During the seven years she's been running Honey + Rye Bakehouse in St. Louis Park, Anne Andrus had been running herself ragged.
Last year, just as she'd decided to establish better work-life balance, the coronavirus descended. Instead of dialing back, Andrus dove in: coming in to bake at 4 a.m. and then putting out fires all day.
Then came Mother's Day, when the bakery's online ordering system got overloaded. The parking lot soon filled with dads waiting for their orders, while her sprinting staff fell behind.
"I felt so terrible for my staff, I was like, 'Omigod, I might throw in the towel,' " Andrus said. She resolved that once the crisis subsided, she would take a step back.
Since then, she's been able to delegate more of her responsibilities and reduce her time at the bakery. After her 5-year-old started school last fall, Andrus established work-free weekends. She also started taking part in a monthly video call with a group of out-of-town friends and regular outdoor walks with a group of local ones.
"I never would have done either of those before," she said.
Humans are such creatures of habit. We often go about our daily practices without questioning them or considering other options — until external forces intervene.
COVID forced us to change the way we live our lives: It shifted where and how we spent our time and money. In the process, we adopted all sorts of habits and practices. We've taken up new hobbies, incorporated more self-care, or are spending more time outdoors. We're conducting appointments online and ordering groceries. Many of us are working, and working out, at home.
While some of us can't wait to get dressed up again, or cram our schedules with activities, others have discovered that they would prefer to continue the routines that the pandemic helped them establish — whether that's holding nightly family dinners, embracing a less hectic social life or forgoing makeup. Maintaining these changes, however, could be surprisingly difficult.
Peer pressure to conform will likely increase as in-person activity resumes. And because our habits were disrupted without our choice, we'll have to do the hard work of learning to set boundaries once the pandemic is no longer the reason.
A cultural shift
In some ways, COVID-19 helped us skip the step of working toward a goal, and moved us right into maintaining a change we'd established, explained Karina DiLuzio, a health and wellness coach with Allina.
"We're in the unique position of having been presented with a modified blank slate — as adults, we rarely get that opportunity," she said. "Now we get to ask ourselves, 'What do we want to put back?' "
That also means we'll no longer be able to use COVID to justify our decisions, DiLuzio said. "Up until now, the pandemic has been making that call for us."
While it may not be easy to take responsibility for the boundaries we set, if more people resist cultural mores around busyness and beauty, we could see a cultural shift.
Andrus has appreciated how the extra time and energy she now puts toward nonwork activities has improved her relationships and mental heath. Though she hopes to continue to be deliberate about her time and fight her tendency to overschedule, she does expect more demands on her time as in-person engagements resume, especially those related to her son.
"You can easily get signed up for a lot of the kids activities and events and before you know it, your 5-year-old has hockey practice and baseball practice and swimming lessons," she said. "But keeping his free time allows us to keep ours."
Heather Whelpley, author of "An Overachiever's Guide to Breaking the Rules," often reminds her coaching clients and speaking audiences that it's not your fault if you feel the need to constantly achieve and be productive: Our culture surrounds us with messages that suggest our busyness reflects our importance or worth.
She recommends pausing before saying "yes" to something and recognizing that by doing so, you are saying "no" to something else, even if the options aren't presented side-by-side. If you say yes to a book club, a team or project, you might be saying no to more sleep, dinner with your family, or any number of other trade-offs.
To ease the feeling that you're disappointing others by dialing back, Whelpley suggests letting loved ones know about your goal and validating the importance of your relationship. She advises saying something like, "I'm working on keeping things balanced in my life, I'm working on saying no, and this was hard for me because you're really important to me and I would love to spend time with you."
Doing less also requires accepting a certain level of discomfort and reminding yourself that the things you're gaining are more important than the awkwardness of saying no, Whelpley said.
She also reminds people that even if they have been doing fewer scheduled things this past year, that adjusting to so much change, having to make so many new decisions, and carrying so much uncertainty can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
"Processing all of this takes up space," she said. "We all probably need some extra rest and self-care right now."
Amy Mattila, a Minneapolis health and wellness coach, suggests that those hoping to pare down their activities focus on the quality of the experiences vs. quantity. Keep the activities you most look forward to and give you energy.
To do so, she recommends experimenting with your schedule by adding social engagements back into your routine slowly. That will let you gauge what level of activity feels satisfying without leaving you drained or overwhelmed.
Give yourself time to explore what lifestyle works best and remember that what worked for you in the past might not be right for you now.
"Be kind and allow yourself to really have grace when you explore this new cadence in your life," she said.
Mattila is hopeful that the pandemic has helped people re-evaluate what's important and may lead to a larger social shift to prioritize quality time with people over things and events. With fewer things demanding your mental, emotional and spiritual energy, she noted, people can create more space to feel present and fulfilled.
For Deborah Bifulk of St. Paul, her pandemic-inspired routine change has been to ditch all "hard pants" (the opposite of "soft pants").
After a year of mostly staying home, she has not only sworn off all slacks with buttons, she gave away all her jeans.
"I finally stopped pretending I was ever going to wear them again," she said. "I would pick up a pair and put them on and two seconds later I'd think, 'What am I doing? These are so uncomfortable! I can't wear these! I can't move!' "
As the parent of a young child, and in her work as a librarian, comfort is key for Bifulk, who's often squatting and lifting — as well as jumping and dancing and spinning during children's story time.
Pre-COVID, Bifulk's workwear consisted largely of dress pants and casual dresses. Since returning to the library in July, she's settled on a less-formal uniform of leggings with a tunic, sometimes layered with a soft blazer.
Bifulk is also among a pandemic-fueled movement of women forgoing underwire bras, which she hasn't worn since her daughter was born and now has no intention of reincorporating into regular wear.
"I do wonder how this has changed, fashion in the long term," she said. "Because among everybody I talk to, nobody wants to go back to what they were wearing before."
For Jamie Hurewitz, the pandemic-triggered salon closure last spring finally persuaded her to commit to her natural gray hair.
During the two decades that the Minnetonka lawyer has been dyeing her hair, she often considered giving up the practice. But each time her gray roots started to show, she'd get self-conscious and color it again.
Now Hurewitz plans to stick with her natural look. She's saving time and money and doesn't miss feeling anxious about her roots.
Working remotely at a new job, Hurewitz hasn't felt that her appearance is being scrutinized. But she anticipates that when she resumes meeting new people in person at networking or social events, she may feel more judgment. When she recently picked up her son at day care, a little girl assumed Hurewitz was a grandma.
"It isn't always easy staying natural, and it does impact my self-esteem at times," she admitted. "But I just didn't want to be a slave to the hair dye anymore."
Mattila, the Minneapolis coach, said this is the perfect time for those wanting to establish a more relaxed fashion or beauty routine to ask if they feel pressure to look a certain way or if that's what they want for themselves.
She also recommends using positive peer pressure to your advantage by enlisting the support of a like-minded community (people you know, or an online group) to help encourage your pursuit and collectively keep each other on track.
Mattila said she's seeing signs the pandemic is helping broaden American culture's narrow definition of beauty. As an example of shifting expectations, she noted how Anthropologie store windows are now displaying joggers and sweatshirts that they never would have a year ago.
Mattila said such a shift might free people from putting so much time and effort into what they look like. Perhaps, she said, as we come out of the pandemic we can reinforce the idea that what's on the inside matters most.
"We are not what we appear — it's not about physical appearance," she said. "It's about the human soul in a person."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569