9 Life Lessons from a Year of Shelter in Place

I sat on my living room floor, my computer in front of me and a small dish of dried cranberries next to me. Friday after work, I was on a video conference happy hour with a friend who had expressed some frustration earlier in the week about the ongoing pandemic situation here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

March brings a number of anniversaries to me. The last time I stepped foot in the office (March 2, thanks to an engineering offsite and a common cold that lasted a week and a half… just in time for a shelter in place). What started out as a 2 week work from home mandate has now stretched into a year.

I’ve experienced my share of frustrations, but for the most part, I’ve striven to live in a place of contentment and thanksgiving. As Peloton instructor Ally Love recently shared, I’ve been focusing on “the donut, not the hole.”

As I approach this anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on what lessons I’ve learned as a part of this strange new left turn in the world. What will I take from this time into a post-pandemic world? How will I engage with the world differently? What life skills have I learned?

It turns out, I’ve learned a lot.

#1 Be intentional about connecting.

The transition from college life to young adult life is a rough one for many people. As one person I know put it, you go from living with your all your friends being in a six block radius to your friends being all over the world. Even those who are in the area are living at a different cadence, working different jobs. Getting together takes effort, and sometimes, those friendships just drift away.

This pandemic life has been a similar type of struggle; our day-to-day lives have been flipped upside down. Normal modes of connection, the intersections of daily or weekly life, have been disrupted. The people who have navigated this world the best have been intentional about their human connections.

The lesson of being intentional and initiating contact with friends (instead of waiting to be reached out to) has been hammered home. Relationship takes effort, and it takes deliberate outreach and scheduling to make sure that friendships don’t just slide out of apathy.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that just as you have to pursue depth in a relationship, you also have to pursue breadth of relationships. One recent article in the Atlantic mourned the loss of casual friendships, as the pandemic has forced us to maintain the closest of our relationships with friends and family, leaving little time for the casual intersections of people in our lives. I’ve made time to broaden my connection points with both acquaintances and strangers, and it’s benefited my sense of overall well-being.

#2 Be intentional in your conversations about life.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had recently have been sparked from the same questions I ask myself in my journal. I’ve lobbed self-reflection questions out to my friends to see where the conversation takes us, and it really has helped us to get to depth surprisingly quickly. Here are some examples of conversation starters that have helped:

#3 It’s okay to expose your struggle to others.

I think we as a society have learned to be a lot more okay with being vulnerable with one another, of not falsely presenting a perfect façade to the world in order to seem like you’re better. Being okay with presenting your brokenness, especially with safe people, begets emotional intimacy and trust. It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to share that with others.

#4 Invest in rituals to bring order to your living space.

As someone who had a commute into the office and was always on the run, maintaining my home was probably my least favorite thing to do. Spending a ton of time at home has helped me appreciate the small rituals that help me feel less harried and more like I’m starting each day afresh. It’s been helpful to have time to practice these patterns daily, and I’m hoping that they will stay in place in the upcoming years.

Photo of two hands holding a mug full of tea. The hands are partially obscured by the sleeves of a long, white sweater, exposing only the fingers. One hand is gripping the handle of the mug, while the other is cupped around the bottom of the mug.
Photo of two hands holding a mug full of tea. The hands are partially obscured by the sleeves of a long, white sweater, exposing only the fingers. One hand is gripping the handle of the mug, while the other is cupped around the bottom of the mug.

#5 Bring small luxuries into your life, and mindfully enjoy them.

With everything shut down, I’ve been focused more on the everyday items that bring me joy. Taking the time to enjoy these small experiences has helped me recognize the daily luxuries I have around me. Whether it’s a freshly vacuumed, tidy living room, a cup of tea, time to read a magazine, the smell of fresh flowers from the garden, a brief bit of sunshine on bare skin, or snuggling with an affectionate cat, I can enjoy these moments and really make a difference in my appreciation of the mundane.

#6 Intentionally reflect, think about next steps, and make them happen.

My journaling practice got rebooted during the pandemic, and having the time to reflect on what’s been happening has helped me identify conversations I needed to have, boundaries I needed to set, and areas of my life I needed more attention to. Making the time to invest in this practice has helped me advocate for what I want and helped me understand what might be driving my behavior. Sometimes, what I needed was just a space that was slightly more organized. Sometimes, what I needed was a conversation with a friend. And sometimes, I recognized that the choice I needed to make was counter to my original plans because it met an emotional need I didn’t know I had.

#7 A big project can give you focus.

When every week looks and feels the same, it really takes a larger trajectory of something big to help give focus and shape to the time you have. I’ve been blessed this year with having a couple of creative projects that have helped me form some structure around my year. More importantly, a big benefit to these projects have been the collaboration with others, none of whom I’d ever collaborated with before. I’ve reaped a double benefit from these specific projects, and I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to do them.

#8 Know when to say no.

Due to the pandemic a number of national and world events this past year, we’ve all spent time in various states of emotional distress. As a part of being gracious to myself, I’ve stopped powering through these times of emotional stress and instead have just quietly excused myself from optional events that I have a sense of dread about. Listening to my own needs has vastly helped my overall resilience and ability to handle the unavoidable stressors of daily life.

#9 Remember what matters.

Half a million Americans have passed away from the pandemic. The grief that even one death causes has impact on an entire constellation of people in a community. In a world that is centered on achievement, our society has come to the rapid and critical realization that what really matters is the people in our lives.

As I reflect on this past year, I hope that this is the lesson that I walk out of this pandemic with: that people are not replaceable, and that I need to decide how I show up as a result.

I have a longtime friend that I’ve begun to regularly spend time with during the pandemic. We have a standing virtual activity every weeknight, and it’s one of the things I anchor my day around. There’s something about the ritual that helps me remember that I am more than my job, something reliable that is connecting in a way that isn’t mission-oriented.

This past week, I took the time to text this person: “I do not take you for granted. I’m thankful that we get to do this.”

And that’s the most important lesson of all.

Elaine is a senior product manager at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

I work for Adobe on Adobe XD. Also a martial arts instructor, musician, writer, volunteerism advocate. Opinions mine.