9 weeks. 65 days. 1560 hours. 93,600 minutes. 5,616,000 seconds. That’s a lot of time. It’s exactly how long we have now been in lockdown here in the UK, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s exactly how long we have all had to stay at home and do, well, All The Things.
Or at least that’s how it looks from the outside; as if weeks and weeks of being off work, out of school, away from other responsibilities leaves us all with the same vast period of uninterrupted free time to do whatever we like. All those things we’d filed in the “If only I had the time!” corner of our minds could now be pulled out, dusted off and put into practise. Lose that weight! Learn that language! Start that business! Master that hobby! No distractions. No excuses.
But is it that simple? Does “free” time look the same for all of us, if it’s even free at all? Honestly, I don’t think it does. We were never in the same boat before all of this, and we’re still not in it now.
For the first few weeks, I sort of bought it. I knew fairly early on that thanks to my kidney transplant and immunosuppression, I was going to be advised to stay at home for at least three months. While this is admittedly a bit stressful, I also knew that fortunately, I was personally in quite a good position. I’m able to work from home and I don’t have kids needing supervision, relatives needing care or a spouse needing support. Beyond some initial adjustments, there was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to continue as normal and also use some of my new found “free time” to Improve Myself and Achieve Things. I was a prime candidate for some serious Lockdown Productivity.
Initially, this mostly went ok. Working from home was fine and the prospect of all my new potential hobbies was weirdly appealing. Until it wasn’t. Even though parts of my life had emptied out, other parts were still very full. I found myself doing less than I felt as if I “should”, and frequently sitting staring into space wondering what the hell had just happened to the world. Even though I knew I was luckier than many, there were still a lot of things that bothered me. What would happen if I did get sick? How was my family coping on the opposite side of the world? What about my blood tests and medications and if I needed to see my renal team? How long was this going to go on for? What if I wasn’t able to work from home anymore?
I’ve also realised that many aspects of “lockdown life” (and my responses to it!) remind me of another very difficult experience in my life. At the beginning of 2011, I was in a very large earthquake in my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Fortunately, my immediate surroundings and I were unharmed, but I was off work for several weeks then too and I found myself sitting at home feeling the same pressure that I do now, as if I ought to be making the most of this time to plan/prepare and do things. That is until I took a step back and realised why I was at home. It wasn’t my choice not to be at work, the school was so badly damaged it needed to be demolished, and if I was honest with myself, I wasn’t in any fit mental state to teach anyway. It was perfectly reasonable for me to use all my energy getting through one day, and then the next day, and then the one after that. Eventually, my school was able to reopen elsewhere and over time my mental health regained an even keel. I’m not sure this would have happened if I’d kept putting pressure on myself to keep living as if nothing was wrong.
I know that everybody has different ways of dealing with difficult situations. I’ve had good days and bad days over the last couple of months, and I’ve learnt that the best days tend to be the ones with some sort of balance. I’m a creature of habit, so it’s important to me to maintain some sort of daily routine. I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s exactly the same as usual, but at the moment having a routine means that there are some things that I commit to doing each day. I give myself time to fulfil my work responsibilities, to check in with people who matter to me, and to make sure I’m eating, sleeping and taking my medication. I also make sure I have time to do things I enjoy, like writing this blog, teaching myself to bake and sitting outside in the sun with the dogs. What I’m NOT doing is spending every waking hour pressuring myself to “make the most of” all my “extra time”.
Things might be different for you, your life might mean you need more structure, or that you function better with less, but in my case, now is not the time to be cramming my head full of extra knowledge, starting up a “side hustle” or learning a “new skill” solely for the sake of it. Maybe this isn’t the time for you to be doing those things either? Ignore what that irritatingly overachieving friend on Facebook insists that you should be doing and consider your own life. Is this really “extra time” for you, or is it just different? Do you have fewer responsibilities or just different ones related to coping with Covid-19?
It’s ok if it is. Productivity and achievements can wait. Regardless of what Instagram says, it’s more than enough to emerge at the end of this still standing (even if maybe a bit heavier and less polished than you’d like), with mental health and relationships more or less intact, and enough emotional energy to move forward into whatever our new normal looks like.
“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”
– Damian Barr
If you’re interested in reading more about this concept, Toxic Productivity, there’s a very good BBC video online at the moment, encouraging you to learn to recognise if you are overdoing it and giving you some tips to help you balance things out again, if you feel like you need to.
Kidney Care UK has a blog series with suggestions for how to maintain balance and sanity at the moment. “Keeping it all together – while staying apart” is well worth a read!