A Day In The Pandemic Life

This may sound somewhat fatalistic, but I am in fact hopeful that the pandemic will go away “soon”. But in the same way I can barely remember what a “regular” day was like “in the before times”, I thought I’d describe what it’s like now, at least where the typical weekday is concerned.

Morning

06:30 - My watch wakes me with a few gentle taps to the wrist and a soft chime, as my bedside lamp also chirps and gradually fades to life. It’s my alarm clock, medical monitor and weather station all rolled into one, and I acknowledge the smooth overnight heart rate dip approvingly, since this was one of the good nights–I wasn’t kept up late worrying yesterday.

I find my glasses, wipe them perfunctorily to get most of the night’s dust off, get up, pick up my Kindle or my iPad mini (depending on whether I am engrossed on a book or just feel like doomscrolling over breakfast), leave the watch to charge and move to the kitchen.

Coffee. Toast. Anti-histamines on occasion. I eat while reading a bit (occasionally checking Twitter or posting interesting links if I have my iPad on hand) and then wrangle the dishwasher and collect cups and glasses from around the house.

Automation has, by now, turned on a couple of lamps and the heater in my office (often even before the kids turn on the TV), and moving about this early in the morning is what wakes me up. It also somewhat makes up for not having left the house regularly in almost a year now.

If there is time over breakfast, I make notes or add to my link blog. I’ve streamlined it to the point where it’s just a couple of Shortcuts actions to get a little blurb and a screenshot into Working Copy and pushed to the site, and it’s been working out great.

07:45(ish) - After my wife packs up and leaves with the kids (the only way to get them to school on time is still driving them, although we’re working on changing that), I set up her office (mine is too cramped for two): I take the folding table my father built when I was a kid from the corridor, move it to a room, set it up, bring in a chair, her Mac and a widescreen monitor.

If the kids are home due to school closures, I try to make sure their gear is working. They’re mostly self-sufficient, but cables and headphones seem to have a high attrition rate, and they have to set things up in separate places in order to concentrate properly. I’m thankful we have enough rooms, although it forces us to go round the house in weird ways when almost everyone’s remote and in calls.

Buying second-hand AirPort Extremes on eBay to expand coverage (I now have five or six of them) was the best decision I made last March.

I leave a few windows open for a while and pick out my clothes (depending on the calls I have and whether or not I will be leaving the house to pick up the kids later in the day), shave, weigh, shower, dress. All my clothes are comfortable these days, no more suits or business casual although I make it a point to wear proper shirts on occasion to counteract the tendency of dressing entirely in company swag (my Vodafone sweaters are amazingly durable, but I have a couple of Microsoft hoodies with pockets, and those are worth their weight in gold).

Speaking of weight, losing it is still a challenge given the erratic nature of my days, but as I pick up my watch and phone (which is left untouched until this point) I ask Siri to keep track of how much I weigh today and set up the morning scene(s) as needed.

Sometimes I realise someone booked a call for 7 or 8AM overnight and didn’t check if I was available at all (I have family blockers on the calendar, but people keep ignoring them–everyone is too tired to care, most likely, even if it only leads to more meetings).

Office Hours

08:15-08:30 - Depending on whether or not the construction work in the flat above us is tolerable or not, I step up to my standing desk or grab the essentials and set up shop on the dining table for the first morning calls, usually with a cup of chamomile tea or similar to sip throughout the morning. I’m going to need either the flavour or the warmth to ground me as meetings whoosh by.

If I’m in the office, I reach out to my custom touchscreen console and turn on the LED strips for some soft ambient light. I have them set to warm white in cold season (or cold white in the summer) to hack my circadian rhythm and offset the fact that my office tends to be quite cold in Autumn mornings and unbearably hot as soon as early sunlight seeps in.

I’ve also been meaning to hack the air conditioner with an ESP8266 for a while now, but never get around to it. As Winter approaches, lights and heating are a priority. The heater goes off automatically at 8:30 after providing an initial boost, but my computers provide enough heat to keep a steady 22°C for a few hours yet.

