How to feel like things are moving when life is on pause

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Sometimes life seems to flow with a smooth rhythm. We’re in the groove, we have things figured out (at least some things), and it feels like our lives are moving forward. And then we hit a speed bump — an unexpected layoff or breakup, or say, a global pandemic — and suddenly that smooth flow of life feels more like we’re paddling up a river of molasses.

It doesn’t always take a crisis to produce this feeling, either. It may be as simple as receiving an invitation to a wedding while you’re coming home from a terrible Tinder date, or seeing someone’s new house on Instagram while you’re struggling to make your rent. Though we’re conditioned to believe that we move through milestones on a specific schedule — graduate from high school, find a partner, get married, buy a house, have kids — few people’s lives trace such a linear path. Some years fly by in a blur of achievements and newness; others plod, leaving us wondering if we’re moving forward, or even in the right direction.

In times like these, we may feel stuck, unable to make progress on things that matter to us. The distance between our present and our hopes feels magnified, intractable. I’ve felt this at various times in life, in big ways and small ones. When I was single in my 30s, long after I’d hoped to find a partner and have started a family, every baby announcement seemed to punctuate my sense that my life had stalled out. I watched friends struggle to balance the demands of their careers and new motherhood with envy, wishing I had such fullness to contend with, while I felt like my life was a Groundhog Day of work, yoga, craft projects, and brunch. It happened again when I was struggling with infertility, watching friends have not one but two babies as whole years slipped by me. And of course it’s happening now, as the whole world is living on pause, confined to home, our regular rhythms suspended, our plans postponed.

But while the circumstances that are making us feel stuck may be out of our control, there are small things we can do to breathe energy into our routines and infuse a sense of dynamism and movement in our lives. I learn and re-learn this every spring, when the fierce vitality of buds and bulbs transforms a seemingly stagnant landscape into one teeming with life. As I wrote in JOYFUL: Spring restores our consciousness of time and, even more so, of possibility. The thawing of the hard earth, the flowing of sap, the bursting open of millions of buds: as the slow land quickens, we feel the energy of new beginnings around us, and our attention turns to the future. We are reminded of what a thrill it is to know that joy is speeding toward us, and to stand awaiting it with open arms.

Spring comes on its own schedule, but we can also participate in its regeneration. We can plant seeds and cut flowers, we lighten our wardrobes and make time to be outdoors. What spring reminds me is that we don’t just have to wait for things to begin again. Through small actions, we create our own renewal.

With that in mind, here are a few ways to bring a sense of movement into your space — and your life.

Bring the outside in

If you’ve ever spent time in nature, one thing you may have noticed is how active it is. Even places of stillness thrum with motion: the swishing of insects, the rustle of leaves, the silent unfolding of the clouds, the flowing currents of air and water. These small movements serve as reminders that nothing is truly ever static — that even if we don’t notice it, things are happening. Our manmade environments, by contrast, are full of inert objects that reinforce our sense of stasis. They don’t change.

A simple way to create a sense of motion, then, is to bring the outside in. Add elements of greenery to your space, or a few houseplants. Bring home some cut flowers, ideally still in bud form so you can watch them bloom. Or use nature sounds to create a soundtrack that subtly animates your surroundings. (As a bonus, both plants and natural sounds have been shown in research to ease stress and improve mood.)

Also, when choosing houseplants, be on the lookout for fast-growers, like Pilea or Pothos, which will change more over time than their slower growing counterparts. And plants like the prayer plant (maranta) or oxalis actually move their leaves over the course of the day, opening and closing, which can also help bring a feeling of motion into your home.

Grow something

Taking this a step further, nurturing life can offer a more intimate way to connect to growth. This might mean planting a few bulbs in your yard, or starting a garden. Even if you don’t have outdoor space, you could create a container garden on a balcony, or line a windowsill with fresh herbs. Or you might try propagating your existing houseplants. A leaf from a succulent or a frond from a fern can become a whole new plant with relatively little effort. And just seeing that plant take root brings a tiny, indescribable rush of joy.

Looking back, it’s no coincidence that I discovered gardening during the time I was struggling with infertility. I couldn’t control my body and I couldn’t control its timeline, but I could bring an armful of blooms out of a patch of dirt. I fed the sandy soil with compost and rebalanced it with lime and nutrients. I set up a rack with lights in my bathroom to house trays of seeds, planted in February to be ready for the garden in May. I watered and checked and pinched and staked. And in the summer I was rewarded with a lushness that brought hummingbirds and butterflies to my yard, and bouquets of every color to the table.

Gardening has profoundly changed my relationship to time. Even in the long stretches of winter, I’m not stuck waiting; I’m browsing seed catalogs and getting ready for planting season. So I’m heartened to see how many people are taking up gardening during this time of isolation. By cultivating the land, we deepen our connection to the cycles of nature, and bolster our awareness that the world is never stuck, even when it’s still.

