How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

“Social distancing” is a way of life for me. My parents’ fondest dream was to move as far away from other people as they could reasonably get without sacrificing my education, their careers, or family relationships. I’m as introverted as they are, and for many years I dealt with health issues that kept me in my house for several weeks at a time.

So with the WHO and CDC recommending that we all keep our distance from one another as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 (here’s why that’s important), I’d like to share some of my tips for living a life of solitude in the midst of one’s fellow humans.

how to social distancing

Consolidate Your Errands

When I was a kid, my mother and I did all of the week’s errands in a single day. Typically, that day was Saturday, and the errands included the grocery store, general store, butcher and laundromat – but if one of us had a doctor’s appointment or similar errand during the week, all the other errands got done that day as well.

During the years I was stuck at home for medical reasons, I consolidated my errands to one or two trips a month, usually coinciding with my doctor’s visits.

Consolidating errands may require you to rethink how you get things done:

  • Consider an average week. How many times do you leave the house? Where do you go when you do?
  • Target multiple trips to the same location. If you’re buying produce three times a week, for instance, consolidate all of those into one trip (see the next point for tips on how).
  • Group errands together when they’re located close to one another or when you can map an efficient route from your house, through each location, and back. For instance, my childhood grocery-meat-laundry-general store run was done in that order because that order formed a convenient little loop through the neighborhood. The gas station is in the grocery store’s parking lot, so it often became part of the loop as well.

For COVID-19 purposes, consider keeping hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a trash bag (to collect used wipes) in your car as well. This way, you’ll be able to clean up and/or wipe items down between errands, which can help you avoid carrying germs from place to place.

Plan Ahead and Buy In Bulk

Planning and bulk buying are essential to a good social distancing program. My family used to order through a multi-family food co-op, which meant that most of our groceries came by the case, once a month. I grew up assuming flour came in fifty-pound bags and that soymilk could only be purchased a dozen at a time.

We also grew a great deal of our own food. In summer, produce came from our garden, supplemented by a once a week trip to the local farmer’s market for items we either didn’t grow or didn’t grow in bulk (like peaches, which we bought and canned). In winter, we’d make a once a week produce run – but if the weather got bad enough to prevent it, we could go for a month or more on canned and frozen produce and other staples.

To cut your grocery shopping down to once a week or less:

  • Identify your “must-have” foods. These are the things you either use in a lot of cooking, or that help you feel food-secure. For us, garlic, carrots, and rice are “must-haves” because they feature in a lot of the dishes we make. Peanut butter is a “must-have” because I feel safer knowing we have it – it’s a cheap source of protein, but it’s also a psychological support for me.
  • Consider the meals you make most often. Which ingredients do they have in common? These are your targets for bulk purchases. Aim to have at least one item in every major food group (grains, proteins, fruits, veggies, herbs/spices, and fats/oils) that commonly appears in your cooking and that you can stock in bulk. You may not always have exactly what you want to eat that day, but you’ll likely have the ingredients to make something palatable.
  • Explore shelf-stable replacements for certain ingredients. Currently, the grocery store at the end of my street has almost no canned beans – but the shelves of dry beans are fully stocked. Why? Dry beans are cheaper. They’re more shelf-stable. They last longer, and you’re not paying for the extra water used in packing. Reach for the more shelf-stable options when you can.
  • Buy extras only of things you’ll use before they expire. Here’s where choosing the most shelf-stable version is your friend: The longer it lasts, the more likely you are to use it before it expires. Things you won’t use before they expire are a waste of money.
  • Take advantage of the weather. In many parts of the U.S., it’s still cool enough to store things like apples and potatoes in spaces like the garage or back porch. They’ll keep longer without wasting refrigerator space.
  • Repeat this process for other commonly-used items, like cleaning products, pads/tampons, toilet paper, and so on. My “staple-buy” list, for instance, includes one-subject notebooks because I write prolifically.

For me, the central foods have always been rice, potatoes, garlic, onion, carrots, broccoli, apples, navy beans, peanut butter, vinegar, basil, rosemary, and olive oil. If I have these things in my house, I know I can eat appealing, balanced meals with very little work. Work up a similar list of your own, using the foods that appear most often in your own cooking, and find ways to buy at least two weeks’ worth of them at a time.

Make Yourself an At-Home Workspace

If you’re working from home, an at-home workspace is a must. But it’s also important even if you’re not bringing your job into your house.

Once you’re stocked up on essentials, you’re ready to stay in the house for longer periods of time. Here’s the next challenge: If you’re not used to staying home, how do you do it without feeling trapped?

At-home social distancing time is the ideal time to tackle projects you’re curious about or have been meaning to get to, and it starts with having a workspace for these projects.

Set aside some area in your house to work on the thing you’ve always wanted to get to. Cover your dining table with a 5000-piece puzzle. Put a card table in the basement and stack all your cheese-making tools onto it. Park your laptop beside your favorite chair so you can work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write.

The goal is to have your project where you can easily reach it. This way, it’ll be on hand to occupy your time, and you won’t face the exhaustion of pulling out all your materials every single time you want to work on it.

My Space Is Too Small!

Not only were my parents big on introverted social distancing when I was a kid, but we also lived in a very small house – less than 750 square feet for three people. My own bedroom was 6 feet by 9 feet. There was barely space for my bed and clothes, let alone for big, sprawling projects.

In this case, your “workspace” may need to be a box or basket that holds your stuff. If you’ve decided to try watercolor painting, for instance, keep your paints, brushes, palettes and so on in a box near the space you’ll actually use when you’re painting (such as your kitchen table). It’s not quite the same as being able to spread out entirely, but it does keep your tools in your line of sight and make them easier to access when it’s time to amuse yourself.

Even in a very small space, you can find ways to divide your activities and locations to feel as if you’re actually transitioning from one to the other. In my 6 foot by 9 foot childhood bedroom, for instance, I used to do my reading and homework while sitting at the foot of my bed. This was enough to trick my brain into thinking that my reading-and-homework space was somehow different from my going-to-sleep space, even though they were literally two ends of the same twin bed.

Social Media Is Your Frenemy

Social media is a double-edged sword when you’re sequestered from the rest of meatspace.

On the one hand, social media is vital. It keeps you connected with friends, family and co-workers. You can share information, update everyone on how your life is going, and communicate with others who might need help.

We have more options for communicating with others – without sharing germs – than we have ever had in the history of humanity. Using them will help us maintain the sense of connection we’ll need to take care of ourselves and one another. Definitely use social media for this purpose.

But, at the same time, pay attention to how you’re using it.

The flip side of social media, when you’re stuck in your house for weeks at a time, is that it can suck you in. During my convalescence I would scroll Facebook and Twitter for hours at a time – a situation that turned out to be terrible for my mental health.

In COVID-19 world, there’s a fine line between “connecting with your loved ones” and “getting totally overwhelmed by all the virus-related news.” Use social media mindfully and proactively. Log on with the express purpose of updating your social circles or checking in on them.

Then, log off. Go take a nap, make a healthy meal, do some push-ups, play with your dog, talk to your family, work on a hobby, read a book or play a video game. Maintain balance in order to maintain your mental and emotional health – which you need just as much as your physical health.

It’s “Social” Distancing, Not “World” Distancing

I’ve made several references to “being stuck at home,” but the fact is that for millions of Americans, social distancing doesn’t actually require us to stay in our house/apartment.

If you don’t live in a large city (or even if you do), you can still leave your house without increasing your risk of catching coronavirus, as long as you go places that have no or few other people. In rural areas, most forests, nature trails, and the like are likely to be pretty safe, as long as there aren’t a lot of people around.

With schools and businesses shutting down over the virus, a lot of urban public places will be eerily empty as well. Parks, college campuses and the like offer an opportunity to get out, go for a walk, and stave off cabin fever without ever getting close enough to another human being to risk transmission of a virus.

Again, pack along your hand sanitizer, and wash your hands thoroughly before you leave your house and when you return. If you run into other people, smile and wave from a distance. It’s more polite to shout “How are you?!” across a park than it is to give someone COVID-19 or get it from them.

This All Kind Of Sucks

Yes, it does. But it’s doable. I’ve lived large parts of my life without leaving my house or sharing physical space with a non-family member for a month or two at a time.

Even if you’re a major introvert, though, it’s hard on the mental health. That’s why having defined spaces and projects is so important – as is getting out of the house in a safe and healthy way when you can.

Take care of yourselves and each other. It’s how we beat this thing.


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How to Work From Home If You’re Not Used to Working From Home

Today four universities in my home state announced a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19. A number of U.S. businesses are arranging for workers to work remotely, rather than risk coming into the office or commuting on public transport.

Working or studying from home takes some adjustment if you’re not used to it. I made my adjustment back in 2009, when a medical condition prevented me from leaving my house – sometimes, for weeks at a stretch.

I’ve worked from home for over ten years now. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it successfully.

how to work from home

Create a Dedicated Workspace

It’s tempting to sack out on the couch when you’re working from home. (I’m on my couch right now.) Working where you relax, however, can have two negative effects: It can distract you from work, and it can make relaxation time feel like a chore.

Instead, create a space to work in. If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room, use it. If not, set up a desk or a card table or a corner of the kitchen. Put a TV tray at one end of your couch and use that end for work; when not working, sit on the other end.

The goal is to have a place you can do your work and store work things (papers, your laptop, etc). Choose a place you can focus on work and that you can walk away from when work time is over.

