What a month. I hope you are well, friends; or at least I hope you are physically well, since feeling great seems too much to ask right now.
The pandemic blogging pendulum swung pretty quickly from “let’s make the most of this! Carpe diem!” to “let’s hibernate for a few months with Animal Crossing and forget about the world!” and I too have flirted with both extremes over the past month. (I picked up Animal Crossing last Friday. It’s great.) Seth Godin describes where now find ourselves as a slog rather than a situation. We feel like we need to make something out of this slog because we’re human, and without trying to sound pseudo-profound, human existence is one long story of creating meaning out of nothing.
Over the past few years I’ve been winding back my life after a decade of Doing Too Much: from Split Screen to Five out of Ten, Cast Iron and other journalistic ‘side hustles’ while juggling a day job. As Craig and I cover in the Gaming Literacy podcast, life catches up with you. Now our marriages, mortgages, and children take top priority.
Yet I also have an urge to make the most of this slog. I feel a creative spark ready to ignite, to make something small out of this month of isolated nothingness. If you feel that way too, here are some small steps to help us get through the coronavirus mess, whether we’re a week away from gambolling through the streets or if this is now the year 1 C.V. and we’ll suffer one pandemic after another like a wave of ravenous kaiju.
Do Good To Yourself
If coronavirus is a time for anything, it’s a time to recognise what we’ve putting ourselves through and recalibrate our lives in a way more consistent with our internal values. The chronic lack of sleep, exercise and good diet; the lack of quality time with family and friends; the lack of comforting structure and feelings of personal progress – these are all things we can change right now, and sustain the change as we return to ‘normal’ life.
I don’t think this is the time to sit on our asses and wallow in self-pity, or indulge in lethargy. Don’t be good to yourself; do good to yourself. Invest in your wellbeing, your body and your mind.
Isolation has been tough. We’ve been distanced from friends and family for over a month and Facetime and Houseparty just aren’t the same. People have lost their livelihoods; many have lost their lives, and their families have been unable to mourn them. Worst of all, I’ve been growing my beard for a month and I can see grey hairs coming through.
So our first goal is to survive. There are no rules for this and there was no way to prepare – even the folks on Doomsday Preppers weren’t hoarding that much toilet paper. It’s OK to have a good day or a bad day. You don’t need to have a productive day. You just need to have a day. Survival depends on sticking to what works for you: now is not the time to quit coffee.
Now is definitely the time to catch up on your sleep. I’m reading the wonderful Why We Sleep (thanks to Jess and Parramatta Library’s suspended borrowing limits) and as you can guess from the title, sleep is important. Seriously: make sure you get at least eight hours sleep a night.
Taking up running was the most important thing I ever did for my mental health. I have a long collection of journals about training for the Brighton Marathon that I’ll publish one day but in synopsis: there’s something about yourself, the road, and great music that I find transcendentally uplifting.
I cannot live without running. It was the first thing I did when I woke up on my wedding day. It calibrates me, it provides mental clarity. And it is a feeling unique to running. I have cycled a lot, swam a little, and taken up weightlifting since I moved to Australia, but it is only running – real road running – which scratches that mental itch.
Sure, not everyone is a runner. We all come in different shapes, and as I came to realise my body was not for building, I appreciated how well suited it was for running. But exercise is simply a non-negotiable. You have to do something to get fresh air, sunshine and a flush of endorphins. Walk your dog. Walk your cat. Walk around the block. Walk a little faster. Faster still. Now you’re running!
Some motivational advice: we started a challenge with friends on Runkeeper where the goal is to log two workouts a week. That’s it. Whether you run 200m or 200km, it’s the effort that counts. If you’re unable or truly unwilling to venture outside, Nike Training Club’s free indoor workouts (especially the yoga) are awesome. You don’t need to pay for the Chris Hemsworth Thor Workout.
I feel immensely grateful to have a family, job, and a home right now. Part of the reason I am writing this is to pay forward my gratitude, hopefully without patronising you, and spread a little kindness. Cultivating a sense of genuine gratitude has proven mental health benefits.
We’re talking about a gratitude journal here. Just a few words a day. I read an article recently: “in these unprecedented(TM) times, we should all be keeping a journal!”, which is all well and good if you’re a professional journalist, but perhaps beyond the reach of the rest of us. If you’re a lapsed diarist then I agree: now is the perfect time to start again. But start small. Set a reminder for the end of your work day and log a few words on your phone. I use a dedicated gratitude journal in Day One for this. Every day at 16:45 my Mac asks me “what am I grateful for?” to bring the working day to a close.
