June 12, 2020
Coronavirus upended my life.
I was bed-ridden, locked-down, and furloughed from a job I had just started.
Feverish, confined within four thin walls, and missing the sense of purpose I had outsourced to my career, I had nothing to do. I spent days waiting for 4pm, the earliest acceptable time to creak open the fridge and crack open a beer. Weeks wasted away.
Eventually routine returned. Previously, my day was dictated by external demands. Get to the office before 9am. Go to the gym after work. Get to the supermarket before it closes. It took a global pandemic to realise my life was running on other people’s schedules. Under lockdown, these institutional demands disappeared, leaving my routine full of holes.
Slowly I started imposing some order of my own. Once my virus-laden lungs improved, I exercised my constitutional right to an afternoon run. I still struggled to wake up, but morning push-ups meant I was too sweaty to get back into bed once I finally got out of it. I put the kettle on before heading to the bathroom, ensuring a cup of tea was nearly ready by the time I left the shower. I delayed drinking alcohol until dinnertime.
Most people I know have a similar story.
When the crisis hit, worlds were turned upside down. Our routines, reliable for years, were rendered irrelevant by the lockdown overnight. We had to learn how to manage our days from scratch.
We can’t survive without routines. To stay happy and healthy, we have to accomplish tasks big and small every day. Some of these tasks are regular: we brush our teeth daily to stave off gingivitis. Some are exceptional: negotiating a lease happens once a year, but getting it right can have a big impact on your life. Using all our brainpower on every task would be exhausting. Instead we create routine.
Your routine is a buffer against uncertainty. A routine subconsciously automates part of your day — getting regular activities out of the way with minimum cognitive effort. It provides a framework within which to make sense of exceptional activities — the ones which require hard thinking.
Your routine depends on the activities you have to do. If you wear a suit to work, your evening routine might involve ironing a shirt for tomorrow morning. If you have to run a daily stand-up, your routine might involve mentally preparing on your commute.
Your routine changes with your activities. When it does, you are jolted out of your unthinking habits and have the opportunity to redefine them. If you change offices you have to rethink your commute. You can decide what goals you want it to satisfy: for example whether you want it to be efficient or pleasant. A fast commute leaves more time to lie in bed, while a walk-in-the-park leaves more time to collect your thoughts.
Lockdown has transformed our activities. The Starbucks and the gyms are all closed. Our routines, optimised for the millennial urban lifestyle, are useless for accomplishing the tasks of a life in captivity.
When our routine is shattered, it feels like anything goes. Without a set of behaviours we can rely on to unthinkingly get shit done, we lack the spare cognitive capacity to make sense of the world. Knowing there are so many things we could do, we get stuck deciding between them. Paralysed by choice.
When life is full of uncertainty, we crave order more than ever. The price of certainty is having someone else’s idea of order thrust upon us. Lacking the discipline to impose it ourselves, we often turn to institutions to provide this certainty.
If you don’t create your routine one will be assigned to you. In the distant past of the Time Before, most people’s routines were assigned by institutions. The structure of my day was dictated to me by my job: I had to be in the office between certain fixed and unalterable times. Young parents’ lives are governed by school and work: They bookend their workday with morning and afternoon school runs. Students have more leeway, but they must spend hours each day in mandatory labs or lectures.
In the Endless Now of lockdown, institutions have far less power over our time. Institutions like school and work used to control our routines by forcing us to be in a certain place at a certain time. Now we’re stuck at home all the time. No one can tell us to be anywhere, because there is nowhere else we can be.
All of us must redefine our routines.
If you want to read a book in the middle of the workday, go for it. No one will stop you, because no one will know. If you want to blast ABBA on a muted teleconference, feel free. No one will care, because no one can hear.
Swathes of time previously tied up in commuting or doing busywork are all of a sudden free*. Institutions still hold some sway — most people probably have regular Zoom meetings. But our presence is no longer expected. This gives power back to the people: We have the opportunity to fully rule our routines.
Old habits are replaced by new ones.
**Essential workers and young parents are exempted from this. Essential workers routines are still ruled by the institutions they serve. Young parents’ routines are governed by the circadian rhythms of their children.*
Few people will say they want a routine life. Routine takes care of the boring stuff, but it’s the surprises that make life interesting. Our self-directed lockdown routines give us more freedom, but can stifle us too.
In response to outward uncertainty, we focus on the things we can control, imposing structure on our days. We inhabit the same rooms, and walk down the same corridors, under house arrest for weeks on end. This makes us comfortable but bored. It’s not long before our routines turn from predictable to monotonous.
The virtual corridors we traverse are more predictable still. The process of opening your laptop and checking your email, or unlocking your phone and refreshing Instagram, is as unconscious as hitting the snooze button on your wake-up alarm. This trancelike state is further enabled by software, which makes things as predictable as possible by design. As a result, we spend more time mindlessly doing the same things on the same sites. Insulated from the outside world, there’s nothing to jolt us out of our zombified state.
Routines from the Time Before were invaded by welcome human interruptions. The most memorable parts of your day are the deviations from normal: when you bump into an old friend after work, or give directions to a tourist on your morning jog.
The best routines are like walking in a forest — they have a dynamic nature to them. Sometimes you spot a deer, other times you might climb over a fallen tree, or get startled by a snake. The path is the same, but the experience is always slightly different.
Variety is the spice of life, and (OnlyFans aside) our lives have never been less spicy. To rediscover our sanity, we need to discover the virtual equivalent of in-person serendipity. Our routines need minimum viable novelty.
Happiness lies above the line of minimum viable novelty, unhappiness below it.
What if Facebook sent you to a different friend’s profile every time you logged in? What’s Twitter’s version of the “I’m feeling lucky” button? For greater happiness and less boredom, we must inject a little randomness into our days.
Companies which provide minimum viable novelty delight their customers. Two of these companies have turned into full-blown cultural phenomena.
Scrolling through Tiktok is as predictable as social media can be, but the videos provided by its recommender feed is anything but. Users are constantly exposed to novel content, in a way they wouldn’t be on a follow-and-feed style app like Instagram. On what other platform could a Tibetan yak herder and her mum go from obscurity to virality overnight?
While their kids watch dance videos, parents (who can afford it) zone out on their Pelotons. Peloton gets you to commit to working out by shelling out for an expensive piece of kit, and its platform is designed to form a spin-bike habit as easily as possible. You form a routine by getting on the same bike, in the same place, with the same instructor every day. But there is consistent novelty, because you do a different workout, with different music, and because it’s not pre-recorded, your instructor says different things.
Novelty requires randomness. Randomness requires exposure to uncertainty, which can be exciting or terrifying depending on your attitude towards it. To tame your terror, try controlling the process which generates uncertainty without controlling its outcome. Like going birdwatching: you know what you’ll do, but not what you’ll see. You can be comfortable knowing the shape of each activity without knowing exactly how it’ll will pan out.
Game designers are masters of minimum viable novelty. Every time I return to a familiar city in Skyrim I find characters doing slightly unfamiliar things. The novelty keeps me hooked, coming back for more.
To introduce novelty, Paul Millerd recommends making your time publicly available to others for “curiosity conversations”. These are half-hour chats which anyone who sees the link can sign up to. Posting it on Facebook might lead to chats with old acquaintances, or new friends. You know when you’re going to talk to someone, but not what you’ll discuss in advance. It’s a great way to benefit from serendipity, and I’m considering doing this myself.
One way my family introduced random novelty into our days was by playing a game called quarantine challenge. I solicited challenges from everyone, like “X has to wear a tea-cosie on her head for the entire day” or “Y has to serenade Z while he does a cossack dance”. Then I wrote a script which emails each of us a challenge at a random time of day. This seems dumb but was a fun, easy way to nudge each family member out of our solitary routines.
Minimum viable novelty is embodied by a sunset. Sunsets are predictable — you know the path the sun takes as it inexorably sinks in the sky. But the experience is uncertain. Until you see it, you can’t tell whether a sunset will be dreary or wonderful.
As we become accustomed to life under lockdown, our routines are like this sunset. We know the path our day will take. Introducing novelty creates tiny deviations from routine, keeping our days wonderful instead of dreary.
This essay was inspired by a collaboration by the Yak Collective about how homes are changing called the New Old Home. There are many great contributions and I highly recommend checking it out. Thanks to Katie Hollands for reading a draft of this essay.