In a world reshaped by the pandemic, we’ve all learned to make adjustments and create new routines to take care of ourselves and be productive. But things are about to get a little harder.
As we slide into our first pandemic winter, many of the outlets we’ve turned to for relief, connection, and joy will become less accessible. Socially distanced meetups, outdoor exercise, open-air dining—it’s all a little more complicated when the temperature drops.
Mental health experts warn that winter during the coronavirus pandemic will pose some unique challenges. Seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that occurs in the winter months, affects an average of at least 5% of American adults even before you take COVID-19 into account. With the ongoing global health crisis, experts predict even more people will struggle.
But by getting creative, you can take care of yourself and also stay inspired, connected, and productive. At Thrive Global, where I’m Head of Content Development, we recommend microsteps: small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life. We’ll be sharing hundreds of them in our forthcoming book, Your Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-Being, and Unlock Your Full Potential With the New Science of Microsteps, which will be published by Hachette Go in March 2021.
The challenges are interconnected, and so are the solutions. When you take microsteps that support your well-being in your personal life, you’re also making an investment in yourself that helps you stay motivated and be more successful at work. (If you’re stressed out of your mind, you’re not going to be as productive!)
Here are nine microsteps you can take to help you fend off loneliness, find motivation, and prioritize your well-being despite the wintry challenges ahead.
Loneliness, isolation, and the attendant mental health challenges have been major byproducts of the pandemic. For the 35.7 million Americans who live alone, the prospect of a lonely winter may seem particularly bleak. Social connectedness is tied to both our physical and mental health; when we interact and engage with others we experience less stress, more happiness, a stronger immune system, higher motivation to take care of ourselves, and even improved memory and cognitive skills.
It takes a little creativity, but we can start taking small steps to maintain and strengthen our relationships—with both personal and professional benefits.
Microstep 1: Start a Group Text With Friends
Science shows there’s power in consistent kinship, even if it’s a simple daily “thinking of you” message. Send that silly photo you took of your dog to your college friends or reach out to your old trivia crew when you come across something that reminds you of those geography rounds that always seemed to be your team’s downfall. Remind your friends you care, and they’ll remind you back.
Microstep 2: Schedule a Virtual Coffee Break With a Friend
Social isolation can have powerful negative effects on your health, but spending time with others—even virtually—helps you stay connected. So when you’re feeling lonely, put a remote coffee date or catch-up session on the calendar. Or do it preemptively, before you start feeling isolated.
Microstep 3: Ask Someone What They’re Doing to Take Care of Themselves and Stay Connected to Loved Ones
Social distancing can make us feel further apart, not just physically but emotionally. Bridge the distance with this simple question—you might learn something, or find you have something in common.
Establish Habits That Keep You Motivated and Productive
Those of us who thought working from home would lift us to new heights of productivity, focus, and accomplishment—well, we know how that turned out. Sure, working from home has its perks (goodbye, stressful commute!). But without the guardrails of going into the office and coming home, we’ve found ourselves in a world of boundaryless permawork—with longer days and more meetings—and are dealing with the burnout that comes with it. Our days are filled with back-to-back Zoom calls, little or no in-person interaction with coworkers, and more distractions at home from partners, kids, pets, and that pile of clothes we absolutely must sort before turning to our next work task.
Even though we’re doing more, it can feel like we’re getting less done. The endless distractions, coupled with the stress and uncertainty around the pandemic, make it really hard to stay motivated and productive. And it’s not some kind of personal failure, it’s because of the way our brains are wired. The brain’s prefrontal cortex—responsible for critical thinking, decision making, and focus—actually shuts down during times of stress and uncertainty, and the more impulsive, reactive parts take over. According to Amy Arnsten, a neuroscience and psychology professor at Yale, the ongoing danger of the virus can cause a cycle of stress responses that make it hard to concentrate and find motivation, which isn’t exactly a boon for our productivity.
