April 10, 2020

A Sustainable Pace

It's now been a few weeks since many of us in the U.K. have gone into lockdown. We're spending a lot more time at home and our social calendar has suddenly freed up, completely, for the foreseeable future. So why are we so tired?

When we first moved to the U.K. in 1998 from the Boston, Massachusetts area, my very smart Aunt Kathleen gave my wife and I an abbreviated version of the course she gave to corporate managers who were about to go on overseas assignments. We found this training to be extremely helpful in the first few months in London. It was a guide for handling life-upturning change, precisely what we're going through again right now, and is one of the reasons I was expecting the tiredness.

So it's a useful exercise to revisit some of that wisdom and see what it could teach us about this period in our lives.

Mood swings

Damping oscillation graph

One unfortunate side-effect of our radical change in location in 1998 was rapid swings of mood. We'd go from, "This is great -- it'll be like vacationing all the time!" to "What the hell have we done with our life?" from one day to the next.

Aunt Kathleen showed us a graph similar to the one above. She said to expect times where things looked unrealistically wonderful, followed by bleak periods. These swings will become less sharp and more gradual over time, she said.

I like to think of it as a stone thrown into a pond. The waves are high and frequent closer to the event, but become less pronounced the further you move away (in time and space) from the disruption.

I can't say I had many periods of euphoria about lockdown, but I'd also be lying if I said I didn't look forward to working from home for an extended period. Quickly, however, the reality of using my home as my place of work sunk in. The constant video conferencing, the poorer office equipment and less downtime and separation from work got old quickly. So has separation from my family -- all five of my children and my sister in London used to get together very frequently. Now we see each other only on video. My enthusiasm for it all as waned.

As the weeks drag on, though, I'm getting used to things. I still have swings in mood from day to day, but there becoming less sharp, more just the normal ups and downs. I'm beginning to appreciate the upsides -- I can wander out to my garden for breaks, and my wife and I can spend more time together. It'll be OK. The waters are calming.

Why are we tired

Another aspect of radical change that my aunt warned us of was exhaustion. You would think moving from New England to Old England wouldn't be that big of a jump -- and it wasn't. We spoke more or less the same language, for example.

But there was a constant underlying current of effort -- things were slightly different everywhere we went. The foods we were used to buying in the supermarket weren't there, so we had to find substitutes. The schools were organised completely differently, and we ended up with our children split between two primary schools. Driving on the left, figuring out the Tube, understanding some of the accents, and on and on.

None of the individual changes were overwhelming. They were just minor adjustments, for the most part. But a whole day of learning new things took its toll. We were exhausted by the time we went to bed each night.

Similarly, the cognitive load of constant remote working and socialising is draining. We don't notice each adjustment, each individual tweak to our life, yet they suck the energy out of us.

We have to learn to take it easy on ourselves. We simply cannot keep going at the same pace that we were in the before-time (or BC, Before Coronavirus, as it coming to be known). And that's OK. We're not just working from home, we're trying to keep going through some truly historic upheavals. We need to be kind to ourselves -- go to bed earlier, rest up. Just because we're not going out, for example, doesn't mean we have to fill all that time with learning a new language or new instrument.

Things that help

The final part of my aunt's training was to suggest things that can help get over the worst effects of change. For example, she suggested drawing a rough map of the neighbourhood (the location of the local shops, schools and church) and sticking it on the fridge, to help us make the mental adjustment to our new environment. A lot of what she suggested, however, was specific to relocating and not as relevant to what we're going through now. So what would help?

One of the big surprises about the lockdown is what I'm missing. It's not what I would have expected. Take commuting -- why would I miss that? I ride a motorcycle to work. Operating 250 kg (550 pounds) of metal, on two wheels, in London traffic -- especially the way we do it around here, using the space between lanes of traffic -- is an activity that fully engages the mind and body. If I want to survive the experience, I have to be awake and aware. I don't have the mental space to be thinking too much about what I want to accomplish today (on the way to work) or regretting what I didn't (on the way home). That commute was a very useful boundary period -- a total separating wall -- between work time and home time.

It also was a very useful activity for my mental health. I practice mindfulness meditation, have for years and still do it every morning. Motorcycle riding is very different, but it has similar benefits. The first chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance describes it well. It's nothing like driving a car. You are in the environment, the weather literally (and often, here) streams off you and drips down your back. You're not just watching the world go by like it's a TV channel.

I miss those two periods of my day when I was brought out of my thoughts, into the stark reality of how I'm going to safely thread my way through that black cab to my left, and the lorry to my right. I'm finding that I need substitutes during this period. They don't have to be death-defying, but they need to be engaging in a way that is completely different than my work.

Writing this blog is one such activity. It wouldn't have helped at all for when I was a reporter or editor, but it is quite a break from working on software. Another activity is gardening and general DIY around the house. I'm absolutely rubbish at that kind of work, so it does occupy me more than most people. I'm also find that I need more play. My wife and I have started playing pool more frequently, for example.

I'm sure as this lockdown drags on that we'll get better and better at coping, and even thriving. I'm actually looking forward to the adventure, good and bad. That's what got us out of that transition period when we moved here. We started looking forward more than backwards. Instead of comparing our new life with the old, we just started noticing and appreciating our life, as it is.

Then and now, we're taking things one day at a time, at a sustainable pace.

Tags: lockdown life change