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The Pandemic Is a Marathon Without a Finish Line. How Can We Win?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 25, 2020

With the positive news about the Covid-19 vaccine trials, I assume many of you have started to think about the potential end of the pandemic — what we’ll do, where we’ll go, who we’ll see, and reckon with what’s changed and what’s been lost. I know I have. Alex Hutchinson has written an intriguing piece on what sports science might be able to tell us about the psychology of a situation like the pandemic, where the finish line is poorly defined, ever-changing, or even non-existent.

As it happens, there’s a whole subfield of sports science, at the intersection of physiology and psychology, that explores this terrain. It’s called teleoanticipation, a term coined in 1996 by German physiologist Hans-Volkhart Ulmer to describe how our knowledge of an eventual endpoint (or telos) influences the entirety of an experience. Using endurance sports as their medium, researchers in this subfield have probed what happens when you hide the finish line, surreptitiously move it or take it away entirely. For those of us tempted by promising vaccine updates to start fantasizing about an end to the pandemic, these researchers have some advice: don’t.

Instead, the key seems to be remaining in the moment instead of focusing on the goal.

It turns out that, if you ask yourself “Can I keep going?” rather than “Can I make it to the finish?” you’re far more likely to answer in the affirmative.

This squares with mindfulness practices from Buddhism and Stoicism but also reminds me of a motivational trick I first heard a few years ago: that you can do anything for 10 seconds — and then you just begin a new 10 seconds. Turns out that was popularized by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Good advice can come from anywhere.