You can’t be grateful for your spouse or your pets every day. That’s cheating. Think of something new every day – or think of something old in a new way – and make a note of it. Over time, your gratitude journal will become a reservoir of inner strength for the difficult days.
If you’re sleeping enough, exercising and scribbling your gratitude, you’ve done enough. Everything beyond this point is a stretch goal.
I think the key to finding meaning in quarantining is building small, meaningful habits rather than setting audacious goals. Choose something that requires small amounts of regular practice – 15 minutes a day is ideal – that you can brute force your way through even if you’re feeling shitty. If you weren’t committed to writing your novel or coding that app before coronavirus, it will be even harder to focus on it now.
Like many of you, I wanted to seize the days of the lockdown and rule them as a productivity emperor. “No commute – great! That’s three hours of my day back!” On Wednesday of my first week working from home I awoke at 6am crackling with energy, spending the morning writing emails to friends and finishing the edits on Spyro. The next day, I woke up at 08:30, welded to the bed.
Most days I now wake at 7am; anything beyond walking the dog and brewing coffee is a victory. There’s a difference between lacking time and lacking drive, and no amount of time can compensate for the corresponding lack of drive.
Yet there is one thing I’ve made time for every day since working remotely: I’m learning touch-typing.1 I’ve been using a free website, Typingclub, and the Keybr.com drill training tool. Every morning at 08:30, just before I start work, I spin the Apple Music Beatstrumentals playlist and type. At first it was unnatural, like trying to separate the wet noodles of my muscle memory and knit them back together with chopsticks. But now when I type every morning, I quickly find my rhythm and reach a near-meditative state.
After a month of practice, I still have to think about the touch typing, especially with keys where I have built up bad habits (Y, B, any capital letter – who knew the Right Shift key was a thing?). But it is rewarding to steadily chip away at the keyboard: even if I achieve nothing else that day, I’m always improving at typing. And because I spend my home working days in front of a keyboard, every keystroke is extra practice.
Dust off your guitar, learn a new instrument, work on your reading backlog, listen to some podcasts or an audiobook. Find your own meaning and work on it.
Do you want to feel productive or be productive when working from home? If you want to be productive, go read Getting Things Done or get your colleagues into Basecamp. There’s no real secret, just internal discipline, and resolving not to beat myself up when I have a bad day. GTD might not be the system for you, but we all need a systematic approach to tasks to help us focus on what matters most.
Feeling productive is arguably more important than being productive right now. Even if you’ve had an objectively productive day, it may not feel that way until you fully reflect on it. Similar to a gratitude journal, keeping a work journal of everything you achieved that day can be helpful. Apps like Basecamp and OmniFocus will offer your completed tasks automatically as a log of victory, the former to your colleagues – a great way of holding yourself to account.
I’m bad at staying focused during the day and often get distracted. I bought a Mac app called Qbserve which automatically monitors which apps and websites I’m using during the working day2. Here is today’s analysis:
You could argue that time spent in Teams, Slack and Webex is not truly productive (and you would be right!) but I’m surprised by how much time I spend on work-related tasks. Replying to emails doesn’t count as productivity in one’s mind, but it is still a positive contribution. Perhaps if you’re getting work done but you don’t feel productive, a little data and a lot of perspective – especially talking to friends and colleagues – will help.
Don’t let the LinkedIn self-marketers intimidate you with their dubious claims of enhanced productivity. Doing your best isn’t the same as doing your most. If you feel tired, take a break. If you feel unwell, take a sick day.
What if you’re unable to work remotely? Work on something for you: weed your garden, tackle the gaming pile of shame, your reading backlog, or your Netflix queue. Do something ‘productive’ and be good to yourself at the same time.
Push yourself a little out of your comfort zone, but not too far. Do things, but do small things. That’s the balance. That’s how we can make something out of nothing.
- Can you believe that every word ever written on Split Screen, every word professionally published, was poked out using two fingers? I have hunted and pecked millions of keystrokes over the years. I’m surprised I haven’t worn my forefingers down to the knuckles. And I always knew this was ridiculous, but until now I could not summon the motivation to find a better way. ↩
- There are countless time tracking apps on the market. I liked that Qbserve worked in the background and intelligently categorised the apps I used with minimal manual intervention. If you don’t need to bill people for your work, keep the tracking automatic. ↩