Pragya Handa - Reading at home

Life after lockdown: 7 habits I'm striving to keep

“2020 was a strange year.” 

Sounds like a ridiculous understatement doesn’t it? As disruptive and difficult and just plain weird as it has been living through it, I keep wondering how I’m going to look back at this year and describe it to someone 5, 10, even 15 years down the line. 

While Somerville, Massachusetts never went into a full lockdown, I was still ‘stuck’ in my small apartment in this suburban town for the majority of 5 months from March to July with the rest of my family and friends scattered all over the globe. Flights back to Dubai were cancelled, internships were cancelled, research projects and trips were cancelled, and here I was driftless, trying to shore up my summer and do something - anything - with all this unexpected time on my hands. 

Contrary to some social media depictions, my endless free time did not turn into growing my own produce, mastering a new language, or increasing productivity by 200%. The listlessness could be pervasive and most days I had to consciously remind myself that we were living through a global pandemic -  even with the constant (bad) news updates - and being a productivity guru was not the goal when life has just been upended. 

As we cautiously emerge on the other side of lockdown and adjust to this ‘new normal’, I am trying to unpack everything I have learnt about myself after spending so much time in my own company. It was easy to slip into some of the “bad habits” everyone has rightly been bonding over (waking up at noon and existential crises by midnight anyone?), but in this post I want to focus on and really remind myself of some of the “good” habits I unintentionally stumbled upon and am striving to keep post lockdown.

1. Keeping in touch with friends and family (Zoom-fatigue notwithstanding)

One would think that as a lifelong expat with friends and family all over the world, I would already have this part down pat. Wrong as it turns out. 

I was quite frankly, abysmal at keeping in touch with people not in my immediate orbit and despite knowing this about myself, I was convinced that this was just the way I was. There just wasn’t enough time in the day for me to reach out to everyone. It would just have to wait till I was done with school, and work, and the gym and my readings … until there was no time at all. 

Then the pandemic hit and we were all stuck indoors, collectively experiencing the same reality everywhere around the world. Suddenly, speaking to people I haven’t spoken to in ages didn’t seem so weird.

Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp were always around but the unspoken norms around how to reach out, when to reach out, were broken and I realized that keeping in touch was easy.

Technology has made it easy, but somehow I had built it up to be this grand task in my head that will take too much time and energy and a whole ritual to get started.

I’m still not great at reaching out, but in the space of 6 months, I feel like I have spoken to more friends and family than I have in the past 6 years. And more importantly, I spend considerably less time thinking about whether I should reach out rather than picking up the phone and just doing it. 

Getting creative with Dungeons & Dragons via Zoom

2. (Truly) Practicing Gratitude

We have all read the literature on this: Gratitude makes your life better, happier and on a more cursory level, I was already trying to incorporate it into my life by using tools like the five-minute journal on an on-and-off basis since the beginning of this year.  

It seemed like a simple enough task: Just list 3 things I was grateful for every day. It was easy enough as the beginning but as the days seemed to pass by in a flash and blur together with the repetitive routine of classes, readings, assignments, errands, etc. etc. etc., it started to feel like a chore, or a perverse game almost, where I struggled to find different, seemingly superficial, things to write about every day. 

Heart-warming song lyrics always preach that “you don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone” and while this was the more obvious result of the pandemic, I found that I was also grateful for things that I didn’t even realize were missing from my life pre-lockdown.

Focusing on the silver lining and practicing gratitude started to make a real impact on my day when I was stuck with my spiralling thoughts or bombarded with the news. And just like anything else we practice, as soon as we begin to see the benefits and stop having to think about it so much, it become easier to keep going as a a daily part of our lives.

Photo by My Life Journal on Unsplash

3. Taking a walk, just for the sake of it 

People who went on walks, i.e., walking without a direction or destination or purpose, had always baffled me. I just didn’t get it - what was the point of walking around aimlessly? If I wanted to work out, I’d hit the gym or go for a run. If I wanted to add more steps to my day, I’d take the stairs or add more walking to my commute. 

Clearly, I was missing out on the superior restorative qualities of a simple stroll-around-the-neighbourhood walk.

Traditional meditation during this time, even with apps like headspace, was out of the question; I couldn’t seem to sit still and concentrate on anything for any amount of time to make that work.

What started as a safe way to escape the confines of my apartment during quarantine, turned into a meditative practice for me, a way to clear the cache of my mind and instantly boost my mood.

Even if I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts, a podcast or an audiobook or just music would keep my company while the fresh air and extra movement worked its magic.

I also came to realize that I had never fully explored my neighbourhood before despite living there for almost a year. Who knew we had a hidden river trail, a cycle park and a lesser-known local ice cream parlour on hand? You could drop me off 5 streets away from my apartment but without google maps, I would more likely than not still be finding my way home. 

Sunset views from the Alewife Greenway River Bike Path

4. Prioritizing movement - even if it’s just 10 minutes per day. 

Along the same vein, movement of any kind kept me sane, especially on days I couldn't leave the house. 

The elaborate gym scheduling, routine, workout split was tossed out the window while conversely the resistance to working out shrank.

I didn't have to pack a gym back, walk 20 minutes in the frigid weather, change, shower, run back to class between any gym sessions. I could just get off zoom, barefoot and in pyjamas, roll onto my yoga mat two feet away and get started. 

