Finding equilibrium in a difficult time

by Julia_Wise9 min read18th Mar 20207 comments


Self-careCOVID-19 pandemicCommunity

To start: I don’t want to say that self-isolation is that bad in the scheme of things. People have lost their lives, they’ve lost loved ones. Healthcare workers are working hard, at their own risk, to protect us all. Some other workers don’t have a choice about continuing to work in person. And for some immunocompromised people and their families, self-isolation is the reality much or all of the time.

But I’m writing for those of us who aren’t physically ill, are doing some amount of self-isolation or social distancing because of the pandemic, and are not finding it easy. Most of this isn’t specific to EAs, but I hope it’s useful.

We are all having a hard time with this

I assume I’m not the only person who finished last week and realized I’d gotten very little work done.

We're all anxious about the situation in different ways. This is a hard, weird time. I don’t expect to have normal work weeks for a while, and you probably shouldn’t expect that either (especially if you’re newly working from home or if you have children who are suddenly out of school). And if you're affected by job loss, of course things are even more upside-down.

Focus on the basics: Sleep. Eat nourishing food. Get some exercise and sunshine. Connect with other people. These things are literally a public health measure — you’re protecting your immune system.

On information:

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself reading more about this topic than is useful for any practical purpose. Think about diminishing marginal returns: what's the amount and kind of information about this that will benefit you? And when does it start to produce very little value?

Here’s the advice Gregory Lewis (a medical doctor and public health specialist who works on biorisk at the Future of Humanity Institute) gave to his colleagues:

I’d recommend some information hygiene. The typical person doesn’t need ‘up to the minute’ information on what is going on worldwide, and generally it takes time for instant reports to resolve into a clear picture. 

Further, typical media reporting will tend to be biased in the very alarming direction (e.g., the typical ‘live feed’: “New case in A!” “New Case in B!” “Event C cancelled due to coronavirus fear!”). Social media tends not to be much better regarding bias, and worse with regard to reliability.

In other words, especially for those worried about this, staying glued to the screen can get a very high yield of anxiety for a very poor yield of useful action-relevant information.

Here are some good sources of information (which is the bulk of my information diet):

On working remotely:

When the Great Plague of London sent Isaac Newton and other Cambridge students home for a year in 1665, he did some of his best work including the famous falling-apple realization. Maybe once you settle in, you'll have a productive time in a different environment than usual.

If you’re used to working from a desk and switch to working from a couch or bed, you’re risking hurting your body. (After a two-week stretch of writing from bed a lot, my husband had serious wrist pain for weeks.) Please set up a good workspace where you can use your computer without putting your neck, back, and wrists in awkward positions. 


On routine:

Most people who work from home, homeschool, etc, will tell you that having some regular routine is helpful to them.

Kellie Liket, an EA who self-quarantined with her family in early March, writes about the routine she’s settled into:

  • Immediately create a strict routine, with positive incentives for succeeding
  • Set screen times (incl laptop/phone)
  • Set breakfast, lunch, dinner times
  • Stick to work and non-work 'adjusted' hours (I try to get 6 concentrated hours a day, weekdays only)
  • Say to your family during every dinner (or if you're alone in self-quarantine, when you call your family or friends) for what 3 things you're grateful today
  • Read a novel for at least 30mins before going to bed (and then, of course, no phone until the next day)
  • Have a damn good coffee and your morning walk/breakfast before you touch your phone when you wake up

She also notes how things are different from her usual life:

  • “Energy/time for work: ~60%
  • ~40% to support loved ones, especially those working in the public health sector/ play with kids/ time wasted due to being anxious”

From Emily He’s account of how she’s spent her time quarantined in Kunming since January: 

“I started exercising a few days ago and already notice a difference in how I feel. Even just 30 minutes of cardio gives me the energy to get through the day without feeling like a complete sloth. And to give my brain some activity, I borrow e-books from the Cambridge Public Library and am writing more. . . My mom had a sudden inspiration to make dumplings. She rolled out the dough, mixed the filling, and together we wrapped over a hundred dumplings. On the bright side of this quarantine, my mom and I, who see each other just once or twice a year, are spending lots of quality time together.”

