My Life, Before and (sort of) After COVID-19

My Life, Before and (sort of) After COVID-19

What does life look like in a world where you only see your friends over Zoom, are prohibited from sitting down in a restaurant and never walk into an office? A month ago, this would have been an interesting thought experiment. In San Francisco, where a mandatory shelter-in-place order was announced on March. 16, this is just everyday life now.

Since then, I’ve found that my day-to-day routine (along with the routines of almost everyone I know) has changed in a number of ways – some of which have been surprising even to me!

Before I get into it, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind:

  • I’m a 23-year-old single guy working in tech. I’m fortunate enough to have a stable income and I don’t have others that are dependent on me. I also live in California, which has the benefit of providing good weather, year-round.
  • There are people out there that have been impacted by COVID-19 to extents that are difficult for me to even fathom – everyone from co-workers who are struggling to wrangle and homeschool their kids, to people losing multiple loved ones to the pandemic.
  • My experience is reflective of someone that fits the demographics of exactly what I mentioned in point 1, so keep that in mind as you read on.

What changed?

My routine for weekdays has changed significantly. Here’s what it used to look like:

For at least three days every week, I would commute from San Francisco to Redwood City where I work at a company called Pango. The commute is bearable but time-consuming, taking around 3 hours to go there and back.

Now I spend precisely zero minutes on Ubers, trains, or shuttles.

BEFORE: (15 minutes in an Uber + 45 minutes on a train + 15 minutes on a shuttle + 15 minutes transitioning between the three = 1.5 hours) * there and back = 3 hours.

AFTER: Wake up in SF. Stay in SF.

In the absence of time required to commute, I found that my days – particularly my mornings – became far more flexible, creating the space to build healthy habits and settle into a routine that prepares me for the day ahead.

BEFORE: Wake up, meditate, get dressed and showered in ~45 minutes, try to beat the traffic to get to the San Francisco CalTrain station.

AFTER: Wake up, run for 30 minutes + walk for 30 minutes, shower and get dressed afterwards, meditate afterwards.

I’m fortunate enough to live a 15-minute walk away from Golden Gate Park, one of the largest urban parks in the United States. A highlight of my morning runs is always seeing the Conservatory of Flowers, a landmark part of Golden Gate full of bright, beautiful flower gardens and a building that houses rare and exotic plants inside.

Conservatory of Flowers
The Conservatory of Flowers, before COVID-19. It’s just as beautiful now, except with fewer people around.

When I get to this part during my run, I always feel a warm, palpable feeling of joy.

“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”

– Marie Kondo, Spark Joy

Sparking moments of joy

With the freedom to design my day-to-day schedule more flexibly, I’ve incorporated more of these joyful moments into my everyday routine. One example is the system I use to manage my laundry.

Given the small size of my room, I use a cubby system to organize my clothes. There are six cubbies, each with a bin I can use to store various items. Two weeks ago, I used each of them on an ad-hoc basis, with each bin mixing different types of items together.

I found that this ad-hoc approach to laundry did the opposite of incorporate joy into my life – it actually added a moment of stress in the morning, as I struggled to find shirts, pants, socks, underwear, and whatever else I was going to wear that day. I found myself asking the question: What would a truly joyful laundry experience look like?

A few Amazon orders later, this is what my laundry system looks like now.

A better, faster, cleaner laundry management system.

Each item now has a special place to live and I no longer have to think about where each item should go. It’s almost as if each item organizes itself.

If left it at just adding labels, that would be a functional system, but not one that sparks joy. To see that part, you may have to squint a little. Here’s a closer look.

Notice the happy face on the bottom left. 🙂

Every time I wake up to pick my clothes, I’m greeted by a smile and a happy face. Sometimes it’s on the bottom left of the label. Sometimes it’s on the top right. What’s consistent is the presence of a smiley face looking right at me, every day, no matter which bin I select!

This, for me, sparks joy.

Working, without distractions

With better exercise habits than I’ve ever before and three extra hours of time each day, I’ve found that I’m also more productive than I was before -and not just because of the commuting time I’ve saved. It’s because I have more uninterrupted working time.

