Though it seems quaint now, there was a time when I longed for nothing to do. Back before the world slowed to a halt, my calendar resembled that of nearly every overscheduled working parent: deadlines, errands, play dates, sporting events, dinner parties, networking lunches, out of town vacations, and the occasional date night with my husband. Time flew by, day after day, and on more than one occasion I whined that I needed a break—a couple weeks off with nothing to do and nowhere to go sounded heavenly.
In March, I got my wish. Schools closed. Play dates were canceled. Nights out with my husband were replaced by Netflix and parties transitioned to Zoom. Fueled by the persistent fear that any piece of mail or grocery item I touched could potentially kill me, my anxiety kept me busy during those early pandemic months. Instead of filling my days with places to go and people to see, I maintained an active schedule of doom scrolling, homeschooling, and crying jags.
But now, months later, many of us are trying to ease into this weird new normal. We understand enough about COVID-19 to know what we should do (wash our hands, wear masks, socially distance), as well as what we should not (Clorox our mail, leave groceries outside, hoard personal protective equipment).
My anxiety has tapered, but in its place is a persistent funk. My formerly jam-packed day planner is now a book of blank pages. For the first time in decades, I have no plans to visit my out-of-state parents. Even as I feel lucky to be able to stay safe at home, and have a home to stay safe in, I am faced with a glut of nothingness. Instead of the well-rested calm that I always assumed would come with such a break, I feel antsy and depressed. I don’t know how to function when there is nothing new—and nothing to do—on the horizon.
Apparently, this sense of melancholy is not only normal, it’s to be expected. In a book he coauthored, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says humans’ innate desire to forge plans, contemplate upcoming events, and imagine possibilities differentiates us from other species. We humans are forward thinkers, the authors write in Homo Prospectus. Thus, the sadness I feel when I think about the gloomy winter months ahead is hardwired in my brain.
We have a need to experience positive emotions by thinking about what comes next, says Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, founder and CEO of The Flourishing Center, a positive psychology training center in New York City.
“When you have a time frame on something, you have perceived locus of control and you can push yourself to do tough things, because there’s an end in mind,” she says. “With something like COVID, there’s no end in mind.”
So, what is your average overworked, exhausted person supposed to do? How does a forward thinker pull through and remain optimistic?
“When we’re in a situation that’s uncertain, one of the things that I recommend doing is to focus on what you can control,” says Jenny Brennan, founder of the Boston-based management consulting firm Ardent Wellbeing. “And one of the things that we can control is our perspective.”
The trick, Brennan says, is not to think about what we can’t do in the coming months, but what we can do with the time we have.
“In the pre-COVID era, were there things you wished you had more time to do?” she says. “Now maybe you’re not commuting an hour each way, so you find yourself [having] more time. How do you want to spend it?”
Brennan encourages smaller goals. Winter will be hard enough without feeling as though you have to learn a new language or read that classic novel you never finished in college. If you have extra time, perhaps use it to enjoy longer meals with your family, dedicate 15 minutes a day to journaling, or do a short meditation.
Personally, I’ve never been one to meditate—my mind can’t seem to slow down long enough for me to feel that sense of serenity that supposedly comes from a regular practice. But by reframing my attention and focusing on how I want to use the time ahead, rather than ruminating on all that has been canceled, I can already feel my spirits picking up. From baking treats with my son to getting outside for cold-weather walks, I’m excited to do some of the things I always wanted to do more of before the pandemic upended our lives.
I know, though, that there will be moments when the lack of planned events will get the better of me again. The important thing, then, is to just accept that this is, for now, simply how things are.
“It’s so easy to get down on ourselves, to feel like we should be doing better,” says Dr. Jonah Paquette, author of Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected. “Having a degree of self-kindness is key during a time like this.”
Even after the pandemic has ended, life will remain a combination of the good and the bad, of both joy and pain, Paquette says. But we have the power to focus on the things that we can control, even when the world has gone haywire.
I hope that by shifting my perspective and treating myself with more self-care, I can shake off this funk long enough to get through the winter months ahead. With any luck, in a year or so, once all of this is behind us, I’ll even have a daily walking routine under my belt. Assuming, of course, I’m able to fit it into my overscheduled calendar.
Sandra Ebejer is a writer in Latham, New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.