It’s Time to Turn a New Mental Page

A simple way to quick-start reentry habits

The day it became clear that Covid-19 would significantly disrupt our lives, I sat down at the dining room table, opened a notebook, and scribbled “SELF-CARE” at the top of the page. Below it, a pandemic to-do list: Order from local restaurants. Load up on coffee, wine, and ice cream. Nap. Indulge in more screen time and online shopping than usual. Anything I could think of to stay safe, pass the time, and minimize stress, I wrote down. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, right?

For a while, those survival mode habits were a lifeline. On particularly discouraging shutdown days, I’d pick a few things on the list to boost my mood. The self-care rubric worked the other way, too. If I didn’t feel like going out for my daily walk or couldn’t muster the energy to make sure my kids ate a healthy dinner, I always had an excuse: It’s a freaking pandemic. Pick your battles.

More than a year into this thing, most of my habits are going strong, because even as the pandemic ebbs, my brain seems to think they’re still necessary coping mechanisms.

To an extent, they are. Even for those of us who are lucky enough to be vaccinated, the pandemic isn’t over. The same stressors and strains that have affected us for the past year will probably be a big part of our lives for the foreseeable future—and even as it gets safer to do “normal” things, there will be no discernible, black-and-white end point. Each of us is tasked with reentering the world in different ways, at our own pace.

This careful reentry is a great thing for public and mental health, but also? It just feels murky, which isn’t always a great thing for your behavior—especially if it prevents you from taking stock of which habits are actually working and which ones are doing more harm than good.

For example: Ordering UberEats every other night was an okay way to cope when I couldn’t safely go to a restaurant or was too anxious to plan meals and grocery shop. But I’m doing a lot better now than I was in April 2020, and that habit is no longer serving me (or my bank account, for that matter). In fact, being on autopilot is actually holding me back from my goal to cook more—something I’ve always loved to do.

Even though I know I want to make a change, I feel stuck. It’s like my brain is still living in the throes of the pandemic even though the challenges have dwindled. I’m a big fan of letting yourself off the hook, especially when stress levels are high. But there’s also a time for mindfully doing the hard but good thing.

The most effective way I’ve found to match my desires to my motivation? Tricking my brain into thinking it’s time for a change. A couple years ago, I wrote a piece about how faking a fresh start can help us develop new habits and achieve goals. Here’s the gist: Research suggests that the brain registers important dates like the beginning of a new month or the first day of school as “temporal landmarks” that motivate behavior changes.

In a 2014 study, Katherine Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found that people were more likely to take action toward goals around temporal landmarks than around less salient points in time. Basically, she told me, people think about time in episodes—for example, precedented and unprecedented times. Creating a mental break between those two periods of time—and those two versions of you––can boost motivation, thus increasing the likelihood that you’ll meet your goals. That’s especially helpful during a time when time itself feels, well, nonexistent.

The best part is that change doesn’t have to wait until Monday, the start of a new month, or an official “end” to the pandemic. You can stage a fresh start all on your own, right here, in the gray area. Even simple changes like getting a haircut, rearranging your living room, or, in my case, buying a new cookbook and reorganizing the kitchen can “reset” your sense of time and empower you to make the choices you want to make. The important thing is to do something that feels like a reset.

If you, like me, feel disoriented with one foot in the pandemic and the other foot out, creating your own temporal landmarks can feel like turning a mental page and landing on a new one that’ll make implementing new habits and routines a whole lot easier.

Sure, life as we know it might not be changing all that much, and when it does, it’ll happen slowly, but hey, your brain doesn’t have to know that.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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