Plan Who You’ll Be After This

A photo of a woman sitting in a chair in her living room holding a cup of coffee.
Photo: Alex Farfuri/Getty Images

LLike so many people, I’ve been killing time lately by daydreaming about all the things I want to do once this is over: Eat tacos on the patio at my favorite restaurant downtown. Take a trip up north to the lake with my husband and kids. Jet off somewhere fun by myself for a break from said husband and kids.

There’s more to it than pure escapism. In uncertain times, making future plans can feel particularly soothing, lending a much-needed sense of control, explains Marianna Strongin, a clinical psychologist in New York and the founder of Strong in Therapy. “Anxiety is a question about the unknown, and planning answers it with ‘I’m going to do this,’” she says.

Creating a blueprint for tomorrow (or next year) can also help with that hopeless, glued-to-your-couch feeling you may be experiencing. “Momentum and a future focus are the opposite of depression,” Strongin says. “We all need future momentum to keep going — points we are working toward, goals, and things we are looking forward to.”

At least, that’s all true in ordinary times. But these aren’t ordinary times, and the unknowns that drive you to plan for the future are the same ones that complicate that planning. Who knows if the taco place will survive the pandemic? Or when it will be safe to travel again? Who knows what their finances will look like, or their city?

But even with all those uncertainties, it’s still possible to reap the psychological benefits of anticipating the future—with a little bit of a mental shift: Instead of planning what you’ll do when your self-quarantine ends, use this time to plan who you’ll be.

Start by clarifying your values

Turns out a devastating global crisis is a good opportunity to revisit your values. What do you want more of in your post-pandemic life? What will you relegate to the back burner?

“Times like these not only create an external focus on big-picture things like our communities, country, and the world; they also have a way of clarifying what’s important to us,” says Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist based in California. “It’s often when we are deprived or lose control of things that they become more of a focus for us.”

To pinpoint your personal value system, revisit the things about your “normal” life that you miss most, and then drill down on why. Craving a getaway with your best friends, for instance, is probably about more than liking vacations. It also reflects your values of close relationships, adventure, and spontaneity.

“Right now, so many of us are deprived of the things we want to do, so really paying attention to what you’re yearning for and where your thoughts are going can reveal the things that are important to you,” Mattu says.

Another way to clarify your values: Visualize yourself in the near or distant future.

Mattu often has his clients do an exercise where they imagine they’re at their 100th birthday party: Who is there, and what stories will they tell? What values do these things reveal?

Or you could simply imagine a normal day in your life a year or two down the road. What are you doing, who’s with you, and how do you feel? “This exercise can get people to start thinking about what they want to make time for and the things that aren’t so important to them,” Mattu says.

Audit your priorities

Often, Strongin says, immediate gratification can cloud our vision. But now that we’re missing out on so many things that once brought us an easy boost, we might be able to see more clearly what really matters to us.

“I recently had a patient who said staying busy brought a feeling of being valued and important, and now that she’s not so busy, she’s confronting that discomfort,” Strongin says. “In her new life, she hopes not to be so busy, because she now sees busyness as a way of running away from things.”

Once you’ve taken stock of what matters to you, figure out what’s holding you back from incorporating more of those things into your life. For instance: If family is important to you, what usually distracts you from spending time with your partner and kids? If creativity is something you want to integrate more into your life, what stands between you and your canvas or guitar?

While your values show you what you want more of, these barriers can reveal what you might need to eliminate from your routine to make room.

Shift your routines, starting now

There’s no telling when normal life — or some new version of it — will resume. But even in quarantine, you can follow up all that reflection with action. If you value friends, rekindle old relationships and FaceTime your college roommate. If you care most about experiencing new things, pencil in a virtual tour of an art museum. If investing in your community is important to you, donate to a local charity or order takeout from your favorite local restaurant.

Think of it like muscle memory: You’ll have a much better chance of sticking with your values in your new, inevitably different life if you begin to practice them right now. And, Mattu says, “If you have a real knowledge of what’s important to you now, that can guide your decisions and priorities in the future — and you’ll probably be happier as a result.”

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

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