Creating New Habits in Times of Chaos
When going on walks or runs I’ll often overhear conversations that are exclusively on one topic: the pandemic. It’s annoying. But upon reflection, my own conversations inevitably veer to the same subject. It’s reminiscent of living through 9/11 whilst in New York and experiencing the Great Recession as a new college graduate. These events permeate through every conversation because they seep into every aspect of our lives.
In 2019, I became enamored with the film One Child Nation. It’s a fascinating and devastating piece of film making. In particular, the director Nanfu Wang details how China was creating the world’s largest social experiments in the various population programs enforced by the People’s Republic of China. The idea of a ‘large social experiment’ comes to mind when describing our current situation.
The pandemic has forcibly changed our society in ways we will only understand in decades to come. And in the same way the 2008 Great Recession led to a decade of technological innovation and disruption, the Covid crisis is accelerating the evolution and innovation of our professional environments. And while it will take time to fully process the change and trauma of the pandemic, here are 2 takeaways I’ve discovered while living in this Covid world.
Forced Change In Our Behaviors Require a Conscious Change in our Habits
Let me unpack that long title. The pandemic has reinforced two important concepts in my head: incentives and habits. The most common incentive we see everyday is the price of goods. If I buy a cup of coffee and it’s more expensive than it was yesterday, I’m less incentivized to purchase it. Another example: I’m incentivized to go into the office because, if I don’t, I’ll be fired from my job. A habit I developed from this is using my commuting time as exercise time. The time it takes to commute to work by my local bus equals the amount of time it takes for me to run to work. So I can commute and get my daily exercise in for the day (two birds one stone etc).
But in quarantine, my incentive to commute has been removed and thus my habit of actively commuting to work has stopped. It was not clear to me until recently how integral this simple exercise ritual was to both my physical and mental health. So I’ve made three changes:
- Lunch Walks: I go for runs or long walks during my lunch break to create a new habit of exercise. So when 11:55 am hits, my body is in the habit of doing something active.
- “Commuting”: Every day, no matter the weather, I leave my house in the morning, even if it means I’m returning to my house 10 minutes later. There are many positives to this habit, like getting some fresh air. But the biggest benefit is it triggers my brain to think it’s “commuting” and thus it feels like my day has officially begun. Sounds silly, but it works.
- Journalling: I’ve never been one to use a notebook. Or, if I do, I typically forget it and move back to an email to do list. But in Covid, I’ve implemented more structure to my note taking and task lists. I’ve implemented the bullet journal process which includes a daily gratitude and joy section inspired by Cheryl Sandberg’s book Option B. The other habit I’ve implemented nightly uses the one sentence journal developed by the Happiness Project. Each page has 4 lines to mark the year (see below). Once you complete your first year, it’s incredible to see what you did the year prior. However simple your day was, the one sentence memory instantly jettisons you back a year.
Routines are important. Assess which habits you developed in your pre-pandemic work week and try to recreate them in some form. For example, I see many of my colleagues arriving early at work to make and eat their breakfast. Try doing this at home. Rather than gobbling down your cocoa puffs over the keyboard wake up 10 minutes early and enjoy your breakfast. Another stark realization is that many of these habits will not feel as satisfying as they did pre-pandemic. But these new habits will not be permanent. They are here to tide us over until we return to a new normal (whenever that is).
Methods of Communication Have Changed Which Requires a Restructure in How We Communicate
Every Monday, I arrive at work, place my lunch in the fridge, brace myself for the week ahead and catch up with 3–4 colleagues about their weekends. I typically do this slowly, after two cups of strong coffee and after 9:30am. I also minimized the meetings I have on Mondays and Fridays and pack everything in Tuesday thru Thursday. In the office that felt normal. In quarantine it feels abnormal. So I’ve completely re-oriented my schedule and diary in several ways:
- One to Ones: I divided my team’s 1:1s time so we meet twice a week at the beginning and the end of each week. So instead of one 1 hour meeting we do two 30 minute meetings. At one time we did one 15 minute meeting on Monday and another 45 minute meeting some other time during the latter half of the week.
- Team Meetings: I kick off each week with a team meeting on Monday morning. This was an accidental habit as I already had team meetings on Monday. But I noticed the impact of seeing my entire team first thing Monday morning meant more to me whilst socially distanced. There was some social cue that triggered my brain to delineate that “today is Monday and the work week has begun”
- Onboarding New Hires: As mentioned above, the informal casual meetings and encounters have been eliminated for the foreseeable future in office culture. This includes how managers interact with new team members. Because of this, I try to meet daily with brand new team members. Even if it’s 15 minutes, it gives some face time and a way to build a relationship with someone you’d previously have engaged with more frequently. The number of meetings reduces after the first month to 3 times per week and then to the 2 weekly meetings thereafter.
While on the surface these seem like perfunctory observations, our actions and the way we orient and start our work weeks is not by chance or coincidence. Human beings are deeply social animals and when we socialize is often determined by our work schedules. Daniel Pink’s book When details the science of time for humans. For example, when should we exercise, when should we do certain types of work, when should we have team meetings etc…. He argues quite effectively that timing is not an art but a science. And the science of how we structure and orient our work weeks, specifically our interactions with colleagues, is deeply important to our sense of community and belonging. In the end, we spend almost equal time with our colleagues as we do our friends and family.
In closing, we are going through a rapid set of changes as a society. Two key ways to help cope with these changes is to update our habits and communication methods. It’s also important to call out that these are, in the end, coping mechanisms. Human beings thrive on connection and the pandemic has disrupted this for the worst. But quarantine will end. Let’s stay hopeful and connect as best we can.
How have you restructured your day? Feel free to share any resources or new habits in the comments.