Are you ready to leave lockdown?

For most of us, Covid-19 has radically shifted our day-to-day context: our work environment, social milieu, shopping and even our sleeping habits.

I think the most striking change for me has been stability.

I’ve spent the 74 nights of lockdown in Bournemouth. I haven’t stayed in one place for anywhere even close to 74 nights since my records began in July 2015. For those of you (hi) who love the stats, these are my longest sojourns over the past five years:

  • 2019: 22 nights (Bristol)
  • 2018: 23 nights (Bristol)
  • 2017: 23 nights (Peckham)
  • 2016: 27 nights (Edinburgh Festival)
  • 20 July-December 2015: 25 (New Cross)

At least once every four weeks for the last five years I have been on the move, travelling across the country for work or to visit friends, or further afield on overland adventures.

Without lockdown, I don’t think I ever would have realised how much I travel—and the possible advantages of stability.

With a rocksteady context, I’ve been able to build consistent habits like never before. With no interruptions to my developing routines, I’ve seen improvements in both my work and rest.

As I explored with my special content for donors last week, harnessing the almost unimaginable power of our habitual second self can be a tremendous boon to our productivity and our happiness.

So, before we rush headlong out of lockdown, I think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves a few other questions about how our lives have changed and what we might be able to salvage for the future.

52 questions to answer before leaving lockdown

Readers of this newsletter come from all over the world, from extremes of both the World Clock and the Covid-19 infection scale.

It seems like the UK is slowly shaking itself off and starting to pick up old habits. But perhaps you are only now battening down the hatches, perhaps you have already returned to some semblance of work and play.

Wherever you find yourself, the idea of these questions is to build up a picture of your life under lockdown, to reflect on how your context has moulded your behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, to ponder on what and how you would change for the future.

I’ve split the 52 questions into 9 sections:

  • Daily habits
  • Your context
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Work
  • Consumerism
  • Citizenship
  • The future
  • Noticing

I’m not going to even suggest that you sharpen your pencils and set aside three hours; this isn’t an exam. Feel free to let the questions wash over you as you read, and simply notice what bubbles to the surface.

Daily habits

  • How do you start your day? List the first ten things that you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • How do you end your day? List the last ten things you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • Think about a typical day in lockdown. What are you doing regularly now that you wouldn’t have done before Covid-19? What old habits have fallen away?
  • Is there anything you miss from your old life? Why do you miss these things?
  • What activities have been most important to your mental health over the past three months? Have these become habits? Would you keep them or adapt them?

Your context

  • Where have you been spending most of your time?
  • Name at least three things that you appreciate about where you’ve been staying.
  • Think about your best habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it better supports your best habits?
  • Think about your worst habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it inhibits your worst habits?
  • What places outside your home have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • How have your travel habits changed? What modes of transport are you using now? Has this made your life better or worse?


  • How’s your physical health? How do you feel in your body?
  • How’s your mental health? How do you feel in your mind?
  • How have you been keeping fit? How would you change your exercise if you could magically do anything, with anyone?
  • How are your sleep patterns? Better or worse? Earlier or later? Regular or irregular? Are you napping? Dreaming?
  • Have your eating habits changed at all? What’s your diet like? Are you eating more, less or the same? Where are you when you eat? What are you doing while eating? What food has been particularly important you over the past three months?
  • How’s your oral hygiene?


  • How have your relationships with others changed?
  • Have you formed any new friendships? Or rekindled old friendships?
  • Have you been using any new forms of communication? Would you keep them or adapt them to the new context?
  • How has your relationship to yourself changed?
  • Who are you speaking to the most? Who has been particularly important for your mental health over the last three months?
  • Who have you been neglecting?
  • Is there anyone—you don’t have to know them personally—that you’d like to say thank you to? Or say sorry to?


