If I were to use one word to summarise working in lockdown, it would be ‘freedom’. As much as that
seems wholly positive, I think this freedom has brought both benefits and drawbacks. The biggest
upshot of this freedom is what feels like a new way of approaching ‘work’. In my course, tasks are
now uploaded to the VLE for us to complete, but even ‘complete’ is too strong a phrasing. Lecturers
upload resources and questions, and recommend that we make use of them, instead of prescribing
what needs to be done. I’ve loved this; I really think these lockdown arrangements have pared the
course down to the true essence of adult education: greater independence than everything before it.
Giving me the choice over what I do places me fully in control of my learning; more so than when I
was on campus. Back then, register sheets were handed out in seminar groups; sessions took place
at very specific times; and towards the end of the spring term, some lecturers expressed concern at
our attendance levels.
The ‘freer’ home-working environment has certainly produced mental health benefits: I don’t have to
‘act up’ to anything, or anyone. This has felt most evident in this term’s Content Development module
for my course; when it was outlined via video conference, I was relieved to hear it would take place
off-campus. The module was meant to include a series of mandated seminar sessions where we’d
have to articulate our ideas, and critique others’, whether we wanted to or not. I would’ve struggled to
handle such a module; structured like the cutthroat gatekeeping process of the content development
industry. With little confidence in developing ideas, it was a real blessing for me to be able to do so in
private. I could post to the discussion boards when I was comfortable to do so, instead of having to
prematurely present my idea to a room full of forced-skeptics. Without the anxiety of handling face-to-
face pitching, nor the forbodement that my idea would immediately be trashed, I felt confident enough
to pitch to others, and parry critiques, in the end-of-module video conference.
However, this freedom has been double-edged; I wonder if the mental health benefit of working at
home, in putting me at ease, has made it more difficult to actually do work. Perhaps the structured
delineation and ‘mandatory’ feel of the University day had its advantages.
Physical, largely-unavoidable sessions during the day cemented a sense of ‘time’ that I and many
others have felt missing during lockdown. Such sessions acted as ‘cornerstones’ of the day, dictating
when I had to get up; when lunch could be; and where the working day ought to end. Such structure
warded off procrastination, and made days feel like proper, whole days, instead abstract passings of
time. Tasks had to be done - no ambiguity there - before a session, and I think this sense of necessity
hugely boosted my productivity. A week or two into Spring term, I was ahead by one article, and
knowing that the reading list needed completing, I made sure to capitalise on briefer readings to get
ahead of schedule, meaning that by the end of week 6, I’d finished all the downloadable readings for
Not having to journey to work, as well as being able to watch recorded lectures on 2x speed (thank
goodness for that feature!), vastly reduces the total amount of time you need to spend working. But for
me, that advantage is often lost in the psychology of working at home. The on-campus sense of
necessity and drive is not something I’ve felt able to replicate during lockdown. In the Autumn and
Spring terms, I always felt like those physical ‘cornerstone’ sessions had to be attended in order to
‘complete the day’. Though it’s regrettable thinking of lectures and practicals like obstacles, they were
like duties to be fulfilled before the evening could be mine. I only missed an on-campus session if I
really, really didn’t want to be there (or if it would lose me marks). But working at home, that
consistent feeling of obligation has disappeared; almost every session feels like those ones I really
didn’t want to go to, even if the given topic interests me.
That, I think, is one of the biggest issues I’ve found with working in lockdown. The home is so
comfortable and familiar that work inevitably ‘invades’ the space; thus, I feel no motivation to do
something so...unwelcome. Being at home makes me feel like I’m entitled to the whole day off, and I
can’t seem to shake that untruth off; I can’t accept that I’m simply swapping my work environment, as
opposed to having been ‘furloughed’ from University work.
I’m also saying all this while lucky enough to have a quiet, spacious home environment. Others have
to deal with constant distractions, and perhaps even don’t have a space of their own...surely I have no
excuse to be so unproductive? I want to look at motivation, productivity, and whether I’m being too
harsh on myself, in the next blog.
Working at home promises greatness, but needs its faults ironing out. I want to make it efficient and
productive while retaining its mental health, financial and environmental benefits.
