Tools for Sanity in Isolation
I live alone at the moment, and the start of quarantine, was… rocky.
Here’s a jewel of an entry from my journal, from March 13:
Fuck, this week has been bad.
But, I think I’m kind of getting the hang of this. Here’s an entry from March 29:
I’m in a surprisingly good mood right now. I kind of have a headache, but aside from that I feel pretty good. Mood probably like an 8 / 10?
So I’d like to share a bit about what I think’s been helping bridge the gap between “Fuck, this week has been bad” to “8/10”. This isn’t a guide on how to be Your Best Self™️, or how to productivity hack your way into emerging from quarantine with a PhD and a six pack. This is a collection of ideas that I think have helped me reset myself to general okay-ness. First and foremost, this a post I’m writing as guidance for future-me who has temporarily forgotten all of this and is in need of it again.
Getting out of the pit
Earlier this year, I wrote about pulling myself out of the transient depths of despair aka the “Everything is Terrible” pit. I find myself looking for my list of tools for exiting the pit frequently. Early on in self-quarantine, I found myself in the same trap of feeling guilty about not being able to do more, but recognizing that I was in the pit helped me.
Here’s a continuation of my journal from the “Fuck, this week has been bad” entry:
I really want to be a force of positivity. I want to find ways to help my friends connect, and in a way that feels good to me too. To help pull us all out of this anxiety. But joining in a big group call just isn’t the thing that works for. I think that’s what being introverted really means to me. I need to connect with people 1:1, and I just need to do something with them that isn’t talk about COVID. But I don’t know how to get off the topic. I need to invest my time into something, anything that isn’t that. I definitely did notice myself slowly emerging from the pit after watching some Fullmetal Alchemist. I was able to clean my desk a little and put away dishes. And I guess I was able to pull myself out enough to be able to write this.
Okay, so I got out of the pit through recognizing I was there and taking the baby steps I needed to climb back into the cozy cabin. Next, let’s consider how to extend our stay in the cabin instead of tripping back into the pit every few steps.
Follow along with meTry writing down the three things that genuinely help you when you’re in a shitty place. I know lots of things that I gravitate towards when I’m in the pit that don’t help, so having an explicit list to look at when I’m in there really helps me.
Rebuilding my daily habits
Physical isolation from other people coinciding with the entire worldwide media cycle focusing (correctly) on a pandemic was a glorious kind of multi-targeted assassination of everyone’s emotional regulation toolkit. The exercise I get from going to the gym or dance classes? POOF. The ambient social interaction I get from having lunch with your coworkers? GONE. The warm glow of looking forward to parties or group trips? NOPE.
The removal of all of those things is out of my control. So, once I was back on steady ground momentarily, I started re-examining what was within my control to emotionally regulate. Starting with habits.
There’s a certain class of advice that’s:
- Insulting cliche
- Really well supported by science
- Really easy to ignore, even after you’ve followed it in the past
For me, four of those standard nuggets of wisdom for emotional regulation are:
- Exercise regularly
- Sleep at the same time every day
- Talk to friends frequently
From the picture of my goal tracker below, you might be able to see some vague sort of pattern for how my mood correlated with my ability to complete my habits.
I track my habits on a piece of paper that I have clipped to my bedroom wall. Before you bombard me with your favourite apps for habit tracking, I like having this as a physical piece of paper. First, because I find scribbling in my habit completion way more satisfying that tapping a piece of glass, and second, because it’s an awful lot easier to avoid confronting an empty digital calendar once I start slipping than it is to avoid looking at my own bedroom wall forever.
In case you need to hear it, you can do this. You can build habits. You don’t have to choose any of the same habits for me, but hopefully you have some sense of what things are important for you to be happy, and hopefully some of them are still doable within the confines of your home while by yourself. List them out. Make your own grid on a piece of a paper. My pre-printed one filled up, and I don’t own a printer, so I made my own using a ruler and a pen:
Follow along with me
Write down the 3-5 daily or near-daily habits you want to uphold. Once you pick them, make a grid for each week on a piece of paper like above. There are lots of other cool visual layouts for this from bullet journal aficionados here: 50 Habit Tracker Ideas for Bullet Journals. If you want some kind of external accountability, ask a friend to check in with you each day about them, or use an app like Beeminder or Spar. I used Beeminder for a while, and it’s pretty effective, though I eventually didn’t like how external the motivation felt.I haven’t actually read any books on habit keeping, but I’ve repeatedly heard good things about both “Atomic Habits” and “The Power of Habit”
Making a schedule
Having aspirational habits is all fine and good, but until you have a schedule that’s realistic about how much time each habit takes, it’ll be easy for them remain lofty aspirations.
My routine every day now looks like this:
7:00-7:30 wakeup, breakfast, watch anime 7:30-8:30 exercise while listening to podcasts 8:30-9:30 shower & meditate (I call a friend to meditate with) 10:00-6:00 work (except weekends) 6:00-7:00 dinner (I usually call a friend to talk while I cook) 7:00-10:00 different stuff every night 10:00-10:30 journal 10:30-11:30 get ready for bed & read 11:30-7:00 sleep
As it turns out, I almost always wake up 30-60 minutes later than I’m planning on and exercise a little less than I planned on and go to bed a little later than I was planning on, but I still get a fair chunk of this done.