Some days a friend would zoom in and finish us both off with a crazy session, some days I would just dance around my room blasting old-school Punjabi, and some days I did nothing but stretch my (hunched) back and (numb) butt. 

If I thought we were already on our devices 24/7 and online classes wouldn’t make that much of a difference, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being glued to my laptop to marathon a TV show is one thing, online meetings, classes, more meetings is an entirely different concept, and I so bloody tired of looking at a screen.

I didn’t have to motivate myself to get started, I was eager to do anything that got my heart rate up and gave me a break.

The irony was that no matter how mentally tired I was, nothing helped refresh me and help me sleep better than being physically tired as well. 

Developed a better relationship with running (although we're still not best friends) 

5. Allowing myself to be creative 

You know how in school you're dubbed as the "creative" child if you're good at arts and crafts and if not, well that's the end of all that (do science beta). Over time, choices are dictated by the subconscious mantra - ‘I'm just not that creative’ - and I've consciously made it a reality by saying it repeatedly, to myself and others.

Creativity, according to the all-knowing internet, is simply defined as - “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.

I don’t why and how, but somewhere along the line it has been conflated as a talent and passion for fine arts when nothing can be further from the truth. It's a talent you cultivate for writing, dancing, gaming, web design, makeup artistry, heck even traditional industries require a modicum of creativity which is now touted as a crucial business requirement. 

Everyone was out there trying new things during lockdown, and it gave me both the time and permission to pursue old hobbies and pick up new ones without judgement or skepticism of whether I could do it or not. 

Blogging is my form of creative outlet, dancing is my form of creative outlet, makeup is my form of creative outlet, even terribly sketched out drawings and insensible paintings can be my creative outlet if I want them to be. I am creative and I choose how I want to depict my creativity to the world. 

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

6. Reducing consumption + impulse purchases 

This has gone either ways for people with many taking advantage of retail sales and online shopping and just plain boredom. But research suggests that more people like me were inclined to limit their mindless purchases and cut back on budding consumerism for no other reason other than the fact they had absolutely nowhere to be.

The 80/20 rule suggests we wear 20% of our closet, 80% of the time. As the weeks of quarantine stretched into months, it was down to 5% of my closet (sweatpants and leggings) worn 100% of the time.

At one point, I was even questioning if I needed a closet chock-full of clothes when I couldn’t even find my nice sweats when I needed them. 

And it wasn't just physical items either, being confined to the house meant fewer trips, saving transport, food & beverages, and endless cups of coffee. 

Now I'm not saying I'm going to go back to the complete no-spend lifestyle - local businesses need your $  - but I think long and hard before making any purchases, especially when it comes stuff that’s just going to lay around and accumulate over time.

Photo by tu tu on Unsplash

7. Being flexible and conscious of my mindset 

Having all this time on my hands, forced me to examine my priorities and examine my thoughts. Why was I thinking, was I choosing to think, the way I was?

Almost everyone faced a situation that required them to adapt to a new reality, some to a greater degree than others. And knowing it was worse for others somehow made my inertia seem worse.

“It’s not that bad, what is wrong with you, you’re not sick, you don’t have familial responsibilities and financial pressure, you’re just mildly inconvenienced and stuck indoors is all. Look at what other people are going through” 

For someone who likes things to be in her control or with 'tight-ass tendencies' as my family likes to call it, having everything up in the air proved to be just the thing. 

Don't get me wrong, I typically function just fine under external pressure. Zoom classes? No problem. Missed a deadline in the mix up? No need for panic, just email the professor and sort it out. Technical issues in the big presentation? It's fine we’ll just reset and try again. 

What I've really had to learn to change is my own internal plans and expectations and my all-or-nothing mentality. Missed leg day this week? Going to have to restart the workout next week. Screwed up an interview or application? I'm never going to get one, giving it my best shot seems pointless.  

Things not going according to plan does mean you have to trash the plan altogether. 

Since we couldn't really plan and were living day to day in the lockdown, I really had to embody the idea of just taking it one day at a time, and get comfortable with the idea of navigating through the murkiness. I couldn’t see too far ahead anyways so a misstep felt like just that, a small stumble rather than a fall off a metaphorical tightrope. 

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs from Pexels

Bonus: Wearing a mask when I’m sick

This is more of a habit I hope to have developed, or rather, one that I hope have all developed even when all this is over and COVID-19 seems like a distant memory (hard to imagine at the moment). 

It feels weird to be out and about without a mask already - like I’m not fully dressed but not sure what's missing.

Face masks are already an ingrained part of East Asian culture, potentially an important factor as to why they have had an easier time dealing COVID. There isn’t this inexplicable resistance to face masks and wearing one is considered the perfectly normal, even considerate thing to do even for something as mild as a head cold. 

It doesn’t seem as impossible to catch on in Western and Indian culture as it seemed 6 months ago (despite the inappropriate politicization of mask wearing), especially as we continue requiring masks for the rest of the year, probably even for a good portion of 2021. 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexel

There’s no pretending that lockdown has been a comfortable experience, but it hasn’t been all bad. As much as we all keep wishing this year would be over so we can write it off like a bad dream, I want to look back and remember that I’ve grown and learnt more in 2020 than I ever thought possible. And I know I’m not alone in this. The pandemic will subside eventually (soon I hope), but I am going to work hard to keep up with the habits and practices that got me to where I am today.