At Home with… The WDC

The first in a new series in which members of the Newcastle University community discuss how they’re negotiating the current disruption. Or not … because, well, everything’s a bit difficult, isn’t it?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Many of us, including the entire WDC team, are currently working or studying from home. One of the things we’ve found we have in common with the students we’ve been speaking to is a struggle with the initial loss of structure and routine this transition has caused. These routines – getting up at a certain time, having somewhere to go, arriving at the library at a particular time, studying a specific topic on a set day – help keep us motivated and stay focused. Their sudden loss can affect our mental wellbeing. 

Now, before we get to the core content of this post, one thing needs to be acknowledged. And that’s that the world is a very difficult place to live in right now. You may have other, far more pressing things requiring your time and attention. Focused work may be an impossibility. And that’s fine. We can recommend some funny fainting goat videos if you need them.

But if focusing on your work or studies is something you’d find helpful right now and you’re interested in reading about how other people are coping in these challenging circumstances, this is the series for you. You might even pick up a tip or two. 

We hope to chat to students, academics and professional services staff so do stay tuned. First up … well, of course it’s us! We, the WDC – Helen, Nicky, Victoria and Caroline – got together to discuss the challenges we’ve faced and the things that have helped us stay focused, keep motivated and feel like we’re ‘at work’ when we’re really just huddled in the only tidy corner of the front room.

Working from home can be challenging in many ways. What are the biggest challenges for you personally?

Caroline: As a student, I really struggled with perfectionist tendencies and perfectionism is still something I have to negotiate. So, for me, one of the biggest challenges has been dealing with the gulf between my idealised image of homeworking – where I am super productive and always motivated – versus the reality. 

Helen: As I’m stuck at home, there’s no clear divide between work time and home time as there would be if I was commuting to the library each day – there’s the danger of either overworking with no ‘cut-off point’ or just feeling constantly guilty that I *should* be working….

Have you been able to overcome these challenges? If so, how?

Nicky: My current strategy is to do things that help me go into ‘work mode’. I still dress as if I were going into work, even wearing my formal shoes around the house! 

Helen: I’m lucky that I can keep a room specifically for work – I’m trying to close the door on it at 5pm. I’m still using the same laptop for work and watching Netflix though, so I’m trying to close down the browser windows and mute the notifications for work at 5pm, and likewise, the one for Netflix and social media is firmly closed at 9am! I’m also still ‘getting dressed’ for work in the mornings, and the PJs only get worn after 5. 

How do you manage to stay focused and remain productive? In other words, how do you make sure you feel like you’re “at work” when you’re at home?!

Victoria: I’ve tried to keep to as much of a routine as I can.  Logging on and checking in with colleagues by 9am has helped to frame the start of my day. It’s a small detail, but I’ve also kept to my work-wardrobe, wearing clothes I would tend to keep for work rather than allowing myself to get used to more loungewear! I’ve also given myself tasks to do each day, and used my calendar to identify those tasks in my working day. I’ve also discovered that the most productive place for me to be is at my kitchen table where I can look out into the garden and I have plenty of daylight coming through the conservatory. 

Helen: I’m not sure how focussed and productive it’s possible to be right now, but keeping a clear sense of why I’m doing this really helps. Whatever routine tasks I have to tick off, I’m bearing in mind that I’m working to support students, and thinking of the real motivation for this helps. I’m also being far stricter with myself about taking lunch breaks and knocking off at 5pm than I am usually at work!  

What new skills have you had to develop?

Victoria: The knowledge of using software, such as Zoom. However, rather than new skills, I feel as though I’m honing and refining other skills, such as self-focus.  It could be possible to get drawn into making more cups of tea and doing other things I enjoy, such as working in the garden. However, the professional work I do is important to me and that continues to give me a sense of purpose to my days and motivates me to keep a sense of focus to my working days.  

Nicky: I’ve had to become a bit more disciplined in scheduling my days to alternate between work-tasks and breaks. Otherwise the two tend to bleed into each other and I’m no good to anyone!

What have you had to let go of? This might be a particular habit or skill, or just a way in which you’ve generally had to manage your expectations and ‘lower your standards’?

Caroline: I have found it incredibly helpful to redefine my idea of “productivity.” I’m now trying to focus on what I produce or achieve in a day – writing a blog post, making a valuable contribution to a team meeting, helping a student with their dissertation – rather than how many hours I spend at my desk. That way, I don’t feel guilty for not being “on” all the time and for needing to take breaks to have a rest or manage my anxiety, 

Victoria: Rather than letting go, I see it as embracing how I deal with uncertainty.  Rather than trying to ‘have everything figured out’, I’m working through my own thinking and approach to the speed at which things are changing, and how I can respond and work with these rapid changes.

Nicky: Control? A lot of my coping strategies so far have been aimed at maintaining a sense of control over my surroundings, but there’s only so much I can do. In truth, I think I’m just trying to give myself time to adapt and embrace the ‘new normal’.

Helen: I think the biggest challenge for any perfectionist is letting go of the idea that perfection is desirable, let alone possible. No one really knows what they are doing, or what to expect, and I’m learning to work with that in a positive way. If we’re all making things up as we go along, maybe there are no standards to judge ‘perfect’ when you’re innovating and being creative. 

If you could pass just one “Top Tip” to the many others currently working or studying from home, what would it be?

Caroline: Start each day by asking yourself what being productive would look like for you today. Think about what you need to do, and what you feel able to do. 

Victoria: Be kind to yourself. This is a very unique set of circumstances that we are learning to cope with. Of course, we are also juggling changes to our working/studying patterns with other important tasks, be it keeping in contact (virtually) with family members, taking care of dependents, and that’s if we are feeling well ourselves!

Nicky: It can be useful to try and retain a sense of normality in these circumstances, but don’t give yourself a hard time when the abnormal (inevitably) encroaches. At the end of the day, this is a very unusual situation and sometimes we have no choice but to roll with the changes.

Helen: Don’t forget to take breaks. Breaks are something you need, rather than deserve. And set yourself one small, doable task each day with a really concrete output so you feel you’ve gone something done that wasn’t there before.

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