The first problem: structure. Days don’t feel like real days. As well as lacking on-campus sessions and
deadlines, I’ve failed to generate a sense of structure through consistency while at home. Instead of
operating my days by ‘I’ll do x at y time’, I play it by ear - getting up when I feel I can; working when I
feel the urge to; getting on with what takes my interest. I do this because productivity advice often tells
you to work when you’re in the mood for it. I’ve let my reason be a slave to the passions in order to
maximise utility; the happiness value of each of my days.
The problem with ‘listening to myself’ like this is that I never had a high enough ‘base-level’ of
productivity to be sure I’ll get something done each day. But if I shouldn’t listen to myself, there’s a
dilemma: do I need to force myself to work, or will that only make me unhappy? Should I congratulate
myself on choosing what’s best for my mental wellbeing, or chastise myself for not taking the initiative
to do something useful?
To make matters worse, when I ‘tell’ myself to do things, I tend not to do them anyway. I think it's an
accountability thing: I don’t respect myself enough to take my own goals seriously, and so while I’m
okay being accountable to respectable authority figures, I refuse to be accountable to myself. Maybe
by using calendar events, I can make each day’s structure feel outside-influenced, normalising tasks
as necessary in my mind. It’s often said people will work to the timeframe they’re given, regardless of
the size of workload. I’ve found this to be true for these blogs - I wasn’t sure I could get this one and
the next done in the period suggested, but I seem to have managed (you be the judge). So although
rigid, time-limited structure curbs my freedom, hopefully it’ll do the opposite to my enthusiasm. In fact,
I believe such structure could make me a lot more satisfied. Similar to how the University timetable
suggested a point at which the working day could end, I could set a time to clock-off at home. Then I
wouldn’t have to feel guilty about enjoying myself afterwards.
As I draft this paragraph, it’s 8.15pm, and I’m trying to do something similar. I’ve given myself half an
hour to splurge my thoughts, then I’ll relax. Allotting tiny focus sessions like this - the few times I’m
sensible enough to, anyway - brings two key benefits. Firstly, relaxation after working feels a lot more
enjoyable and well-earnt. I sadly always seem to forget this, but at least I’ve got a good thing going as
regards treating myself: I keep my alcohol hidden away until I feel I’ve had an ultra-productive day.
The second benefit I’ve found is that setting short time-goals gives rise to an ‘I’ll just finish this
sentence’ mentality that snowballs into ‘well, I’ll just get this idea down too’, and so on. I think I get a
lot more done that way, and I don’t end up feeling weary; perhaps because it’s ‘on my own terms’ that
I’m continuing to write. That might tie into me not respecting my own goals - which is a problem - but
at least I’m tricking my self-disrespect into ‘letting’ me do more work. Maybe the key is in forcing
myself to start things, but letting myself judge when to stop.
Stevie from sitcom Miranda serenades-in a way to build my self-respect with her sing-song question
“What have you done today to make you feeeeel prooud?” The question helps build self-respect by
confirming I have done something of worth (and by reminding me what that was). It also helps give
context to the day, treating it as 24 hours in which I need to make myself feel proud at least once.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been keeping up with it as much as I’d like to during lockdown - I had an
unbroken run of feel-prouds in Spring term, and I don’t know whether this current lull is down to the
lack of structure in my day, or because I really haven’t done anything to feel proud about.
That might be the problem though - feeling proud of myself and my actions is something I’m really
struggling with at home. I think it’s down to the perceived impact of my actions. The work given to us
at University had a very clear benefit to doing it: completing what you were asked to and being
prepared for the sessions or assessments. At home, other than commissioned content like this blog
series, who’s actually asked for any of the stuff I do? It’s all being done with vague ideals in mind, or
in hope that it’ll be useful in the future. Seeing things that way is probably why I struggle to engage
with careers sessions. Making time for them, listening to what’s said and making notes provides no
immediate or tangible benefit. I don’t tend to feel any better for having ‘worked on something’
afterwards either, because on attending such sessions, I see how many, possibly more worthy,
people there are vying for the same kind of job I’d like; that leaves me feeling dejected and even more
Maybe I can lean into that consequentialist thinking to make positive decisions, instead of using it to
doubt those I’ve made. I could evaluate possible pursuits based on how easy the action is, how much
pleasure it will bring, and how many people it’ll benefit - a hedonic calculus. I’m also trying to use my
reminders app more, and I have a whiteboard called the ‘must be done checklist’ that I sometimes
place on my bed as a physical obstacle stopping me from going to bed before I’ve done what I need
to. Perhaps knowing I’ve chosen a goal with a high utility value means I won’t need to use the
whiteboard in future.
