Productivity in the pandemic (long read)
In the current pandemic lockdown, it's been quite hard at times to keep productive. Sometimes the roadblocks to my productivity have been the practicalities of work (for example trying to solve a second order differential equation in the same room as a teething toddler) but other times it has just been that motivational slump that my social media feed suggests has been pretty common amongst us all. Initially especially, I really struggled to get into the right headspace to get work done, despite working from home being common for me never something I really struggled with before. Here are three of the things I've been doing that helped me get my productivity (somewhat) back on track:
1. I started a PhD tracker and in this document I keep my monthly calendar, a monthly time log, weekly calendars and also pages for each (work) day. I know, it sounds mad and it probably isn't for everyone, but I've found it's really helped me because I'm a very visual person and I like to see information in lots of different forms. Because of this, I've always really struggled with diaries/calendars etc because when the layout doesn't quite fit my needs I end up not using it for a while... and before I know it I'm out of the habit (and feeling disorganised).
The monthly calendar I hardly use but it can help to put my month in a bit of context, so I like to have it to hand for those occasions.
The monthly time log isn't specifically for my PhD, though right now it is helpful. Here I track how I've spent the hours of my day (I know, I sound anally retentive), and I started it so I could see if there was any pattern to when I got work done. This in itself hasn't helped my productivity, but it has brought some self-awareness to the fact that I am actually getting work done, even though sometimes it doesn't feel like it. I haven't found any real patterns, although I have been quite good at not working silly-hours. Personally, it has also helped me rein in over-spending time on work or childcare, as I can easily see if I've done too much of one in the past few days (I'm currently splitting childcare with my husband 50-50).
The weekly calendars are quite self explanatory, and I think very commonly used. For me they have been helpful in planning my week and boosting productivity this way. Ironically, I use them mostly to timetable when I can't work, but this planning ahead means I haven't found myself getting frustrated about "wasted hours" as much as I did at the beginning of the lockdown, because I've known they're coming up and I've planned accordingly. How obvious, I know. Plus, I've been able to enjoy that time of not working a lot more, because I haven't been so stressed about it.
Work day pages. Honestly these have been the most helpful to my productivity and in an active way. Each day I write down my main aim for the day. Ideally I make this as targeted as possible (e.g. "read paper X through once" or "plot Y") and on "bad" days I make it a simple task. This way I know exactly what I need to do that day, and that it should be possible for me to complete it. On bad days, I am guaranteed to end the day feeling like I've achieved something, which in turn helps my mindset the next day (rather than falling down that rabbit hole). I also have a section of "secondary aim" which I don't always use, but is there for days when I really want to do something else too. Then, crucially, I have a section for reviewing my day. I write down a summary of what I did so that tomorrow (or the day after, or three days after) I actually know where I finished and where I need to pick up from. I can not express how much this one has helped me, I spend so much less time wondering what I'm doing or meant to be doing.
2. I spend less time at my computer. I really want to keep this habit going once restrictions lift. I spend a lot of time now planning what I need to do. When I have to walk my son to sleep in his pram I am forcibly removed from my laptop and iPad. This was so frustrating initially because I saw it as time when I couldn't work. I've learnt though that that isn't true, and I've developed a habit of spending this time; thinking about how to model something, how to graphically show a concept, working out how to go about solving a particularly nasty differential equation (yes really), thinking about if my results made sense and trying to put them in context. These are all things that normally I would have done sat at my desk, where I would have got more swept up in frustration and confusion with the problem I was grappling with. Physically removing myself from that environment and having to think things through without any graphs or pages of equations to bias or cloud my thinking really has worked wonders. I don't have a way to write anything down, so I have to make really small steps at a time and this leaves a lot of time to check the logic of each statement. Basically I can't go rushing into a problem. I've actually saved a lot of time, weirdly. This has probably boosted my productivity the most.
Plus, I've been happier and refreshed from the exercise.
3. I haven't stayed up all night working... this was very tempting, especially to start with when stress levels were running high. But staying up and trying to work into the early hours of the morning just isn't sustainable in the long run (unless you're going to shift your entire day). In the evening I'm usually pretty tired from running around all day, so accepting that I won't be productive if I start working actually gives me a chance to rest, and therefore be more productive the next day. Admittedly I have worked a few evenings when the inspiration struck, but I have tried pretty hard not to do that...
Here are some of the top tips that were shared with me by my Instagram friends;
- The forest app - holds you accountable to do a set amount of work (for example 10 minutes) and stops you scrolling through your phone... unless you're willing to kill that tree?
- Leaving your phone somewhere else, and putting your headphones on. Keep those distractions from the outside world to a minimum.
- Resting! This is an important one.
- Finally doing those things that you've put off. You'll have less weighing on your mind and you'll feel better for it -> more productive.
- Meditation. Productivity depends on your headspace, get into the right headspace and good things will follow.
- Crying and accepting it. Though I was sad to hear this suggestion (I hope you're feeling better now!) I can't deny that it can work. Sometimes, things can get overwhelming and productivity is not going to flow in that case. Getting those emotions out and accepting things you can't change, or accepting those emotions (they're valid and you're allowed to feel them) is the first step. Once you start to feel better your productivity is going to increase, I promise!