  • How has work changed for you over the past three months? Are you working more, less or the same?
  • How are your working days organised now? How is that different to before?
  • Has anything changed at work, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? If yes: do you want to keep, adapt or develop these changes?
  • What part of your work or business has disappeared? Do you want or need it back?
  • What is important or essential about your work? Can you uncover or emphasise these elements in the future?
  • Are there any educational opportunities you’d like to arm yourself with for the future?
  • What might your working future be like? In a disaster scenario? And in a perfect world? What can you do to start making those futures a reality?


  • How have your shopping habits changed?
  • Have you bought more or less than you used to? If that’s a hard question to answer, look at the raw numbers: have you spent more or less?
  • Can you remember how you used to shop and spend money? Would you like to go back to those days? Would you rather keep or adapt your new shopping habits?
  • What possessions have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • Are there any possessions that you thought were essential, but haven’t even thought of using since lockdown?
  • What clothes have you been wearing most?


  • Do you feel more or less a part of society?
  • What’s most important for the healthy running of our society? What’s the significance of being a citizen in our society? What role does government, both local and national, have to play in our society? How would you like to participate?
  • If you could change one thing about our society, what would that be? Could you take one small step today to help make that change a reality?
  • What have you learned about your neighbours? About your local area? Who are the key workers for you? What are the most important businesses?

The future

  • What’s the first thing you’d do if you were allowed to travel and meet people freely?
  • What’s important to you this coming summer or winter? What are your three highest priorities?
  • What are you most worried about as you emerge from lockdown?
  • Think about how you felt as the news filtered in about the deaths in China, the arrival of Covid-19 in your country and the announcement of lockdown measures. How did your past self feel about all this uncertainty at the time? How do you feel towards your past self now? How do you think your future self will handle future uncertainty?
  • What areas of life do you think you’re handling well during lockdown?
  • What do you think you could have done better? How? Can you think of anyone who you thought managed those problems particularly well? What could you learn from them? If you’re not sure: ask them.
  • Do you feel more or less resilient and ready for the future? No matter what your answer: why do you think you feel this way? What steps could you take to feel more sure-footed?


  • What have you noticed about the changing seasons? The weather, the trees, the birds, the plants? The smells, the sounds, the colours, the growth?
  • If you look after household pets or plants: what have you noticed about their lives during lockdown?
  • What scents have been particularly important to you during lockdown? What sights? What sounds? What tastes? What other sensations?
  • What music, art and literature has been particularly important to you during lockdown? Why?

My answers…

Don’t panic, I’m not really going to bore you with my laborious answers to all 52. But I will finish the one I started to answer at the top, about the changes in my immediate environment.

As well as spending 74 consecutive nights in one place, I’ve also taken an equally unheard of zero train journeys.

In the 10 weeks prior to lockdown I took 21 rail journeys, spending a little over £40 and 5 hours on trains every week.

This is remarkably consistent with my travel habits across the whole of 2019, when I took 2.5 journeys and spent £40 on trains for every week I was in the UK.

Nice stats, but what have I learned?

  1. My train travel is a change of context. The way I travel is not like commuting from one familiar context to another; it’s more disruptive than I thought.
  2. Changing context so frequently is harmful to my habits, which thrive in stability. For example: a late train back from London interrupts my evening routine. Interrupted evening habits means worse sleep, which means a less productive morning and a drop in my sense of wellbeing.
  3. I have a new respect for habits. My work habits are the rockbed of my productivity, as my health and fitness habits are of my wellbeing.
  4. Therefore I should be more careful about how and when I travel, particularly when I can’t or don’t want to take a break.

The case for creative stability

There are quite a few things I wouldn’t change about my lockdown life and travelling less frequently is one.

Without long train journeys to disrupt my daily and weekly routines, my second self does all the heavy lifting: automatically preparing for work, systematically feeding, clothing and watering myself, habitually letting my fingers fly over the keyboard for hours on end.

In turn, this easy automation of the second self gives time and space for my executive self to do what he does best: creative direction.

As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

With little variation in my 24 hours, a surprising amount of writing work has been possible. Knowing now the benefits of creative stability, I will think twice about how and when I surrender the environment in which my second self thrives best.