So, am I being unduly harsh on myself when questioning how I’m so unproductive? Not really, but I do
think having a more comfortable home environment means that getting on with work is harder. By
calling work ‘alien’ to the home environment, I’ve made a perfect argument for why the library exists,
right? It’s a place built entirely around the idea of working and studying, so when you’re there you feel
perfectly normal about working. The detached, ‘not your own’ space feels like a perfect place to work
because it’s not somewhere you can feel especially relaxed. It promotes work and narrows your
thoughts down to nothing else until you leave. The library is perhaps the location in the University
most conducive to work; and the more relaxing the environment - at home with your own space being
most relaxing - the more difficult it is to accept the idea of getting down to work.
Thing is though, a public and often busy space like the library is not somewhere I’d feel comfortable
working. Being amongst strangers makes me feel anxious, and anxiety isn’t great for focus. Instead, I
think associations can help me to stay working and motivated at home. Whenever I went to Coffee
Society (a small group of regulars) on Sundays, I always liked to take my laptop with me and get on
with tasks; and I really felt able to, too. I think that’s because of coffee-shop connotations. The strong
drink acts as a kind of outer barrier for your distraction; the quiet hubbub a focusing white noise,
enclosing you in a personal bubble. All the references made to coffee in workplaces, and references
made to work in coffee-places, build and reinforce this association; a collection of connotations,
known as a Barthesian myth. These universal associations paint their subject in a very particular light,
and when the myth of ‘the coffee shop’ only really suggests work and focus, it’s much easier to get to
work in such an environment. The associations are strong with this one, as it were.
Now, I don’t like the public unknown of coffee shops, nor the price of anything but Pret’s 49p filter
coffee, but perhaps the drink itself would be a good way to get myself working. As well as tapping into
the Barthesian myth, this leans on the power of ritual. Before drafting this section, I made myself a
cup of tea, as is my ritual before...well, anything. Associations like ‘when I do x, it means I’m about to
do y’ help to reinforce the resulting action as normal. If I can get into the groove of only making myself
a hot drink when I’m about to work, perhaps I can normalise the work. Maybe if I say to myself, ‘you
only get a tea/coffee when you’re about to be productive; if not, it’s just water’, I’ll successfully get
down to work more often. That’d be similar to how I reserve my favourite music playlists for when I’m
doing something useful. As I write this, I’m listening to soundtrack playlist Wordless Working Tunes;
and when I attempt to learn new software - something I really dislike because it makes me feel
hopeless and useless - I indulge in a shuffle of my favourites, almost as compensation.
So cultivating self-respect, necessity and associations, as well as evaluating actions based on utility,
may be ways to increase my productivity. In the next blog, I want to look at the reverse of this as we
head back to campus: what home-working problems on-site learning fixes; what the pitfalls of
physically ‘being there’ are; and the invaluable shared experiences of spending time with friends.
Lockdown isn’t going to be permanent; at some point, our education will resume on-campus. So, what
can I look forward to about returning, and how can I weather the storms that come with it?
We’ve definitely established structure as a benefit of on-site education, and it’s been an important
theme for me. The University day and the shared experiences of student life give rise to an excellent
sense of structure - not as rigid as school days, but not so loose that it leaves you wondering what
day it is, or in fact what a ‘day’ even is.
Back on-campus, the structure of the next day, week or even term was an enjoyable point of
discussion in our flat kitchen.
“How many 9:30s do you have next week?”
‘Four. And on Thursday mine go straight through from 9 to 5”
“Oh my God, that’s disgusting! I feel ridiculous complaining about my day now”
(that last one was me, by the way)
Such conversations, and a calendar foreshadowing sessions for months to come, ingrained that
sense of daily structure. Sharing similar learning situations with flatmates gave valuable context to
University days, and at no point more than when we first arrived. During Freshers’ Week, I think group
vulnerability played a big part in bringing us together. To varying degrees, I imagine we all felt
‘younger’; more reliant on each other and the visiting STYCs to help us through this unusual time.
Expand that to the unfamiliar landscape of degrees, and you seem to have a collective University
experience based on helping one another ‘get through’ this phase of our education.
Lockdown has also been an unusual time, and I think the lack of shared experiences has arguably
made it worse. We’ve had to negotiate lockdown apart from our peer groups - missing the feeling of
‘all going through it together’. As much as that Blitz spirit is how the public’s attitude to lockdown has
been framed, the experience of the pandemic has only been shared distantly, by proxy of video calls
and social media.
