How I stayed productive and upbeat during Week 1 of coronavirus lockdown

When the UK coronavirus lockdown was first announced, I thought life was going to become a nightmare. I panicked inside at the thought of being confined to my apartment all day, every day. I didn’t know how I could stay productive and maintain a good mood when forced into my own company around the clock. Although under normal circumstances I often work from home, I like the ability to switch things up by working from cafes and co-working spaces.

As an avid gym goer and outdoor runner, I also worried about losing the mental boost of exercise. I was nervous about maintaining my healthy eating patterns, due to the effects of panic buying and shopping restrictions at my local supermarkets. I feared every day would just blend into one big mass of nothingness and that I’d end up staying in bed all day feeling sorry for myself.

One week later, I’m happy to report that none of this actually happened. In fact, I had one of my most productive weeks ever. I tried out a new way of working, one that I was initially sceptical of. But it was superb. I also adopted some new habits and reinforced some old ones that I’d let fall by the wayside.

In sum, this resulted in a working week during which I kept on track with my goals, stayed healthy, and maintained a positive attitude; all while discovering some new things that revolutionised my working life and which I plan to keep using far into the future. I’d like to share them here in the hope that others will find them useful.

Lockdown Work Routine

Video Co-working 

The idea of this freaked me out a bit at first. An entire day on video with other people, some of them strangers. Wouldn’t it be awkward? What if I looked weird or accidentally did something weird while on the video? But video co-working was where pushing myself out of my comfort zone really paid off. 

It worked like this. A group of friends, all digital nomads based in the same time zone (either the UK or Portugal), invited me to join their daily video co-working sessions. We used Discord, because it works well with multiple screens and gives a smooth experience without dropping or delays. Zoom would be a good alternative.

Every day at 8:50 am, we each went to our desks, fired up Discord and our webcams, and interacted just as we would in a physical office. After having coffee and a little small talk, we launched into the working day at 9 am sharp. We followed the work cycle pattern of 8 x 50 minute focused work sessions with 10 minute breaks after each one. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

I underestimated the value of having colleagues working alongside me, even by video. They gave me a huge amount of motivation and kept me accountable. For anyone who feels awkward about being on screen, you can do what I did and shut down your microphone and camera while you do each 50 minute work cycle. In the end, most of our team did it this way.

Work Cycles

Created by the team at Ultraworking, work cycles are similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which you may have heard of before. The basic idea is having a set time period to do focused work, followed by a short break. You then repeat these cycles until the end of the working day. We used cycles of 50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break, but you can adjust the parameters however you like. We found that 50 minutes was a good amount of time to get into a flow state.

Work cycles have one particular feature that makes a huge difference: each cycle gets recorded on a spreadsheet. For me, this is the driving force behind the whole concept. It allows you to set objectives (both for the week and for each cycle) track your progress and reflect on any distractions. You can also define areas for improvement, and track your energy and morale levels for each cycle.

It’s very satisfying to look back on your workday and see how you progressed. You can spot distraction patterns and figure out how to tackle them. Social media is a massive one for me. During each 50 minute cycle, I keep my phone on airplane mode and use the Freedom app to block browser distractions on my laptop.

Seven Minute Workout

We decided to bring in a mid morning energy boost, where we worked out together in front of our webcams. We wanted something short but energetic, so this seven minute workout was a perfect choice. It’s all bodyweight exercises with no equipment necessary, although you might want to use a mat for the sit ups and push ups.

Many apps do the same job as the video. I loved doing this workout. Not only did it really help with boosting energy after the effects of the morning coffee had worn off, but it also brought a deeper sense of camaraderie to our team. You could extend the concept to other forms of exercise, particularly yoga.


Lockdown Lifestyle Habits

I also adopted a couple of new habits that helped reinforce the benefits of work cycles. There’s nothing new here; they’re all things I’ve been trying (and failing) to maintain for years. But the lockdown has given me an extra incentive to lock in good habits, just to stay afloat.

