Writing through a pandemic*
*or anytime, really
We are currently about a month or so into the self-isolation/quarantine/lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic in the northeast United States, and I have rarely (never?) been more productive. This has been a challenging time for many people, and colleagues of mine have been finding it difficult to find the space and motivation for writing. Because I have had some success in this matter, I would like to offer some very unsolicited advice on things you might try if you’re struggling to find time for your work amidst these moments of precarity, anxiety, and uncertainty. I will admit up front that my conditions here are extremely privileged and that this advice will undoubtedly not work for those whose situation is not as ideal as my own. My hope is simply that you might begin considering how to carve out some space within your unique situation so that some dissertation (or article, or book, or other) work might continue.
The number one thing I have changed during this period is my mindset. I have decided that in this moment, and moments like it (surely there have been and will be periods of stress and uncertainty outside of this pandemic), it is important to evaluate and understand my priorities. This will sound cliché, but for me the priority is to remain happy and healthy. If I can maintain a healthy and positive lifestyle, I am certain that the dissertation will follow naturally. A lot of dissertation writing advice says that you should write first thing every day. This may work for some people, and it would probably work for me if my dissertation were the only thing that mattered in my life. However, I know that if I don’t prioritize other things first my mental health suffers, and I am no longer willing to compromise my health for the pursuit of a PhD. Therefore, I have created a daily routine in which I begin with some yoga, meditation, and a healthy breakfast before even thinking about doing anything else. This sets the tone for the day, calms my mind, reduces any lingering stress, and makes me feel more energetic. For you, this routine may not include yoga and meditation! Perhaps you play the guitar or paint or bake or snuggle your pets or build elaborate Lego scenes or take a walk (environment permitting). The point is simply that you do something to calm, center, and take care of yourself. I plan to maintain this routine and attitude even after we’re out of isolation, and I hope others will see the value in this and do the same.
Second, I think it’s important to be gentle with yourself, especially during this time. No one is expecting you to be working at full capacity, and neither should you. In fact, I think you only need a very short time commitment per day (at least for now): even just one hour a day; two if you can manage it; three or four if you’re really on a roll. Again, the key to being productive in times of stress is to remove the pressure, take care of yourself, and not force things. However, it does help to try to create some kind of commitment and routine. Many of us are off-kilter without a schedule, so I suggest you create one that works for you. I have found that a few hours in the afternoon work best for me, so I really try to block off that time every day. For you this may be the morning or the night but try to work it into your schedule as a standing appointment. Still, don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty if you skip a day (or two), but otherwise try to maintain some commitment to the pattern. Again, even just one (concentrated) hour or two per day should help you find that rhythm. It always surprises me how much I can get done in a short period of concerted effort, especially if I know I only have this short time. If you're feeling particularly productive, you can always add more time. You may also find this helps with mental health and allowing yourself the time away from other concerns and anxieties to focus on something else. A friend-colleague of mine recently posted about working from home, and you might also find some of her advice particularly helpful for this time.
Finally, it has helped me immeasurably to form a writing group with some of my peers. I was highly skeptical of this when I began but I have found it remarkably rewarding. In the group I joined, we found a time that worked for everyone during the week and blocked out two hours. Our process is as follows (h/t to friend-colleague Sara Kolmes for this!): we begin by just catching up for a few minutes, then we all go around and say what we’re working on. We set a pomodoro and everyone mutes themselves except the person keeping time. It’s surprising, but just having someone’s picture in the bottom corner of my screen stops me from procrastinating and gets me into the “zone.” If you have a group of friends or colleagues who you think would be interested, give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised how the combination of social interaction and accountability makes you extra productive!
I am generally a master procrastinator but I decided to try to use this period of isolation to my advantage to create new habits. I believe the advice in this post can also work in “normal” life, so I thought it might help some folks even after this acute pandemic period comes to an end. I sincerely hope that everyone is managing to stay healthy and that this post might help even one person to find the mental space and motivation to regain some productivity in this chaotic time.
1.Prioritize yourself and your health (mental and physical) over your work.
2.Only commit to a short time per day but try to keep that commitment (and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two!).
3.Start or join a writing group with friends or colleagues.
 Number one: I do not have children. I recognize how unreasonable it might seem to manage getting work done while there are kids of any age taking up all of your time. I am totally sympathetic to this case, and do not suggest that I have an answer. I don’t. Number two: I have the extreme privilege of not really having to worry about losing my income or paying rent. I recognize that this is a HUGE caveat and privilege, and I don’t want to diminish the difficulties so many people are facing at this time. If you are in a situation of extreme precarity, I suggest ignoring your dissertation altogether while you take care of your more immediate needs. However, I think many of my academic colleagues are in a similar boat to me (though admittedly the summer is starting to look pretty dire), so this post is geared towards us PhD students left on a raft in the middle of an isolation ocean, and to give that extra nudge to those of us fortunate enough to still have work to do. Again, this is general advice and should be tailored to fit your personal situation (including disregarding completely if none of it works for you).