Words of Wisdom for the Graduating Class of COVID-19

I taught my last class of Advanced Legal Research for the Spring 2021 semester yesterday (and what I hope is my last class of teaching in the middle of a global pandemic). Even though Advanced Legal Research is research focused, I thought it worth my time and my students’ time to impart some words of wisdom that is applicable to not just the graduating class of 2021, but also to all of us who are soon hopefully soon going to emerge from underneath the veil of the threat of COVID-19 and head back into the “real world.” So, for all of you out there who are ready to graduate from COVID-19, this one is for you.

A girl in a graduation cap and gown walking. Photo by Stanley Morales.
Photo by Stanley Morales.

To the Graduating Class of COVID-19

To the graduating class of COVID-19,

We made it! We survived COVID-19 and we survived the school year! We’re all getting vaccinated! Movie theaters are opening back up. Schools are planning to go back to in-person instruction in the fall. Your employers are chomping at the bit to pull you back into the office!

If you’re like me then you learned a lot about yourself, your employer, your classmates, your coworkers, your family, and your pets during the last 1.5 years of lockdown, for better and sometimes for worse. In many ways, we found balance in lockdown, relishing in the extra time we gained by not having to commute and the ability to sleep in until our alarms went off at 8:55am, giving us just enough time to roll out of bed and log into our remote work stations. In other ways, we found disruption and chaos, blurring the lines between work, life, and family in our cramped 1,000 square foot homes or apartments. But, there is hope for the future — after all, everyone says the world will never be the same, the workplace will never be the same — well, let’s make sure those changes are for the better.

In keeping within the vein of eternal optimism that I just can’t seem to shake, here are some key lessons that I’ve learned from my experience working, teaching, and living through the last 1.5+ year pandemic that helped make my pandemic life better than my pre-pandemic life. I hope some part of it is helpful to you and if so, I hope you find a way to adopt it into your life to make your post-pandemic life even better.

No. 1: Create Systems, Not Goals

It’s not enough to just have goals in life. You need more. You need a system.

Goals focus on the destination while our systems focus on the journey — it is the difference between taking a long-term view versus a short-term view. For example,

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and your marketing.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

The beauty of systems is that you can completely forget about your goals and still make progress. Think about it: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results? Absolutely.

Goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

If you still don’t believe me then here are three more reasons why you should focus on systems rather than goals:

  1. Goals reduce your current happiness: when you’re working towards goals you are essentially telling yourself “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”
    • This is some hardcore negative self-talk; you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. It is the equivalent of telling yourself “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.”
    • Choosing a goal puts a huge burden on your shoulders. Can you imagine if I actually achieved my goal of revising one book, drafting a new one, and writing twelve short stories this year? Just writing that sentence stresses me out.
    • But we do this to ourselves all the time — we place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, you can keep things simple and reduce your stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals.
    • Solution: Commit to a process, not a goal. When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
  2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress: Goals don’t always keep you motivated over the long-term.
    • Consider your friend who trained for a half-marathon — many people will work hard for months but as soon as they finish the race they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?
    • This creates a “yo-yo effect” where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This irregular cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.
    • Solution: Release the need for immediate results. A goal based mentality will push you towards burnout while systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process and as a result never missing out on your progress.
  3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over: You can’t predict the future (hello COVID-19).
    • Every time we set a goal, we try to predict the future. We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there (I’m looking at you, you five-year and ten-year planners). We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way.
    • Solution: Build feedback loops. Building feedback loops to measure the metrics of your progress is essential toe give yourself feedback to let you know if you’re doing things right. Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything else. Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make tweaks and adjustments to your system and process.

How to Build Systems:

  • [ ] Identify your goals (what you want to achieve)
  • [ ] Split them into bite size chunks
  • [ ] Use those smaller goals to create repeatable systems
    • [ ] Identify and document a repeatable series of tasks to perform (a checklist)

This eliminates the problem of finding the motivation that will inevitably disappear on certain days because you can setup a reminder of when your checklist is due to be completed.

