A basic guide to personal planning
I am one of the lucky ones.
As soon as Boris Johnson announced last week that the United Kingdom went into the delay phase, my company decided we should all work from home with immediate effect.
That was a few days before our Prime Minister decided that everyone should go home and that social distancing was perhaps not such a bad idea. We are in a situation where even a few days can make a great difference to how many hospital beds are needed and ultimately how many people get sick and die.
I started working from home on Friday 13th of March and have been on voluntary quarantine since. Which means I have only left the house to make essential purchases — on the hunt for toilet paper and long-life milk, for instance. Other than that, it’s been me in my small flat. And that is ok.
I am a gregarious introvert of sorts — meaning that I am well aware of my need for social contact and, at the same time, willing and able to spend whole weekends at home reading. I am not fazed in the least by the prospect of spending a fortnight or more at home.
I quickly put together a list of activities that I could do during that time, half-baked projects, articles I wanted to write, material that used to be restricted but that is now being offered for free to keep the population entertained — such as UNESCO’s opening up its digital library (https://www.wdl.org) or museums all over the world offering virtual tours.
I have an endless list of worries on my mind, of course, and I would rather be able to continue with my life as normal. But from the start I also secretly cherished the idea of making the most of this opportunity to dedicate to my personal projects.
At the same time, I am aware that the voluntary measures timidly suggested here in the UK are being implemented with an iron fist in countries like China, Italy or Spain, including fines for taking a walk out of the house. I believe these more serious, freedom-curtailing measures will follow; they may already be implemented by the time you read this article.
However, there is one thing that I have found really worrying: since the outbreak I have been checking my phone — actually my two phones, work and personal — with the voracity of a sulky teenager. Never before have I read my messages as soon as I wake up (which is sacred time for my first morning coffee and pleasure reading), checked my feed about 500 hundred times a day, and read the dozens of social media recommendations and videos, funny or not.
Our phones are means of staying connected to the wider world. Reaching out to others is an instinct that reminds us that we exist. If you think I am exaggerating, think of how you felt last time you were in a group where your comments or suggestions were ignored.
In transactional psychology these are called units of recognition or strokes –Eric Berne’s “Games people play” defined them as fundamental units of social action. It is much better for our mental health to be rebuffed than to be ignored. We all need to feel we exist and our contribution matters, for better or worse. If I forward a silly meme, you’d better send a laughing emoji or criticize it as fake news. Anything, but silence.
But I digress.
I don’t want to continue like this. I refuse for this Pavlovian response to become permanent and have decided to consciously make an effort to decide how much and how often I look at my screen. And for that I asked myself the following question:
What would happen if suddenly the unthinkable happened: no internet connection, or no electricity?
I am sure this question has crossed the minds of many. Last week it may have been an exercise of the imagination. By this week we are all aware that anything, and I mean anything, could happen.
Depending on your level of addition to screen time this thought can be truly terrifying — what to do without entertainment or visual stimuli?. If I am able to pose this question, throw it into cyberspace and for you to be able to read it, it is because the powers that be keep this artificial window into the rest of the world.
If I was quarantined minus the internet, what would I do? What would we do? What did our parents and grandparents do?
Which made me think that the most productive way to spend the quarantine is by learning basic life skills. I am not talking about learning how to hunt and skin a rabbit or milk a cow — though I would seriously consider it if my search for milk continues to be unsuccessful…but to go back to abilities that remind us that we are very much linked to the physical world and maybe we are putting too much emphasis on our intellect, and little in survival skills that your ancestors took for granted.
Here go some ideas that I have been playing with:
If you are not fond of cooking and prefer to rely on the office canteen, order takeaways or eat out often, maybe this is the right time to learn some cooking basics. What are the essentials you should always have in your cupboard? (if you don’t, lists have mushroomed since the start of the crisis). Which ones offer more nutritional value and are more versatile for a lower price?
Can you cook a nutritious meal with cheap ingredients from your pantry? I am talking a simple cake, a simple tomato sauce or soup — rather than the tinned variety. Think of the meals you enjoy more — can you cook them from scratch? You may be surprised how cooking for using ingredients can be quicker than warming up a ready meal.
Fair to say I had never given too much thought to the effect of germs in my life. If you have been a bit lax in this area, it may be a good idea to upgrade your cleaning routine. Incidentally, I find it one of best and cheapest therapies — the feeling of a clean and tidy environment is fairly easy to achieve and cannot be beaten.
OK I admit I doubt I would be ready to fix a sink or a toilet even if I watched a thousand YouTube tutorials — but if you think you are capable, this is absolutely the right time to look at those potential skills.
In my case, I am talking more of the “make do and mend” mentality. It took someone else’s comment about the lack of masks in my country to realise that I can try make a homemade one with pieces of cloth that I have laying around and the sewing kit my Mum gave me “because I should really have one”. Which incidentally I also plan to use to sew some holes in my pyjamas and socks –you know, in case the clothes shops don’t open again anytime soon… which takes me nicely to:
You may have read a thousand articles on how to be more creative but guess what, there is nothing like actually having to find alternative solutions to get creative for real. Here is a silly example: I really wanted to use gloves in the supermarket (after watching a video from a Spanish nurse saying the virus can leave in surfaces up to 12 hours and touching the supermarket trolley can mean you catch it even when you’re doing everything else right). Of course latex gloves are sold out, and I don’t have any in the house. When on earth do I use plastic gloves? Oh hold on — what about the plastic ones that come with hair dye kits? That will do.
You see what I mean. Maybe you can use something you already own to do something you never thought you would.
When is the last time you looked at your bank balance, do you know if you spend more than you earn? I suggest you use this time to see where you are financially and where is most of your money going, what are your needs and what are you wants in life.
A worse recession than 2008 is already on the cards — in fact it seems it has already started — and job losses may well follow. Now is the time to plan how much money you have and see how long you could survive without a job. Maybe brush up your CV as well?
It may also be a good idea to have some cash at hand for emergencies or unexpected expenses. Remember — what if you had no access to your online banking?
Meditating / Praying
These activities have great potential to help you know yourself, your reactions, your weak spots. It’s only you and your breath and physical sensations, or you in dialogue with a personal God or a higher self that cares and listens to your inner issues, no questions asked. It is the beginning of self-knowledge and can lead to positive, lasting change in your life.
Routines and rituals
Finding it difficult to concentrate? Me too. It’s all too easy for any schedule to go out of the window in this unusual situation. But it really helps to keep doing what you have always done. Have a shower and dress at the same time; exercise at home at the same time you used to go to the gym; have lunch at roughly the same time and so on. Consistency will help your brain adjust to the shock a bit more slowly.
Reading can be a life saviour — you can learn and you can flee to a different world with the right book. In the interest of having more physical space I switched to e-reading thanks to my much-loved e-book that includes thousands of titles (no, I am not exaggerating). I see now there is also value in having some physical books in the house, maybe a cookbook and some DIY basics? (see above).
Keeping a diary
“Keeping a diary” is the old expression for journaling or blogging. Believe it or not this activity has been around pretty much forever, and it also used to be an intensely private activity. So yes, there is value in writing your thoughts and keeping them to yourself. Most often than not, writing them down will help you understand them, even without anybody else taking at peek at them. The odds are you will be more honest with yourself without the need to curate and make acceptable to the outer word.
There it is, my plan of action. Some activities are not my idea of fun — but I think they should be part of living a decent, self-sufficient life, something that we have been too distracted to focus on or that we came to think as not important enough. At the very least, they will help you regain a sense of control and alleviate some of the anxiety we’re currently experiencing.
Stay safe, stay calm and thanks for reading!