Why we turn to obscure household projects during lockdown
The FT's James Sandy talks to psychologist Rachel Allan about how 'little victories' around the house can boost motivation, reduce stress, and help find meaning during the coronavirus crisis
Produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy. Additional filming by Amiliah Doherty
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JAMES SANDY: Have you been doing some unusual stuff around the home recently? You know, little odd jobs? Maybe some new challenges? In general, just making a huge, huge deal out of things which shouldn't take you any time at all. If you're anything like me, the answer is yes. But don't worry, we are not alone.
Compared to this time last year, UK sales of baking ingredients are up 63%. DIY supplies are up 64%. And gardening products like bulbs and seeds are up 132%. Home improvement might seem like an obvious choice while most of us are stuck inside, but as my own to-do list became increasingly random, I started to question my need to get on with tasks. So I decided to talk to a psychologist about it.
In the last week or two, it kind of feels like I'm just trying to find things to keep my hands busy in a way. And is that sort of normal behaviour in times of crisis?
RACHEL ALLAN: It's what keeps us going. Activity is what keeps us going. And if you are somebody who is used to working and being active and then suddenly finding that a lot of your normal structure and routine is taken away-- you are feeling very different-- then it's absolutely natural that you would seek to reconstruct some kind of routine and do your day-to-day life.
JAMES SANDY: I know that a lot of people have been doing challenges on social media. Board game sales have gone through the roof. Lots of people that I have been talking to though have been turning to DIY. Is it an element of trying to sort of control the environment as well perhaps?
RACHEL ALLAN: Well at the moment, with so much being outside of our control, it really makes sense to focus on the things that we can control. Many people would probably place [INAUDIBLE] importance on that home. So to invest something in developing that space, that carries meaning for us. And then it tends to make us feel better and add more richness to our lives.
JAMES SANDY: I've been telling people on the video team at the FT about some of the things I've been doing. And yeah, there's a fair bit of eye rolling sometimes. And a lot of them have young kids. So I'm sure that home improvements and things like that are kind of quite far from their thoughts right now. Is there a certain type of person who's looking for these little victories?
RACHEL ALLAN: In a way, it doesn't matter so much what the activity is or what the behaviour is. What matters is that it is connected to a sense of enjoyment or accomplishment. And that that is reflected by a wider value system.
And that doesn't mean that it has to be a sort of massive and unimpressive domestic transformation or anything like that. For some of us that just means keeping going through all of this, keeping the household together, keeping everybody safe and well.
JAMES SANDY: It sounds like we've all got different ways of going about it, but everyone I suppose is trying to come to terms with the new situation. Do you have a message for people who are feeling anxious and maybe a bit uncertain right now?
RACHEL ALLAN: People are dealing with the uncertainty that's going on, the threat of illness, the reality of illness, loss in many cases. I would say any behavioural response, anything that you find that if you do it, you feel a little bit better is probably a helpful thing to do. But I would emphasise certainly not to expect that to look the same for any one of us, because this is a fairly unusual situation that we're in.
JAMES SANDY: Doctor, and I couldn't agree more with you on that. And I feel a bit vindicated then for the things that I've been doing amongst all my peers who've just got so much on right now. I'm a little worried actually about running out of things to do now.
So the main thing that's been the most difficult to capture on video for me has been trying to sort of map the sleeping habits of my cat. He's not playing ball. So I think even if we're in lockdown for another month or more, that will still offer some challenges I'm sure.
RACHEL ALLAN: Having a cat always helps, I find.
JAMES SANDY: Yeah, he's around somewhere as well. He's a trickster. Well great. Thank you so much.
RACHEL ALLAN: You too. Take care.
JAMES SANDY: Cheers. Bye.
RACHEL ALLAN: Bye.