The Friendship Project: How to Combat Loneliness While Social Distancing

Image created by Cristina Estanislao

It turns out that you don’t need to live alone to feel lonely. I managed to get into an impressively bad mood after only two weeks of self-isolation. I felt so lonely, which seemed ridiculous since I live in a house full of people (and pets). I was normally a happy and energetic person, so I got fed up with being miserable pretty quickly. I decided to pull myself out of my funk, even if it meant I had to go kicking and screaming. Luckily, it didn’t come to that.

I came up with a strategy that has worked incredibly well so far, so I thought I’d share it with you. I call it The Friendship Project. It’s designed specifically for pandemics but can be used long afterwards when things (hopefully) return to normal. 

  1. Make a list of people you would like to be in contact with (friends, family, co-workers). Think outside your usual social circle. Do you have a childhood friend you would like to reconnect with? A buddy who moved away? A cousin you haven’t chatted with in a while? A former co-worker you miss? Or even a friend you saw regularly pre-pandemic with whom you’ve lost touch? Siblings you actually like? 
  1. Contact one person per day. Once you’ve made your list of friends, pick one and reach out. Do that every day. If you don’t know what to say, send a text that simply says “I’m bored. Do you want to video chat at some point today?” If you prefer something more structured, you can try starting a two-person book club. I started one with a friend I saw regularly in person, but who I hadn’t talked to since COVID-19 hit. The book club gave us an excuse to reach out. 
  1. Get creative. You can connect in a bunch of different ways. My favorite is a video chat. You can do a lot over video: drinks (quarantinis), dinner, games (online Scategories is my current go-to), or even a short coffee break. On days you can’t coordinate a live chat, you can leave voicemails, voicenotes, or video messages. I regularly record video messages for friends and family giving a two-minute update on what I’ve been up to. That’s often enough to make me feel like I’ve connected with someone. If you don’t feel comfortable sending a video, you can just send a photo of something funny or cute and text it (e.g. a DIY haircut gone awry; or your mid-morning afternoon cocktail). Group chats are also a great tool. I have several group chats: one with my siblings, one with my siblings plus parents, one with my work friends, one with my in-laws. 
  1. Share the mundane. You might be thinking “What am I even going to talk about, my life is so boring.” News flash: everyone’s life is boring, especially now that we can’t go anywhere. By sharing the mundane details of your life, people will feel more connected to you, and you to them. If you wait to reach out only when you have exciting news, you might be waiting a long time. But if you’re in touch regularly and up-to-date on the day-to-day activities, it’s easier to make conversation.
  1. Multi-task. Normally, I’m against multitasking. But if you’re multitasking in an effort to maintain relationships, I’m all for it! Are you folding laundry? Doing dishes? Walking the dog? Phone a friend! I have a friend who routinely calls me when she’s driving to the grocery store (hands free, of course). My brother texted me while I was kneading dough the other day – we switched to video chat instead so I could knead and talk. It was great! Parents, in particular, love this sort of thing. Maybe it’s because they’re newer to technology and get so excited about video calls in general, or maybe it’s because they’re our biggest fans and therefore think everything we do is fascinating. If I call my mom while gardening, she asks to see everything. “Show me the pile of weeds you pulled. Yikes, that’s a lot! Be careful not to hurt your back. Show me how your grass is looking. Oh, it’s so green this year – it looks much better than last year! Have you been putting seed down? Show me what the garden looks right now. Wow, your strawberry plants are so big!” 
  1. Time-limit your calls. I want to chat with my friends and family, but I don’t want it to become a burden for them or a time-suck for me. Whether you’re hesitating to call your parents because you fear it will be an hour-long commitment, or you just need a quick hit of social interaction without derailing your workday, time-boxing your calls is a great strategy. Try texting “Want to take a quick five minute ‘coffee break’?”, then actually keep it to just five minutes. People will be more likely to chat if you show respect for their time.
  1. Consider the multiplier effect. Your efforts to feel less lonely may seem like a selfish pursuit, but the resulting mood boosting effects will not be felt by you alone. Without realizing it, your newfound good mood will have a multiplier effect: (1) your happiness will make the people in your household happier, by association; and (2) your friends and family members are likely feeling lonely as well but haven’t done anything about it. Reaching out will make them feel more connected as well. 

Sample Social Calendar:

Monday

  • Leave video message for friend group #1 (3 minutes, spontaneous) 
  • 3:30 PM – Phone call with my brother (15 minutes, spontaneous)

Tuesday

  • 10:00 AM – Video chat with my sister (10 minutes, spontaneous) 

Wednesday

  • AFTER DINNER: Play free online games with friend group #2 (1 hour, scheduled in advance)

Thursday

  • 11:30 AM – Coffee break phone chat with friend #3 (5 mins, spontaneous)
  • AFTER WORK: Video chat drinks with my husband’s co-workers (25 minutes, scheduled in advance)

Friday 

  • 12:15 PM – Book Club call with friend #4 (20 min, scheduled in advance)

Saturday 

  • 10:00 AM – Received video message from friend group #1 (5 mins, spontaneous)
  • BEFORE DINNER – Video chat with friend #5 (30 mins, spontaneous)

Sunday 

  • AFTERNOON – Social-distancing pizza party with my brother-in-law and his roommates on their front lawn (2.5 hours, scheduled in advance)

If you have any other ideas for staying connected while social distancing, please share them in the comments below!

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