Like many people, in the last week it suddenly and perhaps belatedly dawned on me that this lockdown, which I have been taking day by day, is going to last for another three months. A week or two you can handle just by winging it. Several months? That probably requires some thought, even planning.
So I decided to think about it (!).
But, how do you do that?
To make plans for the next three months, I used a technique that I am calling an Osler Plan. It is named after Sir William Osler, one of Canada’s greatest ever physicians, and one of the four founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Yes, Osler was related to the Osler that founded the law firm Osler Hoskin, his brother Britton. His other brother was stockbroker Sir Edmund Osler, politician and philanthropist, and one-time business partner of Sir Henry Pellatt). Dr. Osler’s biography was very influential for me personally when I was growing up (both his biography itself – the 1940 bio by Harvey Cushing, which I discovered by accident at the age of 11 – and his famous 1913 speech to Yale students, “A Way of Life”), even though his personality was clearly different from anyone I knew, then or now.
One particularly unique thing about Osler was that, from a young age, he planned everything he did, every day, hour by hour. He obsessed over wasting time, when a better daily plan could make him more productive. I could never do that (seriously?), but it was a hugely interesting approach to life.
Hence, an “Osler Plan” for a pandemic lockdown.
One other diversion from the main topic. I have named the plan, but I didn’t invent it. This arose out of an internet exchange I had with a friend of mine in Hong Kong, who said this is what he is doing. He too disclaimed credit, however, saying someone else suggested it to him.
Sir William Osler, of course, had nothing to do with it. Although, he probably would have liked it a lot.
An Osler Plan has three steps: baseline without pandemic; baseline with pandemic; and plan.
Baseline Without Pandemic
In the period April 1st to June 30th there are 2,184 hours. If there had been no pandemic, you would have been spending those hours doing various things, from sleeping and eating to meetings at work. Every hour can be accounted for, if you spend the time to think about it.
Well, you have the time right now, so this is the first step. In normal circumstances, how many of those 2,184 hours would have been spent on each activity?
Don’t cheat. This is not what you wish you would be doing, but what you forecast you would actually do. (The wish part comes later.) The truth may surprise you.
For example, someone who sleeps seven and a half hours per night on a regular basis will spend 683 of those hours sleeping (31.3% of their time). If your sleep pattern is different than that, your hours will be different. Don’t forget, for example, that hour you spend every morning, after you turn off your alarm, and before you get out of bed.
Similarly, most people spend a certain amount of time each day commuting to and from their place of work. If you spend 45 minutes each way, each day, five days a week, but excluding holidays, that is 93 hours (4.26% of your time) spent commuting. Your figure might be higher or lower. Also, you may be able to do other activities (work, reading, crosswords, etc.) some of that time. That should be accounted for as well.
There is a whole list of things you can do that are like this: making and/or eating meals, time spent in the bathroom, including showers and baths, reading newspapers (paper or online), household chores, and so on.
Some things will be less obvious, but still important. In the period April to June, I realized that I would spend at least 40 hours watching NBA games, and much more if the Raptors went deep into the playoffs, like last year. I would also spend at least 40 hours watching major golfing events, like the Masters, the PGA Championship, and the U.S. Open. For someone else, there might be similar hours engrossed in NHL playoffs, or the first three months of the Major League Baseball season, or Wimbledon Tennis, or the Tour de France, or the weekly UFC fighting events.
Outside of sports, you may be one that plants a new garden every year, or has a house upgrade project each spring, that sort of thing. How much time would you spend on that?
Don’t forget work. As a lawyer, I have to docket the time I spend on my work, and as a discipline I also docket the non-billable component of my work (like the administrative crap), so I start with a good idea of how many hours I would spend on that. For others, they will have a harder time of it, but it is worthwhile to be careful about this. Divide your time “at work” between actually working and other things, like lunch, breaks, or socializing. Those things are important, but they are different. Don’t forget time at conferences, or seminars, or other things that are work-related.
The key is to ensure that the breakdown adds up to 2,184 hours. The first try, you will fall short, perhaps by a lot. That is when you realize you average an hour a day playing Sudoku, or Candy Crush, or crossword puzzles, or just fiddling around on your guitar. You may be forced to accept that your Facebook and Twitter time is not, in fact, “under control”. You may even be shocked at how little (or how much, if you’re lucky) time you spend just hanging out with your own family or friends.
Once this exercise is done, you should have a realistic baseline, but your baseline is not over. There is a second part, which is the aspirational part.
Look at the baseline activities, and ask yourself what other things would you wish you were doing in that period, or wish you were doing more.
For example, my baseline includes 50 hours on my novel, which is about four hours a week. I wish I could spend more time on it, maybe even three or four times as much. That is actually doable in a non-pandemic future, but my realistic baseline could not include it. I know how lazy I am, and novel writing is very hard.
You will have many things like that. Maybe your “annual home fixup” isn’t in your baseline, because you know you will want to do it, but then not get around to it. That is an aspirational activity. Maybe you really really want to have a garage sale, so that your kids don’t continue to accuse you of being a hoarder. Maybe the new gym opening down the street is calling your name, and you should – but probably won’t – join and start working out. Maybe you always wanted to learn how to build a website.
