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Pandemic Peccadilloes: Our New Bad Habits

March 12, 2021 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

This is for all of us who now feel shut out from the vast tent that is the rest of the world. As we have isolated ourselves to remain safe from contracting the coronavirus, we’ve had the opportunity to develop some unsavory, unhealthy habits. Some give us comfort sorely needed in this horribly unsettled time, which isn’t over, even if glimmers of hope are the increased number of vaccines now being given.

We lack structure so we create projects to fill our time, sometimes doing so excessively such as lots of baking, cleaning and organizing.

However, most days to fill time, our biggest taxing activity is deciding between binge watching a TV series on Netflix, napping, nipping at the bottle, noshing all day, imbibing too much caffeine or hot chocolate (with marshmallows), starting or finishing an extremely difficult jigsaw or crossword puzzle or playing bridge or another card game (or gambling) alone on the computer. 

In doing so, we have metaphorically pushed our healthy habits to the side—like not letting our peas touch our mashed potatoes and meat on our plate, which some of us did when children—and some of us continue to do as adults. 

What are some of the new bad habits that have emerged? Barbara says that her younger daughter, a child psychologist, has allowed her boys to watch TV more than usual to keep them occupied when she’s video conferencing with a patient. Margaret has been snacking more than usual on carbs and sugar, and Barbara has been on a baking binge of more difficult recipes she never would have tried in the past. And she’s also developed a new bad habit of doing almost no exercise, except going up and down the stairs in her home a few more times than usual. And then there’s Margaret’s friend who grew up in a musical family. Since the pandemic, her husband with no musical chops, has started loudly imitating household noises and other sounds such as something in a TV ad. To add insult to injury, he does so totally off key. 

Here are more of our other bad habits as well as those of others who have requested anonymity:   

Sneezing…achoo. Sneezing into the air without a tissue—no one else is around--and then feeling lonely for no one is nearby by to say, “Bless you.” 

Talking to ourselves. Honing the skill of talking to ourselves when there aren’t others around, asking questions and then giving ourselves the answers. Out loud we might say, “I wonder if I should clean my closet? Hum. Why not? However, my back does hurt today. I’ll give it a rest. I deserve it after a long day doing nothing but sitting in front of my computer deleting spam.”   

Sending manners out the window. Smacking our lips, eating with our fingers, standing to eat instead of sitting at the table, turning on the TV while eating or reading the newspaper, making pleasing noises, putting our elbows on the table while we chomp away. We also chew with our mouths open and compliment ourselves excessively when we say, “Yum, this is so delicious. I think I’ll have another helping of mashed potatoes and sourdough bread that I made from scratch yesterday.” 

Feeling like a nut. Eating dozens of pistachios in the shell rather than the already shelled kind, to kill time. It takes more time to get to the nut. Which is the real nut, you might ponder? 

Listening to chatterboxes. Listening to a friend talk on and on about her- or himself on the phone without taking a breath, rolling our eyes and giving one or two-word responses “Really. Right. No way. Oh no,” while we multitask, While we’re on Zoom conversations, we often text to other friends or do some work while nobody can see. Occasionally, we even “leave the meeting” by hitting that button. Or we might mute our mike and scream at the screen with only our lips moving because we’re so bored and fatigued with another conversation about who got the vaccine when, if they had any pain and what they’re now doing with their extra layer or protection. You think, “Yikes. I can’t stand listening to this story one more time!” Bye. Bye. 

Repeating scenarios. Floating through the day, we utter the same old phrases as if they’re on a loop to our partners, our kids or ourselves and doing so as if for the first time. You hope there is someone around to say: “You’ve told us that already,” or in a kinder way, “Oh, you might have said that but am glad to hear it again.” 