Meditation, Yoga, Coffee

I began waking up at 6 am and starting my day with a short meditation followed by a short yoga practice. Combined, these take just 15 minutes. I use this guided breathing meditation by Jack Kornfield, on the Insight Timer app, and the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene. Here are the specific videos I’ve been using (but she has loads more): 

I follow these up with a cup of bullet-proof coffee and pen-to-paper journalling. I write about my intentions for the day, or just random reflections on how I’m feeling under lockdown. Sometimes I try a gratitude list. I go for bullet-proof coffee (with cacao butter and coconut oil) because I’m normally quite caffeine sensitive. In fact, I’ve been off coffee for many months. But the extra fats seem to reduce the effects of caffeine so I don’t get that immediate spike. I enjoy the coffee routine and I’m going to maintain it at least during lockdown (after which I might go caffeine-free again). NB, I don’t add all the fancy ingredients used in the above video. I just make normal coffee with my Aeropress, then add a little oat milk, a teaspoon of cacao butter and a teaspoon of coconut oil. Then I blitz them up in my blender.

Diet, Exercise, Sleep

After the coffee, I make a large dark green smoothie. It normally includes a banana, oat milk, kale and spinach, spirulina, blueberries, frozen avocado, a kiwifruit, pumpkin seeds or walnuts, and two scoops of hemp protein powder. I drink it at my desk as I start each day of video co-working.

Under the lockdown we’re allowed to take one form of outdoor exercise per day. I normally go out in the evening when it’s dark so that I’m less likely to encounter people. I do either a 5km run or a similar length walk around the city. In normal life, I do strength training with barbells three times a week. The closing down of gyms was one of my biggest concerns, but I’ve managed to replace the weights with a resistance band routine. If you like strength training, I highly recommend getting some of these bands. You can do practically any weight-based exercise using bands of varying strengths in different permutations. Here’s a video from Barbarian Body, with lots of good substitutes for things like squat and overheard press.

Sleep is important for maintaining immunity, so I try to get to bed relatively early each evening. 10.30 is my usual target time. I switch off my phone and computer an hour beforehand. I only use my old Kindle, which doesn’t have a back light and is more or less like a physical book. I wear industrial strength ear plugs and a blackout eye mask, to keep all possible disruptions at bay.


These are the habits and routines that have kept me afloat during the first week of lockdown. Of course, everyone has different life patterns and responsibilities. Many of us have kids, pets, or sick relatives to take care of, or jobs that don’t easily convert to being done online.

What’s more, we all cope with the huge change in vastly different ways. It’s ok to have off days or not to be productive at all. I had a couple of bad days at the beginning, when I descended into a spiral of panic-checking social media, or spent hours mindlessly staring at YouTube. Even now, the urge to do this still appears from time to time.

I hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others. I’d love to hear what sort of routines and habits other people are using. Most importantly, I wish everyone continued good health during these challenging times. 


Tribalism in the time of coronavirus

As I write this, the world has descended into a major crisis, with effects more far-reaching than anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. A powerful virus has swept onto the scene and is now ripping its way through the world. Barely any country has been spared.

Here in the UK, the coronavirus crisis is getting worse by the day. But merely observing the city streets on this sunny spring Sunday would give no indication of the gravity of the situation. Indeed, some UK tourist spots, notably Snowdon, experienced their ‘busiest day in living memory’. That’s quite something at a time when a highly contagious virus is on the loose.

In contrast, the streets of Paris, Lisbon and Barcelona are deserted. Most EU countries have issued a decisive response, putting their populations under strict lockdown to try and curb the spread of the virus. The UK government hasn’t followed suit.

Britain is lumbered with the worst possible leadership in a time of such crisis. There have already been many deaths. Amid the frenzied warnings from other countries, tribalism, rooted in the impulses that drove Brexit, still bisects British society — even influencing how we perceive the choice between life and health, or possible death. 

Brexit tribalism could be seen as a barometer for who will approve or disapprove of Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus situation. No scientific study has yet been conducted to prove or disprove this, but research from Cambridge has shown that Leave (and Trump) voters have a strong tendency to believe conspiracy theories.

