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COVID-19 and Unique Opportunities for Personal Growth

When the universe forces us to do things we’ve been meaning to do but kept putting off

May Pang
May Pang
Mar 24 · 16 min read
Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”― John F. Kennedy

No matter who you are, there is no escaping the fact that COVID-19 has changed your life. It’s taken away certainty, freedom, and any sense of normalcy. However, there is no denying that the one thing that this novel Coronavirus has given back to us — is time.

It’s almost as if the universe got sick of all the times it heard us say, “If only I had the time, I would…”

COVID-19 has literally stripped away all non-essential activity and said, “Well, you always said you have no time. Here, I’m giving you all the time in the world! What are you going to do with it!?”

A month ago, if someone had said to us that we would have sixty more hours of free time a week, we would have been overjoyed — our minds brimming with ideas on what we would do with that time. Yet, when the reality has presented itself, we feel strangely helpless.

It’s easy to understand why. It’s because we didn’t choose it. It was chosen for us. But here’s the truth — we would never have chosen it. We had the opportunity our entire lives to choose and we didn’t. We always said, “One day, I will…”

Well, that one day is here. The universe has chosen for you. You have time, whether you want it or not.

Not only do you have time, but you are also no longer forced to wear uncomfortable clothes and endure soul-sucking commutes to work. Social time obligations and pressures to drink and eat unhealthy food have also been conveniently removed. You are even forced to reduce your takeout consumption and exercise outside instead of sitting under artificial fluorescent lighting all day.

In essence, COVID-19 is forcing us to change our habits. We get to decide whether it’s for the better or worse. No one person or event has ever presented such a powerful opportunity to do so. While the architecture of our lives remained our choice and intact, we could never overcome the high activation energy it took to create meaningful change.

“Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential.”
Jeannette Walls

Not only is COVID-19 forcing change, it is forcing change in literally every aspect of our lives — from the way we work, to the way we eat, to the way we socialize, to the way we exercise, and even how we feel. Some of these changes would have been near impossible without the total disruption caused by a global pandemic.

Couched in this drastic change — is opportunity, if only we chose to see it. Here are some of the opportunities for personal growth that would have been a lot harder to do without the unique situation COVID-19 has presented us:

Purpose/Productivity

We never give ourselves permission to do this. We prefer loudly proclaiming that we have no time and proceeding to binge watch Netflix instead.

My boss has always wanted to write a book. But you know what he did in his free time? He played golf. Then he complained about not having time to write his book. Well, he had to cancel his vacation (and golf) because of COVID-19 and finally found the time to write his book. He could have taken vacation time to write his book in the past, but the truth is — nobody does that.

Now that you have all this time and you can’t escape on a vacation — go write that book, start that blog, create that online business. Do you have a skill that might be highly sought after in these times? Maybe you’re a fitness instructor who’s good at creating online content. Maximize on that now.

No one is going to be upset that you can’t attend their party, and you can’t go the basketball game anyway. The best part? You’re guaranteed this time for a minimum of a few weeks, likely many months more.

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No, don’t pick up that chocolate bar! Most people seem to have spontaneously developed a 7 times a day snacking habit since needing to stay at home. Imagine what 7 multiplied by a month (or potentially a few months) will look like.

Indulging our boredom isn’t new. Pre-COVID-19, it was harmless enough. Maybe we scrolled mindlessly on social media for 20 minutes or had a muffin while taking a break from work. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of boredom time we now have.

What if every time you felt like snacking you did ten sit-ups instead? Or learned ten new Spanish words? Or meditated for 10 minutes? Or de-cluttered one part of your house? Imagine what it would look like to do ten sit-ups multiplied by 7 for a month. You could challenge your entire household to do the same and see who ended up with the most sit-ups per day.

The need to manage boredom is far more critical now because the consequences of not managing it during this time will be far more damaging. Your body responds to habits and will likely get used to the need to snack even after all this is over. On the flip side, whatever positive habit you develop may serve you for the rest of your life. You may realize you prefer having 6-pack abs over mindlessly scrolling Instagram after all.

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I hear you loudly proclaiming that you already have a hobby. Well, yes. But a lot of the time, what we do is dabble — like how I “study” Spanish for 15 minutes every day. But you know what is the best thing for mastery? Immersion. It is focused, dedicated effort for a continuous block of time, which would have been impossible in your previous life.

So, go finally get good enough at playing the guitar to impress the ladies or master Spanish well enough to travel through Latin America. Do that fun thing you never had time to try.

If you’re one of the many thousands that are now working from home, guess what? You no longer have to spend time commuting, packing your lunch, and ironing your work attire. Instead, you can use your 40-minute commute time to meditate, go for a run outside, or read.

Resetting morning routines pre-COVID-19 was hard because you tended to still be locked down to the train schedule or peak hour traffic. But now, you can still finish meditating even if you woke up 10 minutes later. Oh yeah, did I mention you no longer have to deal with traffic?

In his poem Joy and Sorrow, poet Kahlil Gibran reminds us that the things we mourn and the things that make us happy are two sides of the same coin. It is only because it gave us so much joy that we mourn its absence. In our daily lives, there is so much that we take for granted. Losing those privileges will remind us to be exponentially more grateful for them when they return.

