Discipline in the time of corona

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Ever since the COVID lockdown started, I came across a lot of social media posts about how this forced isolation could be a blessing in disguise. People were gushing about how Shakespeare had written ‘King Lear’ in quarantine, Isaac Newton had done groundbreaking research when he had to spend a year in isolation to avoid the plague, yada yada yada…you know the drill – you must’ve come across these posts too. Well, to all these posts, my reaction was a HUGE eye-roll and undignified fart noises. I am confident that some of my peers in the research field must have responded similarly.

You see, exceptional people perform well no matter what the circumstances are. Shakespeare might have written ‘King Lear’ during quarantine, but that was hardly his only well-known work. Similarly, Sir Newton went on to have a remarkable career filled with scientific and mathematical breakthroughs. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that their success and productivity didn’t hinge on being isolated. These people were productive and successful not because of quarantine but because of discipline. They consistently worked on what they were interested in. 

Any person with common sense will tell you that it’s easier to be disciplined when your life is structured. For example, the whole world runs on a diurnal structure. We wake up, eat, kids leave for school, and people leave for work. The evenings are set apart for winding down and then finally sleep. There’s a set time for work, play, and sleep. For most people, this structure gets disrupted right after plus two education. People choose their field of interest, start preparing for various exams, and then the routine goes for a toss. The coaching classes fill hardly three/four hours a day and what students do after that depends on their personalities. Those who are driven won’t really have a problem because they will draw up a schedule and stick to it. There is discipline.

Those who are not driven, well, they will gradually realize that the lack of a routine is screwing their life. They will waste away their time chatting with friends, watching movies, surfing the web. In the back of their mind, there will always be a niggling sensation that they are wasting time. This anxiety makes them procrastinate even more. They have sudden bursts of productivity, but these are not enough to tide them over in the exam. Finally, a couple of weeks before the exam, they realize that there’s too much to do and very little time. Then, they regret not having a discipline enforcing/monitoring mechanism. 

A structure followed by a large number of people can also be a very successful monitoring mechanism. For example, in an office where everyone is working, there’s pressure to conform to that work ethic. A person slacking off can be identified easily, and his/her behavior can be quickly corrected. But if you’re not a naturally driven person, and if you are not part of a structure, you have to undertake a gigantic task of transforming your personality. I am not, sure enough, people realize the difficulty of taking responsibility for one’s time and behavior.

Personally, my life has been an anxious mess ever since I left college. I never did master the art of making up a routine and sticking to it. I was fine for a couple of years when I had a steady office job, but after that, it was back to a life filled with unstructured time and resultant stress. In hindsight, I should’ve just resigned myself to indiscipline and never taken up research.

A research job is the epitome of an unstructured existence. The evaluations are too far apart. There’s no daily monitoring. You have to choose your readings, decide how much time you want to spend on them, choose when you want to talk to your guide, and if your guide has a generous laissez-faire attitude – you’re screwed. She won’t ask you for updates, and you keep finding excuses not to give them. Months pass by, and you have nothing to show for the time you’ve wasted. You cook up some bullshit for the evaluation meeting. The guides, who have decades of experience with listening to bullshit, give a resigned sigh and give you a pass. The nominal progress exhilarates you. You think to yourself, “If I could do that in a couple of weeks, I will become awesome if I work every day for four months!” You come home, you make resolutions, and for the next four months, you watch as you glibly break them. 

If you’re an Indian female married research student – you’re doubly screwed. Thanks to a rigid, gender-based division of labor, your partner won’t help you with housework. Housework becomes not just a burden but also an excuse. If you are sincere and engross yourself in research, you have a natural moral high ground and can raise an arrogant eyebrow when your husband grumbles about housework. But you are not sincere. You engross yourself not in research but binge-watching some random murder mystery. To balm your conscience that’s smarting from all the time-wasting, you hurriedly to do some housework and console yourself saying, “If my husband had helped with housework, I would’ve had time for Netflix and research!” (That is true in a way, but this topic deserves a separate full-length article. Let’s shelve this discussion for now).

So no, when people rave about being productive in this period of lockdown, I don’t share their enthusiasm. For the past two weeks, my face has frozen into the following expression in reaction to the ‘quarantine productivity’ preachers – To me, they seem naïve and childish. If you’re a highly disciplined genius, then, yeah, good for you. But if you have depended on your job/college to give you a sense of routine and structure – welcome to chaos. Panic is a natural reaction, but don’t worry. You are not alone. The key is communication. Talk to fellow procrastinators. If you want to turn your life around, maybe form a group with them and try to enforce some monitoring via phone calls and video chats. If you’re okay with coasting along as you are but need the occasional tune-up to manage your anxiety, write 1000 word articles about how your life is a bloody undisciplined mess (or talk to a friend – whatever works for you).

A note to sexist married men – I have no hopes that you’ll suddenly realize the flaws of this gendered division of labor and will immediately start to correct them. But at least in this period of lock-down when you don’t have the ‘office work’ excuse, share the load of your wife’s housework. She may not solve the question of this universe’s origin. But hopefully, she’ll finish reading some light non-fiction and feel a little less shitty about her life and its discipline. 

Featured Image Credits: Wikimedia

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