As we approach the halfway point of the UK’s second lockdown, EDIT Lab members Ellen and Jess reflect on the strategies that have and haven’t worked for them while working from home in 2020.
Shortly after lockdown commenced in March 2020, we received an email from our Head of Department which outlined a clear message about how we should view the coming period. The message was simple:
“You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis, trying to work” (Cathryn Lewis, 03/04/2020).
This important sentiment was something that helped us greatly as we transitioned into our strange, new working world.
As we approached the second lockdown at the start of November, an incredibly useful article by the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘How to “actually” save time while working remotely’, was similarly circulated around our department. After reading this, we were inspired to share our lessons learned in maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and here we propose four healthy working behaviours to take forward into lockdown 2.0.
Top tip 1: Jess’ goal setting
When I think back to the lockdown 1.0 all those many months ago, the following comes to mind: professional-looking sourdough breads popping onto my instagram feed, 30-day yoga challenges, and impressive (and daunting) half-marathon PBs plastered all over Strava. It seemed like everyone was on a mighty mission of self improvement. Or were they? Whilst slumped on my sofa at home, with only a glimpse into the lockdown lives of others through my phone screen, it appeared that everyone was up to something new and exciting. The many hours saved by ridding our daily routines of commuting does present us with the opportunity to take up the hobbies we’d always wanted to try. However, even with this extra time afforded to us, research by the Harvard Business Review suggested that many people failed to achieve everything they’d hoped and dreamed they would during their lockdown lives.
For me, a much-needed realisation has been that setting myself unachievable goals only left me feeling disappointed rather than fulfilled. Being locked down, spending hours and hours indoors each day, plays havoc with our emotions at the best of times. So, the last thing we need is constantly feeling like a failure for not reaching targets we’d set ourselves. I certainly experienced this during the first lockdown. I clearly remember telling myself I wanted to go on a run everyday until I managed a 10k, teach myself French and learn to paint. Whilst these activities might have benefited my wellbeing, it quickly became clear that putting pressure on myself left me feeling flat when I didn’t manage to achieve the daily goals I had set.
To overcome this, the Harvard Business Review suggests identifying a “must win” during each working day – one thing you need to achieve no matter what. However, I think this “must win” should be extended beyond work-related goals. For me, my “must win” might be reading a chapter of my book in the bath, taking a brisk walk in the evening, or spending 15 minutes learning French. It’s hugely important that we engage in non-work-related activities to refresh our minds and to support wellbeing during lockdown. Setting these small, daily goals will hopefully allow me to continue practising my newly adopted hobbies, stay focused on the present, and put a stop to setting unrealistic and unattainable long-term goals.
Top tip 2: Ellen’s ‘commute’
As we’re approaching the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic the likelihood of working from home for the coming months is becoming increasingly apparent. Although many of us miss our working environments, it’s not all doom and gloom as. For many of us, the break from a busy commute has not been a wholly unwelcome one!
Despite the perceived benefits of not being able to commute, it has brought the noticeable challenge of not having the traditional switch between home and work, since both are now in the same space. The Harvard Business Review article pointed out that many of us use our commute to enter this wonderous thing called ‘work mode’. This transition is met with particular challenges when attempting to do this at home as we have to inhibit the urge to do everyday tasks (often referred to by millennials as ‘life admin’), not get distracted by the (in my case) cats and well… work. So, with the absence of physical commuting – how do we do this? One thing I’ve found particularly helpful is ‘creating my own commute’ by going for a short walk before my workday begins. This has a multitude of benefits (including moderate physical activity and exposure to daylight) and allows me to have some physical and mental separation from my home/workspace before starting the working day. This works well for me, but others might have alternative ways of creating their own commute, such as practicing yoga, mindfulness meditation. For those, who aren’t fans of walking, research suggests that the optimal commute is only 16 minutes!
Top tip 3: Jess’ end-of-day rituals
During the first lockdown, being unable to go out and socialise, led to an unhealthy habit of late-night working. Being a PhD student, there is always more work to be done, so I assumed that working a few extra hours into the evening would help me stay on top of my workload and be a bonus of this period at home.
Looking back, I now realise that those evening working hours were far from productive or efficient, and actually negatively impacted my wellbeing in lots of ways. For one, I felt (unsurprisingly) sleepier than I did during the daytime, so the evening work wasn’t completed to the standard I would have achieved in the day. Additionally, on the evenings off where I’d decide to relax instead, I’d feel unable to fully enjoy my rest time. Creating the expectation of working late into the evening was clearly unhealthy, and yet it appears to be a common trend among many of us who are now working from home.
The Harvard Business Review article talks about the German concept of Feierabend. This is an evening celebration which marks the moment when the working day comes to a close, and is often accompanied with a beer. While I won’t be drinking a beer at the end of every working day, I am going to make a habit out of adopting a behaviour to mentally distance myself from work, which might be yoga, a winter walk, or having a cup of tea and a chat with my housemates. Similar to the ‘commute’ that Ellen has adopted, I hope this will add some much needed structure to my working day and help me ‘switch off’ in the evenings. So, as we enter the second lockdown, I am making a conscious decision to close my laptop at the end of the working day and not allow myself open it again until the next morning (unless I’m watching Derry Girls on Netflix).
Top tip 4: Ellen’s passive vs. active leisure
The Harvard Business Review also distinguishes between ‘passive leisure’ (e.g. watching TV) and ‘active leisure’ (e.g. volunteering, socialising and sports). This distinction is important as evidence has shown that active leisure is more likely to increase happiness. Moving forward, engaging in some down time is important, but keeping active and staying socially connected is also key.
During the spring and summer months, as the previous lockdown eased, the amount of time spent doing physical and active leisure activities exploded! From online yoga to ‘Couch to 5k’, there was a noticeable increase in the number of people engaging in both indoor and outdoor activities. Initially, this was great! For me personally, my sports team met twice a week (in groups of 6) in a local park to do a half-hour workout, and I spent almost every weekend hiking over the south downs. However, as the nights are drawing in and the weather is becoming increasingly colder in the UK, I’ve noticed my ability (and my motivation) for active leisure has gradually decreased, whereas the amount of time I’m spending binge watching series has increased. The winter weather means it will be more difficult to engage in active leisure outdoors, however there are many creative ways to do this at home. Some of the favourites from our team include: having a chat with a close friend, making macrame plant hangers; getting stuck into a puzzle, baking, making clay earrings and getting on with that DIY that has been on the to-do list for ages.
The conclusion of the article says this: “Around the world, shifting to remote work could save billions of hours — but it’s up to us to spend that time well.” While this is a sentiment we both agree with, we wanted to end our blog post on a slightly different and perhaps more uplifting note. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. Life is not normal and we are all learning to cope in different ways. While time is precious, focusing on spending our time “well” can lead to a spiral of unhealthy and negative thinking where we are constantly trying to fill our spare time with activities that we perceive to be productive, whether work or leisure. Resting is also incredibly important for our mental health. During this month of a second lockdown, prioritise yourself and do whatever makes you happiest. Adopting our suggestions will hopefully bring some balance into your lockdown lives, but try your hardest to resist the urge to make every single day as productive or “successful” as possible. Some days will be harder than others, and sometimes you might feel like you haven’t achieved anything. This is perfectly normal and many people all over the country will be having similar thoughts. Be kind to yourself. Your lockdown experience will not be defined by your productivity.