Finding a new routine in the COVID-19 world

Ok, at this point, you know the drill. Millions of people in the United States are in some sort of isolation, ranging from “try to avoid people” to “stay at home”. Pennsylvania closed schools and non-essential businesses. My wife and I are working from home; my kids are doing remote learning for the indefinite future. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up doing remote learning for the rest of the school year.

With four people living and working at home, our routines need to change and yet … they also need to stay the same.

The new routine, same as the old routine (mostly)

The advice I’ve read online and received from work-from-home friends is that maintaining a routine is key. Sleeping in later than you normally would, not getting dressed (or only getting half-dressed), skipping a shower, eating at random times — all of that non-routine stuff is fine for the weekend, but for weekdays it messes with your mental and physical health.

By design, I’m keeping my morning routine as close to my regular routine as I can. I’m still getting up around 6 a.m. – even though we no longer have to get the kids up for school – and head downstairs for some coffee before launching into chores, exercise, and the rest. The biggest change is checking into Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest version of the game that just released for Nintendo Switch. I reluctantly check out a few news websites to see if there have been any major COVID-19 developments in my state and region and then do my best to ignore them for the rest of the day. (unsurprisingly, I found reading too much about COVID-19 throughout the day was stressing me out).

Once the morning’s properly underway, I head to work … which is now up a flight of stairs to my third-floor office instead of a 1.2-mile walk to downtown Easton. Once there, much of my day is taken up by meetings, same as when I’m in the work office … except all of the meetings are held virtually via Google Hangouts Meet or Zoom. They are exhausting in ways that regular meetings are not, especially when they come in rapid succession.

Lunch means a quick trip downstairs to grab some food, then it’s Part 2 of the workday, usually with fewer meetings and more practical work time. At the end of the day, I make my way back home.

The biggest difference from our regular routine is the evenings: Normally, with scouts, baseball, band, orchestra, softball, jazz band, Seeing Eye and other activities, our family is always on the go.

And now … we’re not. We’re all home, and while some of our extracurricular activities have started having online meetings (scouts, Seeing Eye)  it’s nothing like what our nights are usually like.

All Work and No Play Make Ken A Dull Boy

All work and no play make Ken a dull boy.
All work and no play make Ken a dull boy.
All work and no play make Ken a dull boy.
All work and no play make Ken a dull boy.
All work and no play —

Ok, we’re not quite there yet, but after two-and-a-half weeks, it’s clear the work-from-home, plus social distancing, poses challenges.

  • Virtual meetings are hard. I’m used to having a lot of meetings, but those are real-world meetings. Virtual meetings are much harder. Between audio quality issues and the temptation of omnipresent distractions, they require greater mental focus than their real-world equivalents. This creates an ever-increasing psychic drag throughout the day; by the end of it, I feel tired, punchy, and frustrated.
  • Too many meetings. Going into the COVID-19 outbreak, I knew I had a lot of meetings, maybe too many meetings on some days. But now I know I have way too many meetings – case in point, on Monday 3/30 I had eight meetings. Worse, the virtual nature of meetings means people can easily schedule back-to-back meetings. In the real world, back-to-back meetings are already bad. Online they’re so much worse because 1) there can be more of them and 2) you have no time to prepare for the next meeting (or recover from the last one). Left unchallenged, they create a superstorm of expensive context shifting.
  • Not enough walking. Before COVID-19, I walked/ran about 7 miles a day. That included my 2.6 round-trip commute to my employer’s downtown office, plus the occasional side trek. It also included walking between meetings and just getting up and doing things from time to time. Working from home, I walk less. A lot less: last week I averaged 4.7 miles a day and that was with me making a concerted effort to walk in the morning.
  • The wifi can’t take the punishment, Cap’n! I worked by myself during the first week of the COVID-19 shutdown. The kids were off from school and occasionally playing video games, but I was the only one video conferencing. The second week, my wife joined me in working from home … and the wifi started having issues as both of us video conferenced with our peers. Worse, we found there were holes in our local wifi coverage that meant my wife couldn’t work in her home office on the third floor.
  • The illusion of time. With the college’s physical operations all but shut down, students learning remote, no after school activities, and me working from home, it feels like I should have more time. Objectively, maybe I do. But subjectively, it feels like I’m going non-stop from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. By the end of the day, I’m so mentally exhausted I don’t have the energy to work on my stuff.

