How can you make the most of the next four weeks? Bruce Munro talks to clinical psychologist Chris Skellett about turning the unprecedented Covid-19 lockdown in to a rare opportunity to pursue personal goals.

It is day three of the four-week, nationwide, Covid-19 lockdown. By now your natural tendency towards either pleasure or achievement will be making itself known.

Did you wake with a smile at the prospect of another day with no "to do list" and the freedom to "just hang" with those in your household?

Did you stand brooding in the kitchen, already a bomb site of unwashed dishes, breakfasting on the dregs of last night's chocolate self-saucing pudding as you wondered how bad it could get?

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How to turn the lockdown into an opportunity to pursue personal goals. Photo / 123rf
How to turn the lockdown into an opportunity to pursue personal goals. Photo / 123rf

Did you pick up paper and pen to revise yesterday's job list, taking pleasure in crossing out completed tasks and adding items that would give a sense of purpose and accomplishment to the next 12 hours?

As we peer into the tunnel of, at least, a further 25 days of self-isolation, not thinking about how we are going to spend those myriad hours is likely to see it all come stickily unstuck. A plan, however, conceived and executed, could add a bright silver lining to an otherwise dark and cloudy outlook.

That is the advice of retired Dunedin clinical psychologist Chris Skellett.

Skellett, the author of several books, including When Happiness is not Enough: Balancing Pleasure and Achievement in your Life, says that in times of uncertainty it is too easy to sit back and become passive, waiting for the dramas to be managed by others.

"But simply brooding on personal misfortune or excessively self-soothing with indulgent pleasures during self-isolation is a wasted opportunity," says Skellett, who, until this week, divided his time between Otago and Marlborough.

Not that there is anything wrong with a tendency towards "being" rather than "doing". Both are needed. The key is balance, Skellett explains.

"Certainly we can re-connect with nature, we can eat healthier foods, and we can catch up on movies and books. But it is also important to set meaningful personal goals for ourselves."

Chris Skellett. Photo / Supplied
Chris Skellett. Photo / Supplied

He suggests people view the lockdown as a gift; a rare chance to spend a month focusing exclusively on themselves and their loved ones without the distractions of everyday life.

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"We can all take this opportunity to reflect on what is important to us, to re-connect with family and to review the way that we live our lives. It is a wonderful opportunity to set meaningful personal goals. It should be grasped with both hands."

There is no reason to be bored or frustrated while stuck at home, Skellett says.

"By scheduling specific times to work on specific goals, we bring structure to our day. By recording our daily progress towards these goals,we generate momentum."

He gives the example of a friend who rowed his way around New Zealand without leaving his living room.

"He simply recorded the distance rowed on a map beside his rowing machine.

"The last and hardest part, from Oamaru to Dunedin, became the easiest part as he triumphantly rowed his way up Otago harbour — in his dreams."

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Skellett says goals should be specific, realistic, positive and aligned with personal values.

For overall wellbeing, it is a good idea to make sure goals include physical, social and creative activities.

Physically, people can, for example, set up a home gym or use their daily trip outside to develop a running or walking programme. There are also plenty of online fitness programmes.

Social opportunities are obviously limited, but people can still connect by phone or social media platforms.

"We can catch up with those email contacts who have gently slipped too far away from us, we can phone dear friends and talk at length and we can write to all manner of people to share how important our relationships with them are."

Creatively, Skellett suggests we ask ourselves what activities we used to enjoy
but have let slip over recent years.

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"We can pick up those woodworking tools or those baking trays and get busy and creative again.

"Alternatively, we can ask ourselves what we're not good at — singing, dancing, poetry — and decide to see how good we can get."

It is also a great idea to consider goal-setting with others who are sharing your "bubble".

Four weeks, or more, of lockdown will make it easy to feel irritated and stressed by living closely with others, ''even if they are your soul mates'', Skellett says.

But now is an ideal time to sit down and set shared goals, he says.

Talk more, plan more and schedule more shared, pleasurable activities together. This will help you cope with the inevitable stresses and changes of the "new normal".

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"Let's establish a clear structure to our daily lives that takes full advantage of this golden opportunity that we have all been given to work on ourselves.

"To relax, to refresh, and to refocus on how we would like our lives to be."

This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website