“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
My long-time favourite quote (I’m a total LOTR fanboy) feels more poignant now than ever. Its message is being shoved down our throats and sent running through our daily lives by COVID-19 and the lockdowns it’s imposed upon us.
The entire world has been forced to stay at home and ask to essentially, do nothing. 16 hours a day, every day. For many of us, the fabric of our existence has been taken, and our days are now empty for the foreseeable future.
It seems to me that this is a huge opportunity to transform our lives for the better, if we’re deliberate with this time we’ve been reluctantly granted. In many ways, we can emerge from lockdown a better version of ourselves than when we entered.
How, you ask? Well, I’ve got some ideas.
Stoicism is a philosophy originating in ancient Greece. The foundation of it’s teaching is that no good comes of worrying about things that we cannot affect. We should instead focus our attention on things that we can affect and control, such as our thoughts and feelings about external events, and of course, our actions and behaviours.
When I apply this philosophy to the current situation it leads me to these conclusions:
I’d strongly recommend diving deeper into Stoicism, it has guided the way I live my life since I first read On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. The Daily Stoic is a great resource to learn more about the philosophy.
After all, there’s not anyone else around at the moment!
I think deep self-awareness is one of the most powerful life hacks available. Knowing who you fundamentally are will serve you in so many ways throughout your life.
Getting to know yourself requires you spend a lot of time alone with your own thoughts, without distraction in all the forms it comes. Be that from other people, or through the internet. This allows you to truly understand how you think and feel. You need to think about how you think and feel how you feel as purely as possible.
There are many tried and true ways to inspire this deep introspection, which can all be explored during lockdown.
Meditation is all the rage at the moment. We’re continually encouraged to integrate it as a daily habit, something I’ve personally fought with for a few years now. I’ll save the sales pitch for the experts over at Headspace, and encourage you to sign up for their 2-week free trial. 5 minutes a day, what’s the worst that can happen?
Yes the internet is the only way you have of connecting with your friends right now but, besides that particular use, it’s a pretty terrible place to be at the moment, and perhaps always. At a minimum, it designed by the brightest minds in Silicon valley to strip us of dopamine, and at it’s worst (such as now) the media use it to manipulate our thoughts and actions (or lack of) to serve their agendas, usually through spreading fear and hate.
A digital detox is exactly what it sounds like. It means removing yourself from the digital world for a defined period of time. That means no TV, laptop, or phone, typically for at least 3 days. Since there really is not a lot going on anyway, this would be a great time to undertake one.
The motivation for carrying out a digital detox is for you to understand how the digital world affects your well-being and to highlight your dependence upon it. You will likely find it extremely uncomfortable to be without your phone. Ask yourself where this discomfort comes from. What is it that you don’t like? Would your life be better without it, or at least with less of it? These questions are well worth pondering.
If you want to take this to the next level, you could create your own mini-vipassana retreat. These are often also referred to as silent retreats. They essentially mean doing absolutely nothing (aka meditating) all day every day for the duration of the retreat. Typically they’re 10 days in length, but you could easily curate your own version over a few days instead. This article gives an amazing insight into a typical retreat and what you might get out of it.
This is another great way to understand yourself and how your mind works. One of the most popular approaches to journaling in recent times is a method called Morning Pages.
Morning Pages are 3 hand-written pages completed every morning. Write about every single thing that enters your mind while the pen is in your hand, the idea being that once you put thoughts down onto paper you can reflect on them and ultimately let them go. Often these thoughts are negative, which is totally fine! You can see this act as purging yourself of them. I particularly love Chris Winfield’s approach which adds a little more structure and positivity.
This is a concept I first heard of in a talk by Jonny Miller, I later discovered there are many other versions all over the internet. The idea as I see it is to create a guide for yourself about how you function best. There are various approaches to personal user manuals, but I think it’s best question to answer with one is “how should my days look so that I feel the best at the end of each one, full of positive feelings, fulfillment, and good health?”
A few core elements to ponder for inclusion in your user manual:
This user manual will in itself take some heavy introspection, and should be constantly reviewed and refined once it’s in place. It’s also important to note this should be personal to you, not just what society tells you about how you should spend your days.
Of all the aspects of your life, your physiological health is the one place where you can guarantee progress during this pandemic, if you stay corona-free of course.
Restaurants and bars are closed, which are perhaps the biggest purveyors of ill health in our lives. You have total control of what goes into your body and no social obligations to lead you astray. There really are no excuses for eating poorly.
Take this opportunity to toy with specific diets that otherwise might have been hard to follow, such as Slow Carb. You can use MyFitnessPal to track the calories and macronutrients you’re consuming. You may also want to explore intermittent fasting, which has plenty of scientifically proven health benefits. Zero makes fasting easy to track and is also a great educational resource.
Everybody’s favourite excuse for not working out is they don’t have the time. Well, now you do! There are a million workouts you can do from home, and many home workout apps have made their programs free while we’re in lockdown (try this one).
If you’re not a fitness fanatic, start slow and focus on making a little bit of deliberate progress every day. This goes for both increasing your strength and your cardio. One more push up than yesterday, 5 extra minutes of running. Greasing the groove is an excellent way to slowly but deliberately get stronger. It’s a method that encourages you to spread out your strength work throughout the day. 5 push-ups every hour, for example. This minimizes the soreness you feel the next day, which allows you to do more push-ups in a week than if you’d pushed yourself to failure in a shorter period of time, putting yourself out of action for several days because you can’t move.
For both cardio and strength workouts, measuring your progress is key for motivation, and serves as something tangible that you can be proud of achieving during quarantine.
Many of the behaviors I’ve already mentioned can be developed into daily habits, and by many people’s reckoning are cornerstones of self-improvement. If you want to develop these into regular habits it’s important not to stretch yourself too far, don’t try to integrate them all at once.
Try a new habit for a couple of weeks and see how it feels, and start small! If it’s meditation, try 5 minutes every morning. If it’s healthy eating, try cutting out sugary drinks and replacing them with fruit. And don’t put yourself down for missing a day (after all, it’s not a habit yet!), but try not to miss two.
If you want more guidance on how to develop good habits, and insight into those that will be most transformative for your life, check out Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Now is your opportunity to learn all those things that you wanted to but “never had the time”. If you have a growth mindset, you’ll know that our capabilities aren’t fixed. Sure, for some people certain things come easier than for others, but we can all develop our proficiency in just about anything if we put deliberate effort against it.
This can be as simple as juggling, a handstand, or the splits. Or something more challenging and ultimately useful like learning an instrument, a new language, or a digital skill that could provide you a new career path.
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” - Annie Dillard
This pandemic has given us the opportunity to pause and reflect on our days. Are you happy with how you’ve been spending yours? If you continued spending them the way you have been, where would they lead you. What ladder are you climbing? Are you sure it’s propped up against a worthy wall, so that when you reach the top you end up somewhere worthwhile?
If the answers to these questions concern you, take the time to reflect on how you can change your days and the path they’re leading you down. And if you’re happy with your direction, think about what you can do to make sure you don’t get lead astray.
A huge opportunity has landed in your lap. A chance to reflect, reset, and kickstart a life you can be proud of. Will you resign yourself to endless consumption of Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, and Tinder, or will you make the most out of the new time that is given to you?