Routine Adjustments

I started making adjustments during the first week, but as time goes on, it’s clear that this will be a continual work in progress.

  • Add buffer time between meetings: I try to do this in the real world, but in the virtual one, it’s even more important. I’m doing my best to add a 15-minute buffer between any meetings I have which – if nothing else – gives me a chance to grab some water, check some notes, or clear my head. This means defending that free time as much as possible and asking people to move meetings that suddenly get scheduled into a 30-minute buffer I had between meetings.
  • Shortening and/or eliminating meetings: Even without trying, my meetings have been growing shorter – I suspect everyone’s as exhausted by the online meeting schedule as I am. Hour-long meetings are trending toward 30 minutes, which is good. I’m trying to eliminate meetings entirely if I can … but that’s harder.
  • Incorporate more walking: I’m being more purposeful about walking since I don’t have the automatic commuting walk anymore. That means going for a 1–to-2 mile walk in the morning, and another mile walk over lunch. I also purposefully walk down from my 3rd-floor office to the 1st-floor kitchen to get water (rather than just getting it out of the sink in our 3rd-floor bathroom). I did some of this during the first two weeks home, but I doubled down during the third week. Even with the extra effort, I can’t walk as much as I did so I’m downgrading my daily goal from 6 miles to 5. Even that is a stretch, but it’s doable.
  • Upgrade the wifi: To deal with the wifi issues, we upgraded our home network using Amazon’s eero mesh wifi solution (Amazon). The system comes with three nodes; I deployed one on each floor of our house. This resulted in better wifi coverage and signal strength on the third floor and solved our early work-from-home networking headaches.
  • Decompress with Animal Crossing: As I mentioned above, Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped for the Nintendo Switch in late March, which provided a much-needed break for my family and I. Animal Crossing is the first video game my kids played – my daughter started playing it when she was four, and she’s 17 now – so it’s become an intergenerational, multi-decade tradition. The game features a laid back setup – you’re a human who’s just moved to a formerly deserted island now populated by animal neighbors – makes for the perfect break from reality.
  • More online gaming: In-person social contact outside my family has dropped to near zero, unless you count waving to neighbors when we’re out for walks around the neighborhood. To make up for that, I’ve taken to gaming online with my friends. That’s something I did regularly in my 30s when the kids were young, but in my 40s it fell by the wayside as extracurricular activities consumed our free time. With most of those activities canceled, I finally have time to game again.
  • Meditation: I started meditating about a year ago. That’s worth its own blog post, but the short version is I find it an excellent way to calm my mind and break the chain of unhelpful, panicky thoughts that can arise from thinking too much about COVID-19 and its impacts.
  • Maintaining routine: I started off the work-from-home stretch doing this, but I’m reinforcing it where ever possible, That means changing into my work clothes for the day job (yes, including pants) and maintaining a 9 a.m.-5 p.m.-ish work schedule, with regular breaks for lunch. Along with that, I clean up my workspace at the end of each day, tidying up my desk and putting away my work laptop. It’s a little thing, but when you’re working at home every day, creating that separation is important.
  • Finding time for small projects: The mental drag of online meetings, coupled with a hefty workload, doesn’t leave much energy for working on my own stuff. I’m trying to get better at that by creating my own small, completable projects to work on, such as drawing out a dwarven fortress or replaying the classic video games mentioned in Ready Player One (side note: Galaga is hard. Really hard).

At this point, Pennsylvania has a “stay at home” order in place through April 30, which means another four weeks of working from home. I imagine there will plenty more lessons learned and adjustments made during that time. While they are huge changes, I’m glad to have the opportunity to make them. They are not, in the big scheme of things, anywhere near as challenging as those changes and upheavals that other people are facing. That’s something I try to keep in mind when I get into my umpteenth fight with Slack over my headset.

Featured Image Meta

Hank, our former Seeing Eye puppy, lays on the floor in my home office. He’s loving the work-at-home order because it gives him a chance to “work” with me again. (he alternates days with Recon, our current Seeing Eye puppy). Credit: Ken Newquist

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