By my count, we are now almost two months into social distancing measures in NSW. This means most of us are spending the majority of our time at home.

I’m not going to lie – it was a real struggle to get into the swing of working from home. In the beginning my motivation was very low, I stayed up too late (still do, let’s be honest here), I would stare blankly at my “to-do” list, dreading having to start work on this little thing called a ‘thesis’.

I think it has been very tough for wet-lab PhD research students whose work is heavily reliant on actually being in the lab to generate results.

No data = nothing to write up. However, as I have been told many times by my supervisors and peers, I have already got plenty of data to start writing up my thesis while working from home (yay).

So, I have made a list of some of the things that have helped me get through this challenging period.

Play to your strengths

Imagine we are living in a time pre-COVID-19 (seems like ages ago, right?). You are sitting at your desk at work. What is the usual task that you would complete without too much protest? For me, that would be generating results figures to show my supervisors and put in my fortnightly lab meeting slides. I have this habit of being too meticulous with my figures, and yet somehow, I enjoy this onerous task because it does not take too much brain power from me.

A few weeks ago, I started to draft out diagrams for the introduction of my thesis and things just snowballed, figure by figure. For me, there is just something extremely satisfying seeing a shoddy two-minute sketch for a diagram come to life digitally. Is figure-making not your thing? Maybe it is keeping updated with the literature or writing. If so, go for that!

The small things count

Whether it is sending that email to your supervisor you have been putting off, organising your files and folders, or writing a blog post (ha!), small nuggets of accomplishment could help propel you into your next task.

At the beginning of each day, I do the easiest task I can think of. For me, it’s either checking my emails, fixing the font size/colour in a figure, updating my progress tracker for my thesis or formatting oligonucleotides lists. Recently, I took the plunge and started sending off snippets of my thesis to my supervisor for feedback, which has really helped my motivation and given me a direction for daily tasks.

Another super helpful thing I have done during this time is transfer all the papers I have read from my ‘papers’ folder into an Excel Journal database. It involved a whole day of re-skimming papers and putting some information into a spreadsheet, but now I can easily search for papers by first/last authors and key words, which I have no doubt will be useful in the near future when I write my thesis introduction/discussion (thank you @SteMcQuilliam on Twitter!). It also helped refresh my memory on what papers I could include in my thesis and I jotted them down in my ‘thesis outline’ plan.

Make it enjoyable

Put on your favourite music. Have dance breaks. Play past Google Doodle games. Open your curtains and windows and let the sunlight in (there’s no natural sunlight at my office desk at uni, so I am really enjoying this).

So often in an open office environment, you need to be quiet around others so they can concentrate. At home, you can bounce your leg freely, listen to your music through speakers and sing out loud (sorry to those of you who have people in your house that do not like these things). Sit cross-legged on your chair, work in bed or on the couch. Take extended lunch breaks, have lunch early if you want, rest if you are tired (who is going to know?), have that fifth cup of coffee with absolutely no co-worker judgement.

You know yourself best, so do what works for you. Am I listening to ABBA songs on repeat right now with my legs on my desk to help me write this blog post? You bet I am.

Do not always focus on your work

I was not that active during the first few weeks of social distancing, and I think that translated into how productive I was while working from home. Something similar happened when I took a few months off from my main form of exercise, ballet, during my HSC. While work is important, it is equally important to exercise your mind and body.

I am fortunate that can keep active during this time by doing ballet at home, and also teaching it to my ballet students. It keeps me moving, and it keeps my mind creative by thinking of routines. Twice a week, I look forward to a virtual ballet class at 6pm with my wonderful teacher, and teach once a week to my amazing ballet students. Another thing that I love to do during my weekends is to take a virtual Instagram ballet class with famous dancers. Opportunities to learn from famous dancers are so rare here in Australia and I jump at any opportunity to learn and pass this knowledge on to my students.

But you could keep your mind and body active in so many other ways. You could read, draw or paint, learn a new language, knit/crochet, do DIY crafts, garden, go out for walks, take an online class, or watch free performances online. There’s an endless list of tutorials online for utterly anything you can think of.

Be kind to yourself

Transitioning from full-time lab work to full-time desk work has not been easy. It is extremely important that we all understand that it is okay to be a little lost, unproductive and not do anything if you just are not in the mood. Wash your hands. Stay in touch with friends and loved ones. You are already helping the world by staying at home to reduce the spread of the virus. As you frequently hear, these are extraordinary times. There are no set rules for how productive you should be now. Be kind to yourself always and keep reminding yourself about this every single day. You are already doing so much.

Lana Ly is a member of the Crossley Lab at UNSW.

DVC Merlin Crossley’s blog appears in CMM Friday


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