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
- The future
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!