Viann Nguyen-Feng tried baking bread.
That was a year ago, when the lockdown first began. After turning out a few homemade sourdough loaves, she lost interest, even though she'd named her starter. ("I called it Jane Dough," she deadpanned.)
Since then, Nguyen-Feng has learned quite a bit about negotiating stressful times.
A psychology professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she's part of an international research collaborative studying how people have managed pandemic-induced stress. The collaborative queried thousands around the globe and discovered that a top coping strategy is to "find distractions."
"People report value in maintaining a daily routine and doing something that felt useful, even just cleaning and tidying," she said.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus, many people set lofty goals and filled their hours with home repairs and self-improvement. But what helped keep us on track is something researchers call "low-stakes, low-pressure activities" — puzzles, coloring books and tending house plants.
The draw of such simple pursuits comes as no surprise to Minneapolis psychologist John Brose. He compared the grand plans many of us made early in the pandemic — and the likelihood of their success — to New Year's resolutions.
"Lots of people say lots of things on New Year's Eve," he said, "but how many follow through with those resolutions?"
Brose warns clients against being too hard on themselves if they didn't finish the quilt, plow through the stack of books or start a business. Just maintaining equilibrium in the midst of chaos is its own accomplishment.
"When we look at retirement, we see people make a better transition when they plan it. It's much harder on someone who's downsized out of their career," he said. "That's what the pandemic has been. We're living lives we didn't choose and sometimes don't recognize."
If singer Mary Jane Alm had to select a soundtrack for the past year, it would feature melancholy chords strummed on a dulcimer.
Alm, a fixture on the local music scene, planned to use her downtime to become proficient on her newly purchased string instrument.
"I haven't had a weekend off in, like, 40 years. I'm always so busy, so I thought, 'I'm going to relish this time,'" she said.
But as the weeks gave way to months and finally a year, her motivation ebbed. Alm admits that she's no longer so chipper. She's missed spending time with her adult children, socializing with girlfriends and the energy she gets from live audiences. Mostly, she misses her mom, Jane Kern.
"The last time I sat down with her at a restaurant was her birthday last year. She'd bought a sparkly dress and looked so beautiful," Alm recalled.
Shortly after the celebration, Kern was forced to isolate in her assisted living facility. She came down with COVID-19 and recovered, only to die a week before Christmas.
Never much of a crier, Alm finds herself in tears most days as she grieves.
"Losing a parent is such a profound loss, a huge adjustment. Everything feels different now," she said. "I'm not the same. It feels like there's more sadness in my heart and in the world."
She did learn to play the dulcimer, and hopes to use it when she returns to the stage.
"The dulcimer was the perfect instrument for 2020. It can sound mournful or joyful," she said. "I know why we're mournful. Maybe we will all better recognize the things that are joyful that we have taken for granted."
Netflix and inertia
Mary Meehan has seen universal patterns emerge as we settled into our COVID-controlled lives.
"Week 1, we cleaned out our closets. Activity gives us a sense of order and control, the feeling of some mastery," said Meehan, CEO of Panoramic Global, a Minneapolis-based consumer research firm. As time went on, however, a growing sense of tedium sapped the early motivation for accomplishment.
"The longer it goes on, the more effort it takes to break through the inertia," she said. "Some days you say, 'I'm going to learn to speak French.' Other times you say, 'I'm just going to lie here.' People respond to the monotony in different ways."
John Neitge of Woodbury was determined to resist spending his days in front of a screen.
"For my mental health, I need to keep my mind busy to keep it away from the dark stuff. It can easily go there," he said. "I wanted to be creative and use my imagination. Otherwise I sit around and watch Netflix."
A few years ago, Neitge learned the Scandinavian craft of fashioning spoons out of birch logs. When the chilly weather kept him from his garage workbench, the retired financial adviser taught himself to make jewelry, keeping his focus on the process, not the outcome.
"I went with a Viking theme — gold and purple beads with gold wire. It got me through the cold patch," he said. "I've got quite an inventory of bracelets here, I'll tell ya that. Would you like one?"
The pressure to feel productive during the pandemic has left some people exhausted.
Christina Myers had just purchased her first home and hadn't finished unpacking when the lockdown hit.
"I planned to get everything painted and put away," she said. "I did paint two rooms, but I still have many boxes. What's the point? No one is coming over."
Single and working at home, she missed her colleagues. A soprano who has sung in the National Lutheran Choir for 19 years, Myers has been longing for the camaraderie she found at rehearsals, concerts and tours.
"I don't get anything out of choir on Zoom," she said. "The point of choir is singing with other people."
Myers gave up trying to master a new skill. She was content to spend evenings in the company of her two dogs, piecing together puzzles.
"I've probably done 30 by now. It's almost meditative. I put on an audio book while I do it. Nothing heavy," she said.
Recipe for coping
Nguyen-Feng found stress relief boxed and delivered to her door.
She signed up for shipments of less-than-perfect fruit and vegetables to make into meals.
"Yesterday I made cabbage and carrot soup with coriander and lemon. It was a unique blend of flavors and it was delicious," she said.
She liked it so much that she ordered a subscription for her father, who lives alone on the East Coast.
"It's been fun and even exciting. We analyze these misfit ingredients and talk about how to best use them," she said.
That may be a culinary metaphor for the past year.
"We've learned to say, 'Here's what I got and here's what I'll make out of it,' " she said. "The barometer of expectations is lowered. We practice acceptance and keep focused on the present."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.