Get Out of the Waiting Room: Designing Your COVID Life

Life is a continuum, an accumulation of experiences that makes us who we are and influences how we view ourselves and the world around us.  As we review these experiences, we realize that our lives are constantly and continually permeated with change.  Therefore, how we choose to respond to and initiate change can have everything to do with how well we manage our lives and the degree of life satisfaction we experience.  Virginia Satir wrote:

Life is not the way it’s supposed to be.  It’s the way it is.  The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.

Of course, the most difficult changes to navigate are the ones that we do not choose—the surprises that interrupt our lives and best laid plans.   The pandemic certainly fits into this “unwelcome” category.  It not only threatens our lives, it has fundamentally changed how we operate in our homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship.  It has also changed how we interact, recreate, and socialize.  Nonetheless, it is these uninvited changes that often teach us the most about ourselves and others. 

So many aspects of our lives were changed by COVID-19 within just a few days, and there is no timeframe for returning to “normal.”  So, how do we cope when our personal and professional lives are altered so radically?  How do we provide guidance to our friends, family members, colleagues, and clients when we ourselves are floundering?

Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference. —Virgina Satir Click To Tweet

I stumbled upon a great series of short videos, “Designing Your Covid Life,” that can help to point the way.  They are produced by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans who are instructors in the Design Program at Stanford, and also produced the successful guidebook and course, “Designing Your Life:  How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.” 

I recommend all of the videos in this series, but will highlight one in particular titled “Generative Reframing.  To help explain this concept, Burnett and Evans cite William Bridges, preeminent authority on change, who wrote:  

It isn’t the changes that does you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational. The new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with a new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.

In Bridges’ model, transition is described as a three phase process:

Endings

Transition starts with an ending. This is paradoxical but true. This first phase of transition begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses.  They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep.

Neutral Zone

The second step of transition comes after letting go: the neutral zone.  People go through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational.  It is when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place.  It is the very core of the transition process. This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. 

New Beginnings

Beginnings involve new understandings, values and attitudes.  Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction – they are an expression of a fresh identity.  Well-managed transitions allow people to establish new roles with an understanding of their purpose, the part they play, and how to contribute and participate most effectively.  As a result, they feel reoriented and renewed.

However, what Burnett and Evans have observed is that in response to the myriad of changes and uncertainty thrust upon us by COVID-19, many individuals and organizations are not engaging in the critically important Neutral Zone phase.  Instead, they are lingering in the “Waiting Room”—a state of limbo that does nothing to contribute to making a successful transition.  It is a frame-of-mind that lulls us into thinking we are “waiting” until the pandemic is over and we can get back back to “normal.”   However, what is essential now is the letting go of our pre-pandemic notions so that the new can be visualized and brought into reality. 

Living and working during this worldwide pandemic is uncharted territory.  With no clear ending in sight and so many areas of our lives affected, it is tempting to take a “wait it out” approach.  However, this mindset can be likened to giving up the driver’s seat of our own lives.  Although navigating the neutral zone can feel like scary place to be, it is the only place where real and lasting change can occur.   Therefore,  the first step to making life affirming COVID transitions is to “get out of the waiting room” and step into the neutral zone.

—Carol Anderson

Share Your Thoughts