The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it, as well as how we manage our households. While being shut mostly in our homes or observing infection prevention guidelines when leaving our house, it can be pretty hard to grapple with the reality of the world in which we now live. And yet, this is what we must all do to survive and thrive in this new abnormal.
Same Home, Different House Rules?
Susan, an entrepreneur and coaching client of mine, had a difficult time adjusting to the COVID-19 reality. As the founder of a 20-people startup in the medical devices industry, she was used to a routine and thrived by keeping her work life separate from her personal life. She also considered herself to be resilient and organized and thought she would just be coasting until the pandemic was over.
By late March, she had already figured out how wrong she was.
As she watched and read the news on how the pandemic was unfolding, Susan started to realize that things might not be going back to the way it was before anytime soon.
Accompanying this uncomfortable feeling was the fact that she could not seem to craft a new routine while working from home. She found it difficult to concentrate on work while also spending more time with her nine-year-old child, who was staying home from school.
In addition, her relationship with her husband – which for the most part had always been loving and easygoing – had started to become tense. Her husband was the main homemaker and caretaker of their child while she worked at an office. However, the pandemic changed that, and she found herself having to interact more with her husband and her child, who would pop in and out of her work space during work hours.
Susan reached out to me because she felt that she was not adapting well to the situations surrounding the pandemic as she had started to become curt with her child and her husband, who was also dealing with his own set of worries over an elderly parent in a nursing home. Aside from these, she was also unable to concentrate on her startup due to all the household interruptions.
Knowing and Facing This New Abnormal
When I met with Susan over Zoom – by this time I had already moved my previously hybrid in-person and virtual coaching to all virtual – I told her that there were some essential points that she needed to understand in order to adjust to the new COVID-19 reality.
First and foremost, we won’t get anywhere if we don’t face the facts. We need to acknowledge that COVID-19 fundamentally disrupted our world, turning it upside down in a few short weeks in February and March 2020. We have to move past the discomfort of the normalcy bias and our intuitive feeling that the novel coronavirus “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” to quote Donald Trump’s words from a February 28 press conference.
Regrettably, it will not disappear; believing that it will helped get us mired so deep in this mess, making the US outbreak the worst in the world in terms of the number of deaths. The normalcy bias is one of over a hundred dangerous judgment errors that scholars in cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics like myself call cognitive biases. They result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.
Instead, we need to adapt to the long haul of battling COVID-19, at least until we create an effective vaccine, mass produce and distribute it, and actually vaccinate people. Optimistically, that will be in early 2022; more realistically, 2024-25; pessimistically, we’d never get an effective vaccine, for instance making do with weak versions that prevent 50% of all infections. If you think that’s too cynical, you may not realize that, despite facing the flu for over a century, our vaccine for it is still only about 50% effective.
Prior to a vaccine, we will be coping with COVID-19 through extreme measures such as thorough lockdowns and extensive social distancing in areas with outbreaks that don’t have the capacity and/or the political will to do the public health work that enables less extraordinary measures. That public health work involves not only providing the equipment, medications, and personnel needed to treat a surge of patients during outbreaks: that’s necessary, but not sufficient.
To relax extreme measures requires the public health work of quickly testing those with flu-like symptoms, isolating anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracing anyone they interacted with and asking those people to self-quarantine for 2 weeks, and using antibody testing to certify those who recovered from COVID-19 and are at least temporarily protected from re-infection to work in exposed areas. It also requires public education work of getting people to comply with social distancing, wear
masks, minimize unnecessary social contacts, impose social peer pressure on noncompliers, and more broadly follow public health guidelines and support health workers.
Given that reality, you can anticipate that what will happen will be as follows: 1) Extreme lockdowns and social distancing to bring COVID-19 under control in a given area; 2) In a few weeks, a gradual loosening of some restrictions after COVID-19 cases fall to a minimal number; 3) After a few weeks or – if you’re lucky – several months, COVID-19 cases will start to grow and the regional government will impose another round of extreme measures. Such whack-a-mole waves of loosening and tightening restrictions will continue until we find a vaccine.
Survive and Thrive in the Pandemic
So how can you most effectively adapt to the uncertainty and dislocation that accompanies this new abnormal?
While you’re in a new abnormal, your underlying needs and wants remain the same. You just need to figure out different ways toward satisfying them. These ways should rely much less on interacting in-person with people who aren’t part of your immediate household and much more with those who are;
they should also rely much less on travel, whether in your local area or around the globe, and much more on staying at home.
You might have heard of Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation and the pyramid of needs based on his work. More recent research, summarized in Scott Barry Kaufman’s excellent book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, revises this model to show that our fundamental needs consist of safety, connection, and self-esteem, and we will feel deprived without them. We also have needs that help us achieve our full potential through personal growth, what Maslow called “self- actualization” and what Kaufman more clearly defined as exploration, love, and purpose. A good approach to adapting to the new abnormal is evaluating your life through the lens of these needs and ensuring that you can still satisfy them.
Let’s start with physical safety. You should make sure you and your family are able to stay safe in your home for up to 2 months in case of a major outbreak in your area, let’s say as bad as happened in New York City. While unlikely, it pays to prepare for a realistic pessimistic scenario. That means having 2 months of basic food and cleaning supplies, along with any necessary medications.
Notice that 2 months is much more than the paltry 2 weeks recommended by the CDC, a far too optimistic guideline that fails to provide sufficient safety.