Speaking of generating heat, I fire up Teams, a set of browser tabs for mail and calendar, and get to work. I refuse to use the abomination desktop Outlook has turned into, and my CPU can barely keep up with Teams as it is (I’ve turned off everything, from GPU acceleration to animations, and it is still unbearably slow most of the time).

I wistfully wonder when my machine will be swapped1. Both my Macs alas, lag behind my Surface Laptop in specs, but I sometimes have my MacBook on the side to look at documentation, and Teams is just as much of a dog on it as Zoom or WebEx (I end up having to use all three these days, plus my own Jitsi setup on occasion).

It pains me to have so much computing capacity at my fingertips and not create anything with it.

Random chunks of time whoosh by, 30 or 60-minute-sized depending on what might be going on that day. E-mail gets done during passive meetings, active ones (especially internal ones with a dozen people trying to converge on a topic) drain me to the point where I’m thankful for being able to pace or look out the window depending on where I am. I keep thinking about splurging on a good wireless headset, but nobody agrees on one that will “just work” on all of my machines.

And if I miss a call (which is becoming more common as I’m triple-booked or people just book follow-ups “in the next few hours” without checking if there’s enough quorum for proper decision-making), there will usually be a recording I can play back at 2x to catch up. I prefer written summaries, but not everyone has the knack for them (I both record and summarise whenever possible).

I stand most of the day, or sit at my regular desk when I’m tired and Remote Desktop to my Windows machine. Sofas remain unused most of the time, although I will occasionally take my laptop to one and write longish drafts or do rough presentation outlines when I’m free from calls and am feeling the most creative. Revisions, incorporating reference material and adding polish are not things I can efficiently do on a single display, but I relish the moments when I am free of constant Teams chatter and interruptions.

The worst thing about the constant calls is that I can’t work to (usually loud) music, especially if the construction crew upstairs is banging on their apparently inexhaustible stack of intact walls. As isolated as I am, I really miss being alone and working to music for hours on end.

11:00(ish) - I take a forced break and walk around the house, empty the dishwasher, open or shut windows and blinds depending on the weather. The postman sometimes comes by and leaves packages at our door, which I spray or wipe down with disinfectant and unpack or put out to air until I can deal with the contents (depending on what it is, obviously–electronics shipped from China, once unpacked, should be relatively safe due to transit time and will sit in a shelf until I fiddle with them on weekends anyway).

Stuff from the supermarket (or groceries we get delivered regularly) are wiped with disinfectant or dipped in a solution of lye (a spoonful for each couple of litres) for a quarter of an hour. The logistics are maddening, but we’ve got a working system and we’re sticking to it. Preppers would be proud, I think. All we’re missing are hazmat suits.

Lunchtime

12:30 - Even though I flag this time as OOF, sometimes I’m still in a call or get an urgent meeting landing here. The barrier is too permeable, and my lunchtime has become a completely random affair because there’s simply no strict schedule for anything anymore. When we can’t cook and have food brought in, we wipe down the packaging and move servings to clean plates (we also grab fresh sushi and noodles from a friendly place next door, but mostly on weekends).

Without any specific order we have lunch, I wrangle the dishwasher again, and maybe leave the house for a 30-45m walk to fetch one of the kids from school (2-3Km with 90m elevation, depending on route either way, makes for a decent workout, especially when you’re late).

I change to my outside clothes, don a mask, grab my headphones to listen to some podcasts on the way up, make the kids pay attention to the road on the way down. We disinfect everything (spray backpacks, shoes, other gear) and shower when we arrive home.

This used to take forever but is now a largely routine affair. Shoes stay mostly outside, with plastic trays for few that are too costly to risk being stolen. Our flat needs a Japanese-style genkan for us to leave our shoes in, but European hallways are just not built thoughtfully enough.