Lying more often. Our friends and family tell us how wonderful their visits with their kids or other friends are. We say, “That’s so nice,” when we are really thinking, “Are you crazy to keep expanding your pod?” or “Don’t you realize you are endangering others by those visits after you drove a long distance or flew?” But we don’t because we know everybody draws the line differently, and we don’t want to add “judgmental” to our bad habits when we’re already very opinionated.  

Avoiding getting help. Therapy? Not right now. “I don’t like doing it on the phone or seeing myself on a screen. It’s frightening. Maybe, I’ll relent after I tell what’s bugging me to my closest friends and when their advice doesn’t make sense. Then, I’ll give in and get the professional advice I need.” Dumb; you need some professional advice NOW!  

Never breaking a sweat. Exercise? Forget it! We rationalize: “Who needs it when I run to the refrigerator several times a day to reach into the box of cookies in the freezer” or run to the bathroom because, yes, we are at that age when we require more trips. So, we track our indoor steps with our Fitbit or Apple watch. We know we could do better, but it would take such work.

Drinking excessively. Are you tipsy too often? Too much drinking to medicate and mitigate your pain? This has become its own pandemic as stated in a New York Times article, “’Vodka in Your Coffee Cup’: When Pandemic Drinking Goes Too Far” by Alix Strauss, Dec. 25, 2020. The piece poses these questions: Were two bottles of wine a night a bit over the top? How much is too much? This isn’t about a few glasses of wine. It’s now how many bottles of wine or the hard stuff do you drink each day. Le chaim but remember that moderation is really key.

Dressing down, not up. Not buying any new clothing and relying on the same old sweatpants or PJs, faded and now contoured to your body despite the pandemic pounds you’ve put on. They became more than your daily clothing. They are your new skin. They’ve been with you during this time, seeing what you’ve seen, absorbing your pain, your mistakes, your spills, and your bad habits. They are stained and ripped like many of us are these days. At least, you wash them regularly. Or do you? 

Ignoring your health Many are avoiding contacting a practitioner, which requires us to get up close to a dentist, eye doc, internist. So, what if we’re limping around on our bad hip? Can’t see to drive because we have cataracts? Are experiencing chest palpations? Have a throbbing tooth? Underlying rationalization: I don’t want to contract COVID-19. Magical thinking: I figure if I ignore the issue, it might go away. Two or three days in a row? Time to correct that bad habit while you’re alive. 

Cycling around the clock. Doing too much laundry. When our world outside is infested with viruses and other microscopic organisms, we want to feel clean. If we make a quick trip to the grocery store at 6 a.m. during senior hour, we get home, strip and throw our clothes into the washer. So what if we have wearied and overused wash and rinse cycles? We also run our dishwasher too much for similar reasons, even when it’s not full. However, when the energy bill arrives, it can be a shock! And what are we doing to planet Earth and its natural resources. Time to go green again. 

Hobnobbing with stars or sort of. The pandemic has brought out the stalking in us. Some are internet tracking people who we had crushes on in high school or bullied us. We hope they’re either miserable without us or leading dead-beat lives. We catch ourselves, apologize and think we’ll bring that up when we get therapy (see above). Then, there’s the more innocuous habit of looking up friends’ or celebs’ addresses to see what kind of house or apartment they live in and what its value is, according to Zillow. Fess up, you do it, too, right? 

Updating our celeb data We want to spend time checking out how the folks we read about are faring and be sure they didn’t push themselves to the front of the vaccine line or rent a house in some warm Caribbean destination while we shiver in the cold and pile on layers. And we hope they must cook more of their meals on their own rather than have a famous celeb chef deliver all their dinners or cook it at their premises. They should be living like we are, or at least a little bit, to feel our pain. 

Losing our hair. Washing our hair less often or getting it colored rarely because we’re thinking: who’s going to see us anyway? And then we’re on a Zoom and someone says, “Boy, are you gray.” So, you block the video on your next Zoom and merely contribute auditorily. “I just can’t get my video to work today.” Second choice: Read Ronnie Citron-Frank’s new book, True Roots (Island Press, 2019). And by the way, her gray hair is stunning; she’s a resident of the same town as Barbara.

