I’ve Been Social Distancing for Years. Here’s What I Learned.

On How To!, author Celeste Headlee shares tips on staying sane through the isolation of quarantine.

Person talking on the phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of How To!, Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, shared tips for staying sane during the isolation and anxiety of coronavirus quarantine. Long before the pandemic, Headlee practiced her own kind of social distancing while doing research for her book, and learned some lessons in the process about how to slow down. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: When you decided to write this book, Do Nothing, it was obviously before the coronavirus. You weren’t being forced to do nothing. Tell me about what was going on when you felt like this was something you needed to write.

Celeste Headlee: Because I was exhausted. I was getting sick more than I ever had my life. I was more stressed out, more overscheduled, more unhappy. I knew I had to fix it. So I started doing this research just for myself and then I realized it wasn’t just me. Every single time I talked to one of my friends about overworking, they’d say, “Oh my God, that’s me. That’s my life.” And that’s when I realized it’s not me—it’s us.

When you were spending time doing nothing, what was the most surprising thing you learned? 

I got more done. When I stopped working really, really long hours, I was actually more productive. That was very surprising to me. You stay on that treadmill and you’re going nowhere.

It hasn’t been that long—maybe 40 or 50 years—since people went home and there was truly a boundary there. They had hobbies like stamp collecting, flower pressing, making their own ice cream. They were birdwatchers. Now people are going home and realizing they don’t have any hobbies. Why? Because birdwatching is not particularly profitable. You can’t sell it on Etsy. So I really hope more people feel bored and maybe take up a hobby.

In some respects we can think of quarantine as a forced hard reboot for how we live our lives. But before we get to that place, we’re all anxious. We still have a long way to go and to work through what day-to-day life looks like. When you think about the mental health risks that folks confront by being in their homes and being somewhat isolated from other people, what should we be worried about?

Here’s what keeps me up at night, beyond concerns about the virus. The world is already in a crisis—a pandemic of loneliness. I use that word intentionally because loneliness will kill you. Not directly, but it will lead to all the health consequences that will lead to an earlier death. They did a study in the U.K. in which they followed a large group of men for a very long period of time and found that based on the number of significant social interactions and relationships they had, they could predict with a fair amount of accuracy who would be alive in 10 years. Human beings do not do well when they’re isolated. We’re already isolated—we have already reduced the number of social interactions we have to a really dangerous level. So this pandemic is going to make that worse.

So what do we do? What do I do in order to keep in touch with friends? Given that I don’t want to go on social media and make that my whole outlet.

Pick up the phone. Call all the people that you know. Call the people that you haven’t talked to in 10 years. Use teleconferencing. Use Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.

Frankly, the neurological and physiological benefits of a teleconference are not that far below that of seeing someone in person. For 300,000 years, we have evolved to communicate through the human voice. There’s no replacement for it. Have you ever called your wife or a friend and all they did was say “hello” and you immediately said what’s wrong? In a split second, that is how quickly your brain took in some incredibly complicated and nuanced information from the sound and tone of a voice. It gives you a feeling of belonging, and belonging is the most important need that a human being has after survival.

What else should we be on guard against? 

So this is going to sound like I’m contradicting myself, but the next thing I would say is find ways to protect your privacy. You need both the interactions and you need a place to retreat. We know that people need at least the possibility of privacy in order to feel mentally well. If we don’t have a possibility of privacy, we will go to great lengths to find it. So when you are at home with your wife and your kids or whomever you’re at home with, make sure there’s a place to retreat to.

One of the things that’s so hard about being quarantined and about this period that we’re living through is that it feels like we’re losing control. We don’t have control over whether we’re going to get sick or not. We don’t have control over what’s going on in the world. We don’t have control over whether we can leave our house, which psychologically is so important.

It really is important. And I would also say once a day, stop and think about all the ways that you are lucky. Gratitude really is one of the most underestimated virtues because we do get an immediate benefit from it. It is a stress reliever. It is excellent for changing your perspective.

What about that worry of these other things that you can’t control? Like what’s happening in the country or friends that might get sick or loved ones that are elderly or are at-risk. We know that worry is going to be there and we know we’re going to be anxious. How do we manage it in a way that it doesn’t take over our life?

I’m checking in on people constantly and I’m asking every single one of them, “What can I do? Can I do anything for you? Can I help you? Do you have 10 minutes? I want to call you on the phone.” Hearing their voice makes me feel better. Find something to do for other people to get yourself out of your own head. Check on other people. Leave notes on your neighbor’s door. “Hey, I’m here,” or “I’m going to the grocery store. I can leave the bags outside of your door. Do you need anything?” Human beings need each other. We are immunocompromised when we are alone. So start to rebuild that network, the web that keeps us all alive and keeps us all healthy.

It’s almost as if this period is revealing to us that there’s actually been this low-level virus we’ve been living with for years. 

That’s exactly correct.

To hear more from Celeste, including advice on how to juggle remote work and rambunctious kids, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts. 

Also we want to know what your toughest challenges are during the pandemic and what you have found is working for you. Leave us a voicemail at 646-495-4001. We’re collecting your problems and solutions for a new recurring segment on the show.