The Variety Shortage


This week, several quarantine-era calendar memes made me smile. 

In one, the Mondays were labeled “Monday” and every other day was labeled “Day.” The other was a May 2020 calendar, and each day was numbered “Feb 2.”

Like many, I found March 2020 to be the slowest month in history, then April and May disappeared in consecutive eyeblinks. 

Last night, while commiserating with my mom over the phone about the challenges of quarantine life, she pointed something out that I hadn’t quite recognized: the more “samey” the days are, the faster they go by, and the less we feel like we did anything with them. 

Today, on day 60-something of quarantine, sameyness seems to be at an all-time high. Normally, there's a lot more variety in what we do for fun, what we do at work, who we talk to, what we eat, what parts of town we visit, what we notice around us -- and consequently, the thoughts we have. 

Also like many, I’m feeling lethargic, slow-witted, and magnetically compelled towards entertainment and snacks. After the conversation with my mother, I suspect these cravings aren’t actually for the Doritos, pizza, and screen time I end up seeking, but for some jolt of stimulation that can break the monotonous sequence of nearly-identical days.

Sunday was the first summer-like day of the year here in Winnipeg. We hadn’t had warmth like that in six months. I went for a glorious walk, and when I got back, I went for a run. When I got back from the run, I still wanted to be outside, so I went for a long bike ride. I meandered through streets and paths I hadn’t been to in months (or ever), stopping often to check out birds, mushrooms, blades of grass, budding trees, and branches floating in the river. I admired unusual houses, old fences, and cirrus clouds. I watched people play frisbee in the park.

It all felt really good. My brain absorbed these experiences like rain on dry dirt. 

At the time, I attributed this delight to the good weather. But after my mom’s comment, I now believe it was the rare infusion of variety into my experience that made the day so refreshing. Maybe – this is just my new hypothesis – human beings need a certain amount of variety to avoid looping, unproductive thoughts and behaviors, and all the dull-mindedness that comes with them. 

One of the most common pieces of expert advice on staying sane during the pandemic is “Have a daily routine,” which is reasonable advice. Structure is helpful for getting yourself through a day. 

But perhaps we’re also undergoing a widespread deficit of variety in what we experience, and that’s having effects on our minds. When the constraints of quarantine lead to days that are too samey -- composed of too few ingredients, resulting in few surprises -- we develop a creeping deficiency in the essential mental nutrient of variety.

I’m now convinced that much of my recent brain fog comes from being variety-starved. When even my daily “get-out-of-the-house walk” has become routine, it’s hard to imagine where I’ll get the wherewithal to steer my life somewhere it hasn’t been yet. Time to discover some new streets, cook my first risotto, call someone I haven’t called yet, and maybe read some Shakespeare. Anything that brings a little Vitamin V into the system.

***

Have you had a similar experience? Are you doing anything to create more variety in day-to-day life?


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