Keep your sense of humour through these trying times!
Once upon a time, I dreamed of effortlessly balancing work and home life. I conjured up visions of intense productivity on my laptop while working from home, punctuated by pauses when I would serve freshly baked vegan muffins to my adoring and well-mannered children. I would be the scheduling supremo, dressing my children in coordinated outfits and my 12-person dinner parties would be the talk of the town. I would single-handedly dispel the myth that women can’t have it all. In my dream, I am immaculately coiffed, with washboard abs and a Pulitzer nomination would be winging its way to me in the post.
My dream came true. I am now working from home. Or to be more precise, I’m working from inside my car which is parked outside my home. I need to be close enough to the house to connect Wifi but distanced enough from the domestic chaos to get anything done. I draft this paragraph with my laptop perched precariously on the steering wheel. The car is hot; I open the windows. There are mosquitoes; I close the windows. By the time I’ve finished this article, I may have contracted heat-stroke. There are no vegan muffins, no Cordon Bleu dinners and no prestigious literary awards on the horizon. And I’ve accidentally honked at the neighbours – twice.
Work from home, and its tersely efficient-sounding acronym WFH, is clearly an oxymoron. The challenge lies in the unceremonious and rather sudden smushing of our professional and personal spaces. The ideal WFH scenario would be me on my lonesome (bliss). The pandemic-driven real-life version of WFH includes: my husband Works From Home, the Dogs Bark From Home, and the children Play Indoor Football from Home. If not football, then endless arts and crafts experiments, the latest involving food dyes, ice and a flagrant disregard for the sanctity of the white sofa. We can now appreciate the irony of the acronym: “WFH” is, practically speaking, quite similar to its cousin, “WTF”. Frankly, they seem interchangeable!
As the kids scavenge for obsolete devices to begin another round of online schooling, I realise in this season of home-based learning, it may be that I have learnt the most. I call it (virtual) COVID University where you graduate with a degree in home survival. Enrolment was mandatory. COVID University has several parallels to my own first-year college experience, namely, the weight gain (that pandemic sourdough!), the procrastination and the day-drinking. However, just like with college, I absorbed a few lessons which have better equipped me to deal with (what is becoming) a very long term. Allow me to share the home survival guide Cliff Notes with you.
Read more: Top Tips For Working From Home With Kids
Maintain Good Habits
The most valuable text I read and reread during this time was James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Habits make up an estimated 50% of our day, and a clear idea on how to maintain good habits is essential to our well-being. While most of us have had our daily schedules upended by stay-at-home measures, maintaining a rigorous internal rhythm of familiar habits gave me a sense of normalcy and routine (but perhaps Clear was not commending my Net-A-Porter addiction and day-night pyjama routine). So, I reverted to my pre-pandemic schedule which means waking up at 6am and heading straight to the Living Room Gym. It also meant refusing to stumble down the slippery slope of late-night Netflix and wine. Fight the good fight to maintain good habits.
Clear also cites four rules for creating a new habit. The first rule is: make it easy. Splice the goal into its component parts; each part should be small. As small as an atom (hence “atomic habits”). It should be such a small action that you cannot not do it. For example, given night time socialising has decreased, you decide to use your evenings to read. Begin by setting yourself a specific goal. Simply saying you’ll “Read more” is vague and useless, so it’s no surprise you find yourself mindlessly scrolling Instagram instead. Create a specific, “atom-sized” goal – for example, read one page before bed. This is a goal you can definitely achieve. The next day, increase to two pages and so on and so forth. As the scope of your habit increases, so too does your willpower.
The second rule is: make it attractive. In a bid to decrease drinking alcohol, I started filling my wine glass with juice and my champagne flutes with sparkling water. I allow my mind to play tricks on me – drinking from a glass orb is sexier than drinking from a mug and less conspicuous at a dinner together. During this experiment, I realised a large part of our habits are muscle memory – in this case, simply the act of lifting a champagne flute to my lips was relaxing. Try it for yourself!
There are two more rules, but I won’t spoil the ending…get the book, it’s a fabulous read.
Shift, Don’t Quit
This season of regular disruptions has been terribly unkind to us Type-A individuals. In fact, forward planning now seems almost old-fashioned. But instead of quitting your goals, figure out how to shift your goalposts. And do it quickly. At the beginning of COVID season, I wasted a fair amount of time mourning the loss of an immaculately planned summer overseas. I wish I had internalised the loss sooner, and quickly readjusted my expectations to accommodate the new situation. I did, eventually, but not without a fair amount of woe-is-me dramatics. To my surprise, our alternate summer plans yielded spontaneous and exciting discoveries. When gyms closed, the kids and I went waterfall chasing. When swim training cancelled, we ventured to the open sea. When beaches closed, we bought plastic string and wiggly slimy bait to fish from the Stanley pier (our loot included four fish, one crab and a box full of clam-like things). In fact, I was surprised how much there was to do when there was “nothing to do” by simply shifting my rigid mindset to one that was more curious and accepting.
Involve Them Or Leave Them
My moments of deepest frustration during this period stemmed from unrealistic expectations. For example, trying to meet a deadline while hoping the kids would respect a closed door. Therefore my husband and I would attempt to involve them in what we are doing. One morning I heard him grunting in a more feral way than usual during his Living Room Workout. I peeked in and witnessed my daughter (about 35 kilos) balancing on her father’s back while he did push-ups. Excellent involvement, I encouraged him. On the occasion the Littles walk by while I’m on a Zoom call, I introduce them. There’s no point in shooing them away. Like the mosquitoes in my car, they will just continue to buzz about until I can’t take it anymore.
If I can’t involve them, then I leave them (with adult supervision, that is). I’ve given up trying to be simultaneously productive with work and patient with kids. Oftentimes it means returning to the car and, for a few months, I worked from my friend’s (closed) restaurant. Sunlight streamed in through the skylight, the cavernous room was silent, and there was Wifi and oxygen. I finally understood Milton’s Paradise Found.
It’s The Commitment, Not The Equipment
I recently learned our bodies produce four types of happiness chemicals: dopamine – the reward chemical, oxytocin – the love hormone, serotonin – the mood stabiliser and endorphin – the painkiller. There is one activity that hacks all four of these chemicals to give you a natural high: exercise. But you know this! What you need is a plan which reflects your commitment. In my case, our living room received a temporary facelift to become a gym. The coffee table and sofa are now pushed to the wall, the carpets are rolled up, and we covered the ground with yoga mats. It makes working out convenient. Given the lack of seating options, it makes watching TV uncomfortable.
The second part of the plan is to explore exercises which use minimal equipment, like callisthenics. In fact, I had an entire workout which consisted only of squats, push-ups and planks. The pain the day after…If you know, you know. Don’t hold back on training because you don’t have the equipment. Don’t wait for the exact kettlebell you want from Decathlon (tip: they are out of stock anyway). Where you can’t borrow, improvise. The balcony seating became my bench press and an incline bench press was easily constructed with drainage bricks. Unfortunately, I forgot to replace the bricks, and the drains clogged in a recent rainstorm and flooded the balcony. Otherwise, improvisation works brilliantly.
Listen, none of us needs to graduate from COVID University with a 4.0 GPA. All we need to do is Pass through this time (failing is not an option!). Stay-at-home measures over an extended period of time represent unchartered waters for people all over the world. We can’t control the Third Wave (nor any of the waves to come), so the best we can do is learn how to surf and enjoy the ride. And keep your sense of humour.