My first few days of quarantining myself to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in New York City, where I live, felt like one long stretch of time spent watching episodes of The Office, video-chatting with people from my actual office, navigating regular bouts of anxiety, constantly refreshing my newsfeed, and going on some cathartic dates with my good friends Ben and Jerry. “Tuesday,” “Wednesday,” and “Thursday” no longer existed, and in their place came “day three,” “day four,” and “day five”—and then even that sense of time separation felt muddled. Having felt nothing but despondence for who even knows how long, I realized that living my life in accordance with airport rules (read: pizza for breakfast and wine whenever I damn well please) does not help me feel any better about the current state of the world. I needed some quarantine goals.
So on a Sunday night (otherwise known as “night eight”), I sat down to make a list of of these quarantine goals—both daily and long-term—in the hopes that the exercise would help add some much-needed structure to the expanse of homebound days ahead. According to the pros, there’s some real value in assigning yourself actionable tasks during a time of great uncertainty. “Integrating a new structure for work and life along with de-stressing activities can keep you on task and sane during this current environment,” says Eric First, MD, and fellow at the American Institute of Stress.
Putting together daily lists of simple, achievable quarantine goals while your brain adjusts to this new way of living and working is key, says Dr. First. For me, that’s meant integrating multiple feel-good practices into my day. My list (which I wrote out in colored pencils, pictured above) includes working out, meditation, 20 minutes of journaling, 30 minutes of reading, eating three healthy meals, taking my anxiety medication, and calling my grandparents. Not only does the act of doing these things help me feel some sense of normalcy, but at the end of each day, I have the pleasure of feeling like I’ve accomplished something positive for my brain and body. And right now, that feels like the least I can do to stay sane.
“Without thinking about current events, list longer-term goals you have been thinking about. Then look at those that you feel you can achieve that aren’t affected by the current events.” —Eric First, MD
In addition to setting daily goals, Dr. First is a fan of setting longer-term goals for this social-distancing period, too. While COVID-19 has added stress to our lives and brought a sense of uncertainty to the general future that precludes us from planning much of anything, Dr. First notes that life will go back to normal, and when it does, you’ll wind up grateful that you used your quarantine time to achieve something. “Sit down with paper and pen, and without thinking about current events, consider the longer-term goals you have been thinking about and just write them down. Once you have that list, begin to look at those that you feel you can achieve that aren’t affected necessarily by the current events.” For me, that means finally writing the book I’ve been talking about for the last three years and learning to do a headstand.
“Once you start to list out your longer-term goals, your worries about the future start to decrease,” says Dr. First. “So keep the focus on short-term goals while also planning longer-term goals that aren’t currently impacted. Having a daily structure—along with a plan for achievable long-term goals—will lessen your stress about the future.”
It’s also worth recognizing that having the luxury of using this time productively—in the health and safety of your own home—is a privilege. And while it’s totally okay to say “not right now” to that to-do list, there’s something to be said for reframing this time period as an opportunity to do whatever makes you feel good that you might not normally have time to complete. You may even potentially even better yourself in the process. Now excuse me, it’s time for headstand practice and a FaceTime with my Nana.
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