We want to end the year on a hopeful note. Despite the shock, loss, frustration, and uncertainty we’ve all faced this year, we’ve found ways to get through it.
We’ve admired the creativity and resilience of so many people we’ve spoken with throughout the year. Yet we realize that what we have been able to share with one another, over Zoom or Facetime, is just a fraction of what each of us has dealt with and how we’ve dealt with it. Out of necessity and circumstance, the ways we’ve coped have often been private.
So to close out the year and look to the next, we decided to open up about some of the things that helped us get through it—the routines and rituals we crafted, the products and apps that came to the rescue. We on the Behavioral Scientist team each picked one, and you’ll find our reflections below.
We didn’t realize just how fun and inspiring it’d be to discuss what helped us get through the year. And useful too! By sharing what would have otherwise remained hidden, we want to shine a light on some behavioral bright spots from an otherwise tough year.
We also hope to learn from you. What routine, ritual, product, app, or idea had a positive impact on your behavior in 2020? Why and how? Let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or share your reflections and recommendations on social media via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin.
— The Editorial Team
Hatching into a new me
The fresh start effect was in full gear at the beginning of 2020. I had made a resolution to sleep at least 7 hours a night, meditate daily, and read at least one book a month. And like most people with a New Year’s resolution, I failed almost on all my goals by the end of February. Essentially, calling it an intention-action gap is forgiving; it was a vast intention-action chasm. To make matters worse, working from home in a cramped NYC apartment hadn’t provided the temporal (or, let’s face it, the literal) space to separate my work and life. Determined to achieve my early 2020 goals, I turned to a commitment device in the form of an … alarm clock. Okay, but it’s not just any alarm clock; it’s a Hatch.
Determined to achieve my early 2020 goals, I turned to a commitment device in the form of an … alarm clock. Okay, but it’s not just any alarm clock; it’s a Hatch.
The Hatch is an egg-shaped bedside device with a built-in smart light, sound machine, sunrise alarm, wind-down meditations, and alarm clock, and the multiple settings helped me achieve my previous goals that fell to the wayside. The dozens of scheduled soft and color light settings remind me to start wrapping up my work and move into the “wind-down settings,” which include a 20-minute reading session, followed by a 10-minute guided meditation. Not only am I checking off pieces from our Notable Books of 2020 list, but the Hatch is helping me build consistent habits that were previously thwarted.
— Liam Speranza, Visual Editor
Someone fit, please yell at me, nicely
I moved to Prague about two years ago. After indulging in the Czech’s comfort-style cuisine, delicious Pilsners, and their liberal definition of what counts as a balanced meal, I’ve been trying to get back into shape. (For reference, fried cheese and french fries is a perfectly legitimate—and delicious—meal, usually listed in the vegetarian section of the menu.)
But getting back on the fitness wagon has been stop-start. And it was during the pandemic that I realized one of the key factors holding me back—all the decisions I made throughout the day. The flexibility of working from home—when to wake up, whether to wear your normal sweatpants or the nice ones—comes with a trade off: more decisions. I just didn’t have the cognitive bandwidth to manage my work, my team, my home, the existential crisis facing humanity, and be my own personal trainer. I realized I needed to offload my workout plan somehow. Enter Peloton’s workout app.
After some research, Peloton’s 30-day free trial, their lower-than-average cost ($13.99/month), and class variety (strength, yoga, stretching, etc.), convinced me to give it a try. (At first, I thought you had to own the bike to access the app. You don’t. Though it probably serves as a serious commitment device.)
After several months using the app, I’m hooked. The high-quality coaching, variety of classes, and predictable timing (classes range from 5-10 minutes to over an hour) means all I have to do is show up. And one way Peloton keeps me showing up is the sense of communal suffering. During the live class, instructors recognize people who’ve hit certain milestones, like 100 workouts. Even though I’ve only ever watched the recorded classes, these shout-outs do the trick of reminding me that other people are also doing plank jacks in their living rooms, cursing at their computer. Plus, when you watch a recording, there’s a sidebar that shows you who else is taking it at the same time. For anyone looking to free up a bit of cognitive bandwidth and get a bit fitter, I recommend giving the Peloton app a try.
A ping-pong table: When we went into our second lockdown, I measured our living room for a ping-pong table. We had just enough space. With 4:30 p.m. sunsets and shuttered restaurants, my girlfriend and I decided it was a bit weird, but worth it. Happy to say that it has been. We’ve started betting household chores on the outcome of our matches, so the stakes are high and our kitchen has never been cleaner. (In case you’re wondering, it folds up flat when we’re not using it.)
A robe: I am not much for home couture. I prefer to get dressed as if I have somewhere to be, even if I’m working from home. I’ve always liked the idea of a robe, but, similar to music by Beck, every time I tried it, it just felt weird. Nine months of lockdown have me convinced otherwise—about the robe, not Beck. Though perhaps it’s time for another listen.
— Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief
Puzzling over how to connect, no more
I live a 2,945-mile car ride from where I grew up, and yet by some trick of New York magnetism I live closer now to a childhood friend than I did when we were playing on the same rec soccer teams or playing chess before first-period history. It’s particularly galling, then, that the pandemic has meant we can’t see each other in person. To compensate, we’ve rekindled an old hobby with a new twist: doing the crossword together over Zoom every Thursday. I know, I know, no one needs more Zoom in their lives. But most of the platform’s foibles disappear when you remove it from all the baggage of work and group teleconferencing. Screensharing the crossword webpage means that I’m not fretting about do I look at him or the camera; we’re not preoccupied about maintaining a professional facade in the picture frame and hiding a messy bedroom out of it. During an era when socializing is so hard, our weekly crossword ritual keeps us connected.
Routines and socializing have been hard to come by. Bundling them together in the context of a game has become a dependable hit of joy that even Zoom can’t extinguish.
If crosswords aren’t your thing, try Codenames online, the pictionary-like Srkibbl, or, for you Queen’s Gambit-heads, chess. I’ve even only-half-jokingly planned a game of Battleship by phone with a friend who’s sick of screens. Routines and socializing have been hard to come by. Bundling them together in the context of a game has become a dependable hit of joy that even Zoom can’t extinguish.
— Cameron French, Editor
Milk … I am your frother
Last February, just a few weeks before COVID-19 ground the world to a halt, I told a big lie.
I was in New York, participating in a workshop where we were supposed to share how we could use behavioral science to break an expensive habit. The most expensive and entrenched I could think of: my one latte a day habit. I’d started it back in my mid-twenties, around when I began earning a little more than minimum wage and felt like I could afford the luxury of purchased coffee. In this workshop, I diligently formulated a plan for how I was going to stop buying lattes (buy my own milk, use the free coffee at work), along with implementation intentions. But deep in my soul, I knew that I just loved the experience of going to the coffee shop for my brew too much, and that I probably wouldn’t follow through.
Then, a few weeks later, all of the coffee shops closed. So I had a choice: would I start to make the coffee drinks myself, or would I stop drinking coffee entirely? Obviously, that is not really a choice. So I decided to purchase what would be a total game changer: my milk warmer and frother. It not only has made the coffee drinks that I so love accessible but also has made them enjoyable to create myself. I now look forward to the gentle whirring of the machine as it heats and froths. It has become both a comfort and a new habit.
— Elizabeth Weingarten, Managing Editor
Board games for two, please
Around the time the sun started setting at 6:30 p.m., my husband and I fell into a predictable nightly routine. Finish up work, eat dinner, and watch an hour (or two) of Top Chef. With all of our normal activities off the table, TV just felt like the main leisure activity available during the pandemic in winter. Then I discovered Lost Cities, a simple board game designed specifically for two people. After one game, we were hooked—and have since bought and enjoyed numerous other two-person board games. In addition to Lost Cities, our favorites are 7 Wonders Duel, Blokus, and Hive. In an activity-scarce environment, these games have kept us from defaulting to TV every night or playing on our computers long after we’ve finished work for the day. And, like Evan’s ping-pong table, we’ve made it more fun by upping the ante—winner gets to pick what we’re having for dinner, the next flick on movie night, or assign a chore.
— Michaela Barnett, Editor
The secret to how children can be seen but not heard
As the parent of a nine-year-old doing 4th grade remotely, and whose bedroom is separated from my office by a wall that I’ve learned is less than soundproof, my favorite product of the year are my noise canceling headphones. They don’t help when he bursts into my office during Zoom calls, but the technology for that doesn’t exist yet (unless you count the lock on my door, which seems draconian). He has his own set of headphones, which he uses after school when he plays Fortnite with his friends, but those just have the effect of making him talk three times louder than he usually does. It’s also worth noting that 4th grade is when his school starts recorder lessons. God bless noise canceling headphones.
— Dave Nussbaum, Senior Science Editor
Introducing a vice is fine if it’s for a virtuous reason, right?!
While it seems many of my esteemed colleagues on this editorial board focused on behavior change in the name of health or thriftiness, my top pick is in a decidedly different direction. In 2020, I started … drinking significantly more alcohol.
Before the concerned emails roll in, hear me out. In my pre-COVID New York life, my consumption was limited to a cocktail out with friends, or a happy hour with colleagues once a month. I also had subway commutes and gym excursions that served as markers for when the work and life parts of the day occurred.
Once we went into lockdown in March, the lines between the workday and after-hours began to bleed together quite quickly, and as a result, work-life balance became a serious work-life conflict. I hypothesized that it was the loss of some of my environmental cues (that had previously signaled that the workday was over) that contributed to this conflict. To remedy this, and frankly owing to a surplus of untouched bottles left over from a party pre-COVID, I created a formal ritual for my household: cocktail hour.
It’s simple, yet effective: every day at the same time (for me it’s 6:30), we stop what we are doing, mix a cocktail, and sit down together to enjoy it in a leisurely fashion, with no screens and absolutely no conversation about work allowed.
It’s simple, yet effective: every day at the same time (for me it’s 6:30), we stop what we are doing, mix a cocktail, and sit down together to enjoy it in a leisurely fashion, with no screens and absolutely no conversation about work allowed. It’s something to look forward to, something to anchor to in an otherwise endless cavalcade of Zoom meetings and Google docs, and a pleasant way to unwind from the day. We have it on our digital calendars as a recurring meeting to hold the time as a commitment device, and we get a timely reminder in the form of a push notification that it’s time to transition out of work for the day.