So if I may hypothesise for a moment, it would go as follows.

Those who believe Johnson is doing well and don’t believe in the necessity of self isolation — more likely to be Leave voters. Those who believe Johnson is doing the wrong thing and we should follow the majority of the EU (and the world) into lockdown — more likely to be Remain voters. 

I can’t help but wonder if these divided attitudes are linked to the government’s aggressively anti-EU narrative. Could it possibly be that our leaders are reluctant to implement lockdown because it would mean them falling into line with the EU? The British government can’t possibly be seen to do that. On the contrary, it must do the exact opposite. After all, there’s a voter base to keep happy.

This tribal stance has filtered down to the population. People’s cavalier real-life behaviour at a critical juncture risks the health and safety of us all.

We’ve gone beyond Brexit concerns now. Freedom of movement is no longer the most important thing at stake. Continued tribal attitudes in the UK could now lead to significant numbers of deaths. The reckoning has arrived. No matter what side of the political spectrum we’re on, we must ensure that tribalism does not cloud our actions on tackling the virus, as the New European so rightly points out.

There’s another factor influencing public opinion around coronavirus: online disinformation. It’s been a key part of turbocharging existing tribal divisions.

Based on my research so far, I’ve seen the following positions solidifying into recurring narratives. Many are from sources that originate in the United States, but the shared language and overlapping ideologies mean they can mostly be considered as UK-relevant too.  

Narratives primarily from conservative/right-wing/pro-Leave sources:

  • The coronavirus is a hoax used as a smokescreen for elites to take control of society
  • It’s no worse than the flu, so there’s no need to believe WHO or UN advice (in fact we shouldn’t trust them because they may be part of the elite conspiracy)
  • Social distancing is unnecessary / too extreme
  • China is to blame for all this. To quote Trump, coronavirus is ‘the Chinese virus’ 

Narratives primarily from liberal/left-wing/centrist/pro-Remain sources:

  • The coronavirus is real, serious, and affects everyone 
  • It can’t be compared to flu
  • We should trust advice from WHO/UN and other legitimate experts
  • Social distancing and possibly lockdown is necessary to save lives across the wider population. 

Most of the disinformation that I’ve observed so far plays on the core narrative strands in the first group. People targeted by these narratives might well be less likely to take the virus seriously and more likely to carry on with a semblance of normal life, thus continuing the pandemic. This unhelpful behaviour is exacerbated by the population spending more time at home and hence online, seeking out constant updates on this critical global threat.

In the next post, I will unravel the coronavirus disinformation narratives in more detail, providing data-driven examples. It’s critical to understand the why behind the seeding of this disinformation, so I’ll also discuss the various incentives that are driving it.

Social Proof and How to Game It

Every day, countless online sources compete for our attention. To avoid information overload and possible burnout, it’s essential to zero in on the important parts and sort them into categories that make sense. But how do we know which parts are important?

The human brain uses many shortcuts to understand the complex world around us. With social proof, we use the approval of others as a shortcut. We evaluate the significance and quality of a piece of information based on how many other people like it.

Social proof is part of the psychology of persuasion, used to great effect by marketers and PR specialists. We rely on it all the time when making consumer decisions. On Amazon, for example, customer reviews are a shortcut to guide us when choosing between a large number of possible products to purchase. A quick glance at the reviews allows us to avoid wasting time and energy conducting our own research on various products.

We also rely on social proof when judging the importance of a message on social media. Almost instinctively, we tend to evaluate a post with many likes or shares more favourably. We assume a lot of other people have already approved of it, so we’re happy to jump on the bandwagon.

But relying too heavily on these shortcuts may leave us vulnerable to the risk of them being manipulated.

How Social Proof is Gamed Online

Social engagement

It’s easy to convey social proof on social media. Liking, favouriting or upvoting is the quickest and most basic form of online social proof. When we see a post with lots of likes, we instinctually view that information as important. The act of online sharing also taps into social proof. If other people believe a post is worth sharing, then it must be of value. We may decide to share it too. This is bad news for disinformation.

