A Good Time for a Life Redesign
If your routine has been thrown into disarray by coronavirus, see it as opportunity rather than embuggeration.
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
Routines can help us hold it all together. When everything is in turmoil, and life is scary, putting certain habits in place can help create a sense of order, and ground us when we’re feeling untethered.
As with everything I’ve learned in this lifetime, I learned this the hard way. When I first set out across the Atlantic, within a matter of hours the excitement of the departure had evaporated, and I crashed into a state of complete overwhelm. I actually felt rather foolish. I had desperately wanted this adventure, and now I hated it. It was just so damn hard. Even something as simple as boiling water to rehydrate my freeze-dried dinner took ages — to get out all the equipment I needed, fire up the camping stove, put the powdery food in my thermos pot without the wind blowing it all over me, pour the boiling water into the pot without scalding myself, all while the boat pitched and rolled, and waves crashed over the deck.
I fell into a slump. I started skipping rowing shifts. After all, there was nobody to see, and I had three thousand miles to go — I could always make up for it later.
Running the Algorithm of Personal Pride
But then I noticed that any benefit I got from snoozing my way through a rowing shift was more than outweighed by how disappointed I felt with myself. Even though there was nobody there to see me, I was there to see me, and this wasn’t the person I wanted to be.
So I got my act together. I decided I was going to do four shifts of three hours of rowing, no matter whether I felt like it or not. I was going to stick to this routine like my life depended on it — which, in a way, it did. If I didn’t get to the other side of the ocean in a hundred days or so, I would run out of food.
From that point on, the schedule was non-negotiable. And far from being a tyranny, it was a complete sanity-saver. Until then, I’d often felt like I had an angel on one shoulder, piously telling me I should row, while I had a devil on the other shoulder, whispering to me that I was tired, that my shoulders hurt, that skipping just one little rowing shift wouldn’t matter in the overall scheme of things. Once I’d made the commitment to the rowing routine, they both shut up, which was a huge relief.
Routinise What Needs To Be Done
It saves so much mental energy to routinise things that need to get done. All that constant negotiating with myself was exhausting — the indecision, the dithering, the guilt and shame. That’s not what I wanted going on in my head all the time. I had to make it a central plank of my identity that I was the kind of person who shows up and gets the job done. (And, as a huge added bonus, having a routine also means that when you’re not working you have a clear conscience. It’s essential for your mental health for time off to be psychological as well as physical.)
It’s like we have an ever-present witness to our lives, commentating on how we’re doing depending on what it sees. It’s constantly assessing us, and its opinion becomes our reality. If our witness is saying, “She just skipped another shift — what a lazy cow,” that becomes our truth. If it’s noticing, “Wow, she really didn’t feel like doing that shift, but she did it anyway — nice work!” that becomes a much healthier truth.
Beating the Inner Critic
Of course, everybody is different. My inner critic used to be a particularly vocal little bugger. I’d try to ignore him (he was definitely male), and he would just get louder. So in the end, I decided to make him my friend, the Jiminy Cricket of my conscience. If he thought I ought to be rowing, in the long run it was simply easier to row than to engage in a running battle with him, which I never won. Maybe you’re blessed with a quieter inner critic, or none at all, but if you do have that annoying voice in your head, think about how it can be your ally rather than your enemy.
Times of disruption are great opportunities for redesigning our habits and routinising the behaviours that support our long-term health, wealth, and happiness. Self-isolation, moving house, a trip overseas — when we feel like all the cards of our life have been thrown up in the air, we have a chance to choose how we want them to fall. Especially when we have more time than usual on our hands, it’s a good time to decide on some new habits that will stand us in good stead to create the life that we want.
When you redefine your habits, you redefine yourself.
What habits make you feel like you’ve got your act together? It might be a nice change, if you’re working from home, to wear your pyjamas all day. If it makes you feel good, great. But if it makes you feel like a bit of a slob, isn’t it worth the effort to shower and get dressed? Remember your inner witness — what is he seeing, and what is he concluding about the kind of person you are? Is that who you want to be?
What are the habits you keep meaning to adopt, but haven’t got around to? What would be the minimum viable version of that habit? For example, if you have meant to take up meditation, but it seems a bit daunting, try starting with one minute. Anybody can do one minute. Even if your mind wanders after five seconds, gently bring it back and keep on sitting there for the full minute.
One of my favourite sayings is that “a job begun is a job half done”. It’s so hard to overcome the inertia and start something, but once started, it gains its own momentum. If you’re in quarantine, promise yourself you’ll try a new habit from now until the end of your isolation. It’s not forever, just for a little while. And see what happens.
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book in response to the coronavirus, The Gifts of Solitude. Please sign up to my mailing list at www.rozsavage.com to get first notification of future excerpts, videos, and publication details. Thank you!
And stay safe, sane, and as happy as you can in these interesting times.