At this point in 2020, there’s a global pandemic. It’s a surreal experience because everyone is going through the same restrictions but all in such a personal way. It’s only been around a couple of months under lock down but for me it’s already been quite a journey. I wanted to write down my thoughts and experiences so I wouldn’t forget some of the lessons that I’ve been learning along the way (that’s what most of this site is about after all). It’s not really anything novel, it’s probably the most standard advice you could get but there is something to be said about mastering the fundamentals. At the same time, things seem to be moving so quickly that I wanted a record of what I was thinking and experiencing. I hope it helps you in some way.
It took a bit of time for me to adjust. In fact, it actually took a bit of time for me to figure out that I had to adjust! In the first 3-4 weeks of the pandemic, I felt a bit lost. My motivation at work was low, I wandered from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting, and I was struggling to figure out how to be productive while cooped up in my home. Energy was at a low point, physically my body felt weak, and I had some anxiety, not about the pandemic, but about how I was feeling. If you’re reading this at another period in time it might sound a bit dire, but in retrospect I think it was perfectly normal.
What I’ve observed is that whenever I enter a vastly different situation or setting, whether on vacation, moving, or some other significant change in my life, it takes time to adjust. Seems obvious but only when you can remove yourself from the situation. When you’re in the situation, it’s so hard to see it because it’s clouded by your mental state at that point in time. Now that I’m pass the hump, it’s obvious to me that I was in a rut.
I actually think 3-4 weeks is a pretty good recovery period given that this is a once in a lifetime situation. I’ll chalk it up to the amazing people I have around me, especially my wife, who have supported me during this time. If you’re taking longer to adapt — it’s okay! Try to find what works for you to get back to a new normal and hopefully we’ll all be out of this soon.
One of the key things that seem to correlate with my rut is losing my routine. For the first month or so, I would literally roll out of bed in my PJs and start jumping on Zoom for my first meeting. I’m a bit ashamed to admit, I even forgot to brush my teeth on a few occasions. That’s just an example of my lack of routine. Others include: not showering every day, not shaving regularly, inconsistent sleep/wake times, poor diet, not cutting my hair, inconsistent work times, and the list goes on. It takes time to establish a productive routine, and if there’s one thing to throw it off, it’s a global pandemic!
It’s a bit obvious but get a routine going! Wake up every morning around the same time, go through your morning routine (showering, brushing teeth, grooming, changing into work clothes etc.), have lunch around the same time, start and end work around the same time. These are all very basic recommendations, which I’m sure everyone has heard but probably didn’t follow when this whole thing started! These hidden things shape our mental state more than we think, and we tend to underestimate their effect. So get a productive routine going!
Sleep is important, I think almost everyone can agree with that. Getting good sleep is another story though. When stress is high, anxiety is high, physical activity is low, and inconsistent bed times are abound, getting good sleep is hard. Truthfully, I haven’t fully figured this out yet. There are times when I have trouble sleeping due to stress from work, which often correlates with me working through the evening. However, other things like consistent bed times, physical activity and low caffeine have helped. After some reflection, stress at work is probably the main cause of my intermittent poor night’s sleep. If you’re having issues with getting good sleep, I would suggest you to experiment with a few different things. Not all of them will work but I’m sure some combination of them will.
As with many others, I was constantly checking the news for new information about this novel coronovirus: watching hours of news clips, browsing every article on Apple News, and checking the growth in numbers several times a day. This is not a healthy way to go about things. The best analogy I can come up with is the stock market. It’s a terrible idea to look at stock prices daily. It’ll just give you anxiety, and the truth is that there is very little that you absolutely need to know on a minute by minute basis (or hour to hour for that matter).
So the caveat was that at the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of policy changes that were coming our rapidly, so you could argue frequent checking was justified. But as the days went on, the incremental information that was derived from news dropped dramatically. At this point in time, reading the news once or twice a week is probably sufficient.
I haven’t fully got myself off of the news cycle. I check the numbers once daily after work, and I still browse my regular news feeds when on a break, which are dominated by COVID-19 news. However, I’m much more selective on which articles I select since most headlines are sensationalized, politicized or have no consequential information for me. My recommendation is to consciously cut back on news. It’s one of those things that give you a short burst of dopamine akin to social media, but in the long term has a negative effect for your psyche.
One of the obvious things (but took me a while) was getting my work setup productive. I have an office at home where I usually do my work. It’s a nice setup with a 27″ monitor, and an ergonomic keyboard, mouse and chair. It was working well at first but my wife also started working from home and kicked me out (she has more calls than me usually). At that point I was relegated to the kitchen table where I had none of those things.
It took me a week or two of working there with an uncomfortable setup to realize that I should convert it into something more manageable. I pulled out an extra monitor (with a stack of books to raise the height), brought over my ergonomic mouse, keyboard and chair, and also got a box as a foot rest because the height of the table was much higher than my desk. The setup works pretty well but one of the biggest realizations was that I shouldn’t be in the same position all the time (even with an ergonomic chair). This means taking breaks, switching to a bench seat (for variety) or standing up (with wireless headphones). It’s working well enough that I don’t have any obvious pain from the setup.
