The title of this post has a long history. An essential and important feminist text, Virginia Woolf highlighted the challenges that faced women (and arguably still face women) in following their calling while fighting societal prejudices and continually needing to demonstrate their merit. The essay called for not just literal space but also the figurative and metaphorical room to do work without oppression, diminishment or derision. One of the quotes that underlies its central thesis is, “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.”
Without trying to distract from the cause of feminism or women’s ability to engage in their craft, there are themes that I’ve just outlined that are relevant for all of us, particularly right now. My situation is like many: I am at home, in the midst of a pandemic, in a state of lockdown while a virus rages and a vaccine takes tenuous hold. Many of us find our living circumstances changed, with too many people fighting for the same space under a single roof. Privacy and solitude can be difficult commodities to come by. The ability to focus is fleeting, the distractions are many, and the noise in our own brains is relentless and unforgiving as we wrestle with the uncertainty of our times.
For anyone who is trying to get work done, this is an awkward and difficult time. Work arrangements are upended. Living arrangements are complicated. Social contact for those abiding by the rules and recommendations is minimal. Many of us are making do with less-than-optimal environments to work within. Sometimes that is because it is all that we have. For others, there is a need to negotiate space, focus time (and reasonable WiFi access) with others in the household. Multiple people are trying to work, study, research and stay sane under the same roof at the same time. Moreover, these efforts are often on conflicting—or at least not optimally aligned—schedules. It’s not easy.
The challenge of managing this was brought home for me—pun largely intended—earlier this month. We acquired a new kitten over Christmas (or more to the point, she acquired us, making a beeline up our drive in a snowstorm on Christmas morning and showing no subsequent intention of leaving). For the first week after coming inside, she was in a bathroom, which was confining but practical as we attended to her immediate health needs. When that became too cramped, she moved to my office, as one of the very few places in our house with a door, no carpeting and only a middling number of things with which to cause mischief.
With my office converted to a kitty refuge, I no longer had a place to work. While I still had a desk, it was in a room with an inquisitive and overly hyperactive kitten that desperately needed some downtime if she was ever going to get any sleep. So for two weeks, I made do with the island in the kitchen, my lap in the living room and occasionally the dining room table. Throughout this period, my productivity cratered. Part of this was managing feeding, medication and vet visits, but a lot was pure and simple distraction. My time spent working was questionably six hours a day, grabbed in chunks of 30 to 90 minutes. My ability to focus and deeply engage with what I was doing, however, barely registered on the meter.
In my situation, that was a narrowly defined experience. I have my office back (mostly) now, and if absolutely required I can shut the door and minimize distractions (although none of the cats are best pleased when this occurs). We still have a slightly more complicated feeding schedule that carves an hour or so out of my day at each end, but the rest of my day is pretty much my own to do with as I need and want.
Others are not so lucky. There are those who have been dealing with the experience of working from home under less-than-optimal circumstances for months now, and in some cases pushing on a year. Through this process, new routines have been difficult to arrive at for many. That is both surprising and not surprising. On one hand, this has been going on for a sufficient time that new routines should have emerged. At the same time, many are resisting any acceptance of this situation as normal. The result is that for many, the disruption has been sustained, held in a weird sort of stasis for an extended period.
Physical space is one thing. We also have the issue of figurative space to wrestle with, as Woolf did in her essay. This is something that affects all of us, although again not necessarily equally. While the pandemic is a global phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that we are all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm, but by privilege and circumstance we find ourselves in very different boats.
There is a level of stress and anxiety, though, that is nearly universal. A heightened sensitivity to problems and things going wrong. The uncertainty about when all of this is going to be over is an enduring source of tension for just about everyone. Add to that economic uncertainty globally, and personal financial peril locally, and you have a recipe for distraction and gnawing unease. There are many people out there—and there are many days that I have counted myself amongst them—who feel like they are one giant raw nerve, too close to the surface and exposed for comfort.
This state of being is the antithesis of “happy place.” And that is probably the most complicating and difficult thing about navigating through this pandemic, particularly when you are trying to still contribute and be effective in your role (whatever role that might be). For all that it might be desirable to have the physical space to focus, to quietly be productive and do meaningful work, that is only a small part of the problem. The far larger challenge is having productive and positive mental space in which to engage.
As a general rule, people do not do their best work in conditions of sustained stress. There are exceptions that prove that rule, of course. There are careers and jobs that depend upon the ability to thrive and perform under pressure. Where this is true, people in these fields train extensively to be able to operate in ways that are contrary to the normal reactions of body and mind. But that is not the universal experience. While we might continue to function under degrees of stress, that is a different reality than optimal performance.
