So it looks like 2021 is going to be a continuation of 2020, at least for the first half of the year (if we’re lucky!). And if you are somewhere in the last stages of your PhD, writing up your dissertation or pumping out those publications, this could prove challenging with many university offices and libraries still closed.

Worse, all your favourite cafes are closed or only allowed to do takeaways! Now there’s no where you could go to hide or get away from the screen to read for an hour or just have some afternoon down time. To be honest, this is the hardest part for me: working remotely, no place to punctuate my daily workflow and nowhere to get away from my desk and my working headspace.

Here are the top three challenges I’ve faced in my lockdown months and some suggestions for how you can manage them.

Your setting impacts your thinking.

When you’re stuck in the same place all day, your home is your office and your dinning table is your work desk, this setting has an impact on your thinking. I’ve found myself thinking in circles more often than I usually do. And this can really kill your inspiration and the quality of your writing. I’ve found it harder to think outside the box or to step away from my circular thought process, challenge my own assumptions and find new perspective.

I’ve normally been able to do that through reading at my favourite cafe while looking out at the landscape or people watching and letting my mind drift. I’ve also been able to extricate myself from thought-holes by chatting with my colleagues and friends, again over coffee or a nice after-work glass of wine.

It is difficult to find perspective or think outside the box when you’re stuck in one.

So in these COVID times, one must adapt. Here are some suggestions:

  1. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a place where there are less restrictions, it’s important to maintain a routine of getting away from your desk. For myself, I had a routine of going for a lunch-time jog every other day, and afternoon yoga/pilates sessions on the days I didn’t go running.
  2. If you can’t sit at a cafe to read, find a bench somewhere in a park, river, forest, etc. where you can sit for half and hour or so to let your mind drift. If it is winter where you are, then go for a walk, 15 to 20 mins, to decompress your brain.
  3. If you have an iPad or Tablet, sometimes just closing your computer and emails and moving to your couch to read a paper or chapter from your iPad/Tablet is already enough to shift your mental state to a slightly different channel so you can focus on reading.

A quiet place

Some of you may not be so lucky as to have a place of your own and have kids or housemates or family members that you have to share working spaces with. That’s really tough. Your challenge is to find a quiet place where you can focus. In this case, I would recommend…

Finding a temporal solution to your spatial problem

If you’re in a place that is crowded all the time then, if possible, create a roster with your partner/spouse/flatmates that allocates time slots for you to work at the dinning table or that corner of the apartment in silence. Sounds crazy, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Having a roster reduces conflict and can increase productivity if you know you only have a limited time and need to maximise it.

Find friends

This almost sounds counter-intuitive within the COVID context where we have to socially distance and avoid hanging out with friends. But you need to maintain some form of social interaction while you’re writing up. This is not only for morale and motivation, but also for inspiration and reflection. It’s difficult to spot the flaws in your own arguments if you’ve read them a hundred times. It’s just muscle memory at that point.

So you need to link up with your colleagues or fellow PhD students. If you are lucky enough to have an active post-graduate student body which organises online writing workshops or events for PhD students, you should sign up and join in. But if you don’t, then be the one to get something going. Having weekly or fortnightly meet ups on Zoom or Webex or whatever platform you use to check in with your colleagues or fellow PhD students, present an abstract or chapter, and get feedback can be very refreshing.

Bottom line is, COVID-19 has upended whatever routine and structure we had in everyday life and work. But we still have deadlines and our funding will still run out at a fixed date. So the more structure you can return to your situation the better. Having structure also has a positive psychological effect in that it gives you a sense that you have at least some control back in your life.

These are just a few thoughts that I’ve gathered from my experience over the last year. But if you have other nifty tips for managing these three challenges or other challenges you’d like me to discuss in another post, please leave me a comment!

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