When you don’t know how long an unusual situation will last, it makes sense to wait for it to blow over. But if it goes on long enough, we must adapt.
Many weeks into the covid lockdown, I had mostly adapted by eating a frankly staggering amount of Toblerones. This was nice, but there were side effects: I felt unhealthy, tired, and unmotivated. Every day I fell further behind on chores, making each room at home slightly more depressing to walk into, which only reduced my motivation further. I went to bed every night regretting how little I’d achieved, and this extra guilt simply tightened the downward spiral the next day.
But the best thing about spirals is that they work both ways.
Inspiration from unexpected places
Some years ago I read a book called The Upward Spiral by a neuroscientist named Alex Korb. The central idea is that chaining enough tiny changes together generates positive momentum, which can reverse downward spirals and escape depression. I can’t say I was technically depressed during lockdown, but I was certainly on a path towards becoming 90% Toblerone and 10% failure.
Bizarrely, the trigger to begin reversing this spiral was a comment on the Puttyverse, which linked to FlyLady.net—a strange, old-fashioned website, filled with cleaning advice and confusing acronyms, aimed squarely at older American housewives.
Despite not being her target demographic, I found her basic message compelling. Beneath all the impenetrable acronyms lay a very simple program, and it began with one instruction: clean your kitchen sink.
This seed of an idea landed on fertile ground. I’d been craving an actionable, simple, isolated task. A small win that could be the first bit of positive momentum in my Upward Spiral.
I didn’t let myself think about it. I rose, I went to the kitchen, and I scrubbed the sink until it sparkled. (After emptying it of the pile of dishes and pans, naturally.) I stood back to admire my work, and I couldn’t help noticing the counter was dirty. Luckily, I had all the cleaning stuff out already, so I scrubbed that, too.
Minutes later, the kitchen looked great. For the rest of the day, every time I entered I got a little buzz of happy brain chemicals. I returned to my computer and digested a bunch more cleaning tips for boomer American housewives, and a new plan for lockdown clicked into place in my mind.
Cleaning a toilet exactly once
I returned from my daily walk with a couple of extra cleaning sprays, some microfiber cloths, and some thoughts about inertia.
In physics, inertia describes how difficult it is to change the velocity of an object. It’s a concept we all intuitively understand. As a child I learned pretty quick that small objects moving slowly are easy to deflect. Later, I learned that a go-kart accelerating downhill cannot be stopped by using your feet as brakes, at least not if you intend to be able to walk easily afterwards.
Similarly, our lives have inertia in all kinds of ways, big and small. For example—and as the FlyLady points out—it can be daunting to clean, say, a dirty toilet. But wiping an already-clean toilet with cleaning spray for ten seconds a day is incredibly easy. Which means that the only difficult part of having a permanently-clean toilet is cleaning it the first time.
Her example was about toilets, but this applies much more widely. Inertia works both ways; enough of it is almost impossible to stop. Take brushing my teeth—not only does it take zero effort every morning, it would actively be harder not to do it. There’s nothing special about toothbrushing, except that I’ve internalized it and made the inertia impossible to stop. Surely I could make more aspects of my life this effortless?
And since my inspiration came via toilets, I would begin there.
The next day, I took the approach I’d taken to the kitchen sink into the bathroom. One simple task: clean it. In less than an hour, every sink and toilet in my house was sparkling.
On day two, the ten-second wipe downs cost me nothing, and for the entire day I got a buzz whenever I entered the bathroom. (Writing this sentence is not how I expected 2020-21 to go, but, at this stage, I’ll take it.) That energy sustained me to make healthier choices during my grocery shopping than I had since lockdown started.
Day three, and the ten-second wipe down was—if anything—easier still. I was eating well, my home was clean, and I discovered some excess energy to finish work that I had been putting off for a while. Momentum was now working with me instead of against me.
On day four, I had to push myself to keep up the maintenance, but reminding myself that a tiny amount of daily effort would lead to larger future payoffs was enough. Afterwards, I still had energy to work, exercise, and eat well. I wasn’t doing any of these things perfectly, but I was doing them all better, and this was enough to keep building the positive spiral.
It didn’t have to be cleaning. The point of this story isn’t “clean your sink and toilet”—although those aren’t bad ideas! I could have instead put my energy into cooking a good meal, or reading a book, or improving my home, or pushups. Worrying about what to pick is less important than just doing something—anything.
This one insight—that it’s easier to maintain momentum than to build it—helped me to focus my (initially) limited energy on getting one thing into “maintenance mode” every day. Over time, these jobs become easier and more automatic, until, like brushing your teeth, it’s harder not to do it. For me, this frees up energy for everything else.
Of course, this is all easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a deeply negative spiral, and especially during an all-encompassing global crisis. I was able to find the energy to attack that kitchen sink, but I can easily imagine finding even that too much.
But that’s the good thing about spirals—you can always start at the very smallest bit, and work outwards from there.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.