Three years ago I took early retirement from a full-time office job. Suddenly, and for the first time in decades, I was spending a lot more time at home and having to work out what to do with my days.
Was it anything like lockdown? Of course not, but it did make me think about how to get the best out of being home most of the time, and I guess that’s relevant for a lot more of us now.
Lying on the sofa watching Netflix all day seemed attractive at first, but being honest with myself I knew I’d be climbing the walls before Walter White finished his first batch of crystal meth.
So I learned ways to deal with my new situation, and I thought now might be a good time to share them.
They’re not particularly original or earth-shattering, but I hope they might come in handy during the coming weeks.
Of course, if you are a key worker and still have to go out to work (thank you, thank you, thank you!!), if you’re home educating the kids, or if binge-watching 58 box sets in a row is your idea of heaven, this isn’t for you. Scroll on by, and may your god go with you.
Equally, if you’re having to deal with mental health issues on top of being locked down, I feel for you, but I’m not an expert and I’d hate to pretend I have any informed idea what to suggest, which I don’t. I trust there are plenty of people out there who do.
If you’re working from home these ideas might still help a bit – when I work from home I still find I have to give more thought to how I set out my day.
So, for anyone who’s left, here are six ideas which have helped me
Just keep swimming
To start with the bleeding obvious, Dory’s mantra from Finding Nemo really helped me when I suddenly had days to fill.
Just keep doing useful stuff, and if you find you’re getting bored or fed up, do different useful stuff instead.
Useful stuff doesn’t necessarily mean the intensely practical things like hoovering or building a gazebo, it can mean anything that completely absorbs you and genuinely makes you feel better.
Useful can mean playing a musical instrument, baking or building Big Ben from matchsticks. Sorry, it can’t mean Netflix or gin.
There was a study which found that people are happiest when they are completely focused on what they’re doing, they just don’t realise at the time that they’re happy because they are too busy.
So it’s good to keep busy, although I’ve found it’s also good to maintain a balance and not get hung up about doing useful stuff all the time.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as well as making him permanently exhausted and irritating to talk to at parties.
What works for me is to have a loose, layered mental to-do list so there’s always something else I can be doing if I run out of steam, with enough downtime allowed for Netflix and gin.
Essential day-to-day stuff like shopping and housework is the top layer, with necessary but bigger practical things like clearing out the garage in the middle, and creative, fun stuff like writing, guitar practice and so on at the base.
Netflix is for the evenings only, and gin is for the weekends and times of extreme crisis.
The layers mean I know there’s always something I can be doing. For example, right now my base layer is the book project.
I’m living the cliché of writing that one novel we all have in us at a rate of about a sentence a week. That’s my go to activity when I’ve cleaned everything in sight and don’t feel like doing anything else.
Have a schedule, then ignore it
I think about what I’m going to do each day and put it into a rough schedule, aiming to get something in from each layer of my to do list so I have a good mix.
For example, it might be; do the ironing, go for a run, make lunch, write for a bit, sort out the Untouchable Wardrobe of Doom, make dinner, chill.
Depending on how much order you like in your life, I appreciate you might prefer something more structured which you can blu-tack to the fridge.
That’s fine if you don’t get stressed by something messing with it.
Be aware that something will inevitably mess with it.
Unexpected and annoying things come up which need to be dealt with, as do unexpected and exciting things which would be a shame to miss out on.
Generally, I find it’s better to take these things on as they come up rather than sticking doggedly to the timetable, and almost invariably the schedule catches up with itself within a day or two.
Challenge yourself, but don’t beat yourself up
There are some things I don’t feel like doing until I’m doing them, like writing.
There are other things I don’t feel like doing while I’m doing them, like ironing.
I try to apply the old ‘eat the frog’ principle to both. If you’re not looking forward to doing something, like eating a frog (sorry vegan readers), get it out of the way as soon as possible because you’ll feel better for the rest of the day (which shows the person who came up with that principle had never actually eaten a frog).
Also, I know that with something like writing, it’s just the fear of writer’s block which makes me suddenly find a thousand more important things I should be doing, and that when I actually sit down I will probably enjoy it. So I try to push myself that bit harder to do it.
