When news of the lockdown hit, a week into the vacation, I knew I was in trouble. I thrive on certainty and low-energy social interaction – two things a lockdown was guaranteed to take away. This – an indefinitely long period of isolation in a town that I was very happy to leave – was in many ways my worst nightmare.
Hitting the ground running, I knew if I had no routine I would struggle to get anything done at all. I divided my days into neat blocks, with time for uni work, hobbies, and exercise. Every morning I went on my state-sanctioned walk, then I chugged through preparation for exams that would soon be cancelled, and ended the day with a video call to my boyfriend. I even went down the classic baking route as a wholesome activity for my half-day off on Sundays! I was a walking, talking, #balance stereotype. For two weeks my bastion of routine lasted, before it swiftly crumbled into anarchy.
The uncertainty of lockdown started to get to me. Even though I assumed lockdown would last a while, I struggled to comprehend having to do this for more than the initial 3 weeks. My days sunk into a new routine – a routine of unshakeable anxiety interspersed with the occasional panic attack. I’ve been dealing with anxiety for years, but without my usual coping mechanisms – the endless distractions of school or university – I was floundering. When my boyfriend decided he needed some space, it was the cherry on top of the get-me-out-of-lockdown cake.
For two weeks my bastion of routine lasted, before it swiftly crumbled into anarchy.
My carefully planned routine abandoned, I instead got into a cycle of late mornings and early nights. In-between those, I spent the time caught up in a cycle of social media and the news. I desperately attempted to calculate when the lockdown would be over. If I woke up early, it was straight back to sleep. Consciously enduring any more of this than I had to wasn’t on my agenda.
Crossing every day off my calendar, I told myself that once I was out of lockdown, everything would be okay – I just had to get to that point as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Should I choose to come out of lockdown improved, a version of myself I could be proud of? Or should I just try to get by? After all, you don’t have to be productive – it’s a global pandemic! Without the goal of prelims, or even just the academic inspiration of being in Oxford, I struggled to remember why I’d ever even bothered working hard in the first place.
Following a series of increasingly bad days and a break-up, I was faced with two uncomfortable realities. Normal life wasn’t an option any time soon, and even if it was, it might not be any easier. With term looming, and my vacation work distinctly unfinished, I started to get up early again. My days were spent researching and writing my essays. Not intending to, I fell back into a routine.
If I didn’t go outside, I’d feel stir-crazy – so I walked my dog every day. If I didn’t do any work, I’d sit uncomfortably with my thoughts – something I sought to avoid. If I didn’t write, my brain would start to feel fuzzy – so I wrote every day. Accomplishing things, even small tasks, gave me something to feel proud of. This time round, being in a routine was no longer something I imposed on myself, but a pre-requisite for getting through the day.
There’s probably an argument to be made for decoupling happiness from productivity. But right now, I am grateful for my ability to get things done.
Those students that idealise the idea of getting into Oxford? I was one. For me, setting Oxford as my goal justified my omnipresent fear of failure. Spending several years catering to future-based happiness makes it quite difficult to learn how to be happy on a day-to-day basis. I’ve always worked towards something, whether that be a grade in an exam, a place at this university, or an end of a lockdown. Now, for the first time in my life, I find myself only focusing on being happy, rather than seeing it as a goal to achieve.
Unintentionally, I’ve fallen into a mundane flow of repeating the same tasks day in, day out. Happiness is no longer something guaranteed at the end of the lockdown; I must accept all I can do is get up and face each day. In many ways, it is a comfort to know that despite everything, I am still capable of getting through a to-do list. There’s probably an argument to be made for decoupling happiness from productivity. But right now, I am grateful for my ability to get things done. It means that things haven’t completely fallen apart.
Forcing routine on yourself when you’re in a difficult place isn’t always going to be helpful. The routine that I was in for the first few weeks of lockdown made me feel so constricted I couldn’t breathe. Despite this, I think there’s something to be said for the comfort of repetition when you’re in a bad place. Knowing I can still hold together a semblance of normality has given me the courage to keep on going despite how I’m feeling. I know it’s not necessarily the perfect solution, but it’s the one I’ve found.
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann