What Parts of “Normal” Are Worth Getting Back To?

“In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” – Dave Hollis

There’s no question that we are in the midst of an exceptional moment, not only in our lives but in history. For each and every one of us, the sense of “normal” has been disrupted in some significant way. For some, that disruption might mean a loss of a loved one or a serious illness. For others, it might mean an abrupt job loss or an abrupt change in working conditions. For many, it means an abrupt shift to spending lots of time at home and/or a sudden turn toward homeschooling. For almost all of us, it means a loss of services we’ve become used to and a loss of social interaction.

As absolutely painful and challenging as all of these changes are, it does provide a unique opportunity in our adult lives to actually sit back and assess the state of our lives.

We all want things to return to “normal,” but what parts of “normal” do we actually want to return to?

There are lots of things that we long to have back in our lives. I find that I really miss the camaraderie of my weekly board game group (which is kind of meeting virtually, but it’s not really the same). I miss going to the library, where I would often hole up in a spot in the back of the library to work and then end up checking out several books for my own enjoyment. I miss the quiet part of the day where I could really hone in on my work, which is much harder to do since my children are home all day. I miss our dinner parties.

I’m sure that if you were to sit down and make a list of the things you miss the most, you’d find it pretty easy to make a list of the “normal” things that you long for.

Yet, when I was making that list of “normal” things that I miss, I find a lot of things worth noticing.

I miss people. Much of what I miss is simply spending time with people I care about and whose company I enjoy.

I miss some, but not all, of my routines. We’re all routine-oriented to some degree, and this has definitely been a disruption to those routines. I find that when I think about my routine, there are some aspects I miss and some that I don’t. (We’ll get back to this.)

I don’t really miss “splurges” or “treats,” at all. I don’t miss things like going to the coffee shop or grabbing some convenience food. I’m coming to realize, more and more, that those things were “fillers” in a life that was pretty much constantly stuffed to the breaking point.

I don’t miss the daily stress of an overflowing schedule. With so many businesses and services closed, my schedule is simply much more open than it used to be, and I actually find that I prefer it this way, or at least closer to this. While there are some things I want to return to, I do not want to return to the overstuffed schedule of some recent periods in my life.

I don’t miss a lot of the less important commitments in my life. I now realize that there were many things I was committed to and many routines that I had that I kept doing out of inertia. They were good ideas initially, but over time they grew less and less relevant and more and more of a drain on me, yet I kept doing them because I never had time to stop and reflect on whether they were a good idea.

I don’t miss the vast majority of my hobby spending, though I do miss some of my hobby “time” that I can’t really engage with right now. I think that part of the reason I spent so much on hobbies was that I wanted to invest more time in them but I always felt like time was short. Even though I intentionally gave time in my weekly schedule to follow up on my interests, I still felt pinched, and I often would replace that with spending. This downtime has made that abundantly clear.

There are some things I’ve discovered during this period that I really value and don’t want to lose. I feel more rested right now than I have in a very long time, and I don’t want to fall back on a cycle of too little sleep. I’m loving the unstructured screen-free time with my family and I want more of that than we used to have. I’m enjoying a schedule that isn’t so overstuffed – not that it isn’t stressful, but the “not enough time to get everything done” stress is much lower.

So, let’s translate those observations into something more broadly meaningful and useful.

What things do you actually miss from your old normal? Sit down and give this question some serious thought. What parts of the old normal are you really missing? Make a list of those things.

Even better, go a little further and ask yourself what specifically you’re missing about each thing you write. For example, I realized that many things I wrote down boiled down to the fact that I was missing face to face time with my friends above everything else. That actually made the list boil down to a smaller number of things — time with friends and family, hobby time, and a few specific routines.

What parts of your old normal are you coming to realize that you don’t really miss, or only miss a little? As I made the list of things I miss from my old “normal,” and particularly when I boiled it down a little, I began to realize how many things I didn’t miss. Understanding the things I didn’t miss was at least as important as understanding the things I do miss.

