The pandemic has brought a grand reckoning to almost every element of our lives, but the one I’d like to focus on here is how it has forced us to figure out what to do when we might feel there is nothing to do. In fact, if you can ignore for a moment the various medical and economic catastrophes the coronavirus has brought us, there was a window of time during the beginning of all this where everyone I knew who had not been personally affected by illness or loss of work was weirdly enjoying themselves. Children were home for dinner every night, there was suddenly plenty of time for gardening and home improvements and other projects that had been pushed off by the demands of normal life, and my neighborhood suddenly looked like we were living in the 1980s – families outside, riding bicycles and driving remote control cars and (brace yourself) playing in the yard!
Over time, though, that changed. The novelty of yardwork and idle evenings reading another book started to fade, and even my friends’ teenagers got sick of playing video games all the time. In a weird way, it very much mirrored what happens to a lot of us when we retire – the first few weeks or months are novel and great, and then the itch to “do something” starts to grow.
But what to do?
This is a not an idle problem. Filling our lives with meaningful interactions and activities is directly related to how happy and fulfilled we are. So if you’re struggling to figure out what to do when most of your normal things have been disrupted or taken away from you, here are a few ideas.
Quit Your Typical Go-To Behaviors
All of us have a small set of things we automatically turn to whenever we have a few idle minutes to spare – scrolling through our phones, watching a TV show, cleaning the house, etc. One of mine is playing chess online, which takes no more than 20 minutes and makes me feel like I’m using my brain a little. The problem is, our go-to activities are enjoyable for short periods of time only, not for extended stretches of inactivity. Keeping up with the news is fine for 10 minutes when you wake up, but it’s not as enjoyable or healthy if you find yourself doing it 16 times throughout the course of the day. So pick the things you’re wasting too much time on, and get rid of them. In my case, I found that I was playing chess for over an hour every night, not always enjoying it, and certainly not playing each game with the level of concentration necessary to improve myself, so I uninstalled my chess app. The only problem is….
Replace Your Old Activities With New Ones
…you can re-install an app in about 14 seconds. Which I have done probably 25 times in the last 3 months. I’ll get sick of playing chess, stop for a few days, have an idle hour to myself, not have anything else to do, re-install the app, and now I’m right back where I started. The key for me – and you as well if you’re stuck in the same place I am – is to find new, better, or at least different activities to sustain you during your more-than-average downtime.
And now you might be asking, “Fine. I’ll uninstall one app and install a different one. But I’ll just get bored with that one soon too. So how exactly is this any better?” And you’re right. It isn’t. Because there’s one last important piece to understand here.
Recognize That More Downtime Requires A Different Kind of Activity
Certain things, like pretty much everything I’ve mentioned above, are great to keep you occupied for 5 minutes here and there. But when the amount of free time you have has drastically increased, you need activities that require a greater input of time and energy. This is the fundamental difference between entertainments and hobbies – entertainments keep us occupied for an hour or two, and hobbies keep us engaged for months and years. If you’re suddenly flush with more time than you know what to do with, then you need activities robust enough to fill all that time with something you can consistently enjoy. Learning a language, practicing an instrument, taking up cooking, making short videos, building an organic garden – the list is endless, but the key is that it is a fundamentally different list than the collection of things we do with our ordinarily small amounts of free time.
We use different forms of communication for different purposes – texting for short thoughts, phone calls for longer conversations. Sometimes we forget this and get into endless text exchanges that annoy us and could have been avoided if we’d just picked up the stupid phone and talked in complete sentences for 3 minutes. In much the same way, different activities serve different ends. For many of us, the pandemic has changed the nature of our downtime, which means it requires us to change the nature of the way we approach that downtime. If we fail to do so, we end up scrolling through social media feeds for an hour every night and feeling like we’re just wasting our lives.
I hope this gets you thinking about how you can improve some key behaviors while you still have excess downtime. I also hope it prepares you for retirement, whenever that comes, because the challenge there is surprisingly similar. And I also hope you can help me figure out how to permanently uninstall that stupid chess app and prevent me from downloading it again. I keep thinking I’ll eventually get better, and I never do….