There was a minute—a sparking, optimistic minute—when I thought I’d emerge from this national emergency with the screenplay for my pandemic-themed rom-com. That sounds terrible, but you know you thought the same thing, too. In fact, with ample time in self-isolation among the spread of COVID-19, there’s this big push that you should be tackling all those huge goals. You finally have time to write the great American novel, learn how to make stromboli, release your bedroom lo-fi pop album—whatever. And while I’m a huge fan of creativity and self-improvement, let’s be crystal clear about something here: you just have to do the bare minimum. Everything else is a bonus.
“A scarcity mindset is what encourages this must have/get done mentality,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “Thinking that if you don’t achieve or get something immediately you’ll miss out creates anxiety and oftentimes disappointment.”
I know you may not be getting that message, and that’s because of a certain strain of thinking, a virus that derives from the American obsession with being busy. We have all this “free time” encouraging us to be productive, so we’re not only supposed to use it wisely but optimize it. And that can add a lot of unnecessary worry and anxiety for people who, I don’t know, already have worry and anxiety about their entire world collapsing.
You don’t need those extra negative feelings because you failed to work on that huge project, or don’t have the emotional energy for your French lesson. So rather than focusing on all those enormous goals you should be working towards, flip the mindset and notice all that you’ve already taken care of.
In my household—the two-bedroom I share with my roommate, Amber—we call this “doing the bare minimum.” Pre-pandemic, we had our respective struggles with mental health that have been impacted by seriously rough times, so we celebrate going to therapy, having a gym day, and eating a proper dinner. Doing the bare minimum looked different every day, but it’s wrapped around the humanizing elements that allow you to be a well human being.
Post-pandemic, I’ve been physically ill and living with my two biggest triggers for depressive episodes: being alone and feeling trapped. Doing the bare minimum has become hilariously extra, a lifeline that simply means maintaining basic order and structure within certain day-to-day practices. The National Alliance on Mental Health actually supports the idea that routine and ritual is needed to stay centered, and creating a bare minimum of healthy routinized habits accomplishes just that.
“It’s extremely important to keep some sort of routine—even if it needs modification,” says Teplin. “For example, if you are someone who routinely goes to the gym, take your daily break and spend that amount of time walking around or doing an at-home workout. In times of uncertainty regaining some autonomy and control will feel good, so feel free to schedule out daily activities even if they’re only influencing your life.”
My chosen practices include getting dressed in a real outfit before work, washing my hands rigorously, showering at least every other day, eating three true meals, hula hooping, watching an episode of Mad Men, and FaceTiming a loved one as often as possible. I’ve been really good about regularly hitting those practices because I know mental and physical health is at stake. But on the day when I fail (not if, when), I hope I have self-compassion.
At the top of every bare minimum list is simply “survive.” Do what you need to do in order to function in a time with endless restrictions but no rules. Keep your to-do list if it adds something to your life, but don’t give yourself additional grief if things don’t get everything crossed off.
Final disclaimer: we know art is healing, necessary, and important in times of duress. If this crisis does fuel your creativity positively, please let it! But it’s really okay if you lean toward baser life comforts right now because you simply can’t put in the emotional energy. You don’t need to use this time to become F. Scott Fitzgerald (i.e., writing thinly-veiled books about your life and constantly drunk). You just need to keep doing the bare minimum.