In a world reshaped by the pandemic, we’ve all learned to make adjustments and create new routines to take care of ourselves and be productive. But things are about to get a little harder. As we slide into our first pandemic winter, many of the outlets we’ve turned to for relief, connection, and joy will become less accessible. Socially distanced meetups, outdoor exercise, open-air dining—it’s all a little more complicated when the temperature drops.
Mental health experts warn that winter during the coronavirus pandemic will pose some unique challenges. Seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that occurs in the winter months, affects an average of at least 5% of American adults even before you take COVID-19 into account. With the ongoing global health crisis, experts predict even more people will struggle.
Here are nine micro steps you can take to help you fend off loneliness, find motivation, and prioritize your well-being despite the wintry challenges ahead.
Loneliness, isolation, and the attendant mental health challenges have been major byproducts of the pandemic. For the 35.7 million Americans who live alone, the prospect of a lonely winter may seem particularly bleak. Social connectedness is tied to both our physical and mental health; when we interact and engage with others we experience less stress, more happiness, a stronger immune system, higher motivation to take care of ourselves, and even improved memory and cognitive skills.
It takes a little creativity, but we can start taking small steps to maintain and strengthen our relationships—with both personal and professional benefits.
Start a Group Text With Friends
Science shows there’s power in consistent kinship, even if it’s a simple daily “thinking of you” message. Send that silly photo you took of your dog to your college friends or reach out to your old trivia crew when you come across something that reminds you of those geography rounds that always seemed to be your team’s downfall. Remind your friends you care, and they’ll remind you back.
Schedule a Virtual Coffee Break With a Friend
Social isolation can have powerful negative effects on your health, but spending time with others—even virtually—helps you stay connected. So when you’re feeling lonely, put a remote coffee date or catch-up session on the calendar. Or do it preemptively, before you start feeling isolated.
Ask Someone What They’re Doing to Take Care of Themselves and Stay Connected to Loved Ones
Social distancing can make us feel further apart, not just physically but emotionally. Bridge the distance with this simple question—you might learn something, or find you have something in common.
Establish Habits That Keep You Motivated and Productive
Those of us who thought working from home would lift us to new heights of productivity, focus, and accomplishment—well, we know how that turned out. Sure, working from home has its perks (goodbye, stressful commute!). But without the guardrails of going into the office and coming home, we’ve found ourselves in a world of boundaryless permawork—with longer days and more meetings—and are dealing with the burnout that comes with it. Our days are filled with back-to-back Zoom calls, little or no in-person interaction with coworkers, and more distractions at home from partners, kids, pets, and that pile of clothes we absolutely must sort before turning to our next work task.
Whether we’re working from home or going to an office this winter, these microsteps are great for making the most of our time and doing our best work.
Every Morning, Write Down the Top Three Things You Want to Accomplish That Day
Relentless prioritization is more critical than ever. Give yourself structure and clarity by focusing on three objectives every day—and when they’re done, you can declare an end to your work day, knowing you’ll come back tomorrow recharged.
Switch One Video Meeting to a Phone Call Each Day
Research has found that the sustained concentration required in video meetings means back-to-back Zoom calls will quickly tire you out and add stress to your day. Swapping one out for a phone call will give your eyes a break, and you can even pair the screen-free chat with a short walk around the neighborhood (or just around your room) to introduce movement into your day.
Do a Time Audit
At the end of the day, take two minutes to reflect on how you spent your time on work, family, household, and yourself. This exercise is an eye-opening way to look at your use of time and how you might make small improvements.
Make Sure You’re Not Forsaking Self-Care—and Fun!
We can’t do our best work if we don’t take care of ourselves. This might sound obvious, until you consider how our collective definition of success is pretty much synonymous with sacrificing our well-being, celebrating hustle culture and burnout, and generally running ourselves into the ground. But this approach to success wasn’t working before the pandemic, and it definitely isn’t working now.
So by all means, work hard, chase your ambitions, and be grateful for your opportunities. And know that when you prioritize self-care, you’re not stepping away from your goals—you’re fueling yourself so you can get where you want to go.
Set Time on Your Calendar to Focus on Small Passions Each Week
Make some time in your schedule to do something you love, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And stick to it. You wouldn’t miss an important meeting or doctor’s appointment, so treat this time with the same respect. You’ll begin to build the muscle of prioritizing the things that bring you joy.
Play an instrument, paint, write poetry, pull out your favorite video game, try a new recipe, look at the stars—whatever it is that fills you with joy, or purpose, or both. You might feel at first like you’re being bad—taking a few minutes for yourself, the horror! But in fact, studies show that pursuing passions outside your work can have benefits for your personal life and your career. (
Identify One Source of Negative Stress in Your Day
Before you can solve a problem, you have to name it. Pinpoint just one experience or scenario in your daily life that routinely creates negative stress. Interactions with a certain person? A moment in your day that always seems to be rushed and unpleasant? Once you recognize a pattern, you can begin to take steps to prevent stress from becoming cumulative and unmanageable—like taking a few breaths to reset, clarifying expectations with your colleague whose meetings tend to stress you out, or rearranging your schedule to smooth stressful transitions.
Do One Small Thing Each Morning That Brings You Joy
How you begin your day can set the tone for the rest of it—so make a conscious effort to do something that will start you off right. It might be meditating, walking, reading while you drink your coffee, making a breakfast you love, or trading stories about weird dreams with your kids. From this foundation, you’ll build up strength and resilience for the rest of your day—and the rest of this unusual winter.