This article was original published on 20 July 2020 on Forbes.com
While many places around the world ease out of lockdown — and hope that another one is not put into place if Covid-19 cases surge — a common question from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues to ask one another is: "How did you use the extra time? What was your lockdown project?" Perhaps some wrote a book or learned a new language. Others may have used the time to tackle a long-outstanding home improvement project.
The logic is that by doing less — engaging in fewer social engagements, traveling less, removing time spent commuting, spending less time going out — that this would unlock extra time and energy with which we could invest toward achieving those goals we all said we would do if we just had more time. Yet, the vast majority of us used lockdown to do a whole lot of nothing. And that‘s okay.
Lockdown, as it turns out, is exhausting. But when we understand why it makes us so tired, we can put in place mechanisms to alleviate the causes of exhaustion — and use it to cut ourselves some slack. There are five main contributing factors as to why lockdown is so tiring, which gives us a pass on not having completed a lockdown self-improvement project.
When lockdown started, the sources of stress were apparent: A scary, unknown disease; economic disruption; and conflicting news sources on the best ways to mitigate the spread. While these causes may be less salient now as we‘ve grown more accustomed to them, they still exist — and they are wearing us down. Especially troubling is that stress throws our bodies into survival mode. While we‘re not exactly being chased by lions at the moment, we are in a limited form of the classic survival mode which means we lack the mental energy for creativity, motivation and concentration. We are focused on just getting by.
However, control is an excellent defense against uncertainty — and we can control more in our daily lives than we often think. We can control our schedule during the day. We can control our attitude; our diet; and other such things that keep us better positioned to mitigate the effects of chronic stress.
Sleep experts advise only using the bedroom for sex and sleeping. Why? Because it signals to us that when we enter the bedroom, it is now time to engage in one of those two activities — and only those two. Being in the right environment for the right task at hand is how we focus our energy. Many of us no longer have that divide between work and home — it all blends — which makes it harder to focus on work when we are trying to work, and harder to turn off when it‘s time to relax at the end of the workday. This makes for generally longer workdays and less relaxing evenings, which depletes our energy over time.
If you are not lucky enough to have a home office, there are several things you can do to create the illusion of boundaries. For example, you can go for a short walk in the morning and evening to signal when you leave your house for work, and when you return to relax.
Our brains naturally seek out entertainment, and being bored is often situational (though some of us are more prone to boredom than others). Covid-19 has created the ideal situation for being bored, as we are more limited in the activities available to us to alleviate boredom. This is problematic. When there are no new stimuli or sources of entertainment to be found, our subjective evaluation of how fast time moves is altered — and time appears to pass more slowly. Compounding this fact is that when there is nothing to do, it also can make us more sleepy. Therefore, boredom creates a perfect storm in which time appears to pass more slowly and that time itself is laden with boredom which makes us sleepy — so is it any wonder this creates a state of exhaustion?
Finding new hobbies, trying your hand at cooking a new cuisine, or picking up a new form of exercise is one way to alleviate boredom.
It was Aristotle who came to the conclusion that time is the measurement of change. That means we mark the passage of time by what events transpire. Perhaps it is an after-work happy hour. A weekend getaway. A nice dinner out at a restaurant. But Covid-19 has somewhat robbed us of those opportunities to experience change. To a large extent, every day somewhat feels the same, which creates inertia. In physics, inertia is defined as the resting state of something; a state in which it stays unless it is acted upon by an external force. As we are not being acted upon by the normal events of day-to-day life, it is likely that we will stay in a state of rest. This is unfortunate, because paradoxically, the less we do, the more tired we feel…which means we do less. It is an energy-draining cycle.
The quick and dirty remedy for the energy slump caused by inertia is to get moving. You need to push through the tiredness and get the blood pumping.
Many of us haven‘t engaged in phone calls "just to catch up" in ages. Talking on the phone for extended periods of time is a rusty skill as people are accustomed to texting, sending a quick Facebook message or replying to an Instagram story as the interim source of connection in service of arranging an in-person gathering. A phone call often feels like you must have something to discuss, versus the casual interaction of grabbing a glass of wine after work, which adds pressure to the call and thus can take more energy.
Then, there is the proliferation of video work meetings and video social dates. Covid-19 has seen the term "Zoom fatigue" entered into common parlance. Zoom fatigue outlines the myriad ways in which a video interaction is more exhausting than that same exchange would have been face-to-face. For example, we have to focus more on the conversation because subtle (but powerful) non-verbal cues are harder to process onscreen. Being on video makes us very aware of being watched, which is acutely stressful. The delay in the sound and audio can disrupt the natural flow of conversation, making the interaction more effortful.
Building in more breaks at work and asking ourselves if something truly needs to be a meeting is one way to alleviate this pressure. Another, perhaps less popular suggestion, is to give yourself a break on a social front. Your friends and family will still be there after Covid-19, and you do not need a constant slew of video catch-ups in the interim to sustain those relations.
Next time you hear someone advise that if you couldn‘t find the time
in lockdown to complete that pet project of yours, then you never will,
you can politely tell them they don‘t know what they are talking about.
Lockdown is tiring, and the best we can do is give ourselves and others a