Tips for Getting Writing Done in Pandemic Purgatory

The Virgin and Souls in Purgatory. By Pedro Machuca - Web Gallery of Art: Public Domain

At the end of January, one month before Michigan responded to the pandemic by closing non-essential services, I pulled my 3-year-old from daycare. I was (and still am) attempting to launch a business, but our back up funds had run dry and we could no longer afford childcare. As it happened, I got an early taste of the pandemic dilemma that millions have faced since.

My work is a large part of my identity and in this extended lack of childcare, my brain will not turn off. Unlike many, I don’t have the external motivating factors of an institution who demands more than I can give, but neither can I put my work on hold to embrace the single job of stay-at-home parenting. The internal motivators, and the normalcy that it provides, are too strong. So, like many others I am stuck in this pandemic purgatory where housework, childcare, and my own motivations are in constant opposition.

Below are some things I’ve learned while trying to live, and write, in my purgatory. Perhaps they will be helpful for others. The caveat is that while I solo parent during the work day (6am to ??), I do have many pandemic privileges1 that may affect how well these tips work for you. That said, here are my suggestions for maintaining sanity-saving levels of writing and productivity in our collective pandemic purgatory.

Keep up with self-care

Writing is a creative act that consumes a lot of mental energy, so self-care remains as important as ever. In addition to the existential threat of a pandemic, the availability of digital workplaces (e.g., Zoom, Slack, Google Drive) enables (even enforces) bringing our work lives home in an unprecedented way, creating unprecedented stress. Whether it’s paying the bills, making the (virtual) therapy appointment, or taking a bath, we must provide ourselves with the opportunity to reduce our stress levels whenever possible.

We already know that humans need adequate sleep to be productive. In fact, the stress created by sleep deprivation can reduce the productivity of any time gained. Similarly, the excessive amount of work-from-home-and-homeschool-my-child-during-a-pandemic stress might cause post-lunch exhaustion or irritability. That’s your cue to take a nap, work out, or practice a similar stress-relief technique.

Practice delegating

I can accept taking my car to a mechanic for an oil change, but when it comes to my work, I’m the queen of “Oh, I’ll just do it myself.” That approach used to work, since I had childcare and the luxury of time and focus to figure it out. Now that I don’t have either, I’ve finally realized that I need to delegate tasks that don’t absolutely require my skills.

Do you really have the mental load available to learn Adobe Illustrator right now? Probably not, so find a professional to make your graphic.

Have you read your grant proposal so many times that you have it memorized? Now’s the time to have a professional editor look it over.

Are you facepalming to the tune of R errors? Find a data analyst and get some help.

Delegation (i.e., trusting someone else with your work) is tough, but essential to retain your limited mental load, sanity, and productivity. Additionally, plenty of small businesses and freelancers could use the extra business right now.

Bargain

My son loves the new norm of virtually unlimited access to me. I had difficulty adjusting. It would be difficult to negotiate the abrupt transition from the traditional 9 to 5 to our new work conditions alone, but adding children, roommates, and/or partners makes it all the more difficult. That’s why I suggest just that, negotiating.

Recognizing the upheaval of our lives and validating the fears, frustrations, and desires of our fellow captives is the first step to establishing a functional household. My son’s desire for a constant playmate and parent is valid and expected, but counterproductive to my own mental health. So, I negotiate boundaries that enable both of us to get what we need. These are some of the resources that have resulted in productive negotiations in our household.

Time

I’m not very good at schedules, but I have an ideal schedule2 that alternates between work and play. I make it very clear that I have to work for 2 hours, after which we will do whatever activity he chooses. Then I set a timer and stick to our agreement. After lunch, another 2 hours are blocked out for “quiet time”, i.e., I work and he naps or plays in his room.

Another strategy to negotiate time is pushing back bedtime. My son doesn’t nap and tends to function in 12 hour sleep/wake cycles; unless my depression is acting up, I get up with my husband at 6 am. With a standard 8/9pm bedtime, this allows me one to two hours of uninterrupted work. Mornings are my most productive time of the day, so to maximize my time we started allowing my son to stay up later, and later, and later. Eventually, he was going to bed around midnight (hubby is a night owl) and sleeping until almost 11am. Hello half a work day! Disclaimer: This only worked a few weeks. Then he fell asleep at 5pm one night, woke up at 6am and we were back where we started sigh.

Desirables

After work versus play time has been negotiated, we enter the “desirable” bargain (aka bribing) phase. Here, my son requests something that will better facilitate his solo play time. A common request is screen time, which is an automatic given for the “quiet time” described above. If his tablet isn’t available, I generally give up my phone for him to watch videos. YouTube for Kids is pretty dicy, so instead I open either Netflix or the free PBS Video app, which features favorites like Daniel Tiger and the Kratt brothers. Sometimes, a favorite snack or treat is the missing ingredient to successful solo play. My son most often requests hot chocolate or an ice pop.

In some cases, there aren’t any desirables that will facilitate work/writing time. Instead, he wants to do an activity “with you!” and we negotiate attention for proximity. I pick a task that I can do with slightly less focused mental labor, and sit next to him while he plays or watches a favorite show.

Find accountability

Even if we have found the time and mental space to work, it’s easy to get distracted by the latest Twitter dumpster fire. This is where accountability comes into play. Find an accountability partner to set goals with and report back to. Having defined goals helps prevent the “what am I doing” overwhelm that often leads (me) to Twitter. Alternately, you and your accountability partner(s) could schedule video calls during overlapping work hours. Not for talking, but for working in tandem, which facilitates focus for both of you. An added bonus is having adult human contact to look forward to.

Scientific productivity is a core component of my identity and a symbol of normalcy that maintains my sanity. Taking care of myself, working with my fellow housemates, delegating tasks, and finding accountability have all been integral to maintaining any level of productivity. While the above suggestions may not seem like writing tips, they all contribute to that first essential step of writing: doing it.



  1. Pandemic Privileges:

    • My husband has continued working, so we have not lost our primary income

    • We have a large house with a yard

    • We have technology: TV, internet, computers, tablet, phones, etc.

    • We have the cash flow and space to store food to minimize exposure and reduce stress

    • We have our own transportation

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  2. Briefly, my ideal schedule is to work from 6:30 am until my son wakes up. Then we take a breakfast break and he plays/has screen time for another couple of hours. At 11am we go outside until lunch at 12:30. After lunch is a 2 hour “quiet time” followed by chores and my workout. Then it’s snack time, after which we play whatever my son wants until it’s time for dinner, bath, and bed.

    A suggested work/play schedule
    A suggested work/play schedule
     ↩︎

Ada K. Hagan, Ph.D.
Ada K. Hagan, Ph.D.
Owner, Lead Consultant

I am a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. I hope to use my background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds.

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