Of course, I’ll still travel—if only to slow down time a little. Without changes in context, the days blur into each other and our perception of time condenses forgettably.

Routine might make us more productive and more content, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for great stories!


I know that I’ve been very lucky with my lockdown so far, but I hope that you’ve also discovered something interesting about your daily life.

I also hope you’ve found these questions worthwhile and have enjoyed taking a moment to think about where we are now. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share any of your findings.

Finally, if you know anyone who might also enjoy these questions, feel free to share the post. Thanks!

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? The value of persistence in writing

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? It’s a question that goes back to an Isaiah Berlin essay and one that helped Malcolm Gladwell determine that he was destined to become a journalist, not an academic.

A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

The distinction is wafted at, but totally unexplained, in this slightly unhinged profile of Gladwell in the Independent. The most interesting thing Big Malc says is when he’s asked whether he has ‘a gift’ for writing:

[I]f someone worked really hard could they write like me? Yes. But it’s a bit like saying, if someone worked really hard they could have your personality. My writing is who I am. Is good writing available to a larger group of people than we think? Absolutely. But the amount of work that goes into my writing… The last piece I did was 12 drafts, and if you write 12 drafts, I guess it’s going to be a pretty good piece, but how many people will do 12 drafts?

It’s not a style; it’s who you are. It’s not a gift; it’s hard work.

Which brings me neatly onto…

The value of persistence in comedy writing

I’m currently reading Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, one of the world’s leading social psychologists. She describes one piece of research that shows how we consistently underestimate the power of persistence.

At Northwestern University, Brian Lucas and Loren Nordgren asked a group of comedians to come up with as many punchlines to a setup as they could in four minutes.

Then they had to stop and tell the researchers how many more ideas they could come up with if they carried on for another four minutes. Typically, the comedy writers reckoned that they’d come up with fewer ideas after the break.

But when they were forced (presumably at gunpoint) to work for another four minutes, the comedians actually came up with more ideas than they expected—almost as many as in the first burst of creativity.

Lucas and Nordgren’s follow up studies showed that we particularly underestimate the value of persistence for creative tasks. In one experiment with over two hundred participants, the responses generated while persisting with the task in the second time period were significantly more creative than the responses generated initially.

The well doesn’t run dry, it runs deeper.

You can read a nice summary of Lucas and Nordgren’s work here. I’ve doubled the duration of my work sessions from 45 to 90 minutes.

Habit (re)formation in a time of crisis

These moments are rare.

An opportunity to change ourselves forever.

You know why big retailers have loyalty cards, don’t you? Yep — so they can build a picture of your shopping habits and the shopping habits of three generations of humankind and use all this data to sell you more stuff. Cool.

The data these cards collect is a significant revenue stream for supermarkets.

Did you know, for example, that Tesco has its own international data analysis company, Dunhumby? They’re actually a pretty big deal, employing over three thousand people in more than thirty countries worldwide, analysing the habits of over 1.3 billion shoppers.

And their analysis can result in some terrifyingly precise marketing campaigns that exploit ‘downstream-plus-context-change’ interventions.

Your supermarket loyalty card scheme will know when you fall pregnant — sometimes before you’ve told anyone else — and will start bombarding you with advertising in an attempt to change your habits so that you’re more profitable for them.

Companies like Dunhumby know that if they can get you now, when your context is changing, when your life is in turmoil, then they stand a good chance of keeping you after the baby arrives and your shopping habits ossify once again. Cool, huh?

This is what we’re interested in.

There’s nothing sinister about downstream-plus-context-change interventions as such: they’re a powerful tool for breaking and reforming robust habits when changing your intention is no longer enough.

‘Downstream’ simply means that you’re in control of the intervention directly (rather than, say, obeying government policy imposed on you ‘upstream’) and ‘context-change’ represents those times in life when big stuff is happening: when you take a new job, move to a new city, start a family — or freak out during a global pandemic.

These are moments when you are vulnerable to substantial and enduring habit change. An opportunity to change ourselves forever. These moments are rare.

