The twelfth week of lockdown started badly for me. It seemed to mark a turning point for many people, with lofty ideas of everything going back to normal. This was not my experience, nor did it seem like a good idea. After three months of living in such a different way, I realise my thoughts need to turn to constructing a new normal.
At the beginning, amongst all the uncertainty that the pandemic brought with it, I said before how I thought I might be affected. I was pleasantly surprised at my adaptation to working remotely and being fairly productive. Several weeks later, that does still seem to be the case. My routine is established, I get work done, and I have more opportunity to exercise than I often need.
Reflecting on those past weeks, however, I think I have been trying to convince myself that I was OK when I was not. I am certainly set up for remote working, and in a much better way than many people are. But while this is fine in terms of infrastructure, my mental model is beginning to fail. I can catch myself thinking that this is only temporary and that a return to normality is coming. Even when I externally express views that I am content with this state of lockdown, and that I have no confidence in the early easing of the restrictions that has been occurring, unconsciously I still expect this to be over at a point in the near future. Therefore I am willing to continue the harsh work ethic of early starts and no breaks as though this is temporary. Despite the fact that I am then so wiped out by the afternoon that I can do very little, the idea of having so many hours of free time perpetuates this behaviour.
There are now signs of burnout that I’m willing to accept. At the same time, there are no signs that the previous way of working is due to return any time soon. Therefore, I must adapt.
It seems every day now that there is news about the relaxing of lockdown restrictions, shops opening again and people being happy to head out and act more normally. This should be good news – of course it should. But I can’t stand to hear it. Why is this? I can think of a few reasons:
- I think it’s too soon, that recent decisions have been taken for political reasons, to distract from poor behaviour at the government level rather than because of “the science” that is so often touted
- I am fearful of false hope; what if the dreaded second wave requires more robust lockdowns to be imposed?
- I know what my routine is, what the rules are, and am content to live in that way. The idea of more uncertainty as things change seems to cause an anxiety in me: what if I don’t know the latest guidance? What if someone else acts in the wrong way, or thinks I am acting in the wrong way?
Making the future
Regardless of the concerns above, my employer has been fantastic. It is clear that the approach the company is taking is one that puts our health and safety first. All of us who are able to work from home are still required to, and some form of that looks set to continue. With that in mind then, I need to turn my mind to improving my living and working environment to make it more sustainable.
Working to suit myself
During these days of light mornings, I am able to get up at 06:00 and can be working by 06:30. By working straight through I can be done by 14:30. But it is exhausting. By 16:00 I am often close to falling asleep.
Starting early suits me quite nicely. I find that by about 09:30 I have accomplished the majority of that day’s work. It feels great to have achieved so much. Unfortunately it can then go downhill a bit, and I suffer from a lack of focus and motivation.
Previously when I worked at home on the occasional day that I might be waiting for a delivery or because I had an appointment, that early morning would be taken up with a run. I would return feeling energised and in a great mood most of the time. I have thought of doing that these days, but the overwhelming desire seems to be to finish work as early as possible; the idea being, I suppose, that I can run once I’ve finished and still have an evening. Well that seems to have failed a lot of the time. As I finish work in the early afternoon I usually have very little desire to exercise, and this persists until the evening. The result? A lost afternoon filled with nothingness and an evening taken up with exercise.
Perhaps I could try to block my time in a different way. I could still start work early but perhaps go for a run after that initial block of productive work. Getting back to the desk after an hour to clear my head may prove to be a good thing.
Acknowledging different types of work
A big part of my role is reviewing the work of others. Often this leads to long periods of time where I am not busy before a surge of activity is required near a deadline. Working in the surge is easy – with a lot to do I can just focus and get it all done. The problem comes in quiet periods. I still need to be available to support queries and provide some sort of leadership and management, but I can’t just sit there all day in case someone emails me.
I have tried to make the most of this downtime by learning and developing. For example, I have been diving into the idea of model-based systems engineering and it poses some very interesting questions for me to think about. The other example is spending more time researching our markets and making the most of the company’s subscription to Janes.
The problem I have with spending my time in different ways comes from feeling guilty that I’m not “working”. Regardless of the fact that I’m only doing these other activities when my workload has dropped off, it feels like I should be doing something else. I think all I can do about this is remind myself that I am diligent when it comes to work, and trust that those different activities all contribute to my professional development, which benefit the company just as much as me.
Embracing the new freedoms on my own terms
It’s clear that I feel anxious about shops reopening and that many people who flock to them might be less cautious about the whole situation than I think they should be. On the other hand, there are also people who are much more cautious than me, so should acknowledge that I am already not completely risk-averse.
Despite restrictions being eased I don’t need to feel compelled to act on them; just because a bookshop is now able to open doesn’t mean I must rush out and browse the shelves. What I can do, however, is make use of the changes when I feel comfortable doing so. In my case this might involve heading outside more than once a day. Another step I could take to improve my current way of living is to visit the supermarket more than once a week. These changes don’t need to be drastic, but they will help me adapt gradually and feel better about doing so.
To be honest, I struggled to include this topic. As an introverted person used to working with other introverts, the ideas often suggested for maintaining good team bonding while being remote just don’t stick with me. With few exceptions, I can be quite happy communicating by email and chat. The idea of having a teleconference coffee break, or other such casual activities just don’t seem desirable. Yet so much of what I read about remote working recommends over-communicating. All I can really do here is to try to increase the amount I communicate and hope to see a benefit. Time will tell…
Ditch the idea of work-life balance
The classic idea of work-life balance suggests that the two live apart, that you stop doing one to start the other. This didn’t work for me even before the turmoil of the last few months. My mind doesn’t separate those two aspects of my life cleanly at all. I can catch myself thinking about work when I’m not at work, or thinking about my home life when I’m working.
Perhaps the idea of balance is more about quantity of time rather than having distinct work and life compartments, but I still find the two to be incredibly interwoven; I couldn’t have an enjoyable personal life if I hated my job, and personal pressures affect my professional life too.
The idea of work-life blending came up in a recent episode of Brain Science from the Changelog podcast. The premise seems to be more about working out how different parts of your life fit together, rather than trying to achieve an even split between those things known as “work” and “life”. I need to read more into the topic, but it seems to make sense, as does something else that was mentioned in the podcast: the idea that rather than a balance between work and life, it’s more actually managing work, life, family and play that’s important.
Reframing the idea of what parts of my day are important and how and when they fit together is something I will work on.
After treating the pandemic work routine as a kind of surge for a while now, I’ve started to take stock of the situation and know I need to change some aspects of how I work and live. Fortunately a lot of this is within my control.
- I can make steps to work smarter and not beat myself up at how I make the best use of my work time
- I can choose when I feel ready to take the tentative steps to benefit from some restrictions being lifted
- I will try to become more aware of what works for me in terms of blending work, life, family and leisure
- Finally, I might even try to actively communicate more!