Having friends there to share experiences with has really improved on-campus living for me. The
difference to my course, where sadly I’ve made no personal friends, is stark. During the introductory
course sessions, with the whole cohort present, I felt too intimidated to strike up or join conversations
with those around me. Although following behind in clear air felt the easiest route at the time, I now
regret doing so. Pleasant as most of the cohort are to me, they have their own friend groups to
gravitate towards. Meanwhile, I’m just sort of…‘there’ in practicals, holding back because I think it’s
impossible to join in conversations now these groups have been established. This predicament leads
me to think working at home could fix the issue. When we all communicate in the course group chat,
no-one can peel off into private conversations. I’ve felt able to occasionally make contributions
because it’s so ‘democratised’, like a level playing field where I don’t have to be outgoing to get into
the conversation, and my past lack of initiative doesn’t disadvantage me too much.
But I wonder if the rewards you reap from trying to make friends in-person outweigh the confidence-
building neutrality of the group chat. Luckily, I made the effort to talk to my flatmates from the moment
of arrival, instead of taking the easier route of being a recluse. It’s like when I’m learning software; I
hate the process and the unknowns it brings, but that doesn’t stop it having great potential rewards.
Gelling together as a flat has indeed borne huge amounts of fruit. We even involved camaraderie in
“Bin o’clock”, where on Wednesdays four of us would go together to dispose of the flat’s rubbish. I’m
so grateful that none of my flatmates grew bored of this group mentality. Without coming together for
collective experiences, I would’ve been a lot more private and morose, and perhaps less cultured too -
I certainly never would’ve danced to Ru Paul’s ‘Cover Girl’. Indeed, looking on Netflix recently and
seeing that The Politician was returning, I was hit with pangs of joy and sadness. What had made The
Politician so lovable, I think, was the shared experience of watching it as a flat; commenting on how
impressed we were by Ben Platt, and singing along to the intro song.
I tried in vain to pick holes in memories so I’d miss those interactions less, or so I wouldn’t be
distraught if we ever drifted apart. ‘Maybe’, I thought to myself, ‘I can be glad I have more control and
freedom in my home environment’. But no-one is an island: I’ve benefited immensely from friends’
influences and recommendations, and we’ve mutually benefited from giving them. Some of us learnt
to play Magic: the Gathering so a flatmate wouldn’t have to go to the other campus to play it, and I
find it quite fun. Another night, we all went on a night out to Leeds on a cheer-up mission. I’d never
dream of travelling to a different city for one night, but the experience was brilliant, and it remains a
Having looked at what remote working misses out on, it’s only fair to look at the inherent problem with
learning on-campus: ‘inescapability’. At the end of a practical session, I was trying my best to fold a
cable away correctly (being dyspraxic didn’t help, but it’s also a finicky technique generally). The
technician in the room looked directly at me and said, “no well, that’s dreadful.” I was taken aback by
their scorn and wanted to walk away immediately. But worrying that leaving would cause a scene, I
stood, still and silent, wishing I could just leave. At home, I wouldn’t need to worry about a situation
like that arising - yes because a physical situation like that couldn’t take place, but on a more
universalisable level because I could just leave. Working remotely allows you to leave situations as
soon as they become uncomfortable. Sure, freedom of that level is what I talked about causing my
lack of motivation at home, but motivation comes a definite second when what’s best for that is
harmful to my mental wellbeing.
An important thing I’ve learnt over the course of writing these blogs is that the best outcome starts
with total freedom, followed by choosing how much to allow yourself. My advocacy for working at
home is not about making everyone stay away from the workplace. The justice of a universal right to
work at home is that it’s an inalienable freedom; allowing people to work remotely if it’s best for them.
During lockdown, it was heartwarming to see Twitter announcing that its employees can work at home
‘forever’ if they want to. I’ve arranged with my tutor to work remotely for the first term when we go
back, so I can work on the course content from a less stressful home environment. Lockdown does
potential wonders for work, but isn’t good for friendship and shared experiences. Because of that, my
home environment will be in York, with flatmates I hope to share more great experiences with. That
way, I hope to maximise the positive aspects of on-site learning and avoid the negatives, at least for
the first term. Working at home during lockdown has taught me there are limits to how much freedom I
want to use, but no limit to the amount of freedom we should have.