Hackers break into Sony Music account and tweet falsely about death of Britney Spears

But online likes and shares are also pretty easy to game. On Twitter, for example, a few lines of code can produce a bot that can automatically favourite a tweet containing a particular keyword (which can be anything). A large network of automated accounts can then mass favourite (or mass retweet) any tweet, giving it a false appearance of significance, via artificial social proof.

Another way to convey social proof is via the user profile itself. Twitter is the most obvious example of this. We perceive users with more followers as being more important than those with fewer followers. The followers provide social proof, like an exclusive club.

On the other hand, if an account has a lot of friends (accounts it has followed) but few followers, the social proof effect is diminished. Again, automated accounts can be used to game this. By mass following an account and then following each other back, they maintain the illusion of that account being popular.

Amazon reviews

Gaming social proof online isn’t only confined to social media. It happens across the web, in areas such as online shopping. Take Amazon. It has hundreds of options for anything we want to buy. So how do we know which ones are worth buying? We rely on the ratings and reviews from other buyers.

Ratings and reviews are a form of social proof for products, acting as an essential shortcut for navigating through the mass of available options. You can even filter search results by the number of rating stars each product has gained. Ratings directly affect the seller’s bottom line. For Amazon’s third-party sellers, ratings can make or break their business.

This random product has great ratings. It looks enticing, but how many are actually genuine?

This is prime territory for gaming. And Amazon’s fake review economy is massive and growing.

Trending topics

Trending topics are another major area where social proof holds sway. The trending topics list shows whatever keywords or hashtags are being most widely tweeted at any point in time. Whenever big news breaks – such as a terrorist attack, plane crash or celebrity death – it usually appears immediately in Twitter’s trending topics, often before the mainstream media can produce coverage.

There’s a strong incentive to game trending topics. For individual tweeters, tweeting using a keyword or hashtag from the trending list makes their tweet more visible. It’s common to see Twitter accounts for brands performing ‘hashtag-jacking’ (or ‘trendjacking’), where the trending hashtag is shoehorned into the tweet to get it in front of a larger audience. Hashtag-jacking can be done skilfully, if the hashtag is relevant to the brand, but it tends to be the domain of spammers.

This is gaming trending topics on a relatively small scale. But things get more insidious when bot armies are involved. Here, a large number of artificial accounts, perhaps controlled by just one person (the ‘bot herder’), tweet coordinated messages around the same hashtag. Done properly, this can push the hashtag into the trending topics list, where human users will engage with it, giving it further mileage. It’s an effective way to mainline disinformation. The holy grail is to get the false story picked up in the mainstream media. With so many journalists using Twitter to find potential stories, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Google search results

Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at the effects of social proof in Google search results. When searching for something, most internet users don’t click beyond beyond the first page of Google. So the higher your link shows up, the more likely it is to be influential. SEO experts make a lot of money out of getting client links onto the first page of Google results. What’s more, links that show up higher are considered more trustworthy.

Google’s PageRank algorithms work in mysterious ways. The company is constantly adapting to make them harder to manipulate. But it’s still possible to game Google search. For example, reputation management companies create a slew of positive content to help clients push negative articles off the first page of Google.

This happens in politics too. In the run-up to the UK’s general election of 2019, people speculated that Boris Johnson’s campaign team may have gamed Google by seeding bizarre stories about him to make negative coverage less prominent in searches. In 2016, extremist websites manipulated Google search to make their hate filled propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, rank highly in search. Although Google later fixed this, savvy disinformation purveyors can still find ways to leverage its power to deceive vast chunks of the population.

Key takeaways

Social proof matters because it’s both a cornerstone of how we navigate the online environment and a prime target for manipulation. It’s not just confined to social media but used all over the internet, from Amazon reviews to Twitter trends. Even Google search results, which many people trust more than social media, can be gamed.

Reputation Risk: When Disinformation Attacks Brands

We hear a lot about disinformation in politics, but what happens when similar techniques are used to target brands? Coordinated disinformation campaigns can devastate a brand’s reputation. In 2019, 78% of US consumers said that disinformation would cause them to lose trust in a brand (according to research from New Knowledge).

