The Questions That Will Get Me Through the Pandemic
An unexpected routine has helped me regain a sense of control during an uncertain time.
Updated at 9:25 a.m. ET on June 24, 2020.
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.
When the pandemic hit, I was already neck deep in a routine, an experiment that had grown out of a promise I had made.
Last year, I interviewed the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, for my book on the presidency, The Hardest Job in the World. Goldsmith argues that success can be a barrier to future achievement. When people get promoted, they think their new position mostly requires them to do more of what got them called up to the big leagues. That’s a mistake. Each new role requires new skills, adaptation, and flexibility. Executives who recognize this thrive; those who don’t, struggle.
Presidents face this same challenge. After the significant achievement of winning an American presidential election, they think they can just adapt their campaigning skills to the White House. That's a mistake. It's a very different job.
Before I started down my list of questions, Goldsmith asked if I would commit to an exercise. I agreed, and a lively interview followed. He is energetic, impish, with a well-polished story for each point he lands. I found myself agreeing with him, getting swept up in charm. Afterward, when I remembered the promise, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had committed to. Was I on the hook for a kidney? If I wanted to back out, would I have to get someone to say “Rumpelstiltskin”?
It turned out that all I had agreed to was to establish a routine.
Goldsmith emailed me a spreadsheet. I was to write questions in the left-hand column. These questions were ones I would ask myself that reflected my goals in work and life. They could be basic: Did I work out? Did I practice guitar? They could be cosmic: Did I find meaning this day? At the end of every day, I was to pose the questions to myself and grade my progress. I could write whatever questions I wanted, but I had no freedom from the daily accountability exercise. I had to do it. This, Goldsmith said, was the hard part. Most people jump ship after two weeks.
If I stuck with the regimen, though, I might gain some control over my days.
I was drawn to this exercise because I already had a list. Unfortunately, I was not its author. Amazon, social media, cable television, bad-faith arguments, and my own vanity had been writing the list for me. During the day, these corrosive forces stole my attention, spending it frantically. I wanted to unsubscribe from that list.
We are wired to flit. Saint John Cassian, a fifth-century monk, complained that the mind “seems driven by random incursions.” This is not entirely bad. Without a jumpy mind, we'd be less creative and experience less joy, surprise, and spark, but this architecture also leaves us vulnerable to attack. Social-media companies, advertisers, opinion makers, and media companies have grown ever better at luring us in our distracted state.
The content they serve up has become so attractive that we can get addicted to the interruptions. When there is a lull, when the Zoom call has grown stale, we look for diversion. In time, this develops into a habit, and then an addiction. We get hooked on the jolt of dopamine delivered by a “like” on Twitter, a “heart” on Instagram, or information that affirms what we already believe. Studies show that we will chase the reward of that brain chemical with the passion of a gambling addict or smoker. The pull of dopamine is so strong that when there is no immediate reward, the disappointment makes us hunt more fervently. Pelted by news alerts and emails, alarmed by the hair-on-fire claims of the extremely online, we end each day empty and worn.
Trying to overcome the lure through willpower alone does not work any better than Dad trying to move the couch on his own—bending at the waist, hoisting, and then consigning himself to groaning from the same couch for two months, having torqued his back. We can overestimate our mental strength, just as we often overestimate our physical prowess.
Willpower has at least two weaknesses as a remedy for distraction. It is inefficient, and it is finite. We can deploy willpower for short stretches, but then it loosens. If I write “Focus” on a Post-it note and stick it to my computer monitor, it works for a day or two, but then fades faster than the ink. Or, if I apply my willpower to the biggest items on my to-do list—a project, say, or a relationship—I may succeed, but that success will leave me too tired, busy, or distracted to do much else.
The Goldsmith list offered a solution that didn't rely on brute force. Unlike a typical to-do list, focused on tasks—finish the report, buy the plane tickets, walk the dog—his list focused on behaviors: Did I try to focus for 90 minutes? Did I plan my day? Did I listen? And it offered a promise too. If I could remain attentive to those behaviors, I’d be in a better position to tackle my to-do list.
One of the questions I chose to ask myself was: Did I defend the morning? I think, write, and focus best before the breakfast dishes start moving. When I have time to pray and reflect in the morning, I gain a heading for my day. This conflicts with the fact that I am happily employed in the distractions business. Even when I am not at work, I am a distraction hobbyist. I can check a news alert at 6 a.m. and lose myself in impulse until I look up and it's suddenly 10. I may have been the author of many of your distractions too. I am both barring the door against the invading hordes and blowing the trumpet for their advance.
My new list helps me fight this contradiction through accountability. I am more intentional about the morning because I'll be asking myself about it later in the day. I want the sense of accomplishment, particularly when everything else in my day has gone haywire. I'll know that I kept faith with something that is important to me. If I fail, I know I have to change. I can get up earlier, define the morning period more narrowly, or deny myself that one check-in with technology I had previously allowed.