A few weeks after the start of the pandemic, I started getting incredibly tight muscles (to the point that they would randomly ache). It was obvious that it was due to the work from home situation but I couldn’t quite isolate why. I fixed my work setup, which helped a bit. I also started doing some yoga a few times a week, that also helped a bit. But the big factor I think was the sudden drop in physical activity.
Before the pandemic, I was working out at least once a week with my personal trainer and had some light physical activity commuting to and from work. After the pandemic, all of this basically stopped with almost no physical activity. It turns out no physical activity combined with the majority of your time in a single position is bad for your body, who knew? My wife finally convinced me that we should do Zoom training and it’s been great! I’ve upped the sessions to roughly twice a week with a more HIT-style workout (since we don’t have many weights). Most of the pain is gone (so long as I keep moving). I think one of the key factors for me was the increase in heart rate (and the associated muscle activation I guess). That’s one of the reasons why I think Yoga alone wasn’t working (admittedly it was only beginner Yoga).
The moral of the story is exercise! It also has other added benefits like increased energy for a couple of days after and better sleep. Sometimes just getting the basics right is all you need.
Besides the physical issues with being sedentary, it also has a mental component. Being in the same physical space 24/7 for weeks on end is not healthy. We can’t congregate in close physical spaces but we can very easily physical distance when outside. Something that I would highly recommend is more walking (or running if you can). Being able to physically change locations is healthy. It’s definitely had a calming effect on me, especially in the beginning days when anxiety was high.
We may take it for granted but having contact with other humans is important! Again part of this mental health that we often take for granted when things are going smoothly. I live with my wife so the stress on me is less but I still find it very helpful to chat with my family, play games with my friends, and even spend a bit of time doing “water cooler” talk with co-workers. I wouldn’t discount the value in adding back some of the human contact where you can (virtually). If you can do a physically-distanced in-person meetings that also works well. I’ve visited my family with masks and a good few metres of distance several times and it feels really good.
Find Time to Unwind
Again, maybe an obvious thing but find some time to relax! Whatever that means to you, whether that’s binging TV or playing some online games with friends. Of course, you can’t go to the movie theater or out for dinner but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can do to relax. I’ve mostly used TV and computer games, although I do very much miss going to a nice restaurant to eat. If those aren’t satisfying enough, keep searching! It’s important to find an activity where you can unplug from work and the whole situation.
Work Productivity: Write it Down!
One of the obvious downsides when working from home is that communication is much harder. Where we could easily turn our chair to the next seat to ask a question, we now have to Slack them, wait for a response, and be blocked more often than before. However, the bigger issue that I’m finding is that it’s so much harder to make sure I’m on the same page with others. I think there are two main issues. The first is that we no longer have a high-bandwidth communication method (in-person meeting with a white board). This is definitely a big drawback. The latency over video chat slows the conversation and inhibits real-time feedback, and the lack of a whiteboard really hurts our ability to express ourselves in an easy way. I’ve found alternate ways to do this like a shared doc with annotations but it’s no panacea.
The other big issue (related to the first one) is that it’s much harder to be aligned with others. Whereas we had multiple ways to be in sync with others before (in-person, whiteboard, shared doc, etc.). Now we’re limited to virtual tools only. I find the natural inclination is to be much more reliant on verbal communication in roughly the same proportion as in-person. However as mentioned above, it’s much lower bandwidth. That means, it takes much longer to get to the same point of alignment compared to in-person.
My big realization (again pretty obvious for those who have done this for a while) is to use more efficient methods of synchronization and rely less on verbal communication. That is, do more asynchronous writing! One of the great things about writing is that is focuses your thinking. Whereas it’s easy to have verbal diarrhea when speaking in real-time, it’s much harder to do that in writing because you get to look back at what you wrote. It’s also much easier to be precise when writing, where precision is not easy, nor natural with verbal communication.
I’ve been doing much more writing since working from home and I’ve been encouraging others to do more of it. In fact, it probably would’ve been a good thing if we were doing more of it before the pandemic as well. Anecdotally, it’s having a good response in that more people are disagreeing with me right away. Before, we could discuss a topic for 30 minutes and everyone would feel like they were aligned (when in fact they were not). We would go off and do work only to find out much later that there was a misunderstanding. Contrast that with having written down the details before the 30 minute sync where others can see precisely where they disagree with you. It’s much more productive to catch these things earlier in the process.
Writing may not come natural to many people though. My best advice: practice, practice, practice! You’ll get better at it, it’ll come more naturally, and it’s a key skill for your career, so why wouldn’t you do more of it? If you have a similar experience to me, then you might even start to like it as well. So start writing!
There’s no universal solution to what’s happening right now. We’re all experiencing it in our own way and we have to find out what will work for each us in our own situation. I’m writing this down in hopes of sharing some of the things that worked for me but also for posterity to record what I was thinking and experience during this truly unprecedented event. Stay healthy and safe!