Like a lot of people, I can tell you the last indoor restaurant meal I ate and the last movie I saw in theaters—avocado toast at a Tuscan place in the East Village of Manhattan with my cousin, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But I can also tell you the last in-person exercise class I attended (Wednesday night pilates at my favorite studio in Park Slope), the last museum I strolled through (the Brooklyn Historical Society), and what I ordered the last time I sat in a coffee shop reading a book (a maple latte with oat milk and a vegan breakfast burrito). I even know how much I spent at that coffee shop ($17).
I can precisely describe the blaze of gender and class signifiers in which my pre-pandemic life went out, not because I have an exceptional memory—I don’t—but because I’m an incorrigible tracker. I’ve kept written records of the basic, tedious details of my life for decades, starting with an obsessive food diary as an eating-disordered teen. A stint in cognitive behavioral therapy for depression in my 20s showed me that tracking moods, thoughts, and behaviors could be beneficial rather than immiserating, and so I transformed the habit into a self-esteem-boosting tool that played a minor role in the background of my life for years, until the tendency ran smack into the pandemic.
In CBT, my therapist had me track my daily activities on an hour-by-hour basis to see how I was actually spending my time. (As a single person who has lived alone since college, I couldn’t ask anyone else.) This was meant to be a temporary exercise, but it took—the tracking worksheets felt like direct evidence that I was not as unproductive as I thought. I ended therapy after a year or so, but I kept up the tracking.
For the past few years, I’ve kept a Google Document listing the books, TV, movies, and other culture I consume, along with categories like RESTAURANTS, DATING, TRAVEL, VOLUNTEERING, PROTESTS, HIKING, and RECIPES. This is separate from the lined notebook in which I jot down my daily activities at the end of each day, from the spreadsheet on which I track every purchase I make, and from the virtual sticky note on my phone on which I track my monthly alcoholic beverage consumption. (For the purposes of this essay, I think we can set aside the spreadsheets and lists I use to track projects at work, but please trust that they are numerous and very detailed.)
When the pandemic arrived last March, I began spending almost every day entirely alone. Tracking became both more ludicrous and more essential than ever. Ludicrous because every day was, for all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of the day before. I continued writing down my daily activities even as my life shrank to fit into the confines of my 410-square-foot studio apartment in Brooklyn. The vast majority of days followed more or less the same format: a sudoku puzzle, a yoga or barre video or livestream, a few hours of work, maybe a midday walk, a few more hours of work, an evening walk or bike ride, dinner, a TV episode or movie or some time spent working a jigsaw puzzle or maybe a phone call with a friend, a halfhearted guided meditation before bed. I wrote this sequence of events in my notebook again and again as though it were a list of vocabulary words I was trying to memorize.
But even as it became extremely boring, tracking took on an indispensable role in my life, because with no one around to witness my existence and tell me I was doing OK, I had to persuade myself that the ways I filled my days mattered. Obviously, TRAVEL, THEATER, and DATING took a big hit. So I added new categories to my annual activity Google Doc, like ONLINE EXERCISE CLASSES and VIRTUAL SOCIALIZING AND COMMUNITY—every Zoom trivia night, virtual gathering with my meditation group, and phone call with a friend got typed in. After the science made it clear that the virus was unlikely to spread outdoors, I added WALKS AND BIKE RIDES WITH FRIENDS, activities that wouldn’t have felt important enough to even write down a few months earlier, before the world closed.
As the year dragged on, I dutifully tracked and tracked. I wrote down meaningful activities that lived up to the hype (doing grocery runs for neighbors as a volunteer for mutual aid groups in my area, attending Black Lives Matter protests) and frivolous activities that lived up to the hype (watching Ted Lasso, making caramelized shallot pasta). I found new ways to track my existence and interaction with the world—over the summer, for example, I spent a couple of months methodically walking every street in my neighborhood and marking it off on a digital map.
If you are not a fellow tracker, this all may sound exhausting and joyless or like I’m wrapped up in the cult of productivity, like those Silicon Valley tech bros. I admit that a desire to feel productive is at the heart of the kind of tracking I do, but it’s productivity defined way downward—even lower, keep going, a little farther, yes, right at ground level is perfect. To take satisfaction out of noting every episode of You’re Wrong About I listened to and every online game of Codenames I played with my parents and sister required an inviolable belief that leisure, diversions, and self-soothing rituals matter. Never have they mattered more than they have over the past year. As the days, weeks, and months stretched on with pitifully little human contact, tracking mundane activities distracted me from the isolation, texturized the monotony, made the emptiness seem full.
There are limits to how much tracking can capture, of course. My ceaseless list definitely didn’t capture the surrealness of spending the vast majority of my waking hours alone over the past year. Left to their own devices, my thoughts swirled helplessly down one pointless eddy after another—I’ve spent the past year rehashing every regret, pining after every person I’ve ever fallen for, inventing new far-fetched boogeymen to fear from the future. None of that showed up on my tracking documents (although I did, at one point, start an ill-advised and short-lived new list titled “Worst Things I’ve Ever Done”). I also spent a good deal of time wishing I could bottle some of the outdoor experiences I had this summer and fall for what I was sure would be a long winter, like a squirrel storing acorns to keep me warm in the coming cold. The weekend afternoons I biked to the beach in Queens to meet friends for a swim, the evening picnics in Prospect Park near where a jazz band set up shop every night to lift people’s spirits. Couldn’t I deposit them into a karmic bank account to use later, please? Even one of them? I could not, it turned out. All I could do was appreciate that precious time spent with other people as it was happening, write it down, then let it go.
COVID winter has been approximately as bleak as expected, but my mental health remains more or less intact. I would not argue that tracking is the top reason for that—the main reasons are privileges like my decent-paying, safe job and my loved ones’ good fortune during this awful, unfair pandemic.
At the end of the day, the most important thing I did this past year was identical to the most important thing anyone else did—I refrained from doing things I wanted to do in order to avoid further spreading the virus. It was the loneliest collective action I’ve ever taken part in, and writing it down is far less less satisfying than writing down the two episodes of Outlander I watched last night or the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies I made this week. But tracking the little, easy things was what powered me through the big, hard thing. It was evidence I was doing something even when it felt like I was doing nothing, could do nothing, was supposed to do nothing. I don’t expect to spend much time revisiting my records from the past year after I get the vaccine, but I sure am glad I kept them.