As we gear up to return to a more normal version of “normal,” I find myself reflecting on what I’ve learned from COVID.
The past year has been challenging, and that's a massive understatement. To date, about 3 million people have died worldwide from COVID [1}. Jobs, homes, and small businesses were lost. We’ve been separated from loved ones. And the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on already marginalized individuals and communities has laid bare the inequities in our world that are too often overlooked.
Understanding and working to rectify those inequities are some of the big lessons from the pandemic. Another is that our souls need human touch and in-person companionship. But there are also some less-obvious lessons I’d like to take with me into the post-COVID world (we’re gonna get there, right? Eventually?)
- Voicing boundaries
There was a wide spectrum of feelings about masking and social distancing this year. Where each of us fell on that spectrum was visible to all and important to many. We got really good at communicating our comfort level and expectations. “Will you please put your mask on?” “Will you please pull your mask up over your nose?” “Would you like to come over for an outdoor fire-pit session? “Oh, it’s going to be inside? I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable with that.” We set boundaries and vocalized them, most of the time respectfully.
The obvious flip-side of learning to vocalize our own boundaries is that we also had to learn to respect everyone else’s when they differed from our own. I hope we extend this respectful communication to other less conspicuous boundaries that might be less comfortable to talk about. “Please don’t discuss diets around me.” “You don’t like it when I call you ‘sweetie’? I’ll stop”. “I’m not comfortable with talking about Susie Q that way.” “I didn’t realize my comment was racist, I’m so sorry.” “No, I can’t stay late to work on that project.” “Please don’t interrupt me, I’m speaking.”
- It’s ok to drop the ball
Many of us were trying to work from home while also acting as caregivers to children, parents, or others – a pretty impossible task if you ask me. And that was on top of the uncertainty and anxiety of a global pandemic.
We had a lot on our plates. Balls were dropped. I struggled trying to figure out how to exercise with my kids at home. I often failed to make a home cooked meal for my family even though I was home all the time. Zoom book club gatherings hardly ever saw me because it was just no longer a priority. In the beginning, I felt guilty about all of it. But then instead of trying to juggle all the balls, I got the hang of shamelessly drop kicking a few over the metaphorical fence. I had planned to write a book in 2020. Didn’t write a single word of it. Goodbye, ball.
We had to prioritize our priorities to protect our own sanity (maybe the most important priority of all). We learned that it’s ok to say no, and we said it more. I stopped glorifying “busy” and tried to get back to basics: 8 hours of sleep, get outside daily, work hard at work, be present at home, and set boundaries that create time and space for self-care and healthy relationships. I hope I carry this forward.
- The key is energy management, not time management
Pre-pandemic, I was convinced that the thing holding me back from getting everything done that I wanted to was a lack of time. If I had just a little bit more time, I could make progress on my book, build out that new section of my website, and maybe even exercise more. There just weren’t enough hours in the day. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Many of us walked around with multiple calendars and to-do lists, our omnipresent phones set to alert us about the next thing, all in an effort to manage and maximize our time.
But then the pandemic hit. I was stuck at home without social engagements and outings. I had to temporarily close my acupuncture clinic, so I didn’t even have patients to see. I had a lot more time. But I still struggled to get things done. I didn’t write that book, I didn’t complete all the at-home projects I could have, and I definitely could have exercised more. It’s not that I didn’t have the time — I had plenty. Instead, I didn’t have the bandwidth. At times, I felt like I didn’t have the mental or emotional energy to do anything but crush some Netflix.
All this suggests that myopically focusing on time management might be a mistake. We should be proactively managing our energy, too. Considering one without the other is a recipe for frustration.
Say you’ve meticulously scheduled your day to chase your goals: work meeting, networking call, squeeze in a workout, and zoom happy hour with friends. If your energy level doesn’t keep up with your schedule, you’ll be impatient and irritable with your friends and you won’t get the social fulfillment out of that happy hour, and may even choose to skip it to chill on the couch. You might have had the time for all those things in your day, but not the energy.
Everything we do – from performing in our jobs to enjoying our hobbies to spending quality time with our loved ones – requires not just time, but energy. Energy is our most precious resource, and as such it behooves us to prioritize managing and replenishing it.
Let’s move forward into our new normal remembering this – it’s ok to rest when we need it, not just when we “earn” it. It’s ok to say no to things that aren’t priorities and drain us. “I don’t have the time for this” is an oft-used and accepted reason for not doing something. It should be equally valid and accepted to say “I don’t have the mental/emotional/physical energy for this.”
The things that drain and replenish energy are different for everyone. Certain foods, workouts, people, projects, and so on all can either energize or drain us. So let’s try to identify those things for ourselves and make sure that time management goes hand in hand with energy management. (By the way, for me, acupuncture is key for my energy management).
The world, and all of us, have been forever changed by our experience of the pandemic. I hope that these lessons are an enduring part of that change.