As well as trust, disinformation can cause brands to lose business. In the same survey, 40% of consumers said they’d either boycott or stop doing business with the brand or switch over to a competitor. Combined with the risk of long-term reputation damage, these figures highlight just how vulnerable brands can be to disinformation.

Ideology and Pranks

Those who attack the reputation of brands do it for a variety of reasons. It may be an ideological crusade against a brand whose values clash with those of the attacker.

For example, in 2017, a 4chan user launched a disinformation campaign, known as ‘Dreamer Day’, which offered illegal immigrants a 40% discount at their local Starbucks. The campaign had its own hashtag #borderfreecoffee, plus a realistic looking ad designed by other 4chan users. But the campaign objective was simply to lure immigrants out in public and then report them to the police. The 4chan trolls chose to target Starbucks because of its perceived liberal brand values, which were antithetic to their own.

In the UK, an Indian restaurant lost half its revenue after it became the target of disinformation. In this case, attackers posted a fake article online claiming that the restaurant used human meat in its dishes. The story hit Twitter and Facebook where it quickly gained traction. The restaurant was subjected to abusive phone calls and online harassment, and lost many bookings as a result. The motive for the disinformation was unclear, but it was likely a prank, done just for the ‘lols’.

The Quest for Profit

Just as with political disinformation, some attackers target brands for the sake of ideology, while others do it for entertainment value. Still others do it purely for the sake of making money.

In politics, disinformation for profit has primarily been studied in the arena of online advertising. Here, people create websites full of junk political news and disinformation, then promote them on social media. They know that divisive, emotionally triggering content attracts more clicks and hence more money. By loading the sites with ads, their creators can make a big profit from disinformation.

Disinformation for profit can also be aimed at brands. In this situation, one of the most common ways to make money is via the stock market. Fake articles that are given enough traction on social media can crash or skyrocket the value of a company’s stocks. Manipulating the process gives the attacker a prime opportunity to cash in on these artificial shifts.

And the problem is set to get worse. Many investment firms now rely on algorithms to scan news articles, press releases and social media for keywords to help them make investment decisions. Gaming this system is potentially easy to do, simply by creating fake accounts and fake content stuffed with keywords that get picked up by the algorithms.

Disinformation can also be used to make profit by manipulating the online review ecosystem. This tactic could easily be leveraged by unscrupulous brands to get an unfair advantage over their competitors.

It’s easy and cheap to hire firms that specialise in writing convincing fake reviews, on sites like Amazon, TripAdvisor or even on Google itself. With so many consumers now relying on reviews to make buying decisions, a sustained campaign of fake ones can devastate a brand’s reputation.

How brands can protect themselves

In a world where disinformation is prevalent, brands don’t have to be sitting ducks. As a brand manager, you can’t stop someone launching a disinformation campaign against your brand, but you can certainly fight back.

The first step involves arming yourself with knowledge about the extent of the disinformation. That involves finding answers to key questions about what’s being said, where it’s being said, and what sort of people are saying it. Who is the campaign most likely to influence? Will it reach the eyes of your key target audiences, or is it confined to less relevant groups and/or geographic areas? Once you have the answers, you can start to craft a crisis plan or reputation management strategy.

But it’s easy to feel lost among the masses of data out there. That’s why brand managers not only need the right tools, but also the right experts to interpret the data and provide actionable insights.

In a follow-up post, I’ll present some case studies about brands targeted by disinformation and discuss in more detail about how they fought back.

5 Ways Our Minds Make Us Susceptible to Online Disinformation

In our fast-moving online world, even the most aware of us can be taken in by disinformation. As humans, our minds work in certain ways that can leave us vulnerable to deception – and no-one is immune.

Our perceptions are not as reliable as we might like to imagine, and the online environment amplifies these flaws. In this post, I’ll discuss five important psychological traits that affect how we process information and subsequently affect our behaviour online.

