Groundhog Day: Why Our Lockdown Lives Feel Empty, Despite Our Trying
“I have carved out time to do the practices that serve me but they also feel a little empty.”
These weren’t the words of an excuse-making victim looking for attention, but a friend of mine who is a father of two, an award-winning teacher, entrepreneur, and surfer who cultivates time for all the good things in life — somebody who usually maintains the most positive of dispositions.
The ‘unquenchable yearning’, he called it.
I found myself relating to his words, despite the fact that I had been practicing everything I wrote about in How To Avoid Going Crazy During Lockdown.
I was creating every day — writing blogs and ebooks, recording music and podcasts. I was partaking in Zoom and Houseparty social calls with friends and colleagues. I was playing online games such as FIFA20 and NBA2K20 with friends — and usually winning!
I was working out each morning, getting in about 15,000 steps each day, reading and learning, and spending time in nature — I even baked cookies.
But six weeks into this forced social distancing experiment, the days of the week started to blur into each other, and I, like my friend, couldn’t help but feel a sense of emptiness.
I began to wonder why this was the case, particularly given that I was still cultivating time for novelty and no two days were completely alike. I surfed (still permitted where I live), I rode my motorcycle, I skateboarded, and went on bike rides with a friend. Yes — this was a far cry from the ‘shelter in place’ measures we’ve seen in certain parts of the world, but I was still working from home each day, not permitted to see groups of friends or family, and conducted the overwhelming majority of my human interaction through screens.
While my company’s revenue had tapered off a little, I still had enough meaningful work to do, and even managed to close new deals, despite many organisations introducing spending freezes on what they deem to be non-essential expenses.
So why the feeling of insignificance?
Having researched the science of human motivation, and the connection between work, relationship and emotional wellbeing for my forthcoming book, Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life, I decided to revisit what I had learned to try and shine a light on the matter, if for nothing else other than some temporary intellectual stimulation and to challenge my thinking.
I honed in on several ideas that might all be contributing to said feeling of emptiness.
Core Human Needs
According to motivational guru and bestselling author of several books, Tony Robbins, human beings have six fundamental needs.
- Love and connection
Given the lockdown we find ourselves in, it is easy to hone in on several of these — uncertainty, a lack of genuine face-to-face human connection (which we evolved to communicate, and derive energy, security and safety from), and variety as potential culprits.
But this answer was unsatisfying, so onwards I went…
A Sense of Control and Burnout
Sense of Control
When we feel we are in control and the writer of our own stories, we are far more likely to pick up the pen than if somebody else is writing it for us. This feeds in to how we process stress — we respond differently to heavy loads that we have elected to carry than we do to those that have been thrust upon us.
In my research, I discovered that a lack of a sense of control is one of the biggest contributors to workplace stress and burnout, according to a report by NIOSH.
Burnout and Emptiness
The term ‘burnout’ was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s:
“If you have ever seen a building … burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight … some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows … the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation. Someone who’s burned out may not seem that way on the outside, but on the inside they are empty.”
— H. Freudenberger
It essentially means we’re empty inside. Getting warmer…
Burnout isn’t just a byproduct of working too much; it’s a result of exhaustion, cynicism — lacking engagement in your work — and inefficacy — lack of belief in an ability to perform.
Freudenberger found that long feedback loops, where one doesn’t see a connection between their actions and the results, can contribute to a feeling of emptiness.
Clear Goals and Feedback Loops
In the 1960s, the pioneering psychologist, Edwin Locke, posited that goal setting is linked to task performance. In particular, Locke put forward the idea that specific, explicit and challenging goals, along with feedback, contribute to higher performance.
If we know what we’re moving towards, we’re far more likely to be motivated to get there than if we have no sense of direction or overarching vision.
If you’re not getting frequent enough feedback, you don’t know if your actions are moving you closer to or further away from your goal. It’s akin to driving blind: it’s not much fun, and you’re likely to crash.
A ‘feedback loop’ refers to the outcome of an action returning as a decision-making input. For example, if the outcome of my shooting a basketball is an air ball, that air ball also becomes a decision-making input: shoot the ball harder next time.
A short feedback loop is key to maintaining a sense of control. The longer the feedback loop, the lower our sense of control.
A feedback loop essentially has four discreet stages:
- Information: data becomes contextually useful information
- Consequence: information illuminates one or more paths ahead
- Action: recalibrate, decide and execute.
It can be positive, in which case you know you’re on the right track, or it can be negative, in which case you know you need to change something.
But a long feedback loop renders us unable to see the paths ahead and confidently take action. It leaves us feeling unmotivated because we’re not seeing any forward progress — we’re just toiling away for what might seem to be ad infinitum. Sound familiar?
Strangely though, it’s not as if I didn’t have clear goals to work towards, or that I wasn’t receiving timely feedback — I was — both positive and negative, but in both cases course-correctional feedback, and therefore, motivating.
Perhaps the long feedback loop of no clear end-date in sight insofar as COVID-19 lockdown and resuming business and life as usual is concerned is contributing to the underlying feeling?
But so too is a feeling that we’re not moving forward in the world, because no matter what we do, the following day is the same. Which brings me to…
Visceral Connection — What is Real, Really?
As David Rose argues in his book, Why Culture Matters Most, group prosperity requires large group cooperation. This requires trust, but as societies grow larger it becomes more difficult to sustain a high trust society.
In a small company, we know that our unlawful actions might impact our colleagues or the company. The harm becomes more real and visceral. Conversely, when we’re in a large company, this disposition withers away, particularly where people had questionable values to begin with.
— David Rose
When things are less visceral, our behaviours change and it becomes easier to rationalise different kinds of behaviours that we normally wouldn’t carry out.
Perhaps this hints at the underlying issue. While we might do our best to maintain some semblance of community through our screens, we are still living out our lives through screens.
Perhaps that lends our reality a feeling of artificiality — a sense of fake-ness.
Sure, you might win or lose in this new reality, but as in a video-game, you might revel in the temporary elation or disappointment that comes with playing, but you will likely forget about it an hour later — unless you’re an e-sports gamer or just someone who needs to check their life priorities.
Perhaps there’s something to be said about living our lives through screens — of spending all day staring into our laptops, smartphones and televisions. Okay, there’s definitely something to be said about that!
But maybe this has to do more with the numbed effects of clear goals and feedback loops that come with living our lives through screens — the unquenchable yearning, as my friend put it.
When we don’t have people to celebrate wins with, when the day that comes after resembles the one that came before, when we have no real basis for comparing our progress with others in the social totem pole…it all ends up feeling a little surreal.
If we don’t truly feel like we are progressing, from a visceral sense, is it any different to not progressing at all?
In the classic film, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character lives out the same day over and over. He tires of the initial novelty, commits suicide several times, takes the opportunity to learn new skills, save lives and ultimately becomes a better person, which for him was the path to redemption.
But we don’t need to live February 2nd every day for it to feel like we’ve taken Murray’s role in the film. We only need to feel like we’re not moving forward.
So while we might still do the things, hit goals at work, and maintain relationships online, it leaves us feeling a shadow of what we would feel, under normal circumstances, and this then feeds in to our motivation to keep contributing and feeling of emptiness.
Perhaps the only way out of this is through?
Whatever the case, I would love to know your thoughts, and how you are dealing with this in the comments.
I try to look for conflicting arguments with any views I am messing with, as this helps one become a better critical thinker. One counter-argument to my hypothesis around the lack of real-ness might be the well documented evidence that drone operators who carry out kills through screens on the other side of the world still suffer PTSD as a result of their actions.