In an 1892 lecture, William James laid out his idea of perfect unhappiness. “There is no more miserable human being,” he said, “than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” Now that social-distancing measures have been adopted worldwide in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people are suddenly finding themselves in the position that James so dreaded. Long-established routines are being swept away faster than cartons of shelf-stable almond milk at my local Sprouts. Whole sections of the day that previously ran on blissful autopilot now require conscious decision making and the reluctant hand cranking of dusty willpower. If you’re anything like me, the lockstep procession of showering, dressing, and breakfasting that was once packed into an hour (or less!) before work can now easily stretch until midday—and then things really go downhill. As Balzac wrote in 1830, “The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun.”
For some, the evaporation of normal routines may be liberating. But based on my Twitter feed, at least, many are finding the experience disorienting, if not profoundly destabilizing. This isn’t surprising. Not only do routines allow us to substitute habit for willpower and put crucial chunks of the day on autopilot (freeing the mind, as James once noted in his diary, to “advance to really interesting fields of action”); they naturally create and enforce boundaries between work and home, between our professional and private selves. They are also emotional regulators. For the moodier souls among us, routines create a well-worn groove for our mental energies and prevent squalls of anxiety, irritation, or sheer indolence from dominating our days.