Daily Routine: Quarantine Edition

I’ve been more or less working from home full-time since 2012. While I’ve learned a few things about self-directed work, my routine still seems to change every few months, even during non-quarantine times. My friend Nick recently shared his morning diary; I thought it’d be interesting to do the same here, and revisit it every so often to see what’s changed.

7:00am: Coffee, Phone Time

I wake up and get coffee from the kitchen. My partner Julia is a nurse and works three 12-hour shifts a week. On days when she works, I tend to wake around when she leaves. (For the sake of tidier headings I’m going to assume that on this hypothetical day it’s 7:00am).

We have a drip coffee maker in the kitchen hooked into a wifi plug; we tell the smart speaker, from bed, to make coffee, and it obliges. I know there’s the gentle, deliberate, ritual aspect of doing the pour-over yourself, but at this hour in the morning I just need a caffeine-delivery vehicle. It’s surprising how much this setup has improved our quality of life.

I get the coffee and immediately bring it back to bed, on the way grabbing my phone off its charging pad in the study. While I drink the coffee, I allow myself a little phone checking. I’ve deleted most apps and gone as far as disabling Safari using the Screen Time controls; the goal is to make my smartphone as close to a dumbphone as possible. The one social media app I have installed right now is Instagram, for which I’ve set a daily fifteen minute limit (that I usually end up extending a couple of times). Though—I can already feel the slippage here. Lately I’ve been pulling more and more the slot-machine lever of the “Explore” tab, and this along with links-in-profile turn Instagram into a trojan web browser. Social media apps would be so much calmer if they all had a setting to hide any Explore/Discover content that you haven’t actively searched for. But that runs counter to these companies’ business goals, so of course they don’t do it.

In fact, I think it’s time to take a break and delete Instagram from my phone altogether. Which I’ve just now done. I can reinstall it later.

7:30am: Morning Reading

I also read books in the morning, particularly books that I can’t read more than a couple of pages at a time due to their density. Right now, I’m re-reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and reading (for the first time) John Steinbeck’s East of Eden journal, which he kept on the left-hand pages of a notebook while writing the text of the novel on the right(!)

I favor paper books, as it feels better to scribble notes in the margins. I also keep a small notebook by my bedside—and more importantly, a location-specific pen, as I’m often with paper but without writing utensil. On the occasion I don’t have both, I’ll type notes into my phone (another allowed non-dumbphone feature). I was having sync issues with Simplenote, so I’m currently testing out the Ulysses mobile app, which not only syncs with my writing setup but also lets me save notes as Markdown files to a separate Dropbox folder, that I can then access quickly from my Mac desktop using NVAlt.

8am: Tea, Pup, Sourdough

A cup of coffee also functions as an ambient timer; if the cup is empty, it’s time to get up. I shower, brush my teeth, go downstairs, put on the kettle. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I take the pup out to do his morning business. Come back and make tea. I can’t handle more than a single cup of coffee a day, so I switch to a robust black tea. Right now I’m drinking Rishi Tea’s ever-reliable English Breakfast, which I’ve ordered by the one-pound bag. Other times it might be a tin of longjing or oolong raided from the stash of teas my dad has gotten as gifts from colleagues in China. While I wait for the tea to steep, I feed the sourdough starter.

8:30am: Meditation

Sit and meditate for 27 minutes. I was doing 20 minutes a month ago, but have been trying to up it by a few minutes every week until I get to half an hour. It’s helped lately to think of meditation less as a practice and more as training. Practice is recurring, whereas training has a more infrequent goal—one that involves stretching and pushing yourself. You train for a marathon; athletes go through spring training—to get in shape for the big run, the regular season. Then, during the season, you practice to maintain that shape.

After meditation, some light yoga stretches.

9:00am: Music, Time-blocking

Re-steep the tea, refill the mug. Go upstairs into the study. If it’s a cloudy day, as is common for much of the year in Michigan, I’ll turn on both an overhead and floor lamp to combat lethargy. Sit down, wake my computer from sleep, start my work music. Today it’s Mieko Kawakami’s Pen America playlist, but often it’s Chilled Cow or one of Pat Ewing’s Warm Focus sessions—gentle and mostly instrumental, as lyrics distract me too much.