Create change through motion

Often when we decorate, we place our items somewhere and then forget about them. This can create a comforting familiarity when we’re on the go a lot, such as if we’re frequent travelers or have a lifestyle where we don’t spend too much time at home. But if we find ourselves homebound for a period of time, as many of us are due to the Covid-19 pandemic, or we’ve lived in the same place for a long time, then this can contribute to our sense of monotony. It can also make us feel tempted to buy new things, even when there’s nothing wrong with the ones we have.

To overcome this effect and energize your space, try rearranging things. Move a piece of art from one wall to another. Switch the throw pillows in the guest room with those in the den. Reorganize your bookshelves. If you have reversible quilts or rugs, flip them over. If you have items from a collection on display, switch which pieces are visible and which are in storage. It sounds simple, but by changing what your eye falls on when you enter a room, you create all sorts of new juxtapositions and relationships that can give you a whole new perspective on your home.

Fix something broken

One thing that feng shui practitioners look out for in a home is stopped clocks or watches. When time-keeping devices are out of order, they break the flow of chi, or energy, in a space. You don’t have to believe in chi to recognize that a stopped clock can exacerbate a feeling of being stuck. But I would venture to suggest that anything broken can create this stuck energy in a home.

Blown-out light bulbs create dark, shadowy spots that feel dull and lifeless. Broken furniture or fixtures are constant reminders of tasks that need to be completed, weighing on your psyche. Soiled or torn rugs and upholstery feel shabby and worn out. Having these things in our space are reminders of entropy, the gradual decline into disorder that occurs if we stop putting energy into a system. And visual disorder, we know from research on household clutter and in urban environments, can contribute to anxiety and depression. They also tend to spiral. Environmental disorder is linked to a subtle rise in antisocial behaviors such as littering and vandalism, which only make the environment less orderly.

So if you look around and find that you have broken items in your space, now might be a good moment to repair them. I did this with a broken chair the other day and it was immediately satisfying. Not only does it bring me joy to see my dining room intact again, but crossing off that lingering to-do list item gave me motivation to start on other, bigger projects around the house.

Create sensorial variety

I laughed with recognition when I saw this Instagram post from Kate Arends of Wit & Delight. Who hasn’t had a craving for something different during quarantine — even something so mundane as a different shower? After all, our homes are no longer a place we stop in between commutes and trips. They have become not just our homes, but also our offices, gyms, restaurants, bars, and theaters. They are our whole world.

All of the sensory variety we used to gain from moving through different contexts has disappeared. Just think how many different kinds of chairs you might have sat in during a day before the pandemic: a car or bus seat, a chair at a café, your desk chair at your office, maybe a bar stool or the plush fold-down seat of a movie theater. Now, you might only sit in one. Think too of all the patterns and textures, the sound and smells you’d experience in a typical week. No wonder showering in the guest bathroom feels like a novelty!

This isn’t just a pandemic problem. If you’re feeling constrained by your finances, a disability, or a change in your social relationships, taking time to broaden your sensory landscape can help make daily routines feel richer. This might mean upgrading your sound system so you can play music at home or refreshing your spice drawer. It might mean adding textures that feel good to your bed or sofa. It could mean investing in a moisturizer with a scent you love, and taking an extra minute to inhale as you put it on each morning.

Pay attention, too, to variety. Instead of putting the same hand soap in the bathroom and kitchen, what if you had a different scent in each, along with different hand towels? What if you put a nubbly mat under your feet at your desk, but a soft sheepskin on the floor next to your bed? Even if you can’t leave home, there are ways to create a sense that life is varied and vibrant.

Change up your consumables

One thing I’ve noticed during the pandemic is that many people seem to be craving color. The desire for vivid hues makes sense; color is energizing and can be powerful signals of change. Some of my Design a Joyful Home students have managed to procure paint online and transform their spaces even during the lockdown. But even if you can’t (or aren’t ready) for such a big change, you can still add a dose of brightness.

One of my favorite ways to do this is through consumables. Though we tend to use white candles, white soap, and white napkins, there’s no reason these frequently used items need to be so bland. Choose different colored candles for the dinner table each week, for example, and they become a physical marker of change. If you use cloth napkins, have two sets that you alternate when you do laundry. This strategy also allows you to use color with little risk: if you hate a particular color, no worries, it will be gone soon!

Create new memories

If time feels like it’s both dragging and simultaneously disappearing without you knowing where it went, then it might be worth looking at how you’re spending it. Have you gotten too comfortable in your routines?

As time and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam shared in a conversation I had with her last year, when we do the same thing over and over again, even if it’s pleasurable, our brains compress all those separate instances into one. It’s kind of a neurological space-saving trick: rather than storing each Netflix binge-watching session individually, the brain files them away in one slot, leaving you wondering where all that time went.