Side story: the same mechanism might be on offer during psychedelic trips. The snow globe of your mind is turned upside down and almost everything is up for grabs.

I’ll mention one hopeful grocery-based example here. Yesterday I ran out of fruit and vegetables, so I cycled along to the greengrocer. On my way there, I passed two-metre-spaced queues snaking out of a customer-restricted Tesco Express (housed, shudderingly, inside a deconsecrated church).

When I got to the greengrocer, the shelves were almost audibly complaining about the weight of colourful stacks of seasonal vegetables. Huge sacks of potatoes and other hearty roots were piled up on the cramped shop floor, as if in mocking defiance of the empty supermarket chains.

After filing up my panniers, I asked the woman at the till whether she was busier than normal. ‘A lot busier,’ she said. ‘Hopefully, after this is all over, they’ll keep coming back.’

Thanks to this context-change intervention of Covid-19, I think there’s a good chance this shopkeeper will be quietly pleased come Autumn.

Switching lanes: what other habits could we loop-the-loop with?

I’m a freelance writer, so — as I mentioned last week — my worklife hasn’t actually changed much. I still don’t go to the office, I still don’t chat to colleagues over a brew, I still don’t meet face-to-face with customers or clients.

I work mostly alone, in isolation, as normal.

What has changed, however, is my social connection. And not for the worse.

Over the past week, I have had twenty-six conversations with friends on the phone. As well as these conversations, I’ve also taken part in a virtual pub quiz with rooms full of friends, played online Codenames and Pictionary, had several massive Zoom video meetups — and, of course, cycled off on a remote Thighsolation group ride with a whole peloton of pals from around the world.

Because I need professional help, I have kept a spreadsheet of every single phone call or face-to-face meeting I’ve had with friends over the past three years. Happily, that means we can compare data.

  • Corona Isolation: 26 conversations
  • 20-26 February 2020: 8 conversations
  • 20-26 January 2020: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2019: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2018: 8 conversations

Three observations:

  1. Weird palindromic pattern in the non-corona numbers.
  2. Ordinarily, I’m pretty isolated, averaging less than two conversations with friends or family per day.
  3. This past week, in contrast, I have had more than three and a half conversations with friends every day.

Obviously, for most people who aren’t freelance WFH writers, this social trend will have been sharply negative. My point isn’t to brag, but to show that change is possible.

If you’re feeling disconnected, then let’s set up a fifteen minute call. What’s to lose? On Tuesday, I had a really nice connection with a friend who got in touch after seeing my Calendly message in last week’s email. Simply book a time slot any day between 6 and 9pm GMT and let’s chat.

There has never been a better time to get into better habits.

We all secretly know this, by the way. It makes me happy to look out of my window and see so many people jogging, cycling and walking past in the sunshine, all discovering what Søren Kierkegaard observed:

Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.

One of the corona-habits I’m pleased to have slammed back into my routine is cold showers. I would write something inspirational about the experience, but James Parker at The Atlantic has done the work for me:

The water hits, and biology asserts itself. You are not a tired balloon of cerebral activity; you are a body, and you are being challenged. You gulp air; your pulse thumps. Your brain, meanwhile, your lovely, furry old brain, goes glacier-blue with shock. Thought is abolished. Personality is abolished. You’re a nameless mammal under a ravening jet of cold water.

How else I would like to change in the crisis?

  • I’d like to smile at strangers more (not in a creepy way). I noticed last week that I was avoiding eye contact, as if eyesight was corona laser beams. It takes some courage to look someone in the eye and smile, but it’s always worthwhile, especially if you’re otherwise avoiding one another, quite literally, like the plague.
  • I’d like to spend three hours outside every day. As this isn’t really possible anymore, I’d like to make the most of the time I can spend outside: suck up the sunshine, the scents and smells.
  • Related: I’d like to do more foraging. Nature’s allotment is overflowing with three-cornered leek and wild garlic at the moment, and a friend taught me last week that the beautiful hawthorn flowers are edible, leaving a delightfully peppery, buttery aftertaste.

How are you changing?