COVID Crisis Highlights Value of Long-Term Rewards

by Thaddeus Camlin, PsyD

Attaining a goal that you have set for yourself as a long-term reward while at home during COVID-19.Some experts argue that it takes about 10,000 hours to build mastery, others disagree.  Few would disagree that building mastery requires discipline and a significant sacrifice of immediate pleasures over time (aka work).  Sacrificing right now for later is not something humans are particularly well equipped to do.  Sheltering-in-place during the COVID crisis is itself a pay-now, buy-later deal, the exact opposite of addictive behaviors who sell us on our predilection towards buy-now, pay-later deals.  Send me the bill, put it on my tab, charge it to my room, run it on my card, just give me what I want now and I’ll deal with the rest later. Hard-wired human preferences for now over later make sense, given that right now is our only guarantee, tomorrow… who knows?  While many struggle to adjust to pandemic safety procedures, it can be helpful to call to mind one of the key messages from Viktor Frankl’s work – our last and ultimate freedom is the freedom to choose the attitude we take towards what we cannot control.  


We can’t control the COVID crisis – when it will be socially acceptable to rub our right hands together again when we meet, or when we can all share recycled air in dining halls, movie theatres, and cruise ships again, or when we can pack ourselves into stadiums of uncomfortable chairs to watch grown humans fight over rubber balls.  We can, however, choose the attitude we take towards sheltering-in-place. Are shelter-in-place restrictions ‘the worst thing ever,’ or are they a temporary inconvenience that will pass and that also challenge us with opportunities to grow, change, and potentially gain long-term rewards? The pandemic precautions will lift, when they do what will we have accomplished?


Forced time at home is the perfect opportunity to knock out long-term projects around the house that simmered on the proverbial back-burner.  For many, the D.I.Y. fad just got hit with a major cycle of steroids. Given the pinch on the cartel’s supply chain and the subsequent soaring prices and plummeting purity of product, many are taking the shelter-in-place restrictions as an opportunity to change patterns of substance use.  Honing culinary skills, reading the books I always said I would read, getting in better shape, that book everyone always said I should write finally taking off, getting the old car running again, enrolling in school or earning a certification, writing a song, editing a video of all the family footage stockpiled over the years, whatever the long-term projects are, being stuck at home is the perfect time to make some serious progress on the perennially procrastinated projects to procure long-term rewards.  Regardless of what people do during the pandemic, whether I work diligently and get a six-pack on my stomach or my alcohol tolerance up to easily absorb a six-pack of double IPAs, I will emerge with long-term results based on the attitude I choose towards shelter-in-place.   


There will not be enough time during the COVID-19 crisis to hit the 10,000 hour mark, but a solid dent can be made!  Crises precipitate change, and as Frankl reminded us, when we cannot change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves. One might argue that Nelson Mandela’s attitude towards decades in a cage largely determined the course of his life.  Sadly, many humans spend decades in cages for unjust reasons, but few become President shortly after their release. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude, of rising to the challenge, of overcoming adversity, of growth and the value of sacrifice may be what many of us are challenged with during these trying times.  


As the old cliché reminds us, we never know what we got til’ its gone.  I doubt many will miss the shelter-in-place restrictions terribly once they’re gone, but many will appreciate their old routines in a deeper and more profound way than would ever have been possible without their temporary loss.  To make the most from adversity is a mark of a hero. We can probably all benefit from asking what we can learn, how we can grow, and what we can accomplish to cultivate an attitude of empowerment, resilience, and hope that sustains us through the trying times and makes us stronger, more humble, and more enlightened on the other side.