Ask Ariely: On Lockdown Losses, Creative Commutes, and Life Lessons

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I used to buy coffee every day on my way to the office, but for the last three months I’ve been making it at home. Now I’m commuting again, but I find I don’t miss the coffee shop, and I’ve stopped going. Do you think the habits people formed during the lockdown are going to last?

—Nancy 

The interruption of everyday life has been an experiment showing that habits aren’t just desires; they’re behaviors cued by reminders in our environment. When we change the way we interact with our environment, a lot of seemingly ingrained habits fade away. Some of them are things we’re better off without, like thoughtless consumption and spending, but a lot of people are also having trouble maintaining good habits, like eating well, sleeping regularly and staying in touch with friends. Re-establishing those habits is going to take a conscious decision, but I believe that once we return to our familiar environments and activities, most people will return to their old routines—including buying coffee on the way to work.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve been working from home since the pandemic began, and by now I feel like I’m in work mode all the time. Since my living room is my office, there’s always a temptation to answer one more email or work on one more project, even at night and on the weekend. How can I restore some kind of work/life balance?

—Jordan 

In ordinary times, it’s easier to separate work and life because they happen in different places. Now that home and office are the same for many people, one way to create a psychological distance between them is through an artificial commute—an idea that Nina Bartmann, a senior researcher in my lab at Duke, has written about for the website of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. By taking a 20-minute walk at the start and end of your workday, you signal your brain when you are shifting into work mode and when you are leaving it behind. Other techniques include changing into work clothes when you’re at your desk, moving your work station to a dedicated room and shutting down your computer at a designated time each day.

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Dear Dan,

It’s always been my plan to get an advanced degree, and this spring I was accepted into graduate school. But with the pandemic causing so much uncertainty, I’m starting to wonder if I should make such a long-term commitment. Does it make sense to re-evaluate my plans or should I stick to them?

—Paul 

Research on how people make decisions shows that we usually don’t stop to think about our actions; we make choices automatically rather than deliberately. From this perspective, the current uncertainty might be a gift. People have a chance to reflect on their life plan and ask if it’s still what they really want, whether that means starting a family, buying a home or choosing a career. To help you decide about graduate school, try writing down a detailed blueprint for what you want your life to look like when the pandemic is over. That will help you clarify what steps you can take now to reach your goal.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.