Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.
What is truly essential? What remains when the nonsense is stripped away from our lives? A year of constant crises on all fronts is certainly one way to find out.
As millions of people adopted a socially-distant, work-from-home lifestyle, behavioral change awaited. Some of them may last, into 2021 and beyond, even once we find some semblance of normal in a post-vaccine world.
Below is our list of the major revelations — the stuff we thought mattered, and the stuff that really did. We haven’t included changes that are overly obvious (not essential: jeans, essential: sweatpants), likely temporary (grooming only the part of ourselves visible on Zoom is a thing, but will likely come to a crashing halt as soon as we meet in person again), or too localized to be generally applied (during California’s extended wildfire season, air purifiers — and constantly checking Purple Air to see if we could breathe outside — was clearly essential). Otherwise, here are the discoveries that mattered most.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Going places
ESSENTIAL: Knowing places
Remember when we used to travel without a second thought? Fly off to conferences or vacations or family visits at the drop of a hat? Sure, some of us are still doing some of that, but not without significant worry, preparation, and/or societal disapproval. If someone tells you they’re “taking a trip” in 2020, you’d be forgiven for assuming they just ingested something psychedelic.
While we might miss some aspects of travel — but not the TSA lines! — many of us have been looking back on our flying days and wonder just how much of it was as essential as we assumed. Will it ever be socially acceptable to live that lifestyle again, considering all the carbon-spewing damage it does to the planet? Will your company really OK your trip to that far-flung conference in 2021, now everyone knows it could just as easily be a Zoom call?
Faced with fewer long-distance jaunts, we find ourselves in the position T.S. Eliot famously wrote about: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
In 2020, many of us got to know our neighbors, our neighborhoods, our hometowns, and the rural areas surrounding them, better than ever. We connected to nature, which turns out to be essential. We discovered the joys of hiking nearby trails, especially once it became clear that open-air, low-traffic activities were unlikely sources of the virus.
In March, for example, I hadn’t even heard of the 350-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail. I will end the year having hiked roughly half of it. And I wouldn’t trade a single minute of its soulful green solitude for time spent in the airport.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Commuting
The quietest revolution of 2020 may turn out to be how many more of us work at home permanently, or semi-permanently, even after the vaccines happen. An 3.4 percent of the workforce was able to do so pre-pandemic, a number that had barely budged from 2.9 percent in 2015. Now, according to one , it’s 42 percent of the workforce — twice as many as the percentage who travel for work now (the remainder are part-time or unemployed).
The genie is going to be hard to put back in the bottle, especially with companies slashing costs by giving up office space. According to , Americans spent 60 million fewer hours commuting between March and September — and to the delight of managers everywhere, they plowed that extra time into working rather than leisure activities. For white collar workers, at least, this may be the new normal.
Already, the idea that millions of us clogged up the roads in rush hours, morning and night, spending a couple of hours each day in such boxed-up misery, seems as antiquated and cruel as machines in 19th century factories. Not only did working from home not destroy productivity as managers assumed, it actually provides a boost to necessary travel. The more of us stay home, the more those who really truly need to get into the cities reap the benefits of clearer roads.
And thinking of others is increasingly in fashion. Witness the city streets around the world that have gained bike lanes, or simply closed themselves off to cars altogether. Witness the mini-boom in parklets, and the safer outdoor seating at restaurants spilling out over the sidewalk and into the street. That particular encroachment may roll back when we can safely eat inside, but still, we’ve seen a different way of life on our streets now. We want to live in low-density, walkable neighborhoods where we actually get to see our neighbors. We want more of a sense of community. We may get our wish.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Haircuts
ESSENTIAL: Hair strategies
“I NEED A HAIRCUT!” That phrase blared from many of the signs from ill-advised lockdown protesters this past spring. To which many of us perusing the pictures would frown and say, uh … no, actually, you don’t?
In 2020, we discovered we didn’t need haircuts — at least, not as frequently. Stylists either suffered in silence or participated in a of hair advice on YouTube. Shorn of outside hair help, we had to become very good at developing our own personal hair strategies.
The strategy depends on the individual, but it tends to boil down to this essential question: Are you going long or short? If long, just let that sucker grow out (one benefit of lockdown: it’s easy to get through the awkward middle phase on the way to good-looking long hair if no one has to see it.) If short, just shave it.