Pro tip: I vary the cocktail method, so sometimes they’re complex and overly fussy, sometimes it’s a 30-second, I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it-at-all highball approach. So, yes, I have one drink every day now—but the spirit (sorry not sorry) of cocktail hour does wonders for taking a breath, relaxing, and disconnecting in an otherwise fraught world. 5-stars, would recommend.
— Mitra Salasel, Senior Advisor
Sixteen weird candles and other crafts
My childhood bedroom is littered with abandoned projects. A true serial hobbyist, the artifacts of what could’ve been range from partially completed love songs about my middle school crush to a Foundations of Krav Maga completion certificate. Because what else are you supposed to do as a 14-year-old with big dreams but limited social skills? Fast-forward to age 23 when, in a truly unprecedented turn of events, I’ve once again found myself counting the days until summer, doing “home work” for hours on end, and listening to an authority figure tell me that I’m not allowed to go out with my friends.
So, I reverted back to my old ways. I’ve invested in a cocktail shaker, and, after several carefully implemented RCTs, identified my new favorite drink. I’ve written songs about the Times of Olde, and I’ve sung them to my three beautiful houseplants. Currently, I’m about halfway through my second scarf. (I’m not a particularly talented knitter, so it’s important to me that you understand how impressive this is.)
Cue the most recent product of my quarantine-induced restlessness—this 10-pound bag of soy wax for candle making. Ultimately, my first attempt resulted in a not-quite-cranberry scented candle that smelled more like a gourmet cough syrup, and a lovely “Christmas wreath” scented candle that looked like a melted pack of highlighters.
But even still, my small projects have become small comforts, and my work-from-home desk is now covered in books I’ve read, plants I’ve mothered, and homemade candles of varying quality. While I feel so far removed from the world, I’ve certainly taken solace in creating some beautiful (and not-so-beautiful) things to put into it.
— Heather Graci, Editorial Intern
“Alexa, launch Jeopardy!”
Needless to say, this has been one hell of a year. For much of the pandemic, I’ve been living with my girlfriend’s family, which has helped keep me sane on the longest days. And every night since mid-March, we have an unspoken rule during dinner: We excitedly gulp down our dinners in anticipation of a lull in the conversation, when someone can finally announce to the Alexa that stands tall in the middle of the kitchen; “Alexa, launch Jeopardy!” Everyone immediately drops their silverware and stands at attention, as Johnny Gilbert introduces Alex Trebek (may he rest in peace). Long day, depressing day, no matter—we all join in to sing the Jeopardy theme song completely off-key. From there, the hard work begins: there are 12 questions, and should they all be answered correctly, we’ll reach the coveted 12 out of 12. Back when we were still Jeopardy rookies in the spring, it took us a couple of months before we got 12 out of 12, but it was worth the wait—we received our first one on the night before my college graduation. We erupted in cheers and hugs and all drank together—all in the name of the legendary 12 out of 12.
This isn’t to say that I’m a diehard fan of smart home devices—just that this feature has brought me, and my girlfriend’s entire family, some levity in these—sorry, I’m going to say it—unprecedented times. And if you’re looking for extra fun, tell your Alexa to launch “Poop Detective.” Trust me, you won’t regret it.
— Max Kozlov, Editorial Intern
Home is where the studio is
I’d been dreaming of becoming a music producer for over a year, and thanks(?) to the layoffs that I experienced when the lockdown began, this dream finally came to fruition. I was saving up for music equipment ever since I got my first job after graduation (or rather I worked the job so that I could afford the equipment), hence I took the pandemic as an opportunity to finally take the plunge. I built myself a small home studio in my basement, bought studio monitors (Yamaha HS5), a midi keyboard (Akai mini), a mic holder, sound card (Scarlett), and mic.
I released a few bootlegs on my SoundCloud and also started a monthly mix series called “Kukiimix.” One of my mixes made it to #1 on the Mixcloud (Indian) chart in the Ambient, World, and Chillout categories. I got my 10-years-old electric guitar serviced for the first time (now it’s as good as new), took rapping lessons, and produced my first EP: “Fresh Grad” that I’m releasing on all streaming platforms this month.
While this year has been extremely difficult for professional musicians because they lost their sole source of livelihood (streaming platforms offer meager royalties for artists), i.e., live gigs, getting the chance to work on my music skills was a huge blessing in disguise and privilege. So much so that by the time the pandemic subsides, I can hope to tap into performance opportunities that I previously could not have considered at my level.
Getting closer to achieving a long-held goal felt great, and reinforced the idea that one can’t do everything at once. Had I not had extra time on my hands due to my work contracts going on pause, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on this passion with equal fervor.
So what if I couldn’t go out and attend live gigs anymore? I built what I was seeking outside of me within the confines of my home. Optimistically, this also reminds me of the saying—what you’re seeking outside of you is already within you.
— Anupriya Kukreja, Editorial Intern