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A couple of weeks ago, I took the New York City subway.
Why do I make a mention of the most mundane thing: commuting in the Big Apple?
It’s because this was the first time (June 2021) that I took public transport since the pandemic started (March 2020). Of course, I was a bag of emotions—excited and nervous. For 20-plus years—what was a daily habit—felt so alien at the end of a year. But once I entered the subway car and saw a few people immersed in their books, I whispered, “Baby, I’m home.”
I pulled out my Kindle and for the duration of the train ride, I read. No phone. No internet. No conversations around meal-planning. No client or home crisis. No work emails. No Instagram story-sharing. None of that stuff. The subway kept me accountable and focused.
I have been trying to read 2-3 books a month this past year. But in the old days, I read a lot more. Crazy, right, given that I have been working remotely for the past year? You’d think I’d have more time. But here is the thing: my commute time was my sacred reading time. While remote working, the commute is 20 seconds (I live in an apartment in New York City) from my bedroom to my home office. To read, I must carve out intentional time in my day. Accountability.
That night when I returned home from my commute in the subway, I felt centered. The day was divided into work time, client-time, family-time, friend-time, and me-time. My shoulders felt lighter. I realized that one of the reasons we have all been feeling exhausted is because the pandemic created a situation where we became responsible for everything suddenly. It profoundly changed how we would experience our days.
Kids had to grow up instantaneously and become accountable for their studies without the in-person support of their teachers or social contact with their friends/peers. Parental duties transformed; they became teachers, nannies, daycare professionals, sports coaches amongst other things. Most sensible and diligent people had to become socially accountable by maintaining distance and staying home during lockdowns to avoid the spread. With no access to spaces and activities that took care of our mental and emotional well-being (be it movies, theatre, coffee with a friend, workouts, or roaming freely without the fear of being annihilated by the virus), it felt we were solely responsible for our wellness and survival.
Most people I know worked from physical offices until the coronavirus rapidly swept across the world. We woke up, did our morning ritual, got dressed, got our families ready, made drop-offs (if children were involved), and went to work. A friend said to me not too long ago, “If I don’t have a video call, I don’t wear a bra, dude. That’s what it’s come down to. I check my calendar and decide if it’s going to be PJs with a bra-less tank kinda day or yoga pants with a nice blouse.”
You might call the old days auto-pilot mode, but it was emotionally less draining. It was rushed and busy, but there was a rhythm where the day became accountable for your actions. You got dressed because that’s what’s expected when you step out of the house. You moved your body because your routine asked that of you. Also, being out in the world makes you want to feel good and active. You ate meals at certain times because your schedule decided that for you. You were social and took cues from the world around you.
The human mind has a complicated relationship with accountability. How many people do you know crack open a packet of Oreo at an in-person meeting? But I know plenty of people who sit with a pint of ice cream or a cocktail, in the middle of the day, while working remotely. Happy Hour moved up to afternoons in PJs. I know people who stopped exercising or eating mindfully in 2020—this wasn’t just because of stress. There were no social gatherings or weddings or celebrations or vacations or any events to motivate you or hold you accountable. There were no dresses or tuxedos to fit into. Yoga leggings can be forgiving and accommodating.
I have heard from many writers that they stopped writing in 2020. The onus was on the creative professional to churn out words. No access to coffee shops or writing space or writing retreat or parks or libraries, or even public transport meant dipping into your inner resources (which were being worked overtime!). I always find stories of inspiration in the subway (like this essay!).
As the coronavirus tore through our world, we’ve continued working harder to keep our minds busy and days full. That’s the one thing we seem to be able to control. In the old days, despite a million things on our schedule, the day started and ended with powerful demarcations. You stopped working at a certain hour to go pick up kids from daycare or go to a fitness class or to take a class or meet with friends or just go back home. No matter what—there were boundaries in place between work you and fun you.
Even when in the yoga studio, all you had to do was show up 20 minutes before class or book the space online. If you didn’t want to bring a mat, you could rent one. The yoga instructor told you what to do; you moved your body. If you took fitness classes, the sequence was curated…including the cooldown aspect. You were only accountable for making the commitment to your well-being by joining a club/studio/class and then attending it. Phones in your bag and focus on the class. Mind-body rejuvenated.
With virtual classes this past year, there is an illusion of flexibility to work out whenever. How often have you started taking a class and then got called into a meeting or ended up taking a phone call from a client? On those days, where the stars align and no one disturbs you during the duration of the class, do you notice your mind still wandering? Be honest: if your camera is off, do you always complete 100 percent of the class or do chores call out to you midway? Next meal to cook. Laundry. Covid statistics. Deadline at work. Kids. I mean, there are a plethora of distractions.
If you signed up for a virtual class and couldn’t attend it, the replays are emailed to you. Great option! But that again means you have to make time and go through the class all by yourself. When you skip it, guilt pours into every cell of your body—can you afford to make such decisions? If you didn’t sign up for paid classes and started to work out on your own, the pressure has been even higher to stay fit and uninjured. Accountability!
The pandemic has caused significant disruption to life as we know it. I love being an adult, but 24/7 adulting can be depleting. I don’t know about you, but I have accountability fatigue and look forward to the day when the child in me can come out to play.