Schedule Your Work Time

Carving out a space in which to get into “work mode” is important. Carving out time to do the same is just as important – if not more so.

You may not need to stay on your ordinary work schedule while working from home, especially if you typically have a lengthy commute. It is a good idea, however, to stay on a regular work schedule that parallels your ordinary schedule. You’ll be available to co-workers and clients (see below), and you’ll be able to retrain your brain into a work/home schedule more easily.

Try to work during the same block of time each day. Alert your family that you are working and are not to be bothered. Don’t respond to things like the front door or personal phone calls while you’re working. You wouldn’t be home to answer the door if you were at the office, and you’re still not available during work hours even if you are physically home.

Communicate With Your Team (More)

One of the biggest things that surprises new telecommuters or remote workers is how much more electronic communication is necessary when you don’t work in a face to face environment.

Communicate with your boss, co-workers, staff and clients even more than you think you need to. Get into the habit of sending a check-in email at least once a day, updating others on your progress. If you lead a team, make the check-in a part of everyone’s work day.

Communication also helps maintain relationships. You’ll be able to help co-workers adjust to working remotely, and you’ll maintain the human connections we’ll desperately need should COVID-19 seriously destabilize social and economic functions.

Use Multiple Channels

To boost communication, use or recommend using multiple channels and types. Skype, FaceTime, teleconference calls, shared Google Docs, email, text, Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the like are your friends in a remote-work situation.

Each of these tools performs a different role, and the combination of roles can help a team complete tasks they might struggle with on any one channel.

For example: I’ve worked with a remote content marketing team for nearly two years now. We communicate daily via Slack and email. We meet on GoMeetMe, and we work in shared Google Drive files when we need to collaborate on particular tasks.

Each of these channels performs a specific function that would be clunky over any other, if not outright impossible. Emailing documents back and forth is a nightmare compared to working in a shared Google Doc. Having voice conversations really helps us with idea generation as a team and helps us support one another (and I say this as someone who struggles with auditory processing). And I appreciate that the pet photos and bad puns stay on Slack, where they aren’t cluttering up my inbox.

We have more tools and channels for communication at a distance than we have ever had before in human history. Apply the strengths of several to help keep yourself and everyone else on track.

Back Up Your Data – And Yourself

Automatic backups are ubiquitous these days. If you typically work with an office computer or tablet, chances are good that your company has some kind of automatic backup system in place, in addition to the ones embedded in programs like Google Drive and Microsoft Word.

At home, however, you may need to do your own backups. Keep all your work information backed up to an external drive, if possible. Use a thumb drive or an external hard drive for large projects.

In addition, it’s important to “back up” yourself. Should the worst occur and you find yourself infected with COVID-19, you may end up requiring hospitalization or at least extensive bed rest.

In this situation, you may need someone else to contact your boss, co-workers, or clients in order to let them know what has happened and how you are doing. Make sure someone trustworthy has a way to contact someone on your work team. For example, give your spouse your boss’s email address or phone number.

The goal of working remotely is to reduce your chances of contracting or passing on COVID-19. Ideally, you won’t need a backup person – but it’s best to have one just in case.

Clean Your Devices

Our laptops, tablets and cell phones are surprisingly dirty – more than your average pet toy or toilet seat. Washing your hands religiously doesn’t do much good if the first thing you touch is your germ-ridden keyboard.

I’m certain my keyboard was one of the dirty ones. I know exactly when my toilet seat was last cleaned with bleach (this morning). My laptop? I also know exactly when that was last cleaned: Never.

(Well, almost. I fixed that before I started writing this post.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of online guides to cleaning laptops and other devices. If yours has been to the office or commuted with you, clean it as soon as possible.

Walk Away At the End of the Day

Last but not least, when you’re done working at your newly-remote or newly-telecommuting position at the end of the day, leave work behind.

Leave work behind physically, by shutting down your laptop or tablet, depositing it in your workspace, and physically leaving that space (even if that just means shifting to the other end of the couch). Leave it behind mentally by focusing on other tasks, like making dinner or playing with the dog. If a work task continues to bug you mentally, write it down and put it on your work pile to deal with in the morning.

One of the great disadvantages of working from home is that it enables us to work all the time. Because we can work all the time, we start to think we should.

We should not. Working nonstop is unhealthy: physically, mentally and emotionally. If all you do is work, you can’t be fully present for your own needs, much less for those of your friends, family and neighbors – people who will need each other, and whom you will need, if things get worse.

Set a schedule that includes your quitting time for the day, and stick to it. You can tackle the next task tomorrow.

Working from home takes some adjustment, and it’s not ideal for everyone. By planning ahead and maintaining good communication, however, you can ease the transition and protect your own and others’ health at the same time.


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