I had big dreams and aspirations for 2020 — quarantines and dingleberries weren’t part of them. But alas, here we are.
As tough as this time is, we can shift our mindsets to find positives in this situation and come out of these tribulations wiser than when we entered. We can’t end the lockdowns, but we can learn to cherish aspects of them.
Take social distancing, for example. For centuries, wise men and women sought periods of isolation because they encourage refined thinking and breakthroughs on difficult problems. Books such as Peak and Deep Work, explain in detail how such experiences allow us to maximize our potential. Countless innovators such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Steve Jobs had deep respect for silence and solitude for exactly these reasons. In fact, Isaac Newton came up with most of his key ideas during a 2 year period he spent alone while he was avoiding the plague.
Today, we find ourselves in a situation similar to Newton as we’ve been forced into an involuntary refuge from society. In this article, we’ll explore some of the actions that you can take to make the most of this episode.
Before diving into the specific recommendations of what you can do during lockdown, I’d recommend that you think for yourself about what you’d like to accomplish over the next month(s). Since we don’t know how long we’ll be quarantined for, it’s smart to set monthly goals and then break them down into pieces that can be accomplished each week and each day.
Think carefully about what your environment is good for. If you’ve moved back in with your parents, maybe one of your goals is to spend quality time with them and thus you set up a time for dinner with them each night. If you’re living with your roommate, maybe one of your goals is to address some of the unaddressed, underlying frustrations that you’ve been feeling.
Of course, you don’t have to only think about personal relationships. If you’re able to carve out time by yourself, you can focus on picking up skills that require long stretches of concentration. If you’ve always wanted to start a blog, learn how to play an instrument, or learn a new language, now is a great time.
Set aside work sessions each day as a part of your schedule to make progress on these goals. During these sessions, put your phone on airplane mode, have the to do list for that session open in front of you, and set timers to keep you moving. I personally log all of this information in a Google doc that looks like this:
Weds, 3/18/20 (Session #1)
- Pre-Session Ritual:
- Goals of Session (will this stretch me beyond my current abilities? Will this be uncomfortable?):
- Write first draft for article [1.5 hours]
- Motivation for Session:
- Provide people with valuable ideas and strategies for using the lockdown productively
- The Environment:
- The Time Block:
As you can see, each work session has a specific goal(s), motivation, and time block. This is super helpful because it reminds you why you’re doing the work you’re doing and it also allows you to reflect at the end of every week or month to see how you actually spent your time.
Now, let’s move onto a couple of specific recommendations for actions you can take during lockdown.
Learn a New Language
On May 1st, I was supposed to be sipping on caipirinhas and chatting up super models (and, uh, working remote) in Brazil. Instead, I’ll be doing my parents’ dishes in New Jersey.
While this sounds like a Android to iPhone sized downgrade, I actually now have the chance to learn Portuguese so that when I do head to Brazil, I’ll be able to experience so much more.
After spending hours researching different language learning methods, it became clear that Fluent Forever is deemed to be one of the most effective techniques. I downloaded the app and was wonderfully surprised — it’s more fun than playing video games. Now, when I have a few minutes free between meetings, I fire it up and fall into a blissful pit of Portuguese ignorance.
If your travel plans are on hold and you’ve been spending a little too much time on Netflix, I really recommend learning a new language. It’s fun and will amplify your trips when you are actually able to take them.
Learn to Meditate
Meditation retreats are often silent and urge their practitioners to seek isolation. The clear similarities between this meditation environment and what we’re currently experiencing make me believe that this is a great time to begin meditating for those that are interested in it. Not only is the environment conducive to it, but it’ll also help manage the stress of the current situation with all of its uncertainties.
At this point you may be asking, why do meditation retreats prevent their participants from reading, writing, and speaking for 10 days? Here’s a passage from Spirit Rock, a reputable center, that answers this question:
“Retreatants can better stay with their own present experience as it unfolds, moment to moment. In this silent and mindful environment, awareness sharpens, the body quiets, the mind clears, and space opens for insight and understanding to develop.
