Student looking into the distance
March 3, 2021
4 mins read

How to think about the future during a pandemic

How do we make plans in an uncertain world?

If you’re anything like me, the future has seemed like a pretty abstract concept over the past year. The uncertainty of not knowing when life will get back to something resembling normalcy has made it difficult to make plans for future education, jobs, and trips. Combine that with a volatile climate and political unrest around the world, and it’s hard to fit yourself into a future that seems to hold no definitive answers.

But the truth is, though these times may seem particularly uncertain, the future is as much of a mystery as it’s always been. 

That can be frightening, but it’s also an opportunity—as challenging as this pandemic has been, I’ve had to reconnect with my values and priorities in a way that I might not have in a more “normal” year. 

We’ll never be able to predict the future with much accuracy, but we still have to deal with it as we make plans and move forward with our lives. So, how should we approach thinking about the future?

Practice optimistic thinking

The lack of clarity surrounding the future can make us feel like we don’t have one. That might mean you feel stuck in the past, thinking about mistakes and regrets, or it might just mean you’re struggling to find much to look forward to. That’s understandable—it can be hard to think positively about the future right now!

Pessimism has been rising over the course of the pandemic, as we perceive our control over our lives and future slipping away (with what can feel like never-ending restrictions being put in place). As humans, we’re wired to think about the future and naturally want to have some say over it!  

Trauma and depression can also contribute to pessimistic thinking—COVID-19 has arguably been a traumatic event for many people, and rates of depression and anxiety have unfortunately surged over the pandemic. Taken all together, it’s no wonder COVID has made it tough to look ahead. 

However, pessimism is not an ideal coping strategy in times like these—optimistic thinking is actually really important for our psychological, and even physical, wellbeing! 

And remember, grounded optimism is not the same as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity can mean forcing a positive spin on a situation that’s genuinely distressing, instead of dealing with the issue at hand. It’s okay to feel pain, sadness, and fear, and you shouldn’t bottle up those emotions with false, toxic positivity.

You can accept your negative emotions and still feel hopeful about the future!

If you feel ready to think more positively about the future, try out these 3 tips:

1. Write about a positive future 

Use your imagination and write about things you’d like to see happen in the next year, decade, and beyond. Studies have shown that this kind of writing can actually make you feel more optimistic in general!

2. Practice “anticipatory savouring” 

This basically means enjoying a positive experience twice: first by thinking about it and getting excited for it in advance, then actually going through with it. It might sound silly, but there’s evidence that anticipating an event beforehand can make it more enjoyable in the moment, and strengthen your memories of it afterwards! 

Even if there aren’t any major events you’re looking forward to right now, you can absolutely apply this to the small stuff. Write down 3 good things you anticipate will happen in the coming week, and what you can do to make those things happen. It could be as simple as a walk on a sunny day or a video call with your friend! 

3. Plan coping strategies 

If you’ve found yourself in quite a negative headspace, you can write down coping strategies in advance if the 3 good things from above don’t work out. For example, if it’s raining, maybe you can replace your walk with a relaxing yoga session in your bedroom. 

Building up small habits that help you think more positively about the future can put you in a better position for planning ahead! 

Keep making plans

At the beginning of the pandemic, my life felt like it was on pause. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything until life got back to “normal.” The pandemic-free future began to seem not like a continuation of the reality I was living, but like a different reality altogether, one that I was completely disconnected from and could not work towards. 

Eventually, I realized that even if the world felt like it was stuck in limbo, I didn’t have to view my life that way. I started making small, simple goals that felt attainable and productive to me, like exercising every day and reading more. As I accomplished these small goals, the idea of looking ahead to the future began to feel a bit less scary.

Regardless of when the pandemic would end, the future no longer felt like a clean break from the life I was living—instead, it felt like a continuation of the work I was already doing. 

Other than my experience, there’s actually scientific evidence that making plans and looking ahead can help us manage pandemic stress

Making plans can help quell anxiety by getting rid of “cognitive clutter.” Unresolved thoughts and objectives can stack up in our heads, increasing anxiety and intrusive thoughts. By making plans, we can resolve some of these thoughts and objectives for the time being, allowing us to focus on other issues. Even if you end up having to change your plans, you’ll have freed up some mental space that might help you manage any stress and anxiety you’re feeling. 

Whether your plan is to book a haircut for next month, run for president of a UBC club, or apply for a co-op position, acknowledging your objectives and planning for them can help you deal with negative emotions, even if the goalposts have to change later on. 

A future worth fighting for

Despite everything that’s happened over the course of the pandemic, I genuinely think we have a lot to look forward to. Good news tends to get drowned out, but I think it’s important to appreciate the good things that are happening right now. I’ve been amazed at what science has achieved over the last year, have been heartened at people advocating for justice and equality, and have seen progress in the fight against the climate crisis that I wasn’t sure was possible a couple years ago. 

All these things make me feel like we have a bright future ahead, if we’re willing to fight for it.

It may be difficult to place yourself into the future right now, but by keeping sight of your goals and remaining optimistic, our post-COVID future still holds a great deal of possibility. 

Student sitting in the Rose Garden