Personally, I’ve gone for the long end of the spectrum. (I’m not alone: “Long hair for men” was a top Google trend in 2020.) After months of growing it out, plus one solitary haircut this whole year (conducted with appropriate screens and masks), plus some conditioning advice from Mashable’s resident curly-haired specialist, I find myself blessed with a mess of ringlets.
I’ve also gone long on the beard and mustache, which seems to be another common strategy. “Gentlemen, which quarantine beard are we growing?” I asked in a Twitter poll in March. The overwhelming victory went to “Victorian/Biblical.” So after seeking out a highly useful video on beard trimming, that’s what I went for, and while it has caused some problems — the mustache especially, since it has an awkward middle phase all its own where it flavor-saves every kind of food and beverage — I’m quite pleased with the salt-and-pepper fuzziness and vaudeville villain mustache-twirling that has resulted.
That’s what 2020 gave us: time for our eyes to adjust.
And after we’ve all spent a year crafting a manageable hair strategy, surely we’re less likely to want to visit our hairdresser or barber quite so frequently. (Every three months, maybe. Every six weeks? Ha!) That doesn’t mean we’re not contributing to the hair economy in other ways: note the mustache wax and beard wax I bought this year.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Wallets, sunglasses
ESSENTIAL: Phone, card, mask, sanitizer
As a card-carrying Californian, I used to think sunglasses were an essential item even on cloudy days, and stashed cheap pairs everywhere. I also lose sunglasses, roughly at the rate of a pair every other month. This year I didn’t bother to replace them. Turns out they are only really useful when driving towards the sun. Once my eyes adjusted, the world was full of brighter, more uplifting colors. That’s what 2020 gave us: time for our eyes to adjust.
Meanwhile, my wallet saw less use than ever before. Cash is barely a thing. Most local transit is free for the duration of the pandemic. All I need in my pockets is one credit or debit card — and not even that if the store takes Apple or Google Pay. I’m surely not the only one to feel the sense of liberation that comes from carrying a lighter load. Lighter, but not necessarily fewer items, as it makes sense to fill our pockets with spare masks and hand sanitizer.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Public sniffling and sneezing
ESSENTIAL: Wearing a mask and handwashing when sick
Now we’ve established that it is good manners and good public health policy to wear masks — well, unless you’re in one of the states like South Dakota, where the governor still refuses to issue a mask mandate — it’s hard to avoid an essential truth that we should be doing this outside of the pandemic too.
Was there really a time when it was considered acceptable to bring your cough, cold or flu into a public space without masking up? (Yes there was, as recently as January, when I remember crowds of shuffling and sniffling tech nerds at CES in Las Vegas — from whom I caught something flu-like, or worse.)
Even if sneezing isn’t a sign of coronavirus, it is still a vector for germs the rest of us don’t need to be breathing in, thank you very much. And if you’ve been assiduous about washing your hands and hand-sanitizing before or after touching door knobs, why would you not automatically reach for that habit when you’re sick in the future? The common cold’s rhinovirus may be way less deadly than the coronavirus, but that doesn’t make it fun or helpful to anyone if you catch it.
In modeling mask-friendly environments, Europe and the U.S. may be following in the footsteps of Asian countries, where mask wearing for all sorts of ailments was reinforced by the H1N1 outbreak of 2009/2010. America is different, of course; millions are maskless now, millions will refuse to stick a mask on if they catch a cold. But shame is a powerful tool — it’s how officials encouraged people to , for example — and the shame of being sick in public in a major city without wearing a mask is likely to persist for some years to come.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Billionaires
The rich got richer. The poor got poorer. That isn’t news, but rarely has the state of affairs been as unequal as it was in 2020. Taken together, U.S. billionaires increased their net worth by during the pandemic, while 40 million Americans were added to the unemployment rolls. Jeff Bezos, with an extra $90 billion net worth, could have given each of his 1.1 million Amazon employees a $80,000 bonus out of his own pocket, and still ended the year with exactly as much wealth as he began it. (Needless to say, Bezos is doing nothing of the kind.)
This kind of obscene fact sticks in the craw at a time when we are more aware than ever of the essential workers who keep our economy running. Not just those on the frontlines of the pandemic — the ICU nurses dealing with a 9/11’s worth of deaths every day, the porters and cleaners who can’t even afford healthcare at the hospitals that employ them — but the delivery drivers, the warehouse staff stretched to breaking point, the meat plant employees getting sick so we can continue to flip burgers with ease (burgers that, with , are increasingly inessential themselves).