To prevent supply disruptions for others, consider buying such goods in bulk from specialized online vendors rather than emptying the shelves in your local grocery store. It’s both more responsible and cheaper.
Going back to Susan, she realized that when the pandemic hit, she had focused on transitioning her work to a virtual setup and not much else. Days into the lockdown, she realized that she and her husband had missed stocking up on food, and also lacked the necessary cleaning and medical supplies.
Another dilemma was that despite both of them being willing to cook more, their work lives were as hectic as when it was still on site – with Susan working on her startup and her husband having his hands full taking care of their child – and so they also didn’t have as much free time. Susan decided to order everything online, from groceries to medicine. She was also able to find a prepared foods vendor that can deliver cooked food to her home daily.
Connection to Others
Protecting your mental safety brings us to the second fundamental need: connection to others. It’s a topic I describe in much more depth in my best-seller, The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships.
First, consider your immediate connections with members of the household.
If you have a romantic partner in your household, you’ll have to figure out how to interact in a healthy manner given that you’re together 24/7. You’ll likely get into each other’s spaces and on each other’s nerves. It’s much wiser to anticipate and work out these problems in advance than have them blow up down the road. The same principle applies to other members of your family. If you have older children who moved home after university closed, or younger children who aren’t going to school after it closed, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with them being cooped up inside. This includes staying in touch with their schools to get updates on online school work.
You’ll have to put more thought into dealing with older adults over 60 or anyone with underlying
health conditions in your household (including yourself if you fit either category). Given their much greater vulnerability to COVID-19, you and other members of your household need to take serious measures to prevent them from getting ill. That means being more careful yourself than you would otherwise be, since over half of all those with COVID-19 have no or light symptoms. Remember: don’t kill Grandma. And don’t let other members of your household kill Grandma.
Second, what about your connection to those who you care about who aren’t part of your household?
Your romantic partner might not be part of your household. Depending on how vulnerable to COVID-19 you and other members of your household might be, you might choose to take the risk of physical intimacy with your romantic partner, but you have to make this decision consciously rather than casually. Or you might choose to have a social-distance relationship, meeting at a distance of 10 feet or by videoconference.
The same goes for your friends. You can’t have a beer with them or meet for lunch in person, at least closer than 6 feet, and ideally 10. You’ll need to figure out effective ways of interacting with them virtually during this difficult time of the next several years, combined with socially distanced hanging out when possible, given restrictions and lockdowns.
You’ll also want to think about how you’ll revise your community activities: faith-based groups, clubs, nonprofit activism, and so on. For instance, you should definitely avoid church services for now, but fortunately many churches offer video worship services, and that will have to do. You can take the lead in your club on moving to video conference meetings. You will have to figure out how to replace your in- person volunteering, perhaps with virtual volunteering or with donations.
During one of our coaching sessions, Susan said she hadn’t realized how strained her relationship with her husband was until I had pointed out the need for healthy interaction while being together 24/7. After our talk, she sat down with her husband to have a serious conversation about the situation. Together, they decided to stick to their own separate routines, have their own spaces apart (with Susan spending time at her home office and her husband and child spending the days accomplishing school work in the living area), and come together as a family after the workday is done – as they would have before the pandemic – so that they wouldn’t get on each other’s nerves.
Soon after, they also sat down and conversed with their young child regarding COVID-19, remaining calm and simply discussing what they, as a family, needed to do to stay healthy. Due to their reassuring manner, their child expressed more willingness to open up to them about any worries he might have regarding the pandemic.
Susan and her husband also set aside some time during the weekend to reconnect with friends and immediate and extended family. Video calls were a big help in catching up with how their loved ones were doing, and it also brought Susan immense relief to find out that she wasn’t the only one struggling to adjust to the new abnormal.
They were able to schedule video calls with her husband’s father, who was in a nursing home. This helped ease Susan’s husband’s worries, and his improved mood also helped restore their healthy interactions.
Susan and her husband also decided to stick to their pre-pandemic family weekend routine of just relaxing and spending time on personal hobbies, avoiding any work as much as possible.
Finally, address the third fundamental need of self-esteem, which refers to your self-confidence, self-respect, and sense of mastery over your fate. Thinking through and making a plan for addressing your physiological and mental safety and your relationships during the next several years of the pandemic will help you strengthen your sense of control and confidence. You’ll also want to think about other areas where you can further master in this time of restrictions and limitations.
For example, being at home offers a great opportunity to learn an instrument, pick up coding skills, or try to make a viral YouTube video. Doing so is empowering and can help anyone develop a sense of mastery over their environment.
Susan realized that working from home had afforded her an extra hour before dinner (time she used to spend wrapping up for the day at the office and driving home) and decided to take the opportunity to brush up on her guitar skills in the living area. It was the perfect way to transition from work to home mode, and her husband and child often joined her as they wound down their days as well.
Towards the end of our coaching sessions, Susan informed me that she had finally established a balanced work-life routine that suits her and protects her relationships with her loved ones. After facing the facts regarding what lies ahead in this pandemic reality, she was able to make appropriate personal plans and move forward, eventually restoring a healthy interaction with her husband and child. While Susan was satisfied with that state and we did not pursue self-actualization conversations, you can check out Kaufmann’s book to learn more about this area.
While the new abnormal ushered in by COVID-19 has brought unprecedented changes to our lives, there’s no reason you can’t survive and thrive in the new abnormal while we wait for a vaccine. You just need to identify, anticipate, and take care of your fundamental needs.
Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts