A recluse’s guide to self-isolation

I’m great at social distancing. No one does distancing like me.

How are you coping with being jailed at home?

I could do this self-isolation thing for months. It doesn’t bother me at all.

Okay, at this time of year I’m missing the biergarten. There’s nothing like a cold draft on a hot summer day after a weekend bike ride.

But nothing else has changed for me, apart from not being able to travel and the gym being closed.

I realize that’s not the case for normal people, or for the socially well-adjusted among you. I also get that my favourite ways to pass the time probably won’t sound appealing.

I can understand why extroverts are going nuts. Or people who are trying to balance productive work while home schooling kids. But I was surprised when I heard friends who are writers or introverts say they were struggling with it.

I wondered what I might offer a wider audience, given that my normal life is already a form of semi-seclusion.

And I thought of one area where I may have helpful advice: working from home.

I left my last real job behind in 2005. I’ve been working from home for more than 15 years, a 5 minute commute from bedroom to study, with a brief stop in the kitchen to pick up my mug.

This lifestyle suits me perfectly. I’ve never missed spending time in an office or on a job site, interacting with coworkers or working in teams. I don’t find it takes special discipline to stay productive, either. I guess because I like my work.

But I have found that a few simple habits really keep my work life on track.

 

Lifestyle habits for the homebound writer

Get up at the same time every day. Routine is tremendously important. I get up at the same time every day, around 8:30am on weekdays. I work half the day on Saturdays, and I never set an alarm on Sunday. But that weekday routine is always the same. Get up, make coffee, go to my desk and write.

Get dressed. When you first start working from home, you think not having to wear pants is the greatest benefit. I was going to make a bad joke about boys being unable to stop playing with their toys, but that would be lewd. Let’s just say I don’t recommend dispensing with the pants — not if you want to get any work done. Sweatpants and pyjamas are out, too. Putting on trousers and a normal shirt helps focus the mind on productive work. 

Use your prime time for your most important task. I’ve never been a morning person. When I started writing seriously in my twenties, I liked to work late at night, writing from around 11pm until 2 or 3am. But I lived alone in a tiny one room flat on the outskirts of Tokyo. That lifestyle doesn’t fit very well when you’re living with someone who has a normal job. It also seems to change with age. These days, I write first thing in the morning, before checking email, going online, or doing anything else.

You’ll find your own prime time when you have the most energy and the most mental focus. Don’t waste it. That’s when you should be doing your most important work. You’ll do it better and faster, too. I leave emails and other routine tasks for the afternoon, when I don’t have as much mental focus for writing. I find that’s a good time to exercise, too.

End your day with something left to say. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said he always ended his writing day in the middle of something so he could pick it up again the next morning. I find this works extremely well.

I always know exactly where to start when I come to my desk. If I’m writing a book, I know which chapter or scene I’m going to work on, and I’ve spent some time thinking about how to approach it. If I have to write an article, I know what my topic will be, and I have at least a rough idea of my angle. I never show up in the morning and stare at my desk.

I also try to think about that article at night, as I’m falling asleep. It seems to plant the problem in my head, where my subconscious works on it overnight. When I wake up and I’m lying in that hazy place between half-sleep and barely remembered dreams, sentences and paragraphs start coming into my mind. Not vaguely, but entire sentences fully-formed. I just have to go to my desk and write them down.

Those dream-formed sentences start the rest of it flowing. I can draft a 1,000 word article in about an hour on mornings like that. I’m sure you could apply the same tactic to approaching your work or project. It just takes practice. The more you do it, the more often your subconscious will be there for you with the answer.

Weekends are different. Finally, when working from home, it’s important to set the weekend apart, even if it’s just an arbitrary distinction. It’ll give your life structure, and stop the days from flowing together into one long blur.

That’s easier if you’ve got a partner who works a normal outside job and has weekends off. But even this goes out the window when we’re all housebound in social isolation.

I never set the alarm on weekends. And I normally start the day with some reading. That feels like a reward.

I work a half day on Saturday, but I don’t usually have strict deadlines or targets. I just work on a story or a bit of a book. Sundays are entirely free of obligations. I don’t get dressed — track pants or no pants, I’ll leave that to your imagination. And I read as long as I want.

It’s a good day for going out walking, or taking a long bike ride to the Tiergarten in summer, with a biergarten beer and an ice cream at Kiez Eis. I might do some aimless internet surfing, too, catching up on articles I bookmarked but didn’t have time to read during the week.

I’m sure your favourite pastimes are different, especially if you’ve got kids. The main thing is to set the weekends apart so they still feel like weekends, and don’t let your work bleed over into those days. It’s really easy for a freelancer to do. But you’ll be working 7 days a week before you realize it, and that’s a fast road to burnout.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be consistent. Those few simple “work from home” strategies work very well for me.

 

Don’t fight it — use it

As for “pandemic survival strategies”, here’s something I learned from long, lonely overland journeys.