Growing inequality is reflected in the fact that support making the superrich pay more. Joe Biden was elected president while promising to raise taxes on people earning $400,000 a year or more. Even as Florida voted for Trump, it also voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, a Democratic policy. Voters on both sides of the aisle were incandescent about the lack of a second stimulus payment. Their ire is not specifically directed at billionaires yet, but nor is it far off.
The makings of a “no more billionaires” political movement are in place. How does it make any kind of ethical sense for any human being to hoard more than $999 million, money they’d be hard-pressed to spend in a lifetime? Especially not when the excess wealth is exactly what we’d need to fund universal healthcare, universal college education, even a universal basic income. Such investments would make our economy grow like crazy and benefit everyone, even the former billionaires.
Ok how about this:
No more billionaires. None.
After you reach $999 million, every red cent goes to schools and health care.
You get a trophy that says, “I won capitalism” and we name a dog park after you.
— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) March 22, 2020
NOT ESSENTIAL: Takeout
ESSENTIAL: DIY meal services
This is a tough one for me to admit, because I want to support local restaurants as much as possible. I was out there in March arguing what we all later learned, that takeout food is not a vector for virus transmission; given the strict health regulations involved, it’s safer than picking up stuff at the supermarket.
But after one too many overly salty Chinese takeouts, my wife decided it was time to try out meal delivery services Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. She wanted to enjoy cooking again, but selecting recipes and getting the ingredients was more of a hassle than ever in a pandemic year that has stretched us all thin and made grocery shopping an ordeal. (And as for online food shopping…well, if you’ve had an Instacart-style delivery this year that didn’t contain substitutions, usually substitutions for the very thing you needed, I salute you.)
Prior to the pandemic, I was skeptical of the meal delivery service business. It seemed like a racket to sell regular ingredients at a markup. But the results have spoken for themselves. I am delighted nearly every night by a tasty dinner that contains tastes I might never have thought to put together. As experimental as the meal lists sometimes look, there’s not been a plate I haven’t scraped clean, and some new favorites have emerged; I never knew I’d eat so much bulgogi in 2020.
If forced to pick, we prefer Blue Apron meals over Hello Fresh. The latter are fun, but there seems to be an over-reliance on sour cream. We still get both services, however, at the rate of roughly three meals a week from each. I’m also pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to deal with the packaging. The meal bags, which we stick straight in the crisper drawers, are contained in a single silver dry ice bag that is light and easy to lift into the trash; break down the box, stick it in the recycling and you’re done.
We used to say we’d still allow ourselves takeout once a week; in fact it’s more like once a month. Sorry, restaurants, but at least we are really looking forward to getting back to dining out once that’s a thing that can happen again.
NOT ESSENTIAL: The multiplex
ESSENTIAL: Streaming snacks
The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has killed the cinema business as we know it. Warner Brothers’ eyebrow-raising decision to open its entire slate of 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max might suggest that, as might the tepid opening of the one tentpole to try its luck in theaters this year, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Maybe streaming services are the future, or maybe there’s too many of them and we’re due a shakeout; few have figured out how to actually make money. (Netflix is still losing cash, though the pandemic.)
Maybe theater audiences will come roaring back post-vaccine; maybe enough of us will decide we missed being alone together in a crowd of strangers, having shared emotional reactions to stories on the silver screen. But I don’t think many of us miss the miserable parts of the multiplex experience. Top of the list: the outrageous prices charged for substandard snacks, which is where the multiplexes make their money.
When you’ve been at home in front of the TV making your own popcorn for a year at a cost of a few cents a bowl, it’s harder to go back to $10 buckets that you don’t even finish. When you’ve accompanied your streaming time with endless varieties of complex snackage, you’ll value a box of Milk Duds less. Those sad hot dogs were always worse than anything you could make at home, and the giant sodas busted your gut even as they emptied your wallet.
We used to accept these things because they seemed like immovable objects. But a year spent filtering your tap water — or in my case, making — can certainly give you a new perspective on a vending machine of $5 Dasani bottles.
