Working out why something works

As someone who had a pretty efficient work-life balance system, before COVID made everything happen on a computer in my home… I have been struggling with rebuilding systems that ‘just worked’ in the before-times. And what I’ve noticed is that seemingly simple routines are actually quite complex, and you need to find a replacement for every single one of the component parts to get a similar effect.

For example, when I worked at home, I’d go out for a coffee in a local cafe once during the day. I took a book of non-fiction or poetry and read a few pages while drinking my coffee (leaving time for also people watching or looking at Instagram on my phone). This is currently not legal (or safe!), so I’ve cut this out of my routine and just make a coffee at home instead. But it turns out the cup of coffee was only incidental.

What I’ve actually cut out:

  • Leaving the house
  • Fresh air
  • Potential vitamin D/sunlight on my face
  • Stretching my legs for a walk
  • Significant change in light/focal length
  • Seeing and interacting with other people
  • Seeing and interacting with what’s going on in my neighbourhood
  • Seeing the very good dogs in my neighbourhood
  • Reading a poem or two
  • The very small thrill of treating myself to a coffee
  • The glass of water I had with my coffee
  • A proper-length break in the mid-afternoon.

Walking downstairs to my kitchen, and making a cup of coffee, while scrolling through Instagram, and then heading back to my desk… obviously isn’t the same.

Similar problems arise in a classroom setting. Most of my teaching involves standing near the front and giving people a range of tasks (like listening, chatting in a small group, or doing a worksheet) and being able to tell how it’s going and when we are ready to move on. I can tell when people are confused or when there is a lightbulb moment. I can get students to teach each other (for example through the classic ‘pair and share’), and can be available informally before and after class for students to approach me with questions quietly. I move from powerpoint to white board to just talking. I gesture, move around the space, use distance and proximity to teach.

Trying to teach on Zoom just doesn’t give me that flexibility and feedback. It doesn’t allow students the chances to work laterally with each other in buzzy parallel. I can’t use ambient noise or classroom space to run a class. I can’t see every face in a big group without interrupting my talking to scroll through screens of videos (which are often off anyway). Nor can I read/type and talk at the same time, so engaging in the back channel of text chat means another interruption.

In other words, moving that thing that gave you energy, that you enjoyed, into a new setting might not be fun (or very effective) anymore, because you only moved one aspect of it.

Recognising why something works has 3 potential benefits.

1. You can sometimes work out a way to incorporate more of the great old practice into your new setting. (What if I sat on the balcony with a book of poetry and my coffee cup? What if I sometimes stood up when teaching on Zoom?)

2. You can sometimes work out a way to disaggregate the component parts of your old practice and then achieve them in a different way. (I’m allowed to go grocery shopping or to walk outside for exercise, so what if I get my interactions with my neighbourhood that way? I can email my students after each class to give them a chance to ask me questions quietly.)

3. You can work out what you can’t replicate, and grieve that. There are losses, and you can recognise and acknowledge them. (The streets are pretty empty, so even walking around my neighbourhood won’t give me the same old buzz. We just can’t slide effortlessly and synchronously between small groups and big groups in any teaching platform at the moment.)

Living in a pandemic that upends every aspect of your life is challenging. I hope this post helps you rebuild some of your previously most effective and joyful practices, at least a little bit.

And for the parts that can’t be recreated—they have been seen. We know they are great, and one day when there is a vaccine or a cure, we will be so joyful to pick them up again. I am waiting to hug my friends and go out to noisy jazz clubs late at night and popping in to a packed yoga class spontaneously. I can’t wait to see you at a big workshop, or have networking drinks with you at a conference, or have coffee with you on campus.

Be as well as possible under the circumstances. I hope this post helps you—it helped me to write it. The balcony idea only came to me while writing this post and … I am definitely going to try it.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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