With no diversions there is nothing to distract us. Since there is no place to hide from ourselves, there is a good possibility that we will know ourselves better after a retreat than we did before. Self-knowledge and understanding grow as we see that we can live each moment either with inattention, fear and judgment, or with clarity, kindness and wakefulness. By cultivating the power of awareness, clarity and kindness, we discover our path to liberation, inner freedom and a peaceful heart.”
After personally sitting 3 such retreats and meditating for ~45 minutes per day for 6 years, I can testify that, as this passage explains, silence is essential to introspection. Although we won’t find the silence that retreats provide during this time (as we must continue to respond to work calls, spend time on our computers, etc.), we can use the time saved from no commute and no social plans to turn off our TVs and learn meditation. If you’re not sure how to start, take a look at Waking Up by Sam Harris, 10% Happier, or online courses from Spirit Rock. You can also check out Joseph Goldstein’s meditations and books by Job Kabat-Zinn or Jack Kornfield.
As you begin to practice, you may find it hard to practice consistently, which is totally normal. Therefore, I recommend adding it to a routine that already exists. For example, if your morning routine looks like this: (1) wake up (2) shower (3) have coffee, try changing it to (1) wake up (2) shower (3) meditate (4) have coffee. It’s easier to add a new phase to an existing routine than create one from scratch.
Reflect and Gain Clarity
Some readers may not struggle with this, but I had always felt that my thinking and behavior was overwhelmingly influenced by others until I spent 8 months alone studying and working remotely 2 years ago. For the first time in my life, I found myself without the influence of others’ opinions and judgements and this allowed me to set on a path of self-exploration.
One of the best books that I read during this time was The Art Spirit (recommended by Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter), which taught me that artists thrived off of isolation because it allows you to carve out original thoughts. Here’s a passage that stuck with me from the book:
“But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd… Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them.”Robert Henri, The Art of Spirit
“The work of the art student is no light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through. You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone. But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this. If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.… Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them.”
The author, Robert Henri, points out in this passage that embracing solitude is not easy, but it allows you to understand yourself and break away from the mainstream beliefs of the crowd. Just like meditation, this practice requires relatively long periods of silence to develop.
During my 8 month period of isolation, one practice that I found extremely helpful was to turn off my phone (no distractions), take out a notebook, and choose an idea or a belief to contemplate. I’d then write down this belief or idea at the top of the page and set a timer for 15-45 minutes (it’s better to start with shorter blocks). For that period, I’d debate the belief/idea by writing arguments for and against it. For example, you could write on the top of the page Higher Taxes and then write out the different consequences of this policy along with their positives/negatives. It gets really fascinating when you get to third and fourth order consequences (i.e. higher taxes could lead to companies leaving the country which could lead to … which could lead to ….). I’d encourage you to do this with your most firmly held beliefs as you may, for the first time, fully consider arguments against them. You can also use this time to look at personal problems or relationships from different angles as you may gain some new insight there.
If you live in a busy city, this is an especially valuable time as it’s normally even harder to find your own voice with all of the noise around you. As Robert Henri says:
“In the cities… there is usually too little time to think matters through. Most things are skimmed, and people often believe they are doing quite a good deal themselves when they are only being jostled by others.”
This change will not be easy, but once you practice the ability to concentrate on fascinating ideas for periods of time, you’ll find yourself in a place of wonder.
Learn to Code
While coding isn’t introspective like the aforementioned activities, it does require long periods of silence and concentration. Furthermore, with many people dealing with layoffs and difficulties at work, it may make sense to use this time to develop a skill that will be extremely valuable for your career. People are often too intimidated by coding and computer science — it isn’t as hard as you’d think (I’m a Software Engineer at PayPal). In fact, I’m confident that within 6-12 months of serious practice, most people could land software engineering jobs at great companies.
If you’re just getting started, check out the online courses offered by Lamda School, App Academy, Flatiron School, or General Assembly. Alternatively, you can check out Udemy or CodeAcademy, but these are more self-taught and thus require more self discipline.
The Time is Now
We all know how hard this time can be, but I truly believe that we could look back at this period as a blessing in disguise. Let me know if any of these tips were useful and feel free to send me any feedback that you have!