. Write down your “Daily Five”: five names of people you’ll simply check in with. Pass along praise. Check in. Ask for help. Offer help. The calls don’t have to be long. But you need them. And so do they.
- Stop Ruminating. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I became obsessed with news. When the attacks came, I was in Dallas, Texas, with my business partner, Al. Since planes were no longer flying, we drove our rental car the 1,500 miles back to Utah. As we drove, we listened to the radio for 20 hours straight. All we heard was news stations recycling the same information. Nothing new. The longer we listened, the more anxious we became. And much of the anxiety was our own brew.Here’s a perfect recipe for anxiety: take a novel threat, add imperfect information, then stir, stir, stir, and stir some more. Stirring adds no new information, it simply recycles the misery. It is completely normal to feel anxious when novel threats meet imperfect information. But when you are already doing everything you know how to do, it’s time to stop stirring. Remind yourself, there is NEVER certainty in life. Frankly, the odds of you getting COVID-19 are lower than many other tragedies in your life that preexisted this situation. I won’t name them all, because then you could just ruminate on those! But you get the idea. You functioned fine before COVID-19 not because these other threats were familiar uncertainties, but because you stopped stirring them.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. I hope this one helps you develop life patterns that minimize the inevitable and maximize your wellbeing long past the current moment. Know that through and after it all, your friends at VitalSmarts are here for you.
In fact, motivated by our mission to help people change behavior in crucial moments, we want to share our valuable skills with you at a time when they will have the most impact on individual lives, relationships, communities, and organizations.
Join me and my colleagues in a free, five-part webinar series on how to lead through the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath. We will share insights and skills for helping you, your people, and your organization minimize risk, increase safety, and adapt and be effective in this crucial and unprecedented time.
With every best wish,