Whether we’re working from home or going to an office this winter, these microsteps are great for making the most of our time and doing our best work. (And you can read more here about working from home without working all the time.)
Microstep 4: Every Morning, Write Down the Top Three Things You Want to Accomplish That Day
Relentless prioritization is more critical than ever. Give yourself structure and clarity by focusing on three objectives every day—and when they’re done, you can declare an end to your workday, knowing you’ll come back tomorrow recharged.
Microstep 5: Switch One Video Meeting to a Phone Call Each Day
Research has found that the sustained concentration required in video meetings means back-to-back Zoom calls will quickly tire you out and add stress to your day. Swapping one out for a phone call will give your eyes a break, and you can even pair the screen-free chat with a short walk around the neighborhood (or just around your room) to introduce movement into your day. (Looking for some other alternatives to video meetings? You can find several more here.)
Microstep 6: Do a Time Audit
At the end of the day, take two minutes to reflect on how you spent your time on work, family, household, and yourself. This exercise is an eye-opening way to look at your use of time and how you might make small improvements.
When I did my own time audit, I realized that my habit of starting each morning by looking at my phone right when I woke up was taking a serious toll. I never liked the feeling I got when I did this, but when the pandemic hit, I realized I was experiencing a palpable spike of anxiety each morning—a shortness of breath that took hours to go away. I was starting the day focused on what was important to others or going down a rabbit hole of stressful news, rather than focusing on what I wanted out of my day.
So I vowed to not check my phone for at least one minute after waking (see…micro!). Instead, I decided I would take a few deep breaths and set my intentions for the day, and maybe even wait until I’d taken a shower to unlock my phone. Those quiet moments have become a calm respite for me (no more daily anxiety spike), allowing some creative work ideas to bubble to the surface. And the benefits carry over into the rest of my day in the way I interact with colleagues and what I choose to prioritize.
Make Sure You’re Not Forsaking Self-Care—and Fun!
We can’t do our best work if we don’t take care of ourselves. This might sound obvious, until you consider how our collective definition of success is pretty much synonymous with sacrificing our well-being, celebrating hustle culture and burnout, and generally running ourselves into the ground. But this approach to success wasn’t working before the pandemic, and it definitely isn’t working now.
So by all means, work hard, chase your ambitions, and be grateful for your opportunities. And know that when you prioritize self-care, you’re not stepping away from your goals—you’re fueling yourself so you can get where you want to go.
Microstep 7: Set Time on Your Calendar to Focus on Small Passions Each Week
Make some time in your schedule to do something you love, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And stick to it. You wouldn’t miss an important meeting or doctor’s appointment, so treat this time with the same respect. You’ll begin to build the muscle of prioritizing the things that bring you joy.
Play an instrument, paint, write poetry, pull out your favorite video game, try a new recipe, look at the stars—whatever it is that fills you with joy or purpose, or both. You might feel at first like you’re being bad—taking a few minutes for yourself, the horror! But in fact, studies show that pursuing passions outside your work can have benefits for your personal life and your career. (Read more about finding a hobby you love here.)
Microstep 8: Identify One Source of Negative Stress in Your Day
Before you can solve a problem, you have to name it. Pinpoint just one experience or scenario in your daily life that routinely creates negative stress. Interactions with a certain person? A moment in your day that always seems to be rushed and unpleasant? Once you recognize a pattern, you can begin to take steps to prevent stress from becoming cumulative and unmanageable—like taking a few breaths to reset, clarifying expectations with your colleague whose meetings tend to stress you out, or rearranging your schedule to smooth stressful transitions.
Microstep 9: Do One Small Thing Each Morning That Brings You Joy
How you begin your day can set the tone for the rest of it—so make a conscious effort to do something that will start you off right. It might be meditating, walking, reading while you drink your coffee, making a breakfast you love, or trading stories about weird dreams with your kids. From this foundation, you’ll build up strength and resilience for the rest of your day—and the rest of this unusual winter.