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Health Habits

If you’ve ever thought of quitting alcohol or reducing your alcohol intake, there is no better time than now. Think of how much easier it would be with minimal social events or group entertainment of any kind. The opportunity for such social isolation simply would not present itself again. More importantly, a study in Health Psychology reported that abstaining from alcohol for one month may have an enduring effect on alcohol reduction. So, COVID-19 may actually have positive lasting impacts on you.

There are several ways that post-COVID-19 life can force you to eat better — you need to be more intentional when you go to the grocery store, you can prepare lunch instead of grabbing something quick if you now work from home, you are forced to eat out less, and you are not subject to other people’s food choices at social gatherings. So, take the opportunity to be able to have full control over your eating habits. Or at the very least, to develop better snacking habits.

Finally adopting a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or Tabata type of workout will be a game-changer for your fitness. Here’s why:

  1. You can squeeze in a workout in a small amount of time — Your baby just started napping? Your kids are finally sitting still and watching a movie? Now you can do some quick squats and sit-ups. You can repeat this anytime you find yourself with even a 5-minute block of time.
  2. You can do it anywhere — The next time you are travelling, or staying with relatives, or have time to go to a park at lunch — you can squeeze in a workout.
  3. It’s highly effective. Many of us love performing low-intensity cardio workouts like jogging and cycling. However, research shows that they are, in fact, less effective for weight loss than the short, intense workouts.

Take this opportunity to finally shake up your workout routine, free yourself of gym schedules, and break the belief that you need at least an hour to work out. Extra bonus points? It’s totally free. Hop on YouTube or any of hundreds of apps for HIIT exercises and get fitter right now. This will serve you well after all this is over.

Preparing and taking the time to cook is time consuming but now that you are home so much, you can finally take the time to explore that elaborate 10-step recipe that requires you to do something every 20 minutes.

Fasting is a practice that has been around for centuries and is propounded by many major religions for a reason — it has significant and broad-ranging benefits. Some of the unique benefits of fasting include — improving blood sugar control, weight loss, reducing inflammation, improving hormonal balance, improving brain function, and my favorite, autophagy. Autophagy means “self-eating.” It is a process activated by fasting whereby your body kills of damaged cells in order to regenerate new, healthier cells. How cool is that?

Fasting for most people who have to go to work is near impossible because you would be surrounded by other people eating food. You might also worry that fasting might compromise your Cross Fit workout (insert your equivalent here). Now you don’t have to worry about either, so go kill off those damaged cells, and lose a few pounds in the process! If you’ve never done this before, a great comprehensive resource is The Complete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung.

With gyms around the country shuttered through the end of the month, and you potentially no longer needing to be at the office — you can choose to workout outside or work on your computer outside.

Getting sunshine is one of the most important things we can do for our health — affecting everything from our bones, to our sleep patterns, to our immune system, to our moods. It was also one of the toughest things to do daily pre-COVID-19 for those who had to be in an office for the majority of daylight hours. Now, we can go live life as nature intended in the beautiful spring weather.

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Our bodies (and every single one of our cells) have a natural circadian clock that we — myself included — stubbornly refuse to follow. With the invention of artificial light, we have chosen to eat later and sleep whenever we are done with scrolling through mindless social media feeds. Not obeying this law of nature has significant health impacts, including the dysregulation of our hormones, the disruption of our gut bacteria, and increased oxidative stress.

I’ve been trying for nearly six month to not eat after 8 pm but have consistently failed at it because I work out and socialize too late. But guess what? 100% success rate since starting to self-isolate.

Yes, I know we could always have done this before COVID-19. But we didn’t. Somehow, having a lot of our freedoms stripped away, being isolated from our friends, being anxious about the future, and knowing that the whole world is anxious too, creates a far better incentive to try to meditate every day.

Financial/Career

You finally get the opportunity to prove to your employer that working from home is totally possible for your role, and that you might even be more productive than working in the office. Not only that, but the practice is also being established and normalized with your entire team at the same time so you don’t have to feel guilty about it. How likely would you have been able to convince your employer to do this pre-COVID-19?

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There is no way the economy is going to come out of this unscathed. If you didn’t have enough incentive to be your own boss before this, let me remind you of a simple truth — there will be some drastic cost-cutting measures regardless of who your employer is. Now is the best time to figure out how to be your own boss.

We have so many habits that don’t serve us, and yet are not painful enough for us to bother changing. How many times have you told yourself that you’ll stop buying that expensive coffee on the way to work and make it at home? Well, now you will have the opportunity to make your own coffee every day and realize that it’s so much better for your taste buds and your wallet.

After all this is over, you might realize you didn’t need that expensive gym membership, or the monthly pedicures, or the other myriad of small indulgences that you never thought about until they were taken away.

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.” — Seneca

Relationships

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind you of the importance of connection and how unknown our time is on this earth. Take this as a reminder to finally heal that estranged relationship. Chances are, it’ll be an easier task as these strange times will likely make them more open to reconciliation too.

