A few months ago, when sirens were near-constant background noise in New York City, I found myself asking, “Who will I be at the end of this pandemic?” Maybe you’ve wondered this too—what will be left of your old life once the new coronavirus has torn through Earth. I asked this a lot, to friends, to family, and eventually to my therapist, who reminded me that there might be a better question: Who will you be during this time?
My therapist’s question wasn’t asking me to “make the most” of this Unprecedented Time. It wasn’t a nudge to learn a language or take up a pandemic hobby. Her substitute question tempered my catastrophic thinking. It was an invitation to be a little more present. As SELF has previously reported, when we find ourselves in anxiety spirals, it’s helpful to find ways to connect with the present moment. Fixating on who I’ll become post-pandemic was doing nothing to calm me down in real-time.
Ever the overachiever, I took her question literally and created a Good Day/Bad Day survival plan. Planning for more immediate concerns, it turns out, is good for you. “When you think about things in advance—scheduling them and planning for the obstacles that are going to come up—you’re more likely to engage in that behavior [when the time comes],” Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and friendship expert, previously told SELF. Planning, strategizing, and exercising some control (in moderation) can make the good days a little more frequent and the bad days a little easier.
Bad day plans make sense, but good day plans are useful, too.
Prepping for bad days might seem reasonable because, well, bad days suck. Plus, when we’re in the throes of a bad day, it’s often hard to see clearly. In a recent SELF article on loneliness, Franco mentioned that we should plan for feeling a little isolated before we experience it. Why? Because “a state of loneliness actually alters how we view the world,” Franco said. “We perceive threats and slights where they may not be,” Franco explained. If we think of bad days as being similar to loneliness (let’s face it, some bad days include heaping portions of isolation), then planning is super helpful in providing a safety net.
That said, thinking about good days is helpful because then you can use them more intentionally. I’m not suggesting that you squander your good days by powering through your to-do list (unless you want to), but putting a little structure around them might set you up to savor the vibe. I’ve also found that seeing my good day and bad day plans on the same page reminds me that both experiences are, well, normal.
So what does a good day/bad day plan look like? It’s more than just a vague sense of what you’ll do in the event of a good or bad day. I suggest you sit down with your laptop (or a pen and paper) and craft a document that you can refer to repeatedly.
Each good day/bad day plan should have these five basic components.
I encourage you to get as creative as you’d like with these plans. Dedicate an entire chalkboard wall to your big beautiful agenda if you’re inspired. My plan, however, lives on a piece of raggedy looseleaf paper. It focuses on getting me through the mornings. Why? Because that’s my biggest challenge (if I can get out of bed, there’s a solid chance I can participate in the rest of my day). Some folks might have trouble navigating evenings or issues focusing on tasks in the afternoon. If that’s where you need support, focus your plan on those aspects of life. My five basic components are as follows:
I live alone in a studio apartment, so my non-negotiables don’t include walking my dog or feeding children. Instead, my list has tasks like opening my curtains (a little light helps my mood) and feeding myself (even if it’s just a breakfast bar).
Don’t add more than two or three activities for each type of day. And whatever you do include, think of your non-negotiables as small commitments you can make even when you’d rather do nothing at all. For instance, “take a shower” might not be on your non-negotiable list because some days the quarantine struggle is real.
We’ve discussed your “must-do” activities (like feeding yourself if at all possible), but I recommend adding a few items that you’ll consider if you feel like it. For instance, on good days I’ve listed exercise as a potential action item—it’s not a necessity, but it would be good for my overall wellbeing.
On bad days, “make my bed” and “pare down my to-do list” are up for negotiation. The idea here is to add two or three things that could help you manage your day, but they aren’t instrumental. What are the things that make you happier when you’re already stoked? What are super small things that provide comfort when you’re upset? Use these questions to fill in this section.
On good days I ask myself: Who helps me feel more joy? What can I give of myself today? On bad days I ask: Who do I want to speak to? What would make me smile? On good days, I’ve found that answering “What can I give?” has helped me accomplish small tasks I’ve delayed. On bad days, asking, “Who do I want to talk to?” has inspired me to reach out to folks who make me feel a little better. It’s a very helpful way to self-soothe.
I find reading affirmations like “I am loved” or “This will pass” helpful. Am I corny? Yes, but if cheesiness helps me get through the day then so be it. If you’re way cooler than me, consider using a lyric from your favorite song or writing down a movie quote that makes you smile. This plan is a conversation between you and yourself—no one has to know about your love of sentimental quotes and affirmations.
A lot of this plan is for the typical peaks and valleys of everyday life, but some days require a little extra assistance. If your bad days include thoughts of harming yourself or others, make sure you have professional mental health resources at your fingertips. The more you remind yourself that professional support is a phone call away, the more likely you are to reach for it should the need arise. For instance, you can text HOME to 741741 and connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor who can support you. You can also jot down the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—1-800-273-8255—to get extra support if you need it. Both of these lines are available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. And if you’re already working with a therapist, it’s smart to talk through this part of your plan together (they might recommend you write their number down as well).
Here are a few tips for working with your plan.
It is tempting to force bad days into good ones or to carpe diem when you’re in a decent mood but remember: You don’t have to do the most. I’ve found that my survival plan is particularly useful when the suggestions and advice are clear and simple. This doesn’t mean that I don’t tackle larger projects or rally on bad days, but if I can start by accomplishing a small task like making my bed, I have a little more confidence that I can handle something bigger.
There are other places to put your ambitious plans and big ideas—your good day/bad day plan isn’t one of them.
I am a terrible artist, but I took the time to color my survival plan. Flexing creative muscles or even just scribbling for a little while is soothing, and if you actually have artistic prowess, you can create something stunning.
A few months ago, I hung my plan up next to my bed so that I saw it first thing in the morning. That worked for me: I’d open my eyes and, based on my mood, decide which routine to follow. If opening your eyes and getting out of bed aren’t your biggest hurdles, then you might place your plan near your desk or in your bathroom. Maybe you’ve created a plan on your phone, and you set a reminder to look at it daily. The point is to place it somewhere that you’ll actually see it.
My first survival plan held up throughout the summer, but the weather is changing here in the Northeast, so it’s time to readjust. As you experiment with a plan that works for you, remember that coping is a dynamic process. It changes from moment to moment, so allow your ideas and strategies to evolve as well.