Living with reduced freedom – part 2: How not to go stir-crazy at home

This is part 2 of a post by guest blogger Dr. Alison Thompson, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

Given the current lockdown, most of us will be spending a lot more time at home in the next few months. Here are a few tips for how not to go stir-crazy at home, again based on my experience of being housebound for the last 6 months with chronic fatigue syndrome. (If you missed part 1, on choosing a positive mind-set, you can read it here).

I am conscious that lockdown has presented different challenges for different people: lots more work or no work. Home alone or in a full house. Shut inside or helping others in isolation. This post is therefore not so much a list of things to do, but instead some thoughts and pointers so you can make your own informed decisions on how to live your days at home in a sustainable way.

First, establish a routine. This doesn’t need to be super strict, but having a set wake time, bed time, work time and meal times can help things feel a bit more normal in these abnormal times. If you’re feeling unmotivated to get up each day, why not find someone to be accountable to, or arrange something for first thing in the morning, so you have a reason to get up? 

It is more important than ever to have work-life harmony and to find ways to distinguish between work and the rest of your life. Maybe you can establish an alternative to the daily commute? I once had a rather surreal practice interview experience with a man who introduced himself as “Uncle Norman”, before giving me some friendly advice. He then abruptly left the room and closed the door. After a short pause, he walked in again, shook my hand and said “Hello, I’m Professor Pantling”; the interview had begun. Are there ways can you step into/out of a role, like Uncle Norman/Professor Pantling? Perhaps you have a dedicated working area that you can close the door on, or maybe you can have the routine of packing up and down your workstation every day? (This doesn’t have to be a chore if you view it in the right light!) 

What about the other hours that you’re suddenly not sure how to fill? If you are still working, you might not have as much extra time on your hands as you anticipate, so it’s best initially not to try and cram in everything you can think of. However, it’s also unhelpful to procrastinate starting anything, for fear of running out of things to do. Pacing is key. At its simplest, this involves chunking things up into manageable amounts. Have you ever been in a meeting or workshop that was dragging on, desperately looking forward to the break, only for it to be cut out “in the interests of time”? For all of us, even a little time out can refresh us and give us (or the meeting) a new spark.

Another aspect of pacing is to switch between different types of activities. Similar to having a balanced diet, by including a variety of mental, physical and (possibly virtual) social activities, you can keep your day varied and balanced. It can help too, if you can, to alternate between activities in different rooms, as it breaks things up naturally and provides some movement. Try reserving some time away from your screens as well, to give your eyes a rest and to give your mind time to process the information you’re being bombarded with.

Think about what makes you tick and find ways to incorporate that into your day. Personally, I love learning and being creative, so I take time to read up about things I get curious about, let my mind spark with ideas and find a creative outlet for them. Why not write a list of all the activities you can think of doing, so that you can look back over it when you’re lacking inspiration? As time goes on, I keep finding more things to add, so don’t hold back! Some other questions to get you thinking:

– What have you been wanting to do at home for ages that you haven’t had time for?
– What needs doing that you’ve been putting off?
– What would be fun to do/ give you a sense of achievement?

As well as all the things you’ve thinking about doing, rest is really important. We don’t often realise we’re getting tired until we stop rushing around, which, if we haven’t paused for break all day, might well be when we collapse into bed at night. It’s good to take a breather before then, and the world will feel better for it. 

I found it really hard to rest when I first got chronic fatigue, and had lots of questions whirling around my mind, even ones like: “Am I resting right? How do I rest? Why is it so hard?” But in trying too hard, I was missing the point about what rest is. I found it more helpful to think about creating space: space to listen to my breathing for a bit, space to ask myself how I’m doing, space to let my mind wander. Instead of trying not to think about anything, it can help to focus on something. For example, if you’re feeling hemmed in, why not picture yourself by the sea shore, waves lapping in time with your breathing. Or if you’ve been feeling lonely, spend some time reminding yourself that you are loved. Have a look at resources on mindfulness and self-compassion online for further inspiration.However much or little you can do these days, work or otherwise, remember: you are so much more than what you do. As the saying goes, we are human beings, not human doings. Yes, we can gain satisfaction and a sense of purpose from our work/studies/jobs, but they do not define us. There is inherent worth in who we are.

Dr. Alison Thompson is a research associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, at the University of Sheffield.

Photo Courtesy of the Graduate Coaching Partnership

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