Choosing the right people to have in your life is perhaps the most important decision you can make. It will determine every aspect of your life from your health, to your wealth, and even your weight.

Yet, for most people, there is very little reason to re-assess who they have in their lives. So, they hang out with the same people, do the same things, at the same places — on repeat.

Take this opportunity to be intentional about who you intend to invest time and energy in. If you have that one relationship that you’ve been meaning to cut off, there’s no better time than now when you have the perfect excuse not to make plans. If you have never done this before, here is a guide on how to choose the right people to be in your life.

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I grew up in Malaysia, where it was common for three generations to live under a single roof. Here is what I realized — family rituals are important. Dr. Howard Polsky — who is a legend in the field of working with trouble youth explains why in his book, “Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment. Rituals and routines create a sense of emotional safety that cannot be established simply by having physical needs met.

Now that the pandemic has forced children to be at home, you have a unique opportunity to see how rituals can help your family thrive as a unit. You can cook together as a family, learn to meditate together, or establish a gratitude practice together.

Getting your house in order

You’ve been saying for months or maybe even years that you were going to fix that annoying thing in your house, or de-clutter that room so you can finally have a home office or home gym. You know what creates so much more incentive to do it now? You’ll be spending a whole lot more time at home — potentially for months — that’s what.

For the sake of your mental sanity and that of your family, go make your home the clean, beautiful sanctuary you’ve always wanted it to be. If you don’t know where to begin, start with the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

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Don’t survive, thrive

In 2012, Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the word antifragile in his book of the same name. There are two concepts in this word that are highly relevant to us today:

  1. Antifragility is not simply about surviving shocks, particularly extremely random ones, but about thriving as a result of them.
  2. It is far easy to assess fragility than it is to assess risk, especially risks related to rare events. Nobody would argue that COVID-19 falls into that category. To illustrate, it is far easier to predict that a 20-year old is less fragile than a 90-year old than to predict which of them will be exposed to a random virus.

So, stop seeking certainty in our environment and its risks because — right now — no one can give it to you. Instead, use the fact that this event has completely shaken up your life to be antifragile.

Here is the reality — in the coming months, there will definitely be more changes, and they will almost all be outside of our control. You need to stop applying your powerful brain to seeking certainty and worrying. Remember that anytime your brain is fixated on something negative is time it cannot spend identifying opportunities for growth.

To me, this is the most powerful opportunity presented by COVID-19. It is the opportunity to learn to have unshakable inner peace and the ability to completely surrender to the flow of life. The truth is, we never had control, but we created false structures to create the semblance of control.

If you think I’m a hopeless idealist, let me share a real-life example. Sir Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when the Bubonic plague hit. He was sent home from Cambridge. In the time he spent in isolation (over a year), he contributed to early Calculus, developed a theory on optics, defined the laws of motion, and discovered gravity. He expressed that it was the most fruitful time of his life, referring to it as annus mirabilis, or the “year of wonders.”

Tips for success

I won’t lie. It won’t be easy. As someone who has been working from home for several years, here are some tips I things I learned:

  1. Don’t expect progress to be linear— The Coronovirus pandemic is a whole new game and nobody has the rules — including you. There will just be days when you don’t win. Don’t judge yourself; just try again the next day. Trust that if you apply consistent effort, momentum will start working in your favor.
  2. Set goals in two-week increments — No one knows how long we will need to isolate. Having a goal that applies to specific periods of isolation will keep you motivated to meet the deadline. For example, writing a book by week 4, editing it, and self-publishing it by week 6, etc. It helps to have goals across multiple aspects — financial, fitness, health, etc.
  3. Plan out your week — one of the important things COVID-19 has taken away is structure. It’s hard to workout for an hour if you’re not locked in a room with someone yelling at you. We’re also having to remake a lot of small day-to-day decisions like when to work out and what to do. Planning it out in advance will help you stick to it when you don’t feel like it. Pro Tip: Setting an actual time makes a huge difference to compliance. E.g. go for a run — 8 am to 9 am.
  4. Mornings are crucial — If planning out an entire day seems too daunting right now, just lock in a morning routine. If you start your day right, chances are, you’ll be much more motivated to be productive for the rest of the day. Pro-tip: Take a cold shower. Aside from the fact that it will jolt you into alertness like nothing else it’s also a great daily mental training practice.
  5. Make it a challenge and create a visual scoreboard — This is even more fun if you’re part of a household, compete to see who can do the most sit-ups per day or who can make the best meal. Track it all on a highly visible scoreboard. This works if you are alone too. Just try to best yourself.
  6. Allow for indulgences — Give yourself time to watch Netflix, or eat that chocolate bar, or go down the Coronavirus news feed rabbit hole. It’ll be easier to be productive when you know you don’t have to be all the time.

What will you choose?

There is no doubt that every one of us will remember the moment the impact of COVID-19 became real for us. The question is — will this be the milestone when you became antifragile, or will it mark your descent into helplessness?

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author.

May Pang

Written by

May Pang

Experiments in living intentionally and connecting deeply. Come play along with my experiments. I want to hear from you — www.mojomint.com. Facebook — MojoMint

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