Example System: Get Fit & Lose Weight

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm as soon as you finish work:

  • [ ] Change into comfortable clothes for exercise
  • [ ] Fill a pint glass with water
  • [ ] Jump rope for 20 minutes to warm up
  • [ ] Perform a bodyweight circuit routine for a half-hour varied exercise
  • [ ] Cool down with a 20-30 minute yoga session

Use a Five-Year Plan to Come Up with Goals, Which Then Help You Identify Your Systems

If you’re unsure of where to start or how to identify goals and systems, then start with a five year plan. I know I threw some shade on five-year plans earlier in the post, but that’s only for those who have five year plans without implementing the systems needed to achieve those goals. With systems, five year plans can be really effective ways to identify long-term goals and break them down into bite-sized chunks. For example:

GoalsYear 1 (2021-2022)Year 2 (2022-2023)Year 3 (2023-2024)Year 4 (2024 – 2025)Year 5 (2025 – 2026)
Career– Advance to Librarian II– Focus on Professional Development Step 1– Focus on Professional Development Step 2– Advanced to Librarian IIII– Focus on Professional Development Step 3
Spouse/Partner Career– Full time work in Nurse Residency– Year 1 BSN– Year 2 BSN– Year 3 BSN & Graduate– Job Advancement with BSN
Financial– Emergency Savings
– Save for Ireland Trip
– Pay Off Credit Cards– Pay Off Car Loan– Save for New Home Down Payment
– Save for Japan Trip
– Save for New Home Down Payment
Health– Lose 50 pounds
– Healthy Diet & Exercise
– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise
Travel– Ireland Trip– Japan Trip
Unicorn Space (Passion Project)– Draft New Book Project
– Develop & Incorporate Weekly Writing Routine
– Writing Routine– Writing Routine– Writing Routine– Writing Routine

Based on this table, I can prioritize goals that require more immediate focus and implement systems into my life. For example, as far as reaching our financial goals go, a system might look like:

  • [ ] Create a monthly budget, prioritizing spending less than we make
  • [ ] Follow the budget
  • [ ] At the end of every month, evaluate the budget – did we go over? under? Were there any unexpected expenses that need to be factored into next month’s budget?
  • [ ] Revise next month’s budget as needed

This system will ensure that we save money and based on our goals, we now know what to do and how to prioritize the money we’re able to save.

No. 2: Time Block or Time Theme Your Calendar

If you don’t take control of your time someone else will take control of it for you.

Rather than spending your life and your workday responding to others’ needs, put yourself first and prioritize your time.

There’s a great and free SkillShare Class on Time Theming that I cannot recommend enough. The class is run by Productivityist founder Mike Vardy as he shares how creating a simple, flexible, durable productivity system will transform the way you work. Whether you’re a freelancer balancing multiple gigs or a 9-5er with a calendar full of meetings, this class will give you the tools you need to create helpful habits for work and home that will actually stick. You’ll learn to:

  • Time-theme your days to work more efficiently
  • Create daily routines to simplify your workflow
  • Utilize tools like Todoist (or Notion) to support your daily goals

After taking this class, you’ll have an arsenal of strategies to personalize your productivity and ensure you’re getting the right things done, freeing time and energy so you can focus on the things that matter.

No. 3: Use the Eisenhower Matrix

In keeping with the skills you will learn from Mike Vardy’s Skillshare Class, utilize the Eisenhower Matrix to avoid the “urgency trap” that we so often fall into, especially when checking our emails.

You can read and learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix here.

No. 4: Beat Distraction

This is easy and consists of five simple steps:

  1. Nix Notifications – Turn off almost all notifications (phone, computer, tablet, any and all electronic devices, email, social media, etc.). Consider investing in a landline, so that people can get ahold of you in emergencies and so that you can ignore all of the other noise and chaos brought on my cellphones.
  2. Leave Devices Behind or Put Them Away (like in a drawer)
  3. Schedule Your Email Time & Empty Your Inbox Once a Week – I schedule my email time Monday – Friday from 9am – 9:30am and again from 3pm – 4pm
  4. Shut the Door
  5. Start on Paper – Don’t just dive into the internet, the computer, or your phone. Grab a sheet of blank paper and put your thoughts down before you start a new project or task. Bonus: this gives you a great excuse to go out and buy a fabulous notebook.

No. 5: You Are More Than a Brain

This lesson is the most important one and is the culmination of all of the other points made above. You are more than just a brain.

If you can increase your energy every day then you will turn moments that might otherwise be lost to mental and physical fatigue into usable time. That doesn’t mean that all of your newfound usable time should go into churning out more work and more productivity – no, it means that the usable time should go towards nourishing yourself.

Charge your battery with exercise, food, sleep, quiet, and face-to-face time. It is up to us to see to our own mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. Prioritize your health and well-being. Don’t be afraid to unplug. Take a vacation – use your vacation time! And most importantly, make time for yourself and your loved ones.

Congratulations, graduating class of COVID-19. Now go out and live your best, well-balanced life!

Published by Sarah Maginnis

Law Librarian | Author | Content Creator | Coder & Web Developer

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