Outside Sync

13:00 - If I’m really lucky, I get all of 30m to sit in the couch and watch TV, usually with my iPad to check on Twitter and HN.

Regardless of what happens, this is usually when I update my COVID-19 dashboard with the day’s tally if the government releases the data on schedule (which is getting more random by the day). If not, I leave it until the evening (or the day after).

The figures are just statistics at this point. Infection-wise, we’re twice four times as badly off as we were in March, except that the death rate has so far remained stable. Nobody wants to even think about long term effects (especially on the young), a mistake that I fear will come back to haunt us.

The Others

Customers and one-on-one calls with my peers are a sort of minimalist social network where you discuss 90% work, 10% humanity at large. My personal social bubble is entirely digital, and mostly telegraphic. Occasionally there’s something important enough for an actual phone call or jumping on a neutral video platform to have a proper conversation.

Slack runs throughout the day on my iPad as my friends rant on about tech, the pandemic and US politics, usually in the same sentence these days. Though most of us haven’t seen each other for nearly a year, we keep a running commentary throughout the day, every day. My college buddies and most former workmates are on WhatsApp.

Sometimes friends or colleagues reach out, moved by boredom, curiosity, or both. Most are amazed at the long hours we keep. We do not do much about it other than nod and agree.

This is the way now, apparently, for our peculiar trade of knowledge working. Busy ants with a messy, lossy data processing pipeline that turns upon itself like an ouroboros.

Afternoon

14:00 - Back to the grind. My calendar oscillates between double bookings and odd swathes of uninterrupted “focus time” I have Cortana book for me so I can actually get stuff done, but I usually end up having larger chunks of time partitioned throughout the afternoons, which is lousy for writing documentation and producing collateral because I’ve become a sort of morning person and the 5-6 morning calls I usually have already sapped most of my creativity.

If I’m having a good day, calls start about this time and I’ve already done something useful by now. If not, they just go on until the end of the day, leaving no time to do actual work.

The Long Hours

17:00 - By this time both the racket upstairs and most of the Euro zone work has subsided as the US is arriving at the office, so I can move to my regular desk and deal with personal e-mail (or, increasingly, calls with Seattle using my “proper” camera and mic setup).

Depending on the kids’ schedule, we also may pop out to fetch them, change back into house clothes, cycle masks, get back to work. The Martian at least had a proper airlock and time to grow a potato farm.

19:00 - On a good day, this is YouTube time. I veg out on the couch and bask on influencer’s pitches for gaming hardware, music gear or gadgets, then chase down new materials on 3D printers, electronics and development (gamedev and Blender stuff keep my creative neurons going).

Unless, of course, I (increasingly) have calls with the US, in which case I’ll still be sitting at my desk until it’s time for dinner, the Roomba bumping at the office door forlornly.

21:00 - By this time we might or might not have had dinner, depending on late calls and house chores. We call the kids’ grandparents, some of whom haven’t seen them (in person) in a year, then pick something to watch and zone out.

I usually pick up something to read or write–I might have up to twenty post drafts going at any one time, which I add to a few sentences a day, sometimes forgetting the next point from what I added in the previous day.

22:00 - Usually bedtime. Occasionally more work. If I’m especially lucky I’ll spend a couple of hours reading or watching a TV series before turning in.

I seldom play music anymore.

Weekends

Largely the same, but with a lot of vacuuming and dusting. Having a dumb “random walk” Roomba helps, but every now and then you just have to take matters into your own hands.

And, as it happens, sorting and pairing socks turns out to be a nice respite from turning your back out with a mop…

Sometimes I just bask in a sunlit chair and watch the sky.


  1. Actually, the day after I published this, I picked up a brand new 15” Surface Book 3. I hate carrying around large laptops, but given that I’m likely to be home for the foreseeable future, it is a pretty decent “standing desk” machine, and I can run Tensorflow on it to boot. ↩︎