This is one of my fundamental problems with the obsessive compulsion to engage in “stretch goals.” There is a certain breed of leader who believes that taking the time, effort and budget required to deliver work and arbitrarily slashing it is the best way to create motivation and get that optimal performance out of their teams. There are few delusions that are held quite so broadly, and yet are so utterly devoid of truth and divorced from reality.
The theoretical benefit of stretch goals is that you are encouraging commitment and focus. The reality is that you are forcing the limitation of options and short-circuiting the opportunity to think and explore. Accepting a shorter-than-reasonable deadline or insufficient resources is sub-optimizing the solution before you start, and removing any contingency to deal with problems along the way. You simply need to perform, to do the best you can with what you have and hope that it’s good enough to get you over some plausible version of a finish line.
Deliberately creating the conditions for inadequate performance is beyond baffling to me. Good solutions come from exploration, from experimention and from evaluation and reflection. Maximum engagement comes from being immersed in a task that fully consumes us, that we know we can be successful at and that challenges us to continue to grow. Maximum creativity comes from the opportunity to synthesize ideas from disparate sources; this happens when we let our subconscious mind wander and wonder. It’s why ideas come to us in the shower, on walks, on weekends or in that nebulous place between sleep and waking. We allow our brains to be quiet enough that new perspectives find space to be heard.
Operating in a place of stress, subconscious voices have no room to express themselves. Creativity takes a back seat to necessity, and engagement gets displaced with desperation. The focus to deliver rules out options and exploration. While we might, at the end of the day, deliver something, we are often hard pressed to consider it our best work. What we most likely allow for and settle on is that it was “good enough under the circumstances.” Instead of pride of accomplishment we feel relief that we at least survived. That is not a recipe for joyousness, satisfaction or delight.
To do our best work it isn’t enough just to have a physical room of one’s own. We need mental room as well. We have to have the ability to explore and experiment, to try and to fail, to learn and to grow. Without that space, we play it safe. We go with what has worked in the past, what is defensible or the solution that is immediately in front of us.
Creating physical and mental space requires conscious effort. This can be challenging at the best of times. In our current reality, it is particularly difficult but not impossible. It does require consideration, work, choice, and negotiation with those around us:
- Get perspective on what you need to do your work. You might at this point have simply made do with what is possible. Consider how well you have been working, and where the challenges have been. What has worked? What has not worked? Under what circumstances have you been able to engage, and when have you struggled to focus and follow through? Think about what you can do to create the physical and mental space that allows you to work effectively. While that may not be a permanent solution, you can hopefully find a few hours of dedicated time and space every day that is yours.
- Identify the times of day in which you do your best work. Each of us has a period when we are at our peak. There are also predictable times when we struggle and flag. For you, your optimal period might be first thing in the morning. It might be late morning, or early afternoon, or even some time in the evening. You might be one of those night owls that thrives most when everyone else is asleep. Consider how to structure your day, your work arrangements and your space so that you can focus during the times you are most able to do so effectively.
- Find a structure and routine that can work for now. Working from home as many of us are, it’s easy for the boundaries between home and work to blur together. Prior to the pandemic, routines and transitions were naturally created by commutes and commitments. With the loss of those natural opportunities to shift focus, it’s important to find new ways to shift gears. Negotiate the space you need with others to deliver your commitments. Create transitions into work mode for yourself, as well as routines to transition back into being at home.
- Avoid distractions as much as possible. Particularly for your productive hours, try to commit to the most important things you need to get done. Shut off email if you can. Close down any other application you aren’t using right now. Mute your phone. Step away from social media. Do what is necessary to help you focus. If there is music that can help you get in the right headspace, then go for it. Even just wearing noise-cancelling headphones might help create the oasis you need (and just wearing headphones becomes a signal to others that you are otherwise engaged).
- Recognize when work is not coming, or you aren’t in a good place. Not every day is going to be amazing, even when you have the space and solitude to do good work. There are days that you will struggle with commitment, and days when you will wrestle with how to move forward on the work in front of you. What I’ve found successful in these circumstances is two-fold: first, I commit to work for one hour, and only an hour. If the juices start flowing in that period, great. If they don’t, then step away. You aren’t going to force it at that point, so you are better off to take a break and get some perspective.
- When you do have a productive day, stop before you are finished. Leave one thing undone that you know how to complete. This sets you up to be able to start your next work session with an easy win, and potentially builds the momentum to keep going. If you wrap up a work session with everything done, you are starting from zero again next time. Leaving yourself with a clear next step gets you back into the zone that much faster.
To do our best work, we need space. What that space looks like—and what it can look like—has changed right now. That doesn’t mean that finding or claiming space isn’t possible, but the form that it takes may of necessity be different. We need to identify the circumstances and conditions that allow us to do good work. We need to negotiate with others—those we live with as well as those we work for—to make that spaces possible. Then we need to follow through and do the work.
What are the strategies that you have found to create a room—physical or mental—of your own as we navigate these pandemic times?