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As we remain in quarantine, unsure if the slow jog to normalcy is a few more miles or a million, Melissa Kirsch, a culture and lifestyle editor, is part of a team at The New York Times that spends a lot of time thinking about how to embrace a full and fulfilling life in isolation. We asked Ms. Kirsch, who writes the At Home newsletter, to share what she has learned in the last year and talk about some of her own strategies for living well during an uncertain time. The following are her edited comments.
Give myself something to look forward to. On Monday nights, I meet up with two friends on FaceTime to watch a crime documentary. We don’t talk during the movie, but having them in the room, even on a screen, makes the experience more exciting. If my energy starts to flag in the middle of a Monday afternoon, I’ll remember it’s movie night and feel both relief and anticipation. It’s not an actual movie in a theater, but it still feels special.
Think about how I want to look back on this time. I find myself consciously trying to do things that will make me feel better about this experience in the future. That may mean reading more or cooking more or trying to be creative about the ways that I connect with other people — like writing letters or meeting people for walks in the cold. I don’t want this year to turn into a blur of Zoom chats and Netflix.
Write down tiny details. I keep a log book, which is an idea that I got from the artist Austin Kleon. Every day, or as often as I can, I try to write down the most mundane details of the day. Today, I might write something about the fact that I reheated farro for lunch or that I spoke to somebody at The Times about a computer problem. Those tiny details that make up a day are the things we’ll forget when we look back on this time. I hope that when I read them over a decade from now, the complexion of the days will come to life: what it was really like, separate from the larger narrative of “a year in quarantine.”
Act like I’m a person with a purpose. I try to give some structure to the day, even if it’s just by making my bed and taking a shower and leaving the house first thing in the morning for even a short walk before work. Doing those things really helps me feel normal. Another thing is bedtime. Going to bed at a reasonable time has helped keep some kind of armature to the days.
Differentiate my days. I really want to get better at clearly demarcating the weekend from the week. We normally think of the weekend as a time to slow down. Each day is so similar to the one before, so I’m trying to see the weekend as a time to kind of speed up. So I might have a socially distanced outdoor hang with one friend in the middle of the day and meet up with another friend in the evening, and squeeze in cooking and cleaning and errands. I don’t have a commute or a social schedule, so I tend not to need more down time to recover from the week; I need up time.
Make exercise part of my “social” life. When my daily life is busy and chaotic, I often treat exercise as a solo activity, a short period of time for contemplation before re-engaging with the world. Since so much of my time is already spent disengaged from the world these days, I’ve started jogging without headphones, purposely trying to take advantage of the moments when I’m outside the house and around other people, even if I’m not deliberately interacting with them. I purposely jog down the street that has outdoor restaurant seating or a playground, routes I would have avoided before. This way, I’m not just exercising to keep my mind and body in shape, but also to inhabit my neighborhood, to feel how we’re all connected, living our lives in parallel.
Seek out information. Whether it’s jogging somewhere more populated or intentionally taking a walk someplace with more shops and more things to look at, I try to make each outing an exercise in replenishing my experience of the world. Our thoughts and actions and creativity are inspired by the people and things around us. And when we have limited people and things around us, it makes life smaller. Even though we’re social distancing, we still need social interactions, information input that keeps our minds sharp and our personalities interesting.
Create a tiny routine. These can be small pleasurable things. A routine doesn’t have to be an elaborate, punishing system that you impose on your day. Rather, you can take the tiny things that you do every day and just sort of keep doing them. It can be deciding that you’re going to just have coffee on your stoop every morning or to walk your dog at 1 p.m. I make my bed each morning and do the crossword puzzle during lunch. These are pretty rudimentary elements of a day, but they’re two poles between which to hang the hours of the morning. Anything you do regularly and with intention can give the day some shape and some meaning.