In Defense of Ignoring Your Routine: Living Alone During COVID-19
Eight months of a worldwide pandemic and working from home in your 1-bedroom garden level apartment began in earnest. What could you accomplish with all of this free time? You would finally take music seriously and learn to produce, you would catch up on the growing pile of unread books you’ve been gifted, you would finally write. Of course, eight months ago you didn’t think you would be stuck here for eight months. So you started immediately, there was no time to waste. The things you wanted to accomplish had been on your mind for years, and now you had all of the time in the world. You would put every hour to use, minimizing distractions and time wasters. You would focus on the hobbies that created something, like music and writing, rather than hobbies of pure consumption. Of course, there was plenty of consumption, whether it be classic films you have always wanted to see or the books mentioned earlier, but you justified those with the thinking that they created wisdom.
We were all so optimistic when this began. It was late winter and spring was right around the corner. “Quarantine” was a cute joke, a hashtag used for wine and cheese nights with close friends. Even as it got close, the impending apocalypse was still so far away. It was only there when we looked for it, either in the news that we watched or the Tweets that we read. Eventually it made its way to emails from our employers, telling us to work remotely for the next couple of weeks. The next couple of weeks became a month, and then became the summer, and then became indefinitely.
This would be your moment. As a single person, alone in your own apartment, working remotely with no more commute, you would no longer have any excuses to not accomplish everything you have been putting off. Your mind raced with ideas, the songs you would write, the books you would read, the movies you would watch, the stories you would write. It all seemed right around the corner, like you had already done most of the work and now simply needed to finish it. You began setting schedules, sectioning off blocks for when you would play guitar or for when you would right. You stick to it.
Michael D. Watkin’s famous corporate guide book The First 90 Days teaches new managers to seek out early wins. Find something small that can be accomplished early, and then jump on it. Get that early win to give yourself the confidence you need and build your credibility. I found those early wins, blowing through a backlog of books (William Goldman’s Adventure’s in the Screen Trade, Bob Iger’s autobiography The Ride of A Lifetime, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). I wrote a few simple four chord songs to play on my guitar, I finally got the riff to Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication down. I started producing, I wrote a few album reviews. I created and consumed like I have never done before. I worked out and got into great shape, and balanced my professional life. I crushed it.
It works for a while, until it doesn’t anymore. Muscles get sore, work gets busier, creativity runs dry. Frustration kicks in. The isolation becomes apparent. Relationships don’t work out. We’re not meant to live like this, and eventually these feelings snowball and freeze over, until eventually, you’re stuck, and the paralysis kicks in. The paralysis doesn’t stop your responsibilities, and eventually the work/life balance that you’ve mastered slowly begins to crumble. Suddenly your task list grows, suddenly the pile of dishes in the sink gets bigger. Things you took for granted from your days of hyper-efficiency become the first casualty of the follow up feeling, you’re overwhelmed. How can you feel overwhelmed when you thought you had all the time in the world?
You’re self-aware of what is happening, but you can’t stop it. You hop from task to task, hobby to hobby, never really making any progress, let alone finishing anything. First you tell yourself you’ll focus after you make food, but you’re frantically refreshing Reddit or Tik Tok, searching for some serotonin. Suddenly thirty minutes disappear, but you still haven’t made food. The problems compound and eventually you spend $25 on a delivery app for the third day in a row. Eventually you may snap out of the anxious cycle, you say “enough is enough” and get back to work. You stare at a task, look at it really hard, and can’t move. Eventually you get up to eat a snack, or go for a walk, and you’re back to where you started. You start to feel hopeless and ask yourself why you can’t focus on anything you want to do. The feeling morphs into a constant anxiety.
We all have to find our own ways to stay sane. I’m lucky to have found a few that have helped me push forward when I’ve felt frozen. The first is simple, put on the shirt you want to wear today. It may just be a rainy Tuesday with no plans but to work from home, but wear what makes you confident. Ignore your routine of waking up and putting on sweatpants, it’s the best jolt of normalcy I’ve found. Sitting around in sweatpants perpetuates the frozen feeling, the feeling that life still isn’t normal. In the wise words of Prop Joe from The Wire, “Look the part, be the part, motherfucker”. If you want normalcy, act like it.
The best way I’ve dealt with the anxiety is acceptance that I can’t master everything. That doesn’t mean I can’t try everything, but letting myself focus on what I actually want to be doing is the most liberating feeling I’ve felt. Accept that you have a finite amount of time and energy, and that it would be best spent where your gut wants. If you’re engrossed in a book, finish the book. Don’t arbitrarily stop to do something else just because your schedule says to. Let yourself be flexible, free yourself from the intensity of your routine.
Finally, remember that you’re not the only one feeling isolated. The make-up of our social circles are all different, and many of ours have shrunk. Casual friends and acquaintances fade from your life, some of your seemingly strong bonds may fade too. Others, however, surprise you and reach out. Nothing over the last 8 months has lifted my mood more than a simple “How have you been?” phone call. Ignore your routine and pay it forward, call someone you haven’t heard from. I do it for me just as much as for them. Rekindling faded connections has given me far more satisfaction and happiness than anything else. Those human connections are what we all miss the most from the pre-COVID world, it’s the meteor-sized gap we need to fill. Our interpersonal relationship relationships are the most important hobby we have, put in the work for them. One more time for everyone in the back — call your friends.