But if you focus on doing new things, the brain is forced to create a slot for each new memory. This makes time seem to expand. In effect, you get more memories for the same expenditure of time. So skip the TV one night and play a game instead. Work on a puzzle or a craft project, or tackle a new recipe. Or even just choose a new genre of movie to make the evening feel special. (I recently saw a family who draws out movie tickets and creates a “popcorn stand” in the kitchen to make movie night feel like an event. It doesn’t have to be this elaborate, but even a little creativity can go a long way in helping to carve out these new memories.)

Or take stock of the ones you’ve made already

When you feel like you aren’t making progress on the “big things” in life, it’s easy to look at a period of time and feel like not much has happened, especially at holidays or other key milestones. I remember feeling this way during one particularly tough year. I was single at the beginning, I was single at the end. I had vowed to write my book proposal that year, and I had barely written a word. That December, I was left wondering what had changed.

Then I decided to put my photos in order. As I started sorting through my camera roll to group my photos into albums, I noticed all these things that had happened that I had forgotten about. Dinner parties and weekend trips, books I’d read and people I’d met. It was a catalog of moments of joy that I had completely forgotten about. Photos are great for this, but so is a journal, or going back over your social media feeds if you post actively. Just scrolling through my camera roll made me appreciate how rich a life I had, and how even if I didn’t feel radically different, I’d had many smaller moments of growth without realizing it.

Don’t postpone joy

When we’re going through a period of struggle or difficulty, we may have a tendency to postpone joy. Sometimes this is conscious. We might feel guilty enjoying ourselves while others are suffering, or we might feel like we don’t deserve to experience joy right now. Many people have told me they feel this way during the current pandemic; joy might be available to them, but they find it hard to lean into it while thinking about healthcare workers and those who are facing unemployment and economic hardship. But it can also happen during personal crises. At a workshop I led last year, a woman told me that she had recently been divorced and lost her job, and felt like she needed to get back on her feet before she could really enjoy herself.

At other times, postponing joy happens unconsciously. For example, I know people who have left their homes half-decorated because they’re waiting for the right partner before they make big decisions. Others have put off trips they want to take because they feel silly taking them alone.

The problem with this is twofold. First, when we postpone joy, we miss out on an important opportunity, because joy is deeply connected to resilience. (More on that connection here.) And second, postponing joy only increases our sense of “stuckness” because it makes us feel like we’re waiting for something. Ironically, it’s often when we stop waiting and allow ourselves to find joy in our present circumstances, however difficult, that we become more open to new possibilities that help us get unstuck and move toward a better future.

Plan something to look forward to

While it might feel especially difficult in a time of uncertainty like the current crisis, planning for joy is more critical than ever. This is because anticipation strongly heightens our joy. According to psychologists, anticipation lets us “pre-enjoy” an experience, so that we end up gaining significantly more joy from it than if we had the same experience spontaneously. Having something to look forward to brings future joy into the present.

Planning for future joy also takes your mind off present worries. To invest in the future is an act of hope. It conveys faith, however small, that there’s more joy still ahead of you. I’ve felt this acutely lately, being pregnant in the midst of the pandemic. Though I read the headlines like everyone else, I also have to prepare a nursery, pick out baby clothes, and take parenting prep classes. Doing these things has brought incredible joy into this challenging time. Even amid sorrows, I have to keep believing in, and working toward, a more joyful future.

Yes, we don’t know exactly when we might be able to go back to restaurants, travel the world, or visit family again. But this doesn’t mean we can’t start imagining these things, and planning what we’ll do when it’s safe to alter our behavior. Maybe your future joy involves appreciating the people love with a joyous celebration. Or maybe it involves the savoring of a completely ordinary pleasure, one that you know now you’ll never take for granted again. Whatever it is, know that even if at this stage it’s just a daydream, it’s actually one of the most important things you can do to help yourself stay buoyant and hopeful until that joy comes back again.

What crisis like this one illuminates is that joy is not fixed. Though we might like to reach a steady state where joy is ever-present and unchanging, we’re wired to feel it rise and fall. We can’t always control when it comes back, nor what it will look like. But we can find small moments that reveal to us that even when we feel stuck, we’re actually still in motion. And even when we feel left behind by joy, in fact we’re really just at the very beginning of the next wave.

May 1st, 2020


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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Petra Schlitt on May 2, 2020

    Dear Ingrid, thank you for these beautiful reminders of finding joy.
    Did you know that in German there is a special phrase for the anticipatory pre-joy. It’s “Vorfreude”. There is also a saying which translates into “pre-joy is the best joy”.
    Warm wishes from Frankfurt, Germany

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on May 2, 2020

      I didn’t know this, but am so happy to discover it!! Thanks so much for sharing, Petra!!

  2. Isabel on May 2, 2020

    I follow you for some time now, got your book Joyful in presail and is one of the few “books of my life”…. for which I have to Thank You…. This post is very good, as usual, but what made me feel more Joy about it was to know that you will have a baby soon… Congratulations!! And what a lucky child she/he’ll bem (…my son is 5) Spoiler: your reasons of Joy will grow exponentially ,keep your diary very close ✨


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