How I Learned to Make Banana Bread Out of a Pandemic

Using productivity as a coping mechanism and turning obstacles into opportunities

Piyaset/ Shutterstock
Piyaset/ Shutterstock

The start of the quarantine saw spikes in Internet searches for recipes and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, and the social media posts filled with those creations, notably banana bread. 1 The first Banana bread recipes in cookbooks date back to the 1930’s, during the Great Depression when food scarcity prompted creative repurposing of ingredients like overly ripe bananas that previously would have been thrown away.2 In our global crisis of modern times, the banana bread resurgence might have arisen literally from a sudden abundance of overly ripe bananas with the stockpiling of groceries amid news of shelter-in-place orders. On a deeper level, it might reflect the unfamiliar abundance of another more rare resource – time…

For many, the frustration and challenge of coping with the pandemic and quarantine stems largely from a complete lack of control over the situation and with it our sense of purpose and self-determination. We know that happiness makes people more productive.3 The reverse is also true – productivity makes people happy. Completing a task, scratching items off a do-list, triggers the release of dopamine, the signaling molecule in the brain linked with motivation and feelings of satisfaction and reward.4 As our team consulted on the phone, Boston shut down for the quarantine and our normal avenues for this were gone. So we had to find ways to stay useful and productive in uncertain times.

Making banana bread became a tradition and symbol of this strange time period for our society because it’s figuratively a form of adapting and repurposing our time to be fruitful in a chaotic situation and in doing so, helping ourselves cope with it.  If we can still manage to produce and create, we can look back on this time with consolation, reframed as a period of growth with tangible fruits of our labor: our own forms of “banana bread.”

Here are 3 ways our team learned to “Make Banana Bread” out of this situation:

1. Reframe Obstacles into Opportunity:  Find Your “Boldino Autumn”

The proverb of taking lemons and making lemonade and the metaphor of banana bread arise from a principle in psychology called “cognitive reframing,” where we change the way we view a situation in order to be constructive and make the most of it. 5 In the case of quarantine, circumstances limit us in achieving certain goals, causing frustration at our lack of control and accomplishment. So we adjust our thinking. We see the constraints toward some goals as the opportunity to focus on others or new methods of accomplishing them suited to these particular conditions. We consider tasks that are done best while stuck at home, alone, for large blocks of uninterrupted time.  Isn’t that what we had claimed to wish for in our pre-pandemic world of unlimited distractions – some uninterrupted time to pull a certain project off the backburner and blow the dust off of it?

It’s not the first time that people have faced quarantine or figured out how to make it work for them. During the cholera outbreak of the 1830’s, the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin wrote so many works while he was stuck in quarantine in the village of Boldino that the Fall he spent there became its own figure of speech in the Russian language. The phrase “Boldino Autumn” came to mean an extremely productive period spent in isolation. 

As our team brainstormed on the phone for what goals we could accomplish in isolation, our medical student Samara Pollock chimed in, “What about the patient education books we had started writing and the project with our colleagues in other countries?”  Sami was right. These particular projects had previously been held up because of our colleagues’ conflicting schedules, across different countries and time zones. Now with so many working from home (including doctors who switched to telemedicine), we could finally set up Zoom calls, work together on our computers and make those projects work. A few months later, we had finished two projects and written three books, and found our team’s version of a “Boldino Autumn.”

2. Create Structure, Timelines and Micro-goals: Learn from Chinese Proverbs and Economists

When it comes to productivity, two concepts emerge time again:  Lao Tzu’s proverb that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and “Parkinson’s Law” that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 7 In the century since Parkinson wrote and 2,500 years since Lao Tzu lived, some principles haven’t changed. We are still intimidated by large tasks and run the risk of making them even more time-consuming if we do not actively create structure for ourselves. The answer? Micro-goals and deadlines. 

Through micro-goals, we break a seemingly daunting task of “a thousand miles” into a series of smaller and more achievable steps in that “journey.” As we complete each small task, dopamine release in the brain gives a sense of accomplishment and propels us forward toward the larger goal. 2 The same principle of tracking progress through smaller achievable steps pervades successful programs of behavioral change, from quitting smoking to weight loss. 8

Deadlines, as Parkinson points out, are actually vital because we take as much time as we give ourselves. According to biographers, Thomas Edison would announce some of his ideas as “discoveries” to the Press before he had even finished inventing them so that it would force him to deliver quickly or else lose face. 9 Through this type of self-imposed deadline, he motivated himself to complete his inventions. For the rest of us mortals, we can strive to be realistic while still pushing ourselves to be ambitious in our deadlines.

3. Unite a Team Around a Shared Goal: Use Fitness App Psychology

I recently saw for the first time in months a colleague who looked healthier than ever and shared that he lost 30 pounds during the quarantine (while the rest of us were making banana bread…). When I asked his secret, he credited an app allowing him and his friends to track their exercise together and motivate each other to work out. Group motivation, another major pillar of behavioral change seen in fitness programs and communities, now holds even more relevance during this time of relative social isolation. For our team, we made special efforts to be inclusive in our research projects, in some cases actually asking the editors of scientific journals for permission to add more co-authors on our publications than the journal would normally allow. As a result of being inclusive, we completed more projects together in the end by sharing the work and also stayed connected with more of our colleagues. It helped us succeed and become closer as people.  

By the way, since I was also baking this entire time, here’s my Banana Bread recipe. Enjoy…

Shadi’s Persian-Inspired Banana Bread Recipe with Orange Saffron Glaze

For the Loaf:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 ½  cups sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 sticks of butter softened (or 1 cup cooking oil)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 3-4 very ripe bananas
  • 1 cup walnuts (optional)
  • Pinch of salt

Mix mashed bananas, sugar and butter. Mix eggs, vanilla extract and almond extract, and add to mixture. Mix flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom and add to mixture. Coat loaf pan with butter or baking spray. Pour in batter. Bake at 350F for 40-50 minutes, then reduce to 200F and continue baking if needed.

For the Glaze

  • 1 ½ cups (150 grams) powdered sugar
  • 3-4 tablespoons milk or water (45-60 mL)
  • 2 teaspoons (10 mL) orange extract or juice (may add orange zest)
  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads (optional)

Mix extract into milk (or water) and slowly pour into sugar while mixing until smooth. If using saffron, grind saffron threads finely into cup and pour 1-2 tablespoons boiling water over it until the water is infused with the spice and then add to Mixture. Pour over loaf.

References:

  1. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=%2Fm%2F04cym9&geo=US
  2. Ames, Mary Ellis (1933). “1 – Breads”. Balanced Recipes. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Pillsbury Flour Mills Company. p. 3.
  3. Achor S. Positive intelligence. Harv Bus Rev. 2012 Jan-Feb;90(1-2):100-2, 153. PMID: 22299509
  4. Lapis, P. From alarm to calm: From the chief of chaos to the custodian of calm in three steps. Ethos: Official Publication of the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory Issue 245 (Sep 2017)
  5. Robson Jr, James P; Troutman-Jordan, Meredith (2014). “A Concept Analysis of Cognitive Reframing” (PDF). Journal of Theory Construction and Testing. 18(2).
  6. https://www.rbth.com/history/331903-what-great-russians-did-in-isolation
  7. Parkinson, Cyril Northcote (19 November 1955). “Parkinson’s Law”. The Economist. London.
  8. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269215508101741
  9. Landrum, G. N. (2009). Eight Keys to Greatness. United States: Prometheus.
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