I pull up my calendar and briefly check email. The purpose here is not to respond to messages (though sometimes I slip), but to see if there’s anything urgent I need to block off time for on that day. Then, in the lined reporter’s notebook I keep at the desk (and a dedicated desk-pen!), I write out the hour numbers and physically draw in the blocks, starting with whatever fixed commitments I have. I think this is a habit I picked up from reading Deep Work, and it’s also a duplicate of my digital calendar, yes. But the act of writing it in the notebook clears my mind and signals the start of the day’s work. I also pen in what I’m going to eat for lunch and dinner, as those decisions are harder to make at the hungry tail-end of a work session.

I try to break my work into, ideally, 1–2 hours blocks. Shorter than that and I get pulled away just as I’m really touching any depth. On the other end, two hours is about when I’ll get the mental bends; I’ll feel restless and need to move around or get a snack, and if I don’t step away, I’ll start making mindless choices that Future Jack will have to go back and fix.

So: 1–2 hours is ideal. I try to leave my mornings free of external commitments as it’s when I’m clearest-headed. But sometimes I’ll have video chats with schools, or I might wake up late one day and have a smaller window before lunch. Wednesdays mornings I also do a weekly call with a good friend, where we talk about our progress for the previous week and our goals for the coming. In short: I have to be flexible; I look for those time blocks. Today, as I’m writing this, I have a block from 9:15 to 10:45 in which I’m trying to finish this post.

If there are any notes I have about a block, or individual tasks I want to accomplish in that block, I’ll write them down in the right-hand column next to the day’s calendar. Another reason I like the reporter’s notebook.

9:15am: Timer, Journaling, Work

I set a timer and start. I almost always begin by journaling. I’ve pretty consistently done morning pages for much of the last decade, and I’ll journal until I naturally start writing writing. Sometimes it takes multiple paragraphs; other times I write a sentence and realize I’d rather be working on the manuscript so I dive right in. If I’m in between stories, I’ll still try to write 750 words every morning.

I’m currently journaling in Ulysses, and working on the novel in the same. If I’m doing other work, like designing a website, my start-up routine involves opening code editors and starting dev servers. Ideally I’d also review what I did in the previous block of work, but in practice this happens less consistently than I would like.

I start work.

10:45am: Tea, Snack, Bathroom Break

Timer goes off. I wrap up the small chunk I’m working on. If that’s fiction, I’ll also make bullet points inline for what I didn’t get to—breadcrumbs for next time.

I sometimes have trouble stopping when the timer sounds. I sometimes forget to set the timer. I tell myself: If I’m really in a groove and going deep in the work, shouldn’t I be flexible enough to keep working? The challenge, of course, is distinguishing between those kinds of mornings and mornings when I really just need to step away. Might be better in the long run not have to make that choice. Just make it a habit to step away when the timer sounds.

Reboil water, re-steep tea. Use the toilet. On good mornings, I’ll fit in two blocks of work and take a break like this halfway. If I’m hungry, this is when I’ll have a quick breakfast or snack, usually bread from a recent bake. One slice, toasted, with fruit preserves or nut butter, or even plain, dipped in some nice olive oil, supplemented afterwards with piece of chocolate … I can think of few better morning snacks. If I’m in the right mood, I’ll ask the smart speaker for an NPR briefing while I wait for the tea and toast.

11am: Second Block

Back to work.

12:30pm: Lunch

Timer goes off. End of second block. I shut down writing apps, browsers, code editors. This helps me to not think about work when I’m not working. It’s like Chekov’s gun: If there’s an app window left open at the end of the morning, I’m going to tinker unnecessarily with it before I go to sleep.

Lunch is generally quick, too, as I’m usually starving after having expended all that mental energy. Leftovers from previous dinners, noodles, steamed frozen dumplings from my mom or buns from the Asian grocery. One of my favorite dinner-to-lunch moves: Roast a whole chicken for dinner, throw the carcass in the pot after carving, cover with well-salted water. Heat until boiling, then simmer for an hour or so. You don’t need anything more than that for a simple stock; it’s something my mom has been doing for as long as I can remember. If you don’t mind bones, don’t even strain it before storing—there’s usually still some tasty meat left the carcass. For lunch the next day, reboil a couple cups of it, add carrots, napa cabbage, and a brick of noodles. Any instant ramen will do, but my current favorite are Sun Noodle’s Okinawa soba—thick, flat, udon-like egg noodles—available at all three of the Asian groceries that I frequent. Top with green onions, a fried or seven-minute-boiled egg, pickled veggies, dried nori, and S&B Crunch Garlic with Chili Oil aka “Umami Pop Rocks” aka a not-quite-as-good version of the no-longer-in-production Chili Granola (RIP).

