#SCOPEreads: On working from home

Recently, we at SCOPE have decided to bring you a series of short-form articles written by our chapter members, broadly focused on useful skills, knowledge and personal development. Since each of our chapter members has a unique skillset and comes from a different background, we wanted to do something that will let us learn from each other and introduce interesting new thoughts and ideas.

This article was contributed by Matěj Hejda, the Media Officer of SCOPE, on 22/3/2020


These days, we are experiencing a situation unlike any in recent history. With the new strain of coronavirus quickly spreading all across the world, we all have to take special precautions to protect those at the highest risk as well as attempt to slow down the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, that means distancing oneself from large groups of people and working from home wherever possible.

The thing is, working completely from home is a challenge all on its own. Removing the barrier between “work” and “leisure” is not easy, and often causes people to struggle in different kinds of ways: the invasion of work into your private space, the sudden option of working all the time (which is a very bad idea) followed by a nagging feeling that you are probably working far less than you should (which further fuels anxiety).
However, one should not forget that as academics (essentially being “knowledge workers”), we are in a very lucky position in situations like these, since a lot of our work and focus relates to handling and processing data, writing publications, learning new methods and staying up to date with the latest developments in our field. As long as there’s electricity, internet connection and a working computer, I believe most of us have the means to use our home-working time to get some work done, learn something useful or dive into a new subject that will prove beneficial for our long-term prospects.

I have decided to put together this short article to sum some of my thoughts on working from home and about “surviving” through these times as home-locked PGR/PhD students . By no means I claim to be a professional on this matter (actually, more of the opposite), and the main goal here is just to share a few ideas of mine to (hopefully) help you in the coming days.

a) Give yourself time for the transition

It doesn’t really matter whether you have alarmed everyone weeks in advance or got very surprised once the lockdown was quickly put in place during this week – suddenly, there was a need for massive routine overhaul and transitioning from working in the office/lab. It may sound like a rather minor change to make, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Suddenly, you had to set up all your data access tools and network drives on your personal machine. Get that Matlab/specialist software licensed and working from your home. Transition to using Skype/Zoom to keep in touch with fellow academics and supervisors. Possibly terminate your experiments mid-process. And, importantly, rapidly rewire your mindset from “these is where I watch Netflix and relax from work” to “umm yeah, now I also have to work here”.
If your first days in your new home office were quite far from your personal idea of “highly productive”, don’t beat yourself because of that. We all are here for the long game, and that’s something that matters far more than few days of relaxing, adjusting and taking things easy even though you should technically be working 8 hours.

b) Beneficial constraints?

One of the things I actually find somehow positive about the current situation is that it gives you full flexibility of adjusting your own working plan, and it limits the number of possibilities and things you can work on.
I can totally see you stopping here and frowning: “How can you say that something that limits you is good?”
Let me explain that a bit. There’s one general concept related to creativity which I personally find very interesting, which basically says that true creativity comes from constraints. If you can do anything in the world, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the options and end up doing nothing since whatever you do, you will find yourself doubting whether you made the right choice. On the other hand, if you have a very limited set of tools to create something new, it actually forces you to find novel ways of using those tools to achieve those goals – and there’s no regrets since you had a toolset that was limited externally (not by yourself) from the beginning. In a very same fashion, the outbreak is now your constrain. You would probably prefer to go to the lab and take new data rather than dive into that new 8 weeks Coursera course that comes with no immediate result and may (or may not) be beneficial for you in the future. Well, guess what – that lab is not an option now. It’s out of your “toolset” for the current situation. It’s the perfect opportunity to dive into those things which you would normally put into the “taking your time from more important stuff” category.

Sidenote: Even Daniel Kahneman pointed out the paradox of “less choices = more happiness after choosing” in his outstanding book Thinking Fast and Slow. If you are looking for a book to learn more about the biases in how we think and perceive the world, I can’t recommend this book enough.

c) Now, only you decide your schedule

Following on the previous thought of “full flexibility”, I also like the fact that in the current situation, only you are the real master of your schedule. Are you a night owl that loves coding at night and then waking the next day right in a time for a brunch? I guess the usual working hours are not your best friend. While usually, you may be expected to be in the office in the morning and stay till five, now you can experiment and try whatever works the best for you. Your papers to read and data to process don’t expect you to be awake early and finished before dinner. Whatever suits you is the right thing to do – and perhaps, its a good time now to experiment a bit and find your “perfect” schedule.

d) You are probably going to do less than usual, and that’s perfectly fine

The headline here pretty much sums up the idea. Don’t beat yourself if doing the typical 8 hour shifts at your home doesn’t work for you – personally, I think it doesn’t really work for most people. There’s lots of stressful information coming from the news nowadays that can make you anxious and deplete your capability to focus. I think it’s very benefitial to decide on a long term plan with “baby steps” – just getting something useful done every day is more than fine, which means the plan can be rather loose. Importantly: don’t forget about yourself – give yourself a proper downtime after you finish your task(s) for the day, try to keep exercising (darebee.com is a really good source for short home workouts) and try to keep in touch with others. We are all in the very same situation, and will come out stronger once this thing is contained. 🙂

That’s all from me now, I hope you enjoyed my article and will be happy to hear your thoughts and comments!
Matěj

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