We all have been coping with several work-life balance issues during the pandemic. While people have to balance their professional and home responsibilities even in ordinary times, the pandemic created a situation where the latter skyrocketed with children having to be home schooled and domestic work having to be managed without any external support. A colleague of mine once said with exasperation that in the midst of sweeping and mopping, the latest literature in his field had started evading him. The hours that many people typically spent doing their academic work had to be recalibrated as their children were no longer going to school. My former postdoc mentor, Matilde Lalin wrote this lovely article describing (in "real time") how mathematicians like her conducted their research during COVID times.
Some of us found ourselves away from our families for a long period of time due to the unexpected lockdown announcement. In my case, all other parameters were fine. I was in good health, safely placed inside the IISER campus and assured that my family members, though far away from me, were safe and healthy too. When the first lockdown was announced, the solitude promised to be a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. With no possibility of traveling in the upcoming days, I was all set to put the song "Mono Chalo Nija Niketane" (translation: "Let us go back once more, O Mind, to our own abode") into action . I was only going to step out to get groceries from a store in my building and spend the rest of my time in "Nija Niketana" doing Mathematics.
A few days down the line, I realized that my grand plan was failing: Nija Niketana was turning into Netflix Niketana and the monster was starting to occupy more space than bargained for. What exactly went wrong? I had lots of goals to work on and lots of time. Had I lost the ability to focus on research and writing? Was this the end of everything?
Soon, I realized that I was not alone in this predicament. Several people in my situation were facing this challenge. In this context, I heard about an acquaintance, who was all set to go on a sabbatical when the pandemic struck and messed with his plans. Unable to travel, he had two options. One was to continue his sabbatical at home, work with collaborators online and not have to worry about teaching. The second was to cancel his sabbatical and get back to active university duties. He chose the second option and requested the university to let him get back to teaching that semester. He recognized at the outset that all alone in his apartment, in the event of not being able to make a research visit elsewhere, he needed the structure provided by a regular university schedule to function optimally. I was encouraged to hear this story and also got an idea of how to proceed: I had to build a structure around daily activities.
A large chunk of time in solitude is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. But, it can also be a double edged sword: our teaching duties, seminars/colloquia, interaction with students and colleagues provide a structure around which we can organize our daily activities in a time bound manner. In reserving time blocks for these activities, we also end up reserving time blocks for research work. There is little leeway to move around the time blocks for activities like teaching, talking to collaborators/students and attending seminars (more generally, any activity which requires a commitment to another human being). We therefore stick with the research time blocks because we must. In other words, for many of us, to be able to make the most of research time, there needs to be a structure to the day that involves a healthy dose of other meaningful activities like teaching, seminars, regular workout sessions and pursuing hobbies.
Structure is also the best antidote to anxiety. I started working to incorporate a daily plan in a way as to not procrastinate during the day time and then, feel empty and anxious in the evening (which leads to another cycle of procrastination). Making a ``formal" commitment (even if to oneself) by writing to-do lists and following through on it by writing "got-done" lists goes a long way in making sure that we don't postpone something just because we can. My efforts to avoid empty "got-done" lists were centred around three tiny principles. I had heard of these before, but was forced to implement them diligently upon realizing that the pandemic was, indeed, playing havoc with my mental world.
The first principle is that of showing up. When pulling the mind out of inertia, it is important to avoid an all-or-none approach. For example, if unable to start some planned work at a certain time, it helps to "show up", as long as the time planned for that activity is still left. Consistently noting afterwards how much of the work could get done instead of writing, "I got nothing done" uplifts the mood like nothing else, and with each passing day, one starts showing up for more and more tasks at the allotted time. Here, I am referring to tasks that are most in danger of getting postponed: ones that do not require coordinating with another person and have no immediate deadline.
The second principle is to give precise instructions to ourselves. Showing up on time for a task, but without a clear idea of what is to be done is a recipe for not getting it done. So, goals like "typing" or "typing Section 2" got converted into goals like "Write Lemma 3", "outline the proof of Lemma 3", "arrange the index of notations" etc. Much to my surprise, in a project where I had been suffering from a serious writer's block for weeks on end, I saw progress to the tune of 15 pages in 6 days. It is, of course, not always possible to count the output of work done in terms of pages. It is also not easy to come up with precise goals when starting to explore a research project, which is why people end up procrastinating the most at this stage. But, it does help to isolate exactly what part of a problem or project one wants to explore and stay focused on that.
The third principle is to get work done on the go. At some point, we all make peace with the fact that we want to do (or need to do) much more than we have time for. It is not a moral defect, therefore, to allocate short bursts of time to activities that we enjoy or care for, but which get relegated to the background as we seek to fulfil more urgent responsibilities. These bursts of time can be snatched from other things that are happening around us. I have managed to read, for example, two volumes of Shri Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography over the past few weeks while waiting for the geyser to heat the water. Occasionally, I have also planned some work within the time that the washing machine takes to complete a wash cycle [this puts a nice timer on the activity concerned as well]. Sometimes, the time period can be as short as the 2 minutes during which a meal is being heated up in the microwave. This blog post has been written in the last few days in similar situations. In fact, this particular paragraph is being written up as a friend, who joined me for coffee, has stepped out to take a phone call.
This would be a good place to conclude the blog post. After a wholesome Sunday spent reading, preparing for classes, reflecting on the importance of structure and finishing this post, it is time to lock all doors of my abode and truly go within.
I would love to learn more productivity/structure tips from readers.
 This song is famously recognized as the song which Swami Vivekananda sang when he visited Shri Ramakrishna for the first time.