Things to do

If you’re practicing social distancing (whatever that means), some ideas:

We still have the outdoors, unless your only option is a crowded sidewalk. Go get some vitamin D. See what the spring has brought (or the autumn, if that’s where you are). Meet someone for a walk, run, or bike ride together. 

Exercise. Try the 7-minute workout (chart, app, needs no equipment except a chair), Zumba, yoga (videos, app), running, or something gentle like tai chi if you’re ill or have a headache. 

Clean and organize at home. If you don’t want to KonMari your apartment, maybe at least wash out the crevices in your water bottle. 

Write to someone you've lost touch with, or write to someone and tell them something you appreciate about them.

Pick a skill to get better at. Meditation, beat saber, playing the guitar, tantric sex, knitting (but not all at once, please). 

Make art.

Bake. My favorite recipe source

Read something escapist. If you’re looking for ideas, there are lots of EAs to follow on Goodreads — my favorite people to follow are Kate Donovan, Pablo Stafforini, Ozy Frantz, and Aaron Gertler.

Plant something. Green onions will live in a jar of water and continue putting up shoots as you trim them off to use in cooking. Carrots are easy. Or maybe just go for a houseplant.

If I really sang “Happy birthday” twice every time I washed my hands, I’d probably lose my mind. There are many lists of alternative songs with roughly 20-second choruses including “Jolene” and “Love Shack.” (For this former choir nerd, it’s Non Nobis Domine.) There are also handwashing meditations from the Jewish tradition and the Buddhist tradition

Putting things in perspective

This is a historic event. I find it kind of comforting to know that other people have been through similar historic events. Other people throughout the centuries have experienced epidemics and have worried, argued about what to do, and done their best to take care of each other.

C.S. Lewis wrote in 1948:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

What we can do

Of course, we do have agency. We can talk to our employers, our family, and our friends, and explain why we’re taking this seriously. We can help others near us (for example, mutual aid groups are being organized all over the UK). If you’re inclined toward engineering, there are projects manufacturing personal protective equipment and other supplies. We can protect each other by staying home. And if you’re working in healthcare or other essential services — thank you.

The work EAs do is still important. Donations are still important. All the problems we’ve been working on are still here, and will still be here when this is over. 

More resources

Short guided meditations on topics like self-compassion in times of stress, handwashing meditation, and podcasts on handling coronavirus anxiety, from Ten Percent Happier

Spencer Greenberg’s list of 45 meaningful things to do while isolating at home

Museums with virtual tours

NPR’s tiny desk concerts

Being social while social distancing

Focusmate virtual coworking

How to prepare for Coronavirus: Advice from someone who has been through it. More from Emily He on mentally preparing and what she has found useful during quarantine

Beginner board game recommendations for adults

Board / tabletop games you can play online:

Video, phone, and computer games to play with friends

And this lovely recording of quarantined Italians singing together from their windows.


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:27 PM
New Comment

I also like this quote:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

An update after about a month at home - I think I was overly optimistic about some of this! I've definitely spent less time than planned watching concerts and more time working out how to procure ice cream. If meditation and such is working for you, great! But no shame if you're like the rest of us and not exactly living up to your lockdown ideals. 

This is great.

Highlight for me:

The work EAs do is still important. Donations are still important. All the problems we’ve been working on are still here, and will still be here when this is over. 

I do know this, on an intellectual level, but I need to remind my emotions about it now and again at the moment. So that was a welcome paragraph.

Highlight I immediately sent to my partner:

If I really sang “Happy birthday” twice every time I washed my hands, I’d probably lose my mind. There are many lists of alternative songs with roughly 20-second choruses including “Jolene” and “Love Shack.”

I expect both of those will be on heavy internal rotation for her for the next little while.

Thanks for this article!
In case someone is looking for generic and evidence-based advice on physical exercise, see here.

Wow. Fantastic article. I love all the details like planting green onions and writing to someone we’ve lost touch with. My favorite of all is the quote you pulled from CS Lewis. So timeless, so relateable. I find putting things into perspective has been super helpful in getting through quarantine. Finally, of course, thank you sooo much for including me in your list of suggested resources :) I’ve found a new purpose in light of these strange times. Hope you are well!

I love this

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts

I mean, credit goes to Lewis, and to Harry Peto for linking to it in another EA discussion group!