After lunch, if the weather’s decent, I take the pup out for a long walk, usually to the neighborhood park at the end of our boulevard.

2:30pm: Outside, Reading, Nap

Afternoons are generally open. In my daily calendar, I draw boxes around work and external obligations but leave everything else unboxed. This includes errands, which lately has meant the occasional trip to the grocery store or post/UPS/Fedex office to mail books or drop off online returns. We built raised bed gardens in our backyard last month, and when it’s sunny we’ll let the pup run around while we work on the garden and landscaping. On days I’m baking bread, afternoons is when I mix the dough.

In February, I had the idea to do something I called “Café Time.” The thought was to go to a newly-opened neighborhood cafe, order a tea and dessert, and spend an hour or two on social media and general web browsing, or reading a book, allowing myself to be interrupted. That way I could cultivate one set of habit fields outside the home, and another, more solitudinous set inside. I could use social norms against cafe-loitering to my advantage—they’d discourage me from losing the entire afternoon and evening to, say, researching mechanical keyboards. I also realized that over the past few years, I’d fallen much more into a mode of lurking than interaction—more media than social. Another goal of Café Time was to use these platforms more intentionally as a means of connection, versus consumption (see my note about Discover/Explore above).

Of course, before I could make it out to my first Café Time, everything locked down, and while I tried to do it at home, it was far too easy for me to get overly comfortable on the sofa, only to look up four hours later with little idea where the time went.

Really, I find that my afternoons turn out best if I follow these rules:

  1. Eat lunch at a reasonable hour (before 1pm)
  2. Spend time outside
  3. Read fiction
  4. Take a nap

6pm: Non-work

After a quick NASA nap, I’m sometimes refreshed enough to put in an hour or two more of computer work. I’ll often have another snack, as Julia gets home around 7:30pm but with her post-hospital sanitization routine (clothes in the washer, disinfect phone, immediately go upstairs and shower) we’re not ready to eat until 8pm.

One peculiarity: If I try to block off this work in my calendar, I’ll often end up not doing it. For one, it’s less solid of a time block, as I’ll have to tend the oven if I’m baking bread (several times a week). My main theory, though, is that I register anything in a calendar box as actual work and willpower-deprived Afternoon Jack will thus go to great lengths not to do it. Then the guilt around not doing it worsens the procrastination, which leads to more guilt, and voilà—I’m in a spiral.

So I’m experimenting right now with not scheduling anything, and working on whatever I’m moved to work on—removing any obligation I might feel to do more. I consciously know that the forty-hour workweek is nonsense (and you’ll find perennial internet thinkpieces about its nonsensicalness), but I still have to do some mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt around not working in the afternoons. I tell myself: Even when you had a full-time office job, you were hard-pressed to squeeze in more than three hours a day of solid uninterrupted work. I tell myself: Reading, for you as an author, is as important of work as writing.

I’m curious about the effect of unscheduling. A couple of days ago, in this period of early-evening non-work, I started building a shelf for our entryway.

8pm: Dinner, Friends & Family, Sofa Time

When Julia has shifts on consecutive days, I only really get to see her for three-ish hours in the evenings. So we’ll eat—on the back porch if the weather’s nice—and then stream something or simply sit side-by-side reading, chatting, video calling friends and family. We’ve been watching the HBO series based on the Elena Ferrante books—My Brilliant Friend—though now that the second season’s over, we’ve been watching Richard Linklater’s Before cycle, which Julia’s never seen(!), and which I seem to forget about and re-remember every five years. We also just started What We Do in the Shadows—an Office-y, Spinal Tap-y vampire satire series based on the Taika Waititi film of the same name.

10:00pm: Bedtime

Let the pup out one last time, prep the coffee maker for the next morning, go upstairs. I put the phone on it’s charging mat in the study. Brush teeth, floss, take my 24-hour allergy pill and nightly magnesium supplement. Set an alarm for the next morning so as to get a minimum of seven—but ideally eight—hours. Julia usually falls asleep before I do, and I’ll read a bit of fiction which, on many days, especially when I’ve woken early and missed an afternoon nap, amounts to a page or two. Then I’ll find myself reading words that aren’t on the page. That’s the cue to turn off the bedside lamp, put on the sleep mask, and go to sleep.