On days that I spent in the office, I found that I was frequently interrupted by people coming to my desk to ask questions, various impromptu meetings and conversations, and general chitchat. I love the people at Pango, which makes it even harder to not engage in these kinds of interactions when they come around.

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

With the flexibility of my new routine, I’ve made a habit of carving out three blocks during each workday of two hours each, to focus on uninterrupted work. During these periods I don’t check email or Slack, I don’t look at my phone, and I don’t check any social media.

This switch has made all the difference for me. I feel like I can focus more readily, work faster, and feel more satisfied with what I’ve produced at the end of the day. Importantly, it allows me to use my time effectively so that I can spend my evenings doing other things I deeply and genuinely enjoy.

Cooking, walking, thinking

While I was still commuting to work, I would usually be too tired to do anything afterwards. I’d arrive home around 7 PM, have dinner (usually something from Doordash) and spend the last few hours reading, preparing for the day ahead, or chatting to my roommates.

With a more productive and flexible schedule, I now spend my evenings very differently. I have the time to cook a proper meal, which I usually do around 5 PM. I’m not a great cook by any means, but I’m motivated to learn and get better over time.

To start, I signed up for HelloFresh, which is perfect for newbie cookies. It gives you pre-portioned ingredients, simple recipes (all six steps or less), and most importantly, delicious meals!

Zucchini & Tomato Flatbreads – a HelloFresh meal that I cooked recently.

At around 6 PM, I step out for a 1-3 hour walk every day, usually through Golden Gate Park (again). Prior to shifting to this routine, I frequently felt like I didn’t have the time to pause, reflect, and really think deeply about my life from a higher level. I was too busy running the day-to-day operations of my life to think about why I was operating it in the way that I was.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

These walks have given me the time and space to carve out a special place for that. I feel more at peace, not to mention well exercised!

The average distance I walk + run each day, for the past week.

I’ve noticed that small aches and pains I used to have (for example, stiffness in my legs), have disappeared after just a few days of starting this routine. In terms of my day-to-day feeling physically, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better.

Friends, socializing and weekends

This is where the impact of COVID-19 has been most tangible for me. The most difficult days for me are the weekends, where I’m somewhat at a loss for how I should spend my time. I still do my morning and evening walks and runs, but there’s a whole lot of time between those two that I’d typically spend with friends, at different events, working at coffee shops, or just exploring the city.

I sometimes think about defaulting to my weekday work routine, but I know that’s not sustainable in the long run. I’ve suddenly found that I need to be a lot more intentional about finding ways to spend time on weekends.

Thus far, I’ve found a few things I really enjoy doing.

The first is catching up with friends. Interestingly, I’ve found that in one sense, I’m more proactive with reaching out to friends than I was prior to social distancing. There’s a shared sense of empathy across everyone I speak to because, for the first time in our lives, everyone has something obvious in common that they can talk about. On any given weekday I now talk to at least 1 friend, and usually more like 2-3 on weekends.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

– A.A Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The second is a category of activities, which I’ll call “Things-I-would’t-have-done-at-all-if-COVID-19-didn’t-happen”. You’ve been closely following one of those activities already – blogging! I actually decided to write this post because I didn’t know what else to do on Saturday. The other is picking up rollerblading! Full disclosure: I bought my rollerblades, but I haven’t actually used them yet. :p

In general, I’ve found that the absence of semi-automatic social interaction is useful as a forcing function for discovering new, creative hobbies and pursuits to occupy my time.

What now?

When I try to imagine meeting up with a large group of friends for board games, taking a dance class, or just catching up with friends over tea, it seems like a distant idea – probably because it is a distant idea.

It’s fairly unclear to me (as it probably is to most people) when this social distancing period will end. Given how rapidly the virus is spreading, it seems very possible that we’ll be stuck in this strange and unfamiliar way of living our lives for months to come.

Ultimately, I don’t know how it’ll end up affecting me, my friends and family, my community, or the world at large. What I do know is that I’m trying to make the best of it, one day at a time.

– Thenuka