How we spend our days

Over time, we’re remarkably consistent — until we’re not

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Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

When you look at the aggregate data, our lives are fairly predictable.

One of my favorite hobbies is looking up random search terms on Google Trends to see how certain behaviors go up and down during different seasons. (I know, it’s a weird hobby.)

If you haven’t tried it before, hop on over to trends.google.com and type in any word or phrase. Then you can adjust the parameters to zoom in or zoom out — from the last hour of activity to the last 16 years of data.

Chances are for any search term you select, you’ll see cyclical ups and downs in a perfectly predictable pattern.

Google Trends gives you the power to collectively read the minds of millions of people, and see what they really care about. It’s not what they tell their friends, it’s what they only tell Google. It’s a world of celebrity gossip, television and sports schedules and seasonal pursuits.

Looking at search data is like looking at the moods, impulses and whims of an entire culture. Over time, we’re remarkably consistent.

During the holidays, for example, the bottom falls out on searches for healthy recipes but it’s peak pie season. Then as soon as the new year hits, Google searches spike for marathon training plans and vacation travel planning. People suddenly care about quinoa (for the time being).

When you can look at data going back to 2004, you see that the cycles repeat themselves again and again and again. The volume and trends may go up or down year over year, but it always started with a regular trigger that collectively makes a behavior top of mind for huge swaths of the population.

There are going to be individual differences in everyone’s lives. You can decide to opt out of Black Friday if you want. But you’re not going to change the culture, at least not overnight. There are still going to be retailers offering deals, and people looking for deals.

Every year. Year after year. Like clockwork.

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Interest in Black Friday over time

There is monotony in routine, but there’s also comfort. The predictability gives us a sense of control, an irony that the Twitter account NOT A WOLF perfectly captured in a tweet.

And now we’re completely robbed of our collective habits and sense of security. The impact of the coronavirus wiped out all of our regular routines overnight.

There are parents like myself who suddenly find themselves at a loss when we can’t just drop our kids off at school. That’s why searches for cosmic yoga for kids and math lessons are spiking.

Right now, people care more about toilet paper than they do about March Madness — in the middle of March! In fact, there were more than 3x as many Google searches for toilet paper as there were for March Madness this past week, March 15–21. That’s not supposed to happen in any known universe.

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Which is why — for the least of many reasons— it feels like we’re in such a profoundly weird time. We’re supposed to go to work, to school, to graduate, to have a separation from the workweek from the weekend, or to even know when this is going to all end.

As some have pointed out, there is a grim silver lining to all of this, as the reality finally forces us to slow down, consider what’s really important, and spend time re-evaluating our priorities. I think that’s true — but we’re also just in the beginning stages of what could be a long, long period of hunkering down.

I imagine, like most people, at some point things will go back to a relative normal. We’ll search for football schedules again in September. We’ll look for beach reads in June. We’ll anticipate opening day in late March.

It has to! We can’t even fathom the alternative. There is no data.

But right now, all we have is uncertainty. We’re forced to find a new path on a new timeline, day in and day out.

Our lives were once predictable. Now they’re not.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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