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My office started working from home before almost any other. Many work colleagues embraced it immediately. But not me. I didn’t want to work from home. I like my office routine. I find face-to-face meetings much better than anything over the phone or video conference. But as COVID-19 news began to spread, I became concerned with the invisible enemy. Every cough outside my office sounded sinister. I didn’t want to bring the sickness home. So I packed up my things and set up my office in the dining room. My initial fears were shallow. I would probably gain some weight or lose my mind. Spoiler alert—I’ve done both!

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Today, it is our civic duty to stay at home so that we flatten the curve of the Coronavirus. It’s been about a month. As much as technology connects us, there’s a lot to be said for being present. I miss being in the office, seeing and catching up with colleagues, and getting stuff done in person. And I almost miss not wearing elastic pants. But most of all, I miss my willpower.

Mental Health Deteriorates in Quarantine

When people are alone for a long time, it can lead to introspection and rumination, which blurs what is happening around you with what is going on in your mind. Research says that it helps to clean the house and the yard because your brain needs stimulation. And it does seem to help. Quarantining has severe effects on our mental state. Isolation is isolating. Stress and anxiety are amplified while alone. They create the greatest enemies of willpower. Research has revealed that quarantine is linked with long term PTSD symptoms, paranoia, anger, and confusion.  In a study from the SARS outbreak quarantine, psychiatry professors found that 31% of people had depression symptoms, and 29% had PTSD symptoms after quarantine. What helped people the most was information about how others were trying to close the gap. Come to think of it. I’d like to hear more of that too. Now I find myself asking questions. How long until we can go back to work? What will it be like when we go? Or will we ever go back to work at all? The most consistent answer to my questions is, “we don’t know.” And that is deeply unsatisfying.

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Show Empathy for All

With this uncertainty, I’ve started a new appreciation of empathy. This quarantine has highlighted how our decisions impact others. We see this in the bizarre run on toilet paper. People don’t need to go to the bathroom more than usual. But the grocery store shelves illustrate that we are undoubtedly full of crap. Our basest nature is to look out for ourselves, becoming selfish and bitter. If you buy more than you need, it keeps someone else from it. And when we see the store shelves have little of something, it only makes us want it more. Empathy is better.

Showing Kindness for Work Relationships

In my work relationships, showing empathy means maintaining connections. It means chatting with a work buddy by phone over lunch. It shows in our weekly “happy hours” over video conference, saying hello each morning over Microsoft Teams, a question of the day, and daily trivia. It’s regular check-ins, even if you don’t feel like it.

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It also means showing extra grace. Technology doesn’t work as planned. Our work schedules will need to be flexible. The hours can’t remain 9-5 when a work associate has a young child to care for during the day. If eight hours of work gets done in 24 hours, that’s good enough for quarantine life.

Find New Routines for Kids

With kids also at home, it makes finding a quiet, uninterrupted place to work a challenge. A “do-not-disturb” sign on the door might work for those kids who can read. But I’ve got a four-year-old who still joins video conference calls dressed as Elsa with regularity. (And she will not let it go).  I’ve tried to give our kids assignments, in addition to the schoolwork they are assigned over their iPads. I’ve had our older children write creative stories for me so I can help improve their writing in the evening. And what started as a harried excuse to drain them of energy one day has become a daily event of Lindley Family Olympics. (Prizes include self-esteem and candy). It’s now the most sought-after event of the quarantine.

Invest This Gift of Quarantine Time Into Increasing Your Willpower

With at least a few weeks to go in the quarantine, I’ve developed a plan to combat the biggest enemies of willpower—temptation, stress, and self-criticism. I’ll replace them with self-awareness, self-care, and remembering what matters most. I commit to daily exercise, reading a book, and learning a new skill. This quarantine is a tremendous gift of time. But it requires us to schedule our time like we never have before. If we can invest this time wisely, we can become a better version of ourselves.