How I managed to work during lockdown

With lockdown 2 a recent memory and now a third one after Christmas, I am once again procrastinating by writing this instead of doing my PhD work.

BUT – the past year has been anything but normal. I wanted to share a bit of my experience and how I motivated myself to do work and, most importantly, how I kept reminding myself that it is ok not to be ok. 

Procrastination is probably every student’s best friend and worst enemy. Writing my undergraduate dissertation, I struggled to motivate myself at the best of times when the weather was nice and most of my friends would be going to the park or swimming pool. Yet, most days I got a decent amount of work in and I could justify taking the odd day off. This all changed in lockdown. 

Lockdown 1 was an emotional rollercoaster – never before have I experienced anything similar to this. I was very much a person who needed the library to go to, to function, to write, and to think. Now, it was closed, campus was locked, and I was confined to my student house. But how do I motivate myself now? 

March was different from previous essay and exam periods. March made me stay at home. I cleared my desk, got rid of anything that would distract me. I had a pile of books on the floor, sticky notes, and highlighters ready. I was all set up to write my MA dissertation – and I actually did it (well some of it) for the first few weeks. Then, being at home took its toll on me and my housemates. We excused not being productive with the unprecedented circumstance our lecturers kept pointing out in their emails. It is ok not to work a few days in a row – and it really is but it needs to be only a few days. At the end of April, I realised I can’t keep up this attitude. After all, I needed to finish two essays and a dissertation, so I made a schedule. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with self-set expectations, so I set small goals: phone family this week, finish drafts for when I had a meeting with my supervisor, go for a walk…

So how did I keep getting these swings of motivation?      

First of all, I knew I was never going to cross off everything on my to-do-list at once. It was ok to have some things left or just not do them at all as long as I met the deadlines set by other people, I would be fine. Luckily, I also take great pleasure in crossing things off my to-do-list, whenever that might be.     


Knowing the university has implemented a no-detriment policy really helped my work anxieties. But it was also great to talk to academics and professionals who got me back on track if I wasn’t able to conduct my research as planned. I actually put up a sticky note above my laptop saying, “DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP” (and I mean this academically and socially). Sometimes I just needed a little reminder that I am not bothering my supervisor when I ask questions or the well-being officer when I feel overwhelmed with the workload. 

Fresh air and exercising helped me to clear my mind. Yoga was a great way to start my day (on days I felt like it). To be honest, the restrictions on leaving the house actually made me go out. I wanted to make the most of that one hour I had. I discovered places and little shops and cafés I had never seen before. 

Tracking your progress can work wonders. It is hard to keep yourself motivated if you can’t see what you have achieved. I kept a handwritten journal with notes, and it was so motivating seeing the pages fill up. I just listed what I had done that day, what I had for lunch and dinner, and who I spoke to that day. It was also really good because I kept track of who I checked in on if they were doing ok. But there are lots of other possibilities to track your (work) progress: 

  1.  break large parts into smaller pieces – don’t just “write a literature review” but rather say “draft paragraph on XYZ” etc. 
  2.  there are apps dedicated to tracking progress 
  3.  sometimes just putting a sticker or a mark in the calendar can also be a way to track your progress

Most importantly though: do what you feel is most beneficial to your mental health. I had to realise that it is ok not to work, even if it was for a whole week. After a nice chat with my family or a Sunday roast with my housemates, the next week looked more promising. I made sure that at the end of each day I asked myself: How did I self-care today? Mental health is very important and with the winter months and a very different Christmas awaiting, it’s only getting more difficult to stay in good spirits. I try to treat myself to something that makes me happy every day: that might be a hot chocolate, a nice long walk, or even just an episode of my favourite TV show. As long as it puts a little smile on my face, I can tick taking care of myself off my to-do-list. 


Written by Monja Stahlberger, PhD Candidate, IMLR


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