I want to emphasize that these are the things I chose not because this is how I’m going to “win” at life, but because they seem to actually help me feel like me. If your routine looks more like this:
11:00-11:30 wakeup, breakfast, people watch through your window 11:30-12:00 doodle 12:00-1:00 order delivery from local restaurant, eat while watching 90 day fiancé** 1:00-6:00 free time! watch movies, game, read, doodle, TikTok 6:00-7:00 group call with friends eating leftovers from lunch 7:00-1:00 play Stardew Valley with friends 1:00-11:00 sleep
…and that makes you feel great, that’s great. Do that.
If you can understand what it is you need to be happy, and can schedule that so you don’t have to spend the energy every day to plan how to do them, then you’ll hopefully have more energy to actually do them.
If you have no idea what you need, experiment! Plan a schedule, do your best to stick to it for a week, and then re-evaluate at the end of the week.
Follow along with meTake the 3-5 habits you picked and figure out what order (and ideally what time) you’re going to do them in. Put it in your calendar if you use it.
Planning for the week
I noticed this really dumb pattern in my pre-shelter-in-place life. It would start when I wake up in the morning and say “Gee, I’d really like to have dinner with a friend tonight”. Then I look at the clock, discover I’m late to work, and bolt to catch the next subway to work. On the way, I open my phone to message friends, get distracted, and end up engaging in a work conversation on Slack. Then I’m at work, and every few hours I have the thought that I should really message a friend to grab dinner, but get pulled into something else then forget. Now it’s 6:00pm. I message a few friends, but they all unsurprisingly have plans for the meal that is now 30 minutes away. I grab takeout nearby, go home, and am a little bit sad.
Having dinner by myself when I wasn’t planning on it normally is a little demoralizing, but I get my social time in at work, so it’s no big deal. As far as I can tell, whether I had a good conversation with a friend is the single strongest indicator of whether I feel good at the end of the day during shelter in place, so it’s really important that I make this part of my day.
This is where batch planning really helps me out.
Every Sunday, I have a bunch of time blocked off to plan for the coming week.
The social planning part is how I avoid the last-minute-dinner-demoralization. I schedule out the coming week, and think about friends I haven’t caught up with in a while and set up calls over dinner. I’ll talk to them while I’m cooking most of the time.
I think this kind of batch planning has a few benefits over trying to schedule daily.
First, it gives me something to look forward to in the week! One of the most crushing things about Coronavirus for a lot of people has been the horrible lack of things to look forward to. So, make your own things to look forward to!
Second, it protects me against my own anti-social tendencies when I’m in the pit. When I feel like trash, I find it really hard to reach out. But if I batch plan this kind of stuff on Sunday and feel like a dumpster fire on a Tuesday, then Sunday-me’s got my back: friendship call at 6:00pm.
Lastly, I find that I just come up with more interesting ideas when I have explicit time set aside to plan stuff for the week. For example, I had this idea for a silly experiment where I asked a friend to send me a grocery list for a recipe without telling me what the recipe is. Tomorrow I’m going to call her and try to cook the recipe asking her only yes/no and numeric-answer questions and see how hilariously I screw it up. If I was trying to set up calls every day ad-hoc, I don’t think I would’ve stumbled on this kind of idea.
Follow along with meThink about things you want to happen every week but require advanced planning. For me, figuring out what I wanna cook that week to make a grocery list and figuring out who I want to talk to that week for friendship calls are the main things. Take those things, and put time in your calendar to do them.
Old, nourishing media
Beyond the nothing-to-look-forward to conundrum, the early days of shelter-in-place were in part difficult for me because of how overwhelmingly difficult it was to think or talk about anything else. This is true not only for major news outlets, but also for nearly every single content producer I follow. Mark Rober, vlogbrothers, 3blue1brown, Smarter Every Day, Planet Money, etc. etc. It makes sense — once something is on everyone’s minds, it’s going to be difficult to produce any content that’s not that. The irony about feeling overwhelmed about this while writing content that is coronavirus topical isn’t lost on me.
Following the news to make well-informed decisions is a noble goal. But consuming a ton of media about crises tends to provide me a load of anxiety without actually compelling me into positive action. In the first few days, I was doing what Hank Green beautifully dubbed “The Anxious Scroll”:
When I’m doing the anxious scroll I feel as if I’m doing something useful, and I’m seeing the same 3-5 stories over and over again, so that they seem like 300 - 500 stories, and I want to know more and want to know what it’s gonna be like tomorrow, and I want to know what it’s gonna be like in 3 weeks, and I feel like I’m doing something that’s going to uncover that reality and uncover that truth and I’m just not.
So lately when I do consume media, I’ve been intentionally listening to old media. I finished rewatching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I’ve been listening to the old Radiolab mini-series G about intelligence and the theft of Albert Einstein’s brain. I’ve been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender with some friends.
I’m not advocating for sticking your head in the sand and pretending that the world is business as usual. Stay informed enough to make sensible decisions both for yourself and your community, but stay away from the anxious scroll.
Laughing at myself
I think there’ve been spans of my life where I take myself and my problems altogether too seriously. While I’m a strong proponent of confronting your problems rather than minimizing them by trying to brush them off as inconsequential compared to the problems of others (this helps nobody), I also think there’s a beautiful light in being able to find humour in dark places.
To that effect, I’ll leave you with a little story.
In a group chat I’m in, a few of my friends started exchanging videos of them with their partners or quarantine buddies attempting to do some TikTok challenges, like this:
In watching my friends excitedly exchange their attempt videos, I felt a little sad.
I don’t have a romantic partner to do this with at the moment, and I don’t have a quarantine buddy to make an attempt.
What I do have, however, is Photoshop.
Hang in there, even if the only physical support you have around is yourself.