Don’t forget personal things, i.e. “non-task” activities. Most of us have some old friends with whom we would like to reconnect. Some of us would like to adjust our use of social media, or start a hobby. There are probably many things like that on your mental wish list.
Now you have two baselines: the real one, and the add-ons that probably wouldn’t make it to reality, but you still actually want to do.
This may all seem like a waste of time, but bear with me. It takes time, for sure, but it may be worth it.
Baseline with Pandemic
The second step is to do the same exercise, but based on a forecast of how you expect to spend your time during the pandemic lockdown. Note carefully: this is not how you plan to spend your time, or how you want to spend your time. Take a look at the last two or three weeks. Use that as your starting point. This is supposed to be a forecast about reality, not fantasy.
Or, to put that another way, do you realize how lazy you’ve been the last couple of weeks? Don’t ignore the truth.
I enjoy spreadsheets (yes, I said it – sue me), so I did my baseline without pandemic in Excel. The next step – doing a baseline with the pandemic – was easier because of it. I could basically do them side by side.
Some of your changes will be straightforward. Commuting time may go down to zero. Time spent each Friday night at the local pub? Also zero. That Sunday morning hockey game with the guys from work? That’s gone, and also many other similar things.
Watching sports is also changing, because live sports have for the most part been cancelled for the next little while. The Raptors will remain world champions for another year, and the Leafs will be able to avoid having their hopes dashed for another year. All those hours you spent watching them? Removed from the list.
Other things are more subtle. Are you spending more time making and eating food, because you are eating out less? Or, alternatively, are you spending less time, because you are ordering delivery for every meal, avoiding the crowded supermarket? Are you sleeping less because you are less active, or sleeping more because you’re bored? Are you using the lockdown as an excuse not to get out on your bicycle, or are you finding extra time to do one of the few physical activities still allowed? Are you spending more time with your kids, and if so is that home schooling, or just getting to know them better? And so on.
Work may be a little more complicated. Depending on your job, work may go from seven hours a day to four, or to one (or, if you’re a health care worker, twelve, but then you don’t have either the time or the need to do an Osler Plan; you’re too busy saving the rest of us). You may be surprised at how productive you can be with less hours, but in any case you have to assess how many hours you are spending actually working now, in lockdown, and forecast that into the next three months.
On the other side, there are things you are doing a lot more already, like watching old TV shows that you (apparently) always wanted to watch. Or obsessing over Covid-19 data on Worldometers. Or spending two hours a day glued to the White House news conference, and associated punditry. Or watching episodes of the Simpsons you’ve already seen three times.
Like the no pandemic baseline, this process will result, on the first run, in a total that falls far short of 2,184 hours. Then you have to go back through it, and through your recent memory, to fill in the other things that are making up the rest of the time. The true time-wasters, probably. They count too. In some respects, they are the most important.
Your Osler Plan
All of the stuff you’ve done so far is about gathering and organizing data (whether real, forecast, or potential), which is the first and usually most important part of making any good plan. Plans are just scenarios for the future, and they are always built on a foundation of data and assumptions.
The last step is to re-state your next three months’ activity in a way that makes you happier, and treats this enforced isolation as an opportunity rather than just a curse. Create a new, better, future scenario.
Some things will jump out at you. Now you can actually clean the basement, or plant a vegetable garden. You have no more excuses. And, think of how good you’ll feel, knowing it is done, and you did it.
Other things should jump out at you, but may not. Can you spend more constructive time with your family, now that you’re cooped up anyway? What can you do together that you haven’t done in the past, when everyone was off doing their own thing much of the time? What about learning a language together, or planning a big family trip for next year? (One person I know is getting his young daughter, an aspiring ballerina, to teach him how to dance. Facebook users are enjoying their videos of the lessons.)
When you are doing this, you are doing two things. First, you are reducing the time spent wastefully, like that 150 hours (6.9% of your time!) on White House press conferences. Second, you are moving some of the activities on your wish list into reality.
What is most amazing about this whole exercise is that you can add a lot of aspirational things to your plan, and still have time to relax and enjoy. Once you remove 500 – 1000 hours of dead time – both the lollygagging you normally do, and the extra laziness you could get away with during the pandemic because you have so much extra time – there is a lot you can accomplish if you want to.
If you fill even half of that time with things that will make your life happier and better in the long run, that will be worth it.
Once you have your own personal Osler Plan, you still have to do it. A plan is useless without implementation.
However, it is almost certainly easier than it looks. Aspirational activities are often shunted aside by the weight of responsibilities and the clutter of a busy life. When you aren’t as busy, and you are less in control of the future anyway, that is when those activities can be brought to the fore.
Even if you only do some of it, that is still an improvement over the alternative. A clean basement, or a newly rejuvenated friendship, or a stronger bond with your kids? Any of those things is a good thing. If you accomplish only some of your Osler Plan, your life will still be much better.
At the end of this, when we are “back to normal”, whatever that new normal is, I’m going to be asking my two adult kids how they took advantage of the months of Covid-19 lockdown. They’re going to ask me the same question, of course. I want my answer, and theirs, to be a good one.
Sir William Osler would approve.
– Jay Shepherd, April 7, 2020