The pandemic has made us all hyper-aware of how much of what we’d come to tolerate as “just how things are” is actually deeply unacceptable. The pandemic has not created an impossible to resolve conflict between your work-load and your ability to have a life. It has exacerbated problems that were already there. Problems in how universities are managed. Problems in interpersonal relationships at home. Problems in the ways we (as a society) care for those who need care, whether they be children, the elderly, those who are temporarily ill, or those who have chronic illnesses and permanent disabilities. Problems in the way we see “ability” and “disability”, and “carer” and “cared for”, as mutually exclusive categories. And so much more.
In other words, the problems you face have systemic and structural causes. You cannot fix those with individual action. Nor do you have to give in to them. And you certainly don’t have to exacerbate them.
I have been helping academics navigate these systemically unreasonable demands and structural problems for several years now. I do not have a magic wand that will make everything better. Clients have told me that I have transformed their lives. The structural problems still exist. They are still frustrated and often overworked. But their lives are better.
Today I’m going to talk about how to address the loss of physical boundaries between work and home. It’s one piece of a much bigger problem and something most academics are facing during the pandemic.
Dealing with the loss of a physical boundary between work and home
Physical boundaries between work and home make it much easier to juggle those two big areas of your life. A lot of academics choose to do at least some of their work at home (and the culture in some departments makes it difficult to do some parts of your work in your office), but before the pandemic you probably used this boundary as part of your juggling strategy. You probably only saw students in your campus office. You want to the university to teach. Some people have consciously made a decision never to bring teaching related work home so that the only work they do at home is research related. Whether you were completely successful (however you defined that) at using this boundary to help you juggle the different types of work you need to do and/or work and not-work, you probably noticed the impact of losing that boundary. Now that the new academic year is on the horizon, the lack of this physical boundary is going to be even more noticeable.
Recreating physical boundaries when you can’t work at the university
Whether or not you have space for a dedicated home office, with a door you can close, you can still create some physical boundaries between work and not-work, and between different types of work. It is harder. And it will require tidying. I hate tidying, too. Your goal is to have visual and kinesthetic elements to your experience of certain activities. You also want to severely limit the visual reminders of the other things you could be doing.
Even if it cannot be exclusively used for work, try to designate a work space. A specific desk, chair, etc. If you are using the dining table, pick one end of the table and set it up the same way every time you sit down to work. If you don’t need that end of the table for meals, cover your work space with a sheet at the end of the day (the way you’d cover a bird cage to signal to a pet parakeet that it’s time to sleep) to signal that you are no longer working. If you have to pack your things away, make the act of packing up (and unpacking in the morning) part of your transitional ritual. Get a nice box with a lid to put your work into.
You can also designate a specific mug (for coffee/tea) and glass (for water) as work things. You might have or get a desk pad. You can use one browser for work and another for personal things. Or separate windows in your browser. If you don’t already have a personal email account, set one up now. You might consider getting dressed for work and then changing out of work clothes at the end of the day. (See The case for getting dressed for work)
Developing a habit of “going to the office” and “leaving the office” even if that’s a corner of your living room or bedroom will serve as a kinesthetic marker of the boundary between work and not-work. Setting up your work space at the beginning of the day and closing it down at the end of the day is an important practice. Close your work browser. Close your work email. Collect books and papers from around the house and put them in your office space/box. You could even incorporate exercise into this transitional period. A friend of mine decided to “walk to work” every morning — going for a walk around the neighbourhood before sitting down at her desk.
Designating working hours
Many academics resist working a strict 9 to 5 Monday to Friday schedule in the name of autonomy and freedom. Even in normal circumstances you have considerable freedom to work at times that work best for you without feeling constrained by the expectation of specific working hours. The danger of the lack of fixed, externally mandated, hours is that you end up with no effective boundary between work and not-work, especially if you don’t have something you consider a culturally acceptable reason to not-work (like kids or a disability). (See Freedom and scheduling) If you had an effective boundary that may have been severely strained in pandemic conditions.
Furthermore, during the pandemic you may need to designate your working hours in negotiation with other members of your household, especially if you have children and your child-care arrangements have changed or collapsed. If your partner is employed in a job that has specified working hours and little flexibility, it may be on you to work at what you consider unreasonable times so that you can be the primary parent during your partner’s working day. If you are separated from your children’s other parent and have shared custody, you may have an A week and B week that look very different. You’ll realize that not only do you have different types of work to juggle, you have different types of non-work to juggle, too. (This is why I use “juggling” rather than “balance”, btw.)
The other benefit of time blocking is that “later” has a real meaning if you need to say it to someone. If you meet interruptions with “Can we talk about this later?” but later never comes, the interruptions will not stop. If you want others to respect your time, you have to respect the needs of others. This fits in with the physical boundaries, which act as a reminder that you are working, but also help you give a similar quality of attention to other people and tasks when you are not working.
Co-working can be remarkably effective
Whether you are co-working with members of your household, or virtually with colleagues or strangers, working with other people even when you are working on your own projects is very effective. It is a visual reminder that this is work time. You feel less alone (which is an issue for some people).
It won’t work for everything. If someone needs to be talking, there needs to be a space to do that that is not interrupting others’ work. And if you don’t have physical space, that means you need to be doing something other than work that is less affected by the talking while your partner or child is in the meeting-that-requires-talking.
Focused work is best with time limits. If co-working with children, you need to take their developmental stage and personal ability to focus into account when deciding the length of time. You may need to experiment. You may not need to help them beyond sitting next to them focusing on your own work. And you may need other time alone to do some of your focused work.
All of this requires difficult decisions
There are real limits to how much you can do. There are real limits to how much time you can devote to different types of work and different non-work activities. You need to prioritize even more than usual. You will need to lower your standards for probably everything. (It’s a good thing your standards are usually unreasonably high. You have a lot of scope to lower them without actually doing shitty work. Not that your gremlins will believe me.)
There will probably be disagreements and arguments. There will be false starts and adjustments. No one likes conflict but if you are the type of person who goes out of your way to avoid it, you may find this particularly challenging. The pandemic may also reveal things about your personal relationships that you wish you didn’t need to deal with right now, in the same way that it is revealing things about your workplace.
Seek appropriate help for whatever is difficult.
The Academic Writing Studio provides help and support for planning your semester, establishing a writing practice, and getting writing done regularly even when there is a lot of other stuff going on. Studio members have told me that A Meeting With Your Writing (part of the Studio) has been an oasis of normalcy and calm during the pandemic.
I hold Office Hours every other Friday (except when there is another class that day) where you can get support with specific things that come up, or when your plans go awry. A Meeting With Your Writing schedules writing time for you, and gives you people to co-work with, and you can start on Monday. We’ll be Planning Your Autumn Semester in 2 weeks time, on Friday 28 August at 10 Eastern/3 UK (your time zone). There will be an opportunity to reflect (in a structured way) on what you are doing in your writing time and how to make it more effective in mid-September.
I know it’s hard to set boundaries around your work and around specific areas of your work. That’s why I created the Studio. That’s why I coach academics.
If having support would make your life even 10% better, seriously consider joining the Studio.
This post was originally written for the mid-month newsletter on 14th August. It has been lightly edited.