One day bleeds into the next. Time feels hazy and surreal. Multiple friends have told me that, as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns, they no longer have any real sense for what day of the week it is.
One hypothesis for why we’re feeling this way is that many normal markers of time no longer exist. Maybe you used to drive to work and then come home, go to the gym on certain days, or go out for dinner and a movie on the weekend. Without such events to separate work from home, afternoon from evening, and weekday from weekend, it’s no wonder so many people are feeling a bit lost.
As I’ve written before, research shows that routines are beneficial for a variety of reasons. They help you activate when you’re feeling low, automate decisions so you don’t burn willpower, and prime your mind-body system to more easily groove into the task at hand. Perhaps another advantage of having a routine is that it can help mark time.
Scott Kelly is a former NASA astronaut who in 2016 spent 340 days on the International Space Station, the longest duration an American has ever been in space. In a recent interview with CNN on living in isolation and a confined area, Kelly emphasized the importance of having a set schedule: “If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, you know, schedule those work times. I would go as far as even scheduling meals. My wife and I have been making a schedule like we were in space, because if you keep to that schedule, and it has variety, I think what people will find are the days go by much quicker.”
We’re in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1918. So it’s not as if we’ve got boatloads of research on this stuff. But I can offer my own experience.
Around three weeks ago, I looked at my wife and didn’t know what day of the week it was. I felt down and apathetic. She did, too. Our two-year-old, however, was thriving. From day one of the stay-at-home orders—which came on March 17 for us in Oakland, California—we agreed that the most important thing we could do to keep our son happy was to keep him on a routine. It seemed to work. So we concluded that maybe we should put ourselves on a routine, too.
The changes we made were far from drastic. We decided we’d order in pizza every Friday night. We’d go outside as a family (without our phones) from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. on Saturdays and Sundays. We’d adhere to the same childcare schedule every day, my wife and I each taking our son at specified times. We’d turn off our computers around 6:15 every evening. And we’d be a bit more intentional about scheduling our workouts. (Here are some more ideas on how to do that.) We’re now three weeks into this and, on the whole, both feeling better. Perfect? No. But a noticeable improvement.
There is nothing special about our pizza or workouts or childcare handoffs or weekend schedule. I suppose what makes all of this valuable is simply that we now have these markers of time, and we stick to them.
I also realize that all of this can change on a dime. One of us could get sick. The regional park we frequent on the weekends could get too crowded for it to be safe. Something could change about our work situation. All of those are real possibilities, so there’s no point in denying them. But there’s also no point in being paralyzed by them. As Kelly said, “Focus on what you can control—taking care of yourself, your family, your schedule, your environment.” There’s a lot worse advice you could follow right now.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.