In quarantine, one day smears into the next. To fight that unmoored feeling, psychologists recommend establishing a routine. The former astronaut Scott Kelly says that such a regimen helped him get through his time on the International Space Station, watching multiple sunrises a day as he orbited Earth. For the past 40 years, the historian Robert Caro has written alone in his office, but maintained a daily structure to combat his instinct to procrastinate.* “I do everything I can to make myself remember this is a job,” he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “I keep a schedule. People laugh at me for wearing, you know, a coat and tie to work.” Routine provides order and goals, giving our days meaning and fighting off depression.
We have to plan moments of liberty because digital life has atrophied our ability to manage moments of liberty. “Sunday neurosis” is the psychological condition that occurs when people don’t know how to spend their leisure time. They are overwhelmed by all the choices that come with freedom, without the structure of the workday. “To make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as one would to one’s job,” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in Finding Flow, the classic examination of the optimum state for productive work. “Active leisure that helps a person grow does not come easy.”
William James said that humans are essentially a “bundle of habits.” The Goldsmith list makes that bundle better. It is the storehouse of those small actions, or simply a place where you check in with your intentions.
Soon enough, by force of habit, the questions from the end of the day poke their way into the actual day. My wife and I experienced this when our children were young. The psychologist Martin Seligman said it is possible to increase happiness by naming three things you are grateful for before going to sleep. We went through this exercise with our kids. They were not grateful for it, but ultimately, after a few rounds, they started seeking out examples during the day because they knew they’d have to come up with something to say before the lights went out. The question put us all on the hunt for gratitude during the day.
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