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Finding focus in office exile

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I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.

We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.

By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.

Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.

For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.

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Amy’s top study from home tips:

  • Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
  • Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
  • Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
  • Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
  • Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
  • Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
  • Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here

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