With nearly two months of quarantine under our belts—and the likelihood of several more—people everywhere are suddenly facing a new set of challenges. Whether it’s coping with the boredom of underemployment, or the struggle of too much work without structure, these new scenarios have a strong psychological impact (which is only compounded once you add kids into the mix). To meet all of life’s demands, conditioning yourself to stick to a routine is essential. While we may grow lackadaisical in the face of monotony, staying proactive in the day-to-day will improve self-satisfaction. Take time to self-reflect, and focus on these six key factors to help yourself feel in control during Covid-19:
1. Create a Routine
Contrary to what you may have been taught, willpower generally sucks as a means of accomplishing things. It’s not that you have poor willpower, it’s that human beings in general have poor willpower. We’re very, very bad at muscling ourselves into being productive, and there’s decades of research to prove it. But this doesn’t imply that you can’t be productive, it just means that willpower shouldn’t be the only thing that you rely on. This is where habit and routine come in.
Human beings thrive when using a schedule. Our brains are actually wired to look for— and stick with— patterns. That’s because they restrict “in the moment” choices, which is precisely how willpower fails us. The decisions come before the actual tasks, which is probably when you’re feeling motivated to accomplish them. Routines and schedules are a way to ensure that your future self can complete “task A” followed by “task B” without letting your present self (the one that wants to watch Netflix) call the shots.
2. Get Dressed
In behavioral psychology there is a concept called “classical conditioning,” which refers to the phenomenon of how we associate seemingly arbitrary environmental cues with certain psychological and physiological states. Maybe when you smell your coffee in the morning you start to feel more awake, even before drinking it. Or you might hear a song on the radio from a movie that made you cry, so you start to tear up as you drive. Those simple cues (the coffee, the music) have an influence on your psychological state, and therefore, your mood.
The same is true of how you dress. Now, we all know that one of the benefits of working from home is being in your pjs all day (or at least your pajama pants, if you have a video meeting). But if you normally wear them around bedtime or on a lazy weekend, you’ve taught yourself to associate pajamas with sleepiness and relaxation. On the flip side, you have likely come to associate your work clothes with focus and success, so you don’t want to spend time that could be meaningful and productive in the state of lassitude your pajamas are likely to bring on. Try wearing your regular work clothes even though you’re at home, but if that sounds too abhorrent, try this trick from a friend of mine: keep one pair of pajamas for sleeping, and another pair for working.
3. Maintain Hygiene
Hand-in-hand with how you dress is how you take care of yourself. The typical things that you do to get ready for the day, like brushing your teeth, showering, or putting on deodorant, might not be part of your day when working from home. If that’s the case, you might be feeling a little unkempt by now, and human beings automatically (though often without awareness) associate poor hygiene with disgust. You might not have to worry about how other people think or feel about you, but you can develop that feeling of disgust with yourself. And if you feel disgusted with yourself, you might find that you’re avoiding meaningful and productive activities. But by practicing your regular grooming habits, you can help yourself feel more awake, professional, and productive as you go about your day.
The benefits of exercise are obvious, so instead of addressing the why, we’ll focus on the bigger question at hand: how? How do you get started— and maintain— a regular exercise regiment? Trying to figure this out can be a major mental barrier, and struggling to reach the “gold standard” of exercise leads to a loss of motivation. The most effective approach in combating this is to set a goal that is attainable, and therefore, more likely to happen. There are two key things to remember. The first thing to remember is that anything goes, and some exercise is better than none. This means that an hour long CrossFit class on YouTube, five minutes of jumping jacks while you reheat your lunch, or anything in between, is enough. When we focus on our successes, in any capacity, we feel satisfaction. That positive reinforcement leads to a positive cycle of a repeated exercise, and as we acclimate to that routine it encourages us to increase the amount of time spent exercising.
The second part involves making a commitment to do something, and scheduling time to do it as soon as possible. We have a present self, and a future self. Our future self is our aspirational self, the one that wants to run an 8 minute mile or squat 150lbs. However, when the present self is about to slip on a pair of gym sneakers, it might think that watching TV would be the better deal. To reduce that distance between the present and the future self, you have to act on desires as soon as possible, so that your aspirational self has the chance to make choices in the present.
5. Take Breaks
Without commuting to the workplace, people may be experiencing one of two scenarios: 1) There’s minimal-to-no work, which means increased screen time to stave off boredom; or 2) The social atmosphere of the office is absent (no cake break for Ron’s birthday, or chit-chat with Rebecca about her trip to Hawaii) so that time is instead spent at the computer.
Both scenarios can be fulfilling in their own way, but can also lead to burnout, dread, or just feeling gross. The dry eyes; the body aches from sitting still too long; the uneasy feeling in the belly… and when we do finally get up, it’s just to shuffle around like a zombie.
Our minds and bodies have not evolved for this sedentary workflow. If you ask Darwin, he’d remind us that we’re meant to be using our hands to build tools, and our legs to run around and hunt, rather than practice a convincing impression of a mannequin. And even though the hunting-gathering lifestyle is no longer reality, our evolutionary development needs us to stay active in some capacity.
The best way to do this is to remember the 20-20-20 rule. Set a timer for every 20 minutes to remind yourself to look away from your screen for 20 seconds, and focus on an object that’s about 20 feet away. And at least once an hour, set a reminder for yourself to get up, stretch, and take a short break. How you use the break is up to you, but it will be most helpful if you rest your eyes, move your body, or say hi to a loved one.
All creatures have what is called an “environmental niche.” These are the aspects we have evolved to thrive in, and without them, we can’t flourish. For dolphins, it’s the ocean; for birds it’s the sky; for chimpanzees, it’s the rainforest. And for humans, it’s the social environment. From a biological perspective, human beings need other people as much as fish need water. But the difficulty of our modern environment is how easy it is to succumb to one more episode of Netflix, or another hour of gaming, which comes at the cost of time with friends and family.
The medicine for this is not just the occasional text to a friend, but regular, scheduled contact, whether it be a phone call or a Zoom hangout. If we don’t schedule these interactions, it can be easy to fall into the “I’ll get to it later” trap, where later becomes never. Like a fish out of water, our emotional well-being plummets outside of the social interactions that help us thrive.
The key to conditioning yourself to maintain a proactive lifestyle while in quarantine comes from practicing these strategies in tandem. When established as part of a routine, a healthy balance of activity and relaxation are the building blocks for self-satisfaction and mental well-being.