 

Tickling our funny bones. Reading New Yorker cartoons, David Sedaris and Dave Barry books or watching Schitt’s Creek or rewatching Gilmore Girls because we need a good laugh. You can, of course, always laugh at yourself. Just look in the mirror after a few days of not washing your hair, getting it colored or wearing any makeup or eating more carbs and you’ll be in for a rip-roaring time. 

Focusing on ourselves. What about last year’s New Year’s resolution to do better for the world? Poor us, poor me, you think, as the pandemic continues. Time to go back to that list and decide on at least one good volunteer, do-good activity, and not one that involves simply writing a check. Roll up your sleeves and do something in person when it’s safe to do so again. In the meantime, there are many virtual options such as tutoring or making phone calls for a worthy cause.

Procrastinating, again. Hey, you have oodles of time and were going to clean out closets, make the bed each morning, dust, write thank-you notes, pay bills, touch base with some older friends and family, weren’t you? At least that’s the list you made up at the start of the pandemic and printed out to be sure you get everything done. Well, it’s time to get going. You still have weeks and months before the pandemic is declared over and start to live more healthily and happily (see above). Getting rid of at least one bad habit is so satisfying that it requires celebrating and taking a break from accomplishing anything else for a few more days.  

Five practical ways to discipline yourself to break bad habits:

  1. Set goals. Today, in lieu of baking another blueberry lemon pound cake (though it’s fabulous-- https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018821-blueberry-almond-and-lemon-cake), start the Obama book, Promised Land. It’s dense so it will take several weeks or months to finish. Or say to yourself, “I am going to get some exercise daily. I’ll get up early and go outside for a 30-minute walk.” Soon this routine becomes habit. “I am going to stop eating sugar for two weeks and see how I feel.” “I am texting or Zooming on my phone or iPad all hours of the night. I’m going to pick a time to go to bed each night and plug in my devices in another room.”
  2. Modify behavior. For one friend who loves to eat in bed at night, we suggested, just stop. Instead, eat a snack in the kitchen before going to bed. She admits she’s unsure she can break this habit right now. Another friend who lives alone confessed that she stands up and eats her meals at the counter to which someone else suggested putting down a place setting at a table before each meal. Then sit and eat. And if you compulsively graze in the kitchen all day long, stay out of that room. Instead, clean your desk, clean out a closet, reorganize your wine cooler, organize your books, or pick up one and start reading to shift your thoughts from food to food for thought. In her New York Times piece, Strauss writes, “Some women are seeking to regain control over their alcohol habits after months of laissez-faire consumption.” Turn a blind eye to the booze section of your grocery store and head for the fresh produce section.
  3. Stop self-flagellation. Let yourself off the hook for any of your weaknesses right now. If you’re playing hooky, for example, consider this time as a chance to clear your head, reconnect with your kids, restore your creativity—try painting--or live vicariously. If you crave a trip to Machu Picchu, do it virtually. Want to bake another batch of cookies, watch someone else do it virtually or on a food channel or cook online with a friend. Hooked on junk TV. schedule your TV viewing time and limit it to two hours or simply pull the plug.
  4. Journal about your habits to help you change them. You’ll feel improved by just seeing them on paper. It’s a way to start and an acknowledgement of behaviors you want to change. You cannot change what you cannot acknowledge.
  5. Switch your thinking about technology. It can be freeing, giving us more time for the kind of analog pleasures we used to like such as reading, biking, hiking, walking, meditating, writing an old-fashioned letter that goes in the mail.  

Bad habits can creep up on us slowly like a bad rash. Some can be destructive and those that affect other people are off limits. If you’re worried about some habits right now but aren’t willing to change, we figure once the pandemic is under control, we’ll have plenty of time to clean up our act. And then we’ll celebrate!

 

 

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