Finding a New Normal: A PhD Student in a Covid Crisis: Clara Hynes (ESR 2)

It is just over six weeks since Northern Ireland began implementing lockdown measures in an effort to minimise the spread of Covid-19. Late to the party compared to the rest of Europe, it felt like we had a lot more time to prepare for what was coming, and yet finding a routine at home took much longer than I expected.

The way we live our lives changed dramatically in the space of a weekend. It was a bit surreal to think that only a few short days previously, we were still planning the trip to Madrid for training with the whole BioImplant consortium. The Madrid trip, like everything else, moved to the virtual world, and marked the first milestone in my new life in lockdown.

Abandoning the Plan, and Setting New Goals

In the first two weeks, everything felt a little disorganised and crazy. In the lead up to the lockdown and closure of the Universities in the UK, I felt like I was emailing my supervisors with a revised project plan on a daily basis. I knew on some level; I was never going to act on any of my plans, but it felt more productive than reading every news article about the rising Covid-19 numbers.

I made every effort to be proactive in the transition to at home working. There were weekly supervisory meetings, and the small group of Queen’s based ESRs, who were now spread across four different countries, arranged virtual coffee breaks to keep in touch. As a group we managed to keep in contact, and keep a level-head, but that was about the extent of it.

In reality, the first weeks were spent feeling around in the dark, repeating the same conversations over and over, reading the latest news updates, and staring blankly at the computer screen trying to come up with a plan for when this was all over, while ignoring the fact that we really didn’t know how or when this would end.

There comes a stage, when this all gets tiresome. I was beginning to slip into a bad sleeping pattern, anxiety over the unknown was growing, and the boredom was kicking in, as the days grew longer. I realised I had two options for getting through it. Either let the bad habits set in, pause and watch the world come to a screeching halt, hoping that when it all gets going again, I won’t be left scrambling to find my feet. The alternative was to become disciplined, enforce a structure, learn to do what is possible in the moment, and worry about the rest later. Rethink the way I usually do things and find a new normal.

An Action Plan for Keeping Productive

So what does a productive day in lockdown look like? For me, it was very rigid in some ways; structuring my day was essential. Getting dressed, eating breakfast, and getting to my desk at a regular, early time was the most important element in my mind. Once the day was started it was about maintaining the structure throughout the rest of the day, keeping to regular meal times and having structured break times, with well-defined start and end points. I was lucky that I had some pretty big PhD milestones coming up in April, that I needed to prepare reports and presentations for.

This made it easy for me to focus on completing a piece of work, but it did not mean that I was at the desk for many hours a day putting words to paper, ticking off tasks each day. The reality was that it was incredibly slow going.

It’s easy to forget all the little things we do in a day that take up our time. Travelling to and from work, getting a coffee down the street, a trip to the printer, or collecting a delivery, even just going up and down the stairs between the office and the lab. It’s all daily disruption that can seem like unproductive or wasted time. The reality is, it’s a big source of daily exercise, a buffer for the brain that keeps the head clear and focussed. It fosters productivity when back at the desk. Yet, we seem to deprive ourselves of it when we’re at home.

Getting outside every single day in some form or another became very important for me to keep my focus. Going for a walk or a cycle at the end of the day, or if the weather allowed, having coffee or lunch in the garden. Prioritising the need to escape the house over the need to complete a task by the end of the day (unless there is a deadline looming) is probably what’s getting me through it. I’d rather do an hour or two of work over the weekend, and finish earlier during the week in order to be able to spend quality time getting outside. This also helps the weekends go faster when there’s little else to do anyway. Its slow, but it comes together in the end.

I find it is important to be forgiving towards yourself for shifting your priorities. Structure and discipline are important, but so is taking extra time to make the daily activities less monotonous. Spending time to be creative with cooking, getting out and exploring nearby parks like you haven’t seen them before, taking time to read books or watch TV are all essential activities now. It gives my brain the change in stimulus it needs to stop a growing restlessness. It helps me keep on track with work, even when I perceive it to be less productive than usual.

At times, when really feeling drained, I think it’s important not to feel a pressure to write constantly. To allow some time to reflect and critically think about what it is I am trying to write. This helps my brain to join the dots between what I am reading, to change perspective and challenge what I thought I knew. For me the end result is often better than could have been achieved multitasking with the rest of my workload. It definitely changed my view of where my project is going.

Not Being ‘Busy’ but Still Feeling ‘Burnt Out’

A good routine got me through an important PhD milestone, and having that deadline really helped keep me focussed. A greater challenge for me has been the days following from that submission and presentation. We all experience periods of feeling burnt out, can’t quite focus, can’t get work done. It usually follows a period of high intensity, and long hours on a specific project, trying to get it over the line. The days that follow when the project is completed are usually a little wasted, not knowing where to start with something new, it takes a while to really get back into things. But burn out in quarantine hits very differently.

There’s a sense of fear that if you break from your everyday routine, you’ll never get back into it again. I couldn’t help feeling I didn’t deserve a break because I seemed to have been doing so much less than normal. But how do you stop the daily grind from bringing you down? How do you take time off and still have the discipline to get back to it? I spent about three days where I didn’t sit at my desk, I had a small, enjoyable piece of work to complete (this blog) which was dramatically different from my previous project. It was by anyone’s standards, the worst holiday ever. But it was different, the weather changed from warm and sunny to cold and wet, and I spent more time watching Netflix than I’m willing to admit.

What didn’t change was the structure of my day. I still got up at 8am, I still sat down to do work, and I still made sure I ate good, healthy foods at regular times, exercised daily and got enough sleep. Now, I am starting a new week, back at my desk with a fresh to do list, and new goals set. I don’t quite have the same energy I had at the start of the quarantine period, but I am spurred on by the prospect that restrictions might be eased soon and I might be able to get a decent coffee again.

So, How do we Slowly Transition Back to Normal Life?

That being said, once restrictions are eased, how do we balance a semi locked down structure? It might be even harder than simply working from home. It will take careful planning, time management and cross team communication. Anyone who has spent time in a lab will know that anything that can possibly go wrong, probably will, and the time you think you need there, will probably need to be doubled. My best thoughts when planning the return to work are; have a plan, know what tasks need to be completed before the next task can be started, set out approximate time frames for achieving things, and then… delete the dates.

It’s not that you shouldn’t try to work within time frames, it’s just that you have no control over the time frames you can work to right now. None of us can know how anything will pan out. It is going to be one of the most unpredictable periods. The plan will definitely go wrong at some point, but knowing your first step, and taking things as they come will ensure things stay on track… I hope!

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