When distraction arrives, the list acts as a rumble strip. In those moments of flux when the attack on my attention is most likely to succeed, turning to the list can rescue me. If I feel the urge to read those 10 rage-tweets that everyone is passing around, or if I flirt with giving in to the bowl of outrage that Uncle Joe is pushing on Facebook, instead I look at my list. Then I can spend the time writing a letter to Uncle Joe, remembering how sweet it was when he taught me how to make a slingshot as a child. Or I can walk around the block, because I’ve read Daniel Pink’s book When, which says that doing so makes me more productive.
Without a system, without accountability, my previous productivity gambits went awry. I'd read a Sunday New York Times profile of some high-functioning person who spends their morning meditating and reading James Joyce, never checking email before noon and making 15-minute brownies in only five. I'd resolve to be more like that person on Monday. But Monday, and the days that followed, were always too busy.
Now when I want to establish a new habit, I make another entry on my list. I read in Kate Murphy's You're Not Listening that we listen least to those we know best, because we think we know what they are going to say. I wanted to change this behavior, which is a threat to my relationships and my journalism. So now I end the day asking myself: Did you listen?
The grist for the questions you ask yourself can come from a variety of sources. They can be formed with the help of your favorite aphorism, self-help guru, or business genius. Want to be more mindful? Ask yourself if you found one moment in the day when you were mindful. Want to find 15 minutes to practice guitar each day? Thirty minutes for exercise? Ten minutes for meditation? Put it on the list. I like to send people handwritten letters, so at the end of the day I ask myself if I've sent one out.
Some of Goldsmith's questions aren’t really questions, but aspirations. One of the things he measures at the end of the day is time spent thinking about things he can’t control. We do what we measure. The list puts your more considered self in charge when your rampaging, daily-appetite-driven self has its white knuckles on the wheel.
The list doesn't have to be a grind. It's permissible to ask yourself: Did you take time to have fun? Did you find joy? These feel like questions that should be on everyone's list at the end of the day. If I were king and could mandate, I would also include this on every person's list: Did you ask why? The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov said the sound of discovery is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny.” “Eureka!” happens when you take “That's funny” and test it and get a result that tells you something. Asking why is what gets you from “That's funny” to “Eureka!” The question contains the propulsive force of curiosity.
The questions can also create a more spiritually grounded day if you're keen for that kind of thing. David Brooks has written about living with your eulogy in mind rather than your résumé. That's a good frame for thinking about your questions.
Planning this much may seem obtuse. Also, unwieldy. Also, like a chore. It's not easy. Most people bail. Failing at an accountability routine is unpleasant. We opt out, particularly in a culture where everything from consumer purchases to public policy is designed to defer obligations. That's why Goldsmith has someone call him at the end of the day to run him through his list of questions. He knows that he'll be inclined to skip the exercise if he doesn't force himself to be accountable.
As Charles Duhigg and James Clear have written, if you want to achieve an important goal, make it a habit. Whether it's building better teams in an organization, developing your critical reasoning, or improving your networking, the daily application of attention makes the difference between having an aspiration and executing on it. “We are what we repeatedly do,” the philosopher Will Durant wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
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.
Social media, partisanship, competition, and pride force us into questioning other's motives in the sheared-off arguments of public life. They encourage us to operate at our worst, to seize on the worst explanation, and to lock away our generosity. This makes us unpleasant and destroys argument, turning it from a useful process that sharpens ideas like iron against iron into a mere dominance exercise.
I was raised to argue in this form of dominance debate. It makes you a jerk. Better to be like Benjamin Franklin, whose final remarks to the Constitutional Convention I was studying for my book at just the time I was interviewing Goldsmith. In Franklin's remarks—delivered by his fellow delegate James Wilson because, at age 81, Franklin was too frail—he explained to his colleagues that he supported the Constitution, even though he disagreed with much of it. “Having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig'd, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise,” he said. “It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.” Having grown wiser about listening to others and less certain about his own genius, he concluded by recognizing that there were more important considerations for the country than his views. “The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good.”
Franklin's wisdom was built by more than just the accretion of years. He worked at it. In his autobiography, written at a much earlier age, he outlined the personal organizational scheme he employed to make himself a better person. Its central feature? Questions.
“What good shall I do this day?” he asked himself in the morning. And at the end, like Goldsmith, he asked, “What good have I done to-day?”
To track his progress, Franklin created a spreadsheet. The generosity of mind displayed at the end of the Constitutional Convention was the fruit of years of patient effort. "A Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud," he wrote in his autobiography, "that my pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list … I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself … the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present."
Franklin improved himself by leveraging the power of habit. “This mode,” he wrote, “which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me.”
I'm no Ben Franklin. As one week gave way to the next, I started to feel the way my kids do when I pretend some family chore will be fun, or when I launch us on what I've sold as a worthy excursion. After about a month, I stopped checking in with myself at the end of the day. I'd made my list too long.
Then COVID-19 hit. So now I'm back at it. I've whittled the questions down to a manageable number. And I'm starting with one that I hope will get easier to answer with time: Did you keep up with this list?
* This article originally stated that Caro wrote at home.