Some smaller theater chains are ahead of the game. Drafthouse Alamo and Sundance Cinemas offer food and drink that are quite a few rungs up the gourmet ladder. I’m not sure Drafthouse’s model (perpetually bent-over waitstaff taking and delivering your food during the movie) will be as effective when we’ve become accustomed to pausing the film to get food; you can imagine theatergoers reflexively reaching for their remote when the order arrives.
Still, you can bet we’re going to be a lot more discerning about our theater calories post COVID, and multiplex mush ain’t going to cut it.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Sitting
ESSENTIAL: Comfortable bedding
One thing about all this working at home: it may spell the end of the office chair. Sure, plenty of us still enjoy typing at our own desks; but plenty more have realized we can get just as much work done in a more comfortable position. There are plenty of non-sitting options we’ve covered in the past — the standing desk, the treadmill desk — but I’m willing to bet more of us have spent our quarantine closer to a 180-degree position.
I spent the early months split between working at my desk on an iMac (less comfortable but more screen real estate) and working on my laptop in the easy chair (more comfortable but less screen real estate). Then I wondered why people never combine the two. So I stuck the easy chair in front of the iMac, now at the front of the desk, with the keyboard on a tray below the desk and my legs fully reclined under it.
This may be the best office decision I’ve ever made. My cat certainly approves, and now curls up with me here through most of the weekday, a self-appointed supervisor who won’t let me take a break.
When fully extended, the desk-recliner combo reminds me of the in January, but for $0. (My old office chair is still in use, as a seat for the under-desk bike I wrote about last year; I like to read and stretch my legs for a few reps over on that side of the desk.) Lying down on the job has never been more productive.
Speaking of lying down, sleep has never been more important, especially in a year where the news seemed to be doing its best to destroy it. The most essential purchase my wife and I made this year was a new mattress, a king-sized hybrid of memory foam and springs. Pricey, but worth every penny: with zero roll-together, it’s like sleeping on air. So much so…that it’s now one of the top surfaces in the house to get work done when in 180-degree mode with a laptop.
LESS ESSENTIAL: Coffee
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL: Exercise
Calm down, fellow caffeine junkies. We still got our fix while working at home in 2020. But I doubt I’m the only one who drinks less coffee now, in part because I’m always the one who has to make it. Beyond a morning latte (made with oat milk and Ripple, because cow juice also turns out to be less essential than we thought), I usually don’t indulge in caffeine these days. My sleep has improved as a result. While writing this story, I got curious and had an afternoon coffee for the first time in months; I couldn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m.
But exercise, on the other hand, only became more essential this year. All that lying around needs to be matched by some serious calorie-burning if you’re trying to get rid of your . Especially if you’ve been baking your own sourdough, or indulging in the cannabis that states like California have designated an essential service.
Besides, if you’re anything like me, you also need a good workout to burn off all the fear and frustration at the current state of American politics. I ran a (masked) 5K for the first time in a while the day Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, and it did such a good job of holding my anxiety in check that I kept going, knocking out an average of 5K a day through the election. By December I’d upped the goal to 4 miles a day.
The non-negotiable daily run was the single best habit I built all year. It never failed to turn a bad or frustrating day around. Honestly, I’m not sure my heart would have survived the stress of 2020 without it.
NOT ESSENTIAL: Being too cool for politics
ESSENTIAL: Voting, marching
Last but not least, we would be remiss in not remembering what an insanely political year 2020 was, more so than any in living memory. All of the ills of American life manifested at once, and the American people rose to meet the challenge in a variety of surprising ways. “In two months my whole feed went from ‘let’s learn to make bread’ to ‘let’s dismantle white supremacy’,” read a representative tweet during the Black Lives Matter protests in June. “What the fuck was in that bread?”
What indeed. A new coalition of the sane had started to become aware of itself and flex its muscles. A majority of Americans supported lockdowns, even when the president didn’t. The majority caught on fast to masks, social distancing, and avoiding indoor spaces. The majority saw the George Floyd video and felt something snap inside us; the majority supported Black Lives Matter and peaceful protests. The majority loved the U.S. Postal Service, were infuriated by its sabotage, and spread the word that ballots should be mailed long before the election.
And for the first time in a century, a simple majority of voters ousted an incumbent president — even as he grew his own coalition by millions of people.
None of this was a given. Indeed, given the sense of cynicism that seems to come with social media, it’s not what you would expect from the “lol nothing matters” generation. We were surprised by our own earnestness. And we began to ask the question: if we can mobilize in these numbers, what can we do next?