Confirmation Bias

Search engines give us access to all the world’s information simply by typing a few words into a search bar.

But thanks to confirmation bias, people tend to search only for information that reinforces their beliefs. Even if what they find is disinformation, confirmation bias makes them less likely to question its veracity.

For example, take someone who already dislikes Donald Trump. They might search Google for “why is Trump still president?” This produces a slew of articles critical of Trump, feeding into the person’s existing beliefs. It’s a vulnerable moment during which disinformation can easily permeate.

Social Proof

The term ‘social proof’ was first used by Robert Cialdini in his seminal marketing book, Influence. It’s a way of building trust in a person, a product or a message, by demonstrating that many people approve of it. The bandwagon effect is the motivating force driving social proof. It dictates that if something seems popular, people will feel compelled to join in.

Social proof is especially important in today’s environment of information overload. With so many options available to us, we need a shortcut to help us cut through the noise and determine which ones to trust.

For marketers, social proof is an essential tool. But it’s also a powerful weapon in the arsenal of disinformation. Bots play a major role in building social proof around certain messages, including false ones. Liking, sharing and replying to these messages creates an illusion of widespread approval, which attracts more people to trust them. This may snowball, causing the message to go viral.

There’s a lot more to say about the role of social proof in disinformation. I’ll explore it in more detail in a follow up post. For now, remember that online popularity can easily be faked, and isn’t always a reliable indicator of grassroots public opinion.

False Consensus Effect

We all like to think that our beliefs, preferences, values and habits are widely shared, even though this may not be so. This overestimation is known as the false consensus effect. It relates to our self-esteem and the desire to conform as part of a social group, meaning we need to fit in.

Online, the false consensus effect is amplified in two main ways: 1) by means of algorithms that show us opinions reflecting our own (filter bubble effect), and 2) our habit of engaging only with others who support our views (echo chamber effect).

Disinformation that taps into the false consensus effect can find a fertile environment to take root, grow and mutate. Social media helps this happen. No matter how wedded you are to a certain view, always keep in mind that other people might think very differently.

Tribalism

Humans are social animals, so gaining the approval of a likeminded group is important for boosting our self-esteem. We reinforce this sense of self-esteem by behaving in ways that favour our own group (known as the in-group).

For example, we might post on social media about the positive traits of our in-group. This is relatively harmless in itself. But every in-group needs an out-group. Where there’s in-group loyalty there may also be out-group derogation – negative attitudes and behaviour towards the out-group. This conflict between groups of all kinds can be referred to as tribalism.

In emotive issues like politics, which tap into aspects of people’s identities, tribalism can morph into a force of dangerous power. Violence can easily follow; indeed, tribalism is at the root of most human conflicts.

Disinformation leverages the human tendency for tribalism by creating and disseminating adversarial narratives. These inflame existing divisions, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’. We can observe many cases of this in recent political events.

Examples include Trump supporters vs Clinton supporters in the US, Leavers vs Remainers in the UK, Muslims vs Buddhists in Myanmar, Han fans vs Tsai fans in Taiwan’s recent presidential election.

Backfire Effect

You might expect people would stop believing in disinformation if they are told it’s untrue. This seems logical, but human psychology doesn’t always work that way. The root of the problem is found (once again) in our self-esteem.

When certain beliefs become embedded in our worldview, they also become part of our identity. If one of those beliefs is challenged, it’s as if someone is shaking up the very foundations of that identity.

Challenges to our identity can be psychologically painful. In response, we may cling tighter to the original belief, making it even stronger. The attempt to correct backfires, so this process is known as the backfire effect.

Key Takeaways

  • Human psychology makes us susceptible to disinformation
  • In a world of information overload, we seek shortcuts to help us navigate. But these can be gamed, such as social proof
  • Much of online behaviour has its roots in aspects of self-esteem and identity
  • Simply ‘debunking’ disinformation may not be effective, because of the backfire effect
  • Adversarial narratives are a common feature of disinformation, found in many situations worldwide. They can lead to tribalism, which risks real-life violence