Treat it as permanent. Don’t set a timeline, and don’t count down the days.

Yes, we all want to get back outside and get back to our lives. And it’s tempting to hang on every news report, and every hint from a politician about when the lockdown might end.

No one really knows. It’s just speculation. Attaching yourself to it is a sure route to disappointment.

Wishing things were different than they are will drive you nuts.

Better to focus on the things you can do right now. For me, that’s writing, reading, watching old films, and getting some exercise every day.

It’s the journey that matters, not the arrival. Life is what happens to you along the way.

 

How to cope with worry

A freelancer learns to cope with uncertainty — especially financial. Living without a fixed salary, surviving on your wits, is inherently unstable. There will always be periods where the money stops coming in like it used to. And that can keep you up at night.

If you find yourself lying awake at 3am worrying about what might happen, ask yourself, “Am I okay right now? Do I have enough money in the bank right now? Can I pay the rent / buy food right now?”

If yes, then there’s no point lying awake in a downward spiral of gut churning worry. Better to sleep and wake up rested, to focus the next day on what you can do right now.

That was the approach I took when the online business that used to fund my living expenses and travels suddenly dried up. It was staggering along on life support, and I was watching my savings bleed away while I tried to find out what was happening in the industry so I could turn things around.

Other opportunities have a way of showing up eventually. But that won’t help you in the short term, when you wake up at 3am with existential fears gripping your gut. The thing is, if you dig deep enough you’ll realize those worries are about survival. They aren’t really about your savings plan or your ability to pay the rent in 6 months.

Reminding myself that I was okay right now, in the immediate, really helped. Nothing more could go wrong between then and the morning — and if it did, it was beyond my control. Better to sleep and focus on what I could control the next morning: doing the next piece of work.

 

And the best advice of all

This strange pandemic has given us a great deal of time. It’s an unexpected bonus for someone like me. Not having to go out or attend events or travel means I suddenly have more time to read and write.

But I get that others don’t have long mental lists of projects, or what my friends Jim and John described as my “self-imposed reading plan”.

If you’re not currently able to work, either because you’re laid off or because your job can’t be done remotely, you might consider taking on a project. Treat it like work, and apply the strategies above to give it structure. The most hopeless thing in the world is to live without meaning, doing pointless work that doesn’t matter to earn money you can’t spend.

I hope you found these small strategies helpful. They aren’t exactly earth-shaking, but they’ve worked very well for me.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. I was listening to a podcast interview with him last week, and his interlocutor opened by quoting from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

He asked Herzog how we should spend our self-isolation.

“It’s a wonderful time for reading,” he replied. “Read. Read read read read read.”

He said, “We have lost our nexus with good books, poetry, we have lost it pretty much out of our lives. We are too much into tweets and Facebook and things like that.”

It mirrored one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, and something I come back to often. In another interview from a year or two earlier, Herzog said, “If you really want to understand the world, travel on foot and read.”

How are you getting through the great 2020 Social Distancing Experiment?

Please share your strategies in the comments below. A recluse like me needs a reminder every now and then about how the normal world functions.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Judie Martin says

    This is a good read Ryan and has good advice. Shows wisdom, thought and analysis. We are loving the isolation also and just happy that our families are safe and are still able to be productive. We have three nieces in health care who thankfully are still safe. I believe that this will be a wonderful memory for many children….I do realize that for some it will be difficult. I am seeing our grandchildren thrive in their isolation with projects, life learning , creativity . I will share your article . Thank you.
    Judie Martin

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Thank you, Mrs. Martin. I’m glad to hear you’re all well, and hope the health care workers in your family keep themselves safe on the front lines.

      I think you’re right, it’ll be a memorable time for kids. I was just thinking about being kept home from school with chicken pox, itching madly but otherwise fine. I still remember the books I discovered, and seeing a broadcast of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five on tv (it must have been PBS?). This is like those semi-sick sick days, but extended by months, and with an entire online world to explore.

      I feel bad for those who are living with uncertain or now nonexistent jobs. Publishing is taking quite a blow, too. But any period of instability brings new opportunities as well as loss. This enforced isolation is a good time to gather information and get a sense of where the next best move will be.

  2. I’m going to print this out and put it somewhere I can see it…. especially the financial thing. Excellent sense, but easy to forget when you’re lying awake at 3am.
    Thank you for this.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Really glad you found it helpful, Marija. I wasn’t sure if I had anything useful to contribute, especially to folks trying to balance kids, home schooling and work. But those simple work from home and travel strategies have served me well.

  3. Great article Ryan! I really enjoyed it and you made some excellent points! We returned from Bali on March 14th and we have been in our home in Ancaster. I’m really enjoying my time at home knowing I don’t need to go anywhere! I also need a routine like you said and it helps me set the day. I’m discovering new hobbies like baking bread and watching birds. Who knows what else I’ll pick up as new hobbies by the end of this period of uncertainty?
    best wishes

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