Blindsided by a Shelter-in-Place Order

Matthew C. Whited, PhD; Associate Professor, East Carolina University

I love the opportunity to do some non-academic writing, so I was excited when SBM leadership asked for blog posts related to Shelter in Place orders. This type of writing gives us behavioral scientists a chance to share our work and ideas, but most importantly, a chance to show our vulnerability and our human side. It gives us a chance to show that we are not natural paragons of mental/behavioral health and we must use what we know about behavioral medicine to be mentally and physically healthy, just like everyone else. It's the reason I ask guests on our occasional podcast "what's your Do Healthy?; what are you working on right now related to your health?"

With this in mind, I'm "happy" to disclose that I was blindsided by North Carolina's Shelter in Place order. At first, I had a job to do and problems to solve. I had to move my behavior therapy clinic and my classes online. I leapt into this work. Solving problems feels great and I enjoy embracing technology. In a week and a half I had 90% of things in order. Then my thoughts drifted to all the things I was going to accomplish with my newfound free time. I was going to push myself to practice Spanish, get into yoga more, write up those manuscripts that are sitting on the back burner, read those books I bought 6 months ago, walk my dogs every day. I was going to use this "opportunity" to be super-productive. It was like, the things that got in my way were all gone and I was left to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.

Except I had no more free time than before the Shelter in Place order and almost none of those plans came to fruition.

You see, I forgot some of the most fundamental aspects of behavioral medicine.

  1. Change is hard and doesn't happen overnight.
  2. Our environment and our routines maintain much of our healthy behavior

Let's start with Number 1. I had all these plans that I wanted to enact immediately. I even thought I prepared well. I set out my books, washed all of my running clothes, I made to-do lists related to my work, I even scheduled when I would work on those back-burnered manuscripts so I knew where they would fit in between my new online teaching/therapy duties. I've written before on building momentum, and I thought I was following all of my own principles. I thought I was making small, deliberate changes that would keep me happy and healthy. They weren't small changes though, because of Number 2.

Number 2 is fundamental. The environment shapes our behavior. I took for granted how much my environment had changed. I mean, it's the house I live in, it looks and feels the same. The definition of "environment" though is much broader than just the physical space, it's our routine as well. My work routine involved parking far from my office and getting a nice walk in each day. Plus I'm not good at sitting still, so I have a treadmill desk to walk on and a beautiful campus to wander around when I need a quick 10 min break. All that is gone staying at home all day. My partner is a social creature and she tends to always have something fun planned for us to do with other people; clearly that has changed with the need for social distancing. Finally, home is my happy place. I do a good chunk of my work here at home, but that's typically during certain hours based on my established routine. When I am at home I also watch TV, play video games, play with my pets, make stuff (bread, woodworking, etc.). So, even with all my high ideas for work and personal-enhancement, my environment is telling me to chill out and have a good time. My current environment, due to having to shelter in place, is basically telling me to neglect the things that bring me the deepest meaning and joy (friends, family, teaching/mentoring, learning/creating) in favor of Netflix and Borderlands 3. Nothing against Netflix and video games, but those need to take a relatively minor place in my life and my current environment/routine makes them more accessible and reinforcing than ever. Meanwhile I'm fighting back saying "I WILL create a more perfect version of myself with all this new free time that I have". Well, the free time is an illusion, and this is a clear violation of aspect Number 1.

Thankfully, my expertise in Behavioral Medicine gives me the knowledge of how to make behavior changes that improve my physical and mental health, even if it doesn't necessarily make me more insightful about how drastically my environment has changed. Now that I've realized my mistakes, here's my revised Shelter in Place survival strategy:

  1. Even though things look the same, I've basically started a new job in a new place where I don't know anyone with no established routines. I need to focus on small changes, and build momentum. For example: today I go for a walk at 5. Maybe I'll take the dogs, maybe I won't. Maybe it will be a 30 min walk, maybe it will be 10 min. I'm setting myself up for success by just going at 5 and building the momentum of having a walk settled into my routine. I'll even put it in my calendar so my phone beeps to remind me. After that walk, I'll schedule another one based on how I feel. Tomorrow, I plan to organize my materials for one manuscript that I plan to write. Not write the thing in one week, not email all my co-authors to engage them. I'm just going to open up that long-ignored folder and make a list of tasks to get this thing out. I'll worry about knocking out those tasks one-by-one in future days.
  2. We all suffer from the delusion that if we decide to do something important, we'll naturally remember to do it later. When our routines are disrupted with Shelter in Place orders, it's even more important to schedule things. You can see how important scheduling is to building momentum in my examples above. If we schedule our activities, we are much more likely to accomplish them, and during Shelter in Place, it helps us to build that all-important routine. Basically, if there's anything you've thought about doing but haven't managed to make happen, schedule it (in a small changes, build momentum type of way). I've even started sending calendar invitations to my friend when we plan to play games together (online, of course). It forces us to change from "we should play Dungeon World this weekend sometime" to the much more likely to happen "I sent you a calendar invitation with a google hangout link for 8:00 on Saturday, if it takes longer for any of you to put your kids to bed we'll just chat for a bit while we wait for you".
  3. Be kind to yourself. These small-step goals can leave me thinking that I should be doing so much more. But the thing I'm forgetting when I feel discouraged are all the other things that are going to happen each day. All the web meetings with colleagues, the meal planning, the dog letting out, the cleaning, the teaching, and the mentoring that happen naturally as part of the routine I established during the first week of sheltering in place. Adding in a few new things that are hard to find the space for is not a small task. I (We) should feel proud of making changes, because change is difficult, especially in the context of having to Shelter in Place.

My SBM colleagues are sure to write about other super-important aspects of behavioral medicine and excellent behavior change strategies that will be helpful for you during this unprecedented event. What I talk about here are the ones that I feel are essential, especially to me, and I hope you find them helpful as well. Though this pandemic is unprecedented in our time, changing and adapting to new environments is something that humans have been doing for millennia. In fact, our ability to change our environment (both our routine and our physical environment) is largely responsible for our success as a species. We all have what we need to make changes, and behavioral medicine strategies help us to effectively harness this power to improve our mental and physical health.