On the other hand, I still tend to get disproportionately fed up when I fail to ‘eat the frog’ and it’s still sitting there croaking at me accusingly at the end of the day (okay, time to stop with the frog thing).
I try to avoid that where I can, but if I can’t, the next best thing is to
Focus on what you’ve achieved today, not on what you haven’t
I’ve been amazed by the amount and variety of things you can get done in a day when you haven’t got that pesky office job to worry about.
If I haven’t got everything done that I wanted to by the end of the day, I roll stuff forward to tomorrow and think about what I have achieved.
Much of that probably wasn’t on the list to start with, but that doesn’t detract from the fact I’ve achieved it.
If it so happens that I’ve achieved next to bugger all today, I think back to what I’ve achieved this week, and remind myself that we all have off days sometimes.
Focusing on what you’ve achieved also makes you feel better when you do the next thing, which is to
There’s a TV comedy called ‘Parks and Recreation’ (it’s brilliant, by the way) which has two characters who do ‘Treat Yourself!’ days, when they go around spending unrealistic amounts of money on spoiling themselves rotten.
That kind of treating yourself may not be feasible, but I’ve found small treats not only keep spirits up, they balance out the ‘Just Keep Swimming’ busyness and stop you getting into a rut.
You might be fine with treating yourself just because you can, and well done if you are, I genuinely envy you. That’s because I can’t enjoy a treat unless I feel I’ve earned it, so for example, an hour’s writing might earn me ten minutes on Words with Friends.
It’s up to you, but try not to kid yourself that you’re having fun playing Candy Crush if you’re really just feeling guilty about wasting your day, because after a while that kind of thing can get you down.
Personally I’ve found keeping weekends helpful in my ‘treat yourself’ system.
There’s no practical reason now why I shouldn’t treat every day of the week exactly the same, yet I still hang onto that Friday feeling when I know I can eat takeaways, drink beer and not do any writing or housework for the next two days.
Know yourself – gin may not be the answer
I’m not going all Californian self-help here, I’m just talking about being sufficiently aware of how you’re feeling and why, so that you can match what you’re doing to your mood and energy level.
I didn’t really notice this so much when I was at the office all day because there was too much else going on, and I couldn’t have done much about it anyway; ‘Sorry I can’t do your appraisal right now, I’m more in an Excel spreadsheet mood.’
Now I can do it, and I try to, because the flip side of having the time and freedom to do what you want is that it’s easier to get stuck in a negative rut.
It can be as simple as realising that I will hit a blood sugar dip late afternoon after eating too many carbs at lunchtime, so I’ll do energetic, creative stuff during the post-lunch sugar rush and something mindless like hoovering later.
I’ve found it also helps with cheering myself up, The better I understand why I’m feeling down in the first place, the more likely I am to do the right thing to cheer myself up.
That may sound obvious, and yet I think we tend to have a set catalogue of ‘cheer you up’ activities which we go to regardless of what’s making us feel low.
Just add any of these stock phrases to the words “I know what’ll cheer you up!!!” and you might get what I mean:
A nice cup of tea!
A jolly game of Monopoly!
A bracing walk!
A lovely glass of wine!
That emergency 1Kg bar of Fruit and Nut!
Sure enough, if I’m fed up because I hate ironing and I’m having to do the ironing, wine or chocolate will invariably sort me out.
If I’m down because I’m worrying about viruses, they won’t scratch the surface; I need to be doing something completely absorbing, like clearing out the Untouchable Wardrobe of Doom, to take my mind off it completely and let my worry centres reset themselves (okay, you can tell I’m not a scientist).
If I’m down because I’ve done something stupid, playing the guitar or doing some writing can recalibrate the old self-esteem.
You’ll have your own solutions, and if you don’t now, you’ll work them out.
I know semi-retirement and lockdown are two very different things, but I hope you find something in this lot which might help you a bit.
Whether or not you do, good luck with it, and see you on the other side.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the Untouchable Wardrobe of Doom calling.