It’s harder to make a formal list of things you don’t miss. Rather, try to focus on making a list of the things you really do miss and recognize that the many parts of your old normal that aren’t on that list are the things you don’t actually miss.

One good way to address this question is to look through your recent credit card statements from the past few months. Which of those activities are now completely forgotten? Which ones seem empty and meaningless? Why? Those are the things to not bring back when things return to normal.

As things return to normal, how can you bring back the things you do miss with as little of the things you don’t miss as possible? For example, how do I bring back time with friends and time with some of my hobbies without bringing back an overloaded life schedule, lots of forgettable filler “treats,” and unnecessary hobby spending?

When I start looking at things through that filter, some real answers emerge. I need to un-commit from some things in my life. I need to have more informal gatherings with people I care about. I need to spend less money on new stuff and more time with the things I have. I need to fill my time with things I genuinely appreciate and avoid things I don’t. If I find my time is becoming so full that I start falling back on the crutches of “splurges and treats” and “hobby spending to make up for a lack of hobby time,” then I need to stop and take a breather.

What kinds of changes do you need to make so that your return to “normal” includes as much of the parts you care about as possible and as little of the stuff you don’t miss as possible? How do you lean in specifically on the stuff you really care about without dragging in a bunch of forgettable and unnecessary spending or forgettable and unnecessary time use? How do you return to normal without running yourself ragged?

What can you do right now, in a practical sense, to make those changes into your new normal? Let’s say things return to some form of “normal” in a few months. What can you do, right now, so that when things go back to normal, you bring back the things you miss and leave behind the things you don’t miss?

Here are some of the things I’m doing.

I’m stepping away from a few disrupted activities that weren’t meaningful for me. Some of these require a formal un-commitment, while others are ones that I can just fade away from. I’ve left some Meetups, some group chats and some other things. In a few cases, I’ve already told people that I’m stepping away from this thing when things return to normal. Right now is a great time to step back from some commitments that you don’t want to return to or that weren’t bringing you much value.

I’ve canceled subscriptions and services I’m not using and likely won’t return to. This has been a wonderful time to review subscriptions and services and automatic payments, as it’s really clear which ones bring value and which ones do not. It also gives an opportunity to make a clean break with some things you don’t want to return to.

I’m trying to keep in tight contact with the friends and family I miss. I’m texting with them every day. I’m talking with them. I’m playing games online with them. I want those relationships to be strong so that we’re thrilled to see each other again when normalcy returns.

I’m giving myself as much true “leisure” time as I can, spent on meaningful hobbies. Rather than spending unstructured time on low-effort activities like channel surfing and web surfing and browsing social media and watching endless YouTube videos, I’m actually delving into meaningful hobbies that bring value. I’m reading a lot of challenging books. I’m prepping the garden. I’m making a lot of foods from scratch. I’m playing a lot of board games with my family, online board games with friends, and even some solitaire games. I’m taking some online classes in areas I’ve wanted to learn more about. I want to establish “doing” as the true normal when it comes to my hobbies, not “buying stuff.”

I’m trying to divorce myself from my smartphone as much as possible. When I assess my mood, I find that time spent with my phone where I’m not directly and specifically contacting a friend or directly and specifically looking up information is time that makes me feel less happy, so I’m working very hard to distance myself from my phone. I don’t want to “get back to normal” with my phone when the rest of my life returns to normal, and now is a perfect time to facilitate that divorce.

What steps like this can you take so that when things return to “normal,” you return mostly to the things you care about and don’t return to the things that you don’t?

Take advantage of this moment of disruption to reflect and to make real lasting changes. This moment in time provides us all with a lot of challenges, but with a unique opportunity to step back and really question what we’re doing. For as long as this moment lasts, keep asking yourself what was good about the old normal that you want to keep, what was bad about the old normal that you want to discard, and what about this current moment do you want to hold onto. That is a recipe for a much better life in every dimension, personally, financially, and otherwise.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.