The fragile refuge of routines in a time of uncertainty
I am a creature of habit. I go to bed at the same time every night. I wake up at the same time every morning. I follow my morning hygiene routines. I make myself a savory breakfast. I walk or bus to campus while I read the news. I spend 30 minutes clearing my email inbox. I have a few hours each morning to make progress on things I’m leading. I block off lunch on my calendar each day. I reserve Fridays for administrative work. And when I get home, unless I have an event or social gathering in the evening, I eat dinner with my wife and my cat, read, watch a television show, and go to bed.
I love my routines. I find them comforting in so many ways. They reduce the number of decisions I have to make each day, preventing decision fatigue. They give stabilize my future, giving me certainty that regardless of what happens in a day, the structure they provide will still be there. And, counterintuitively, they fill my life with surprise, because while I always know what kind of thing I will be doing at any point in the day, the specific thing could be anything. My routines are the substrate in which my curiosity and adventuring thrive.
Living in Seattle, the current epicenter of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., has shown me how fragile my routines are and how dependent I am on their structure. In just the past week, the virus has challenged every aspect of my daily routine:
- I can’t go to bed at the same time every night, because my inbox is full of information and decisions that shape what happens tomorrow.
- My morning hygiene routines are full of uncertainty. Is my bathroom full of the virus? Should I throw away my makeup? Do I have enough of my medications, soaps, toothpastes, and other goods that I rely on to feel clean, well, and presentable?
- Will my preferred breakfast foods be available the next time I go to the grocery store? So far, the answer is only “sometimes,” forcing me to reconsider what I eat.
- Is it safe to ride the bus? Will I compromise my immune system if I walk in the rain and cold? And while driving might be safer and the roads are more empty, when will I enjoy the news?
- I have twice as much email and twice and many decisions to make, so my email routine is more like 1–2 hours a day instead of 30 minutes, eating away at my precious time to push work forward.
- The structure of my days has been obliterated by emergency decision making meetings, just-in-time event cancelations, rapidly shifting policies about in-person and online teaching.
- The content of my days, usually rich with rich face-to-face interpersonal communication, is now almost exclusively through the narrow lens of my webcam. I just stare at the screen, wading through the mush of high latency audio. It is a low-fidelity existence.
- The diversity of events after work, which I’ve counted on to connect with friends, are mostly canceled, isolating me.
- While I still talk to my wife about my day and our dreams, it’s only ever about the virus, and the inevitable social and economic doom to come.
The substrate of my routine remains, but desiccated.
And yet as hollow as they are, my routines are still a refuge. In a time where there’s very little certainty about anything, they’re one of the few things I have that I can control and count on. I need them more than ever to have any sense of order in a time of increasing anarchy.
But then I think of my position. My house. My loving partner. My money. My internet access. My car. My job. My health insurance. I realize that while my routines are a critical part of the stability in my own life, they are firmly rooted in hard-won infrastructure that I take for granted. So many of the people around me lack these things that make routine possible. Losing routine is a problem of privilege.
Then I wonder about the routines of our fragile safety net, and how they normally enable routine for so many. How are emergency rooms having to change their routines, triaging between the normal load of crisis and the demand for testing? How are the food banks in my city having to adjust, with people hoarding instead of giving? Where are the families that count on donations of tissue and toilet paper going to get the goods they need to stay clean? How are the shelters handling acting on guidance about avoiding large gatherings in unventilated spaces? What routine is left when the routines of the organizations that offer shelter, social support, food, internet access, transportation, and health care are disrupted?
If there’s anything I hope we learn from this pandemic, it’s the fragility of not only our individual routines, but our societal ones. There’s nothing all that resilient about our economy, our safety nets, our wealth, our government. They’re as robust as we make them, which is not much. Long ago, our country collectively decided that government and its guarantees are not worth investing in. We’re getting what we paid for, which is collapse.
So while I work to stabilize my own personal routines in this time of uncertainty, I’ll be thinking about how to stabilize the other larger routines for which I’m responsible for: the education of students in the Information School, the lives of the increasingly impoverished people in my city, and the lives of the billions more in my state, country, and planet with too little to count on in crisis. As we try to survive this likely public health disaster, let’s plan to survive the next one better.