Hugh Kearns wrote this week
Don’t compare your work output this week with other weeks. These are not normal times so don’t expect your normal output.
Things will take longer.
There are most disruptions and distractions.
It’s hard to focus.
So give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself.
— Hugh Kearns (@ithinkwellHugh) March 24, 2020
These are extraordinary times all around the globe. The tweet above comes from Australia (at least that’s where Hugh is based; I assume he is there). My last blogpost referred to being kind to others. This tweet tells us to be kind to ourselves.
In the UK, confined as we are to our homes however ill set-up they may be for home-working, it is easy to think ‘I’m being unproductive’ and thoughts like that will only make us yet more unproductive. In the current circumstances, particularly as we adjust, get to grips with new technology, struggle with additional caring responsibilities, timetable our shopping to try to find an unbusy time when there is still food in the shops, never mind get one’s head around the changing government statements, it is hard to find mental space actually to think.
I have heard one person tell me that this week they had managed to sit down and look at data they had been failing to look at for the last two years – and make sense of it. I was impressed. Most people are, like me I suspect, much more in the camp of just getting by, doing what has to be done and waiting for that future moment when some sort of internal adjustment has taken place sufficiently to accommodate the massive changes in our lives. Uncertainty is always challenging and, whatever stage one is at in one’s career, uncertainty will be our constant companion for a long time to come.
As a scientist it is tempting to try to read the many articles appearing in learned journals or a journalist’s analysis of what is happening around the world. However, I am afraid – as with Brexit – I am largely trying to eschew this temptation because it messes with my head. My Twitter feed alerts me to the headlines and, for now, that is really all I can handle.
“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.”
said Charles de Gaulle. Maybe de Gaulle managed that, but for many that is a bridge too far. As long as I am busy – and decision-making in College, interacting in new ways with colleagues near and far is most certainly keeping me both stretched and busy – I can keep going. I hope I am as capable of making decisions now as ever. But it is when the flurry of emails eases (as it does occasionally!), or when there is no immediate demand on my time, that I feel a sense of helplessness, impotence and uncertainty at what is happening at the world. I can internally rage at politicians near and far, but that would just consume me; I try to avoid doing that.
That is when the mantra of being kind to oneself is so important. Do what you can and remember “There are no wrong feelings.” as this article from New York spells out. It is too easy to believe that everyone else is managing better than you, balancing the new demands, the new technology and the new external circumstances. They may just be better at masking their feelings, although maybe some people really are coping fine. I read somewhere that committed introverts may come into their own now, not needing affirmation from others that the rest of us in lockdown (let alone self-isolation) are struggling to find.
When my mother died some years ago, I struggled with the idea of the ‘proper’ way to grieve. Why couldn’t I cry? How did other people manage to ‘get over it’? I learned then, there is no right way to grieve, just as there is no right way to feel about the current crisis. We may all be in it together – appropriately, at least 2m apart – but that doesn’t mean we will all feel the same. Or that we will all exhibit our feelings in the same way. Or that those who exhibit outward calm, competence or assurance are actually feeling that. I have always counselled young researchers struggling with impostor syndrome, that just because someone else looks confident doesn’t mean that’s what they feel under the surface. The same applies here.
Be kind to yourself. Do what you can, recognize that the average human cannot change mental gears at speed, or adjust to a different (and scary) physical world without a hiccough. Technology will make life easier for many of us because we can stay in touch, verbally and visually if not physically, for personal and professional contacts. But if that paper doesn’t get written at the speed you feel it should, don’t beat yourself up. Forgive yourself for looking at your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/ Guardian feed at regular intervals, or creating a cute cat gif (not my own style of dealing with the situation). Or curling up with the comfort books of your childhood from time to time, baking a cake or being overcome with a fit of tidying (this last is also not my own style for coping with difficult circumstances). We all differ. If you want to sign up to online Mandarin classes or do regular aerobics with some fitness goddess, so be it, but don’t be surprised if the mental bandwidth turns out to be lacking.
Maybe in time, lockdown will feel like a new normal, but personally I’m hoping it doesn’t last long enough for that to occur. However, home-working for many in HEIs is likely to remain the norm for more weeks, or even months, than the duration of strict lockdown. I am working on my technology skills, with the remote assistance of the very kind IT team in my College who forgive my ignorance of simple facts, so that I can be as efficient as possible and derive most benefit from all the virtual meetings that I’m involved in. I’m conscious that, as yet, these virtual meetings feel more tiring than being physically present in a room with colleagues, even as I save energy from not rushing up and down to London regularly.
Be kind to yourself. Work as hard as your own processes of internal self-adjustment permit, and in time (I assume) things will get easier.