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Commentary: Adapting to a pandemic to the new normal

Official photo of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kara Taylor, 17th Comptroller Squadron commander.

Official photo of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kara Taylor, 17th Comptroller Squadron commander.

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Six months ago it was winter and I was very much looking forward to summertime.  I would close my eyes and daydream in the same manner as Olaf and think to myself, “Put me in summer and I’ll be a – happy snowman!” Vacations are great. They are a time to relax, rejuvenate and get back to 100%. What happens when a pandemic prevents the planned vacation? This past weekend was Independence Day. It came and went with no camping, no beach, no water park and no fireworks. Instead, there was time to quiet the brain, listen, learn and reflect. I pondered the question, “How can I get back to 100% without my vacation?” I realized that as long as I am “adapting to a pandemic,” I’m playing catch-up and even with a vacation, and I wouldn’t stay at 100% for long. I realized I don’t need a vacation; what I need is to stop adapting and instead account for the pandemic in the parameters of a new normal.

Sometimes, when life gets complicated, I like to look at it through the lens of a life simulation game like The Sims. In a game like The Sims, there are parameters – the rules or boundaries of the game.  In The Sims, we would expect an emergency like a natural disaster to cause damage and then leave so the player can rebuild. The parameters of The Sims wouldn’t account for an ongoing emergency. In fact, if damage never ended, the player would feel defeated and stop playing. If the intent of the game is for play to continue through an ongoing emergency like a pandemic, then the parameters would have to change to give the player achievable objectives.

In my version of The Sims, I use an analogy that I have only so many “utils” to give a day. In economics, a util is a hypothetical unit of measurement. In my sim it is used as a hypothetical measure of “energy available for productivity.” In my sim, everyone has a reserve of 50 utils and generates an additional 50 each new day. So long as someone has not drained their reserve and has a good night’s rest, they will start their day with 100 utils (at 100%).  The first 50 utils drain at a rate of 1 to 1; however, reserve utils are worth more and drain faster. Results are thus best achieved by avoiding dipping into reserves. We’ll use a character named Kristoff to illustrate. Kristoff has a full reserve of 50, but didn’t sleep great, so only generates 40 overnight to start his day at 90. Kristoff’s normal morning activities take 20 utils, but today he gets an unexpected task that takes an additional 10 and then another unexpected quick turn task that takes an additional 20. By lunch, Kristoff is already at 50. He has a choice, he can either dip into his reserves or generate more utils. In my sim, characters can generate utils by taking a break, working out, eating or hanging out with a friend.  Kristoff does a mix of both and ends the day at 40. He’s exhausted and sleeps great to generate 50, but because he dipped into his reserve, he starts the next day again at 90. The only way to get back to 100 is to generate more utils than are used. Unfortunately for Kristoff, a pandemic hits the sim. The sim treats the pandemic like an emergency. The parameters of my sim state that an emergency drains an extra 10 utils per day plus a 20% “emergency tax” on all tasks (because it is assumed tasks are more complicated in an emergency and take 20% more utils to complete). On top of that, Kristoff’s favorite util-generating activities are now off-limits. Kristoff finds his days start at 90, then 80, 70, 60, 50, etc. So long as the pandemic is treated like an emergency with no end, Kristoff can’t win.

Fortunately, I’m the programmer of my sim and I can change the parameters. In fact, I’m writing a whole new version of my sim titled “The New Normal.” In The New Normal, short term tasks are standard and are thus adjusted from a util rate of 20 down to 10. Some other tasks are adjusted, in coordination with supervisors, to allow for a 70% solution (drain 7 utils vs 10). New util-generating activities such as coffee on the deck and yoga are added. The pandemic still drains an extra 10 per day, but the “pandemic tax” is 10% versus the “emergency tax” of 20%. With these adjustments, Kristoff has a fighting chance. It is more difficult in “The New Normal” to rejuvenate to 100; however, with the new parameters, 90 is a realistic objective.

I have been feeling a lot like Kristoff. Just living in a pandemic seems to take extra energy. In addition, there are more tasks to be done and the tasks seem to be more difficult and with quick turn suspenses. Lastly, some of my favorite rejuvenating activities are not available. I’ve been dipping into my reserves frequently and not rejuvenating to a full 100%. I’ve also noticed that operating at 50% is not the same - I’m less patient and quicker to be frustrated than I’d like to admit. By rewriting the parameters of my sim, I hope to change the expectations I use in real life. For example, perfection cannot be the goal - I have to give myself permission to accept a 70% solution. I have to to rely on other people to help and have to accept different rejuvenating activities. Lastly, I have to cut out activities that, although not draining, are not rejuvenating either (i.e. the Netflix show you don’t really like but watch “to get through it”).

I think it’s safe to say we can no longer treat the pandemic like an emergency we need to adapt to. Perhaps we can even learn something from Frozen 2, like, “Some things never change – turn around and the time has flown; some things stay the same – though the future remains unknown.” What does your sim look like? What parameters will you keep the same and what will you change to give yourself achievable objectives?

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