How Working Fast and Slow Helped Me Find Balance in a Pandemic World
When the pandemic required us to work from home, like everyone else, I was taken by surprise. But then I reminded myself that each decade of my work life had required some sort of adjustment.
Every move across various countries forced me to adapt to the job, the people and their expectations. This new normal, however, was not precipitated by a personal change, but a global one.
I was secretly pleased by the opportunity to work from home. Zero commute. Fewer distractions. Greater productivity. What’s not to like? With decent Wi-Fi, no children under the age of 10 and sensible family members capable of getting their work done and getting out of one another’s way, I assumed it would be a breeze.
It was. For a while.
Yet, as the months went by, unable to distinguish between working from home and working at home, I grew frustrated by the lack of boundaries.
Separating the compartments
In the first year of my job as a research scientist in California, I had to adjust to the fast-paced industry environment after my years in academia, first as a Ph.D. student and later as a post-doctoral fellow. Simultaneously, I had to learn to manage family life with an infant. I had to quickly figure out a way to mark a boundary between work and home.
I used my morning commute to switch off the home channel chatter and mentally gear up for a day in the lab. On the way home, I would discard the worries of my work life in the office parking lot. By mindfully marking and traversing the line between home and work, I managed to function well on both sides and preserve my sanity.
Technology (or lack thereof) helped. With a clunky desktop computer that stayed on my desk and no smartphone in my purse, I could literally walk away with no regrets.
The curse of technology
In the following decade, I acquired a BlackBerry and a laptop, switched countries (to India), and became self-employed. With multiple clients, projects and timelines, I should have been distracted but I was not. On a given day, I could attend a yoga class, meet friends for lunch, pick up my child from school and field late-night calls in different time zones.
With small pockets of sustained attention, I accomplished more in less time.
Given my previous successful experience of working from home, I was surprised by the disappointing post-Covid-19 work experiment. I missed my commute, my colleagues and even the distractions of cubicle life.
The technological advances that made my work situation possible turned into the bane of my life. I was working longer and harder. I felt burnt out.
My work didn’t suffer. I did.
Finding flow and balance
Last year, a tweet by a man who shared the guiding principles of working remotely, set by Canadian federal agency Parks Canada, went viral. One of the principles read: “You are not ‘working from home’, you are ‘at your home, during a crisis, trying to work’.”
When the pandemic forced people to work remotely, everyone struggled. Keeping it together at work and at home were no longer separate goals. They were fused into one giant ball of dissatisfaction and anxiety.
The concept of flow, often described in relation to athletes and artists, applies to everyone regardless of the work they do. An assigned space, an established routine and resources to focus on the task at hand are the tools necessary to execute the assigned work. A home is not designed to provide these tools.
Surprisingly, in a recent Straits Times survey, eight out of 10 workers in Singapore preferred to continue working from home or favoured a hybrid model, a trend that seems to be catching on worldwide.
While sequestering at home in the initial days of the pandemic, the elimination of a commute had been countered by the stress of figuring out how to make the new lifestyle arrangement work.
Now as employers, employees and their families adjust to the new normal, the flexibility inherent in the arrangement has made working at home the preferred zone.
It is predicted that flexible work arrangements will become the norm in the post-pandemic world.
With employers keen on reaping the benefits of greater engagement and reduced absenteeism reported among remote workers, what seemed like a temporary work arrangement in 2020 is now beginning to look like the future of work.
But what about employees who need to find ways to counter the burnout and exhaustion caused by the inability to unplug from work?
Just as a sentence needs punctuation, a work day needs periodic pauses — to catch a breath, to change the tempo and to begin again, with renewed vigour.
As the pandemic drags on, it behoves us to find a way to work deeply and be fully engaged, not just for our professional success but also for our personal well-being.
New rituals for a new normal
For most, the fight for boundaries begins and ends with the computer. Most of my stress came from my disproportional dependence on the screen to provide everything — work tools, camaraderie, exercise and entertainment. To wean myself from its siren call, I borrowed techniques that are associated with creative endeavours.
Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, proposes “go for a walk”, among other ideas, to jump-start creativity. Instead of a nightly walk, I began taking a short post-lunch stroll through my neighbourhood. The walk among the greenery near my home provided physical activity and relaxed my tired eyes.
A longer break, like Bill Gates’ Think Week, an annual week-long reading retreat in the woods to stimulate innovative ideas, would have been ideal. But given the limitations of our ordinary lives, many friends and co-workers improvised by including a repetitive activity like washing dishes, folding laundry or cooking, to break up the daily grind and get chores done.
Having an exercise regimen also helps. Incorporating yoga back into my work week since the online classes required more time in front of a screen. I dug up a favourite yoga sequence from my old journal and began practising it. Soon the happy hormones kicked in.
As the pandemic stretches into the second year, and the novelty (and some of the stress) of working from wears off, it’s clear that there is no point yearning for the good old days, reminiscing about face-to-face meetings and impromptu office lunches. It is impossible to wish away the pandemic or turn back the clock.
This new decade has required a new way of working. My current routine seems manageable, for now.
It may take another decade to confirm whether this forced adaptation turns into a sustainable long-term model of work-life balance.
Ranjani Rao is a pharmaceutical scientist originally from Mumbai, India who lives in Singapore with her family. When not working or writing her memoir, she takes long walks in the nature reserve near her home.
Originally published at https://www.straitstimes.com on March 6, 2021.