Making play a priority

Quarantine Diaries: How to Have Fun While Working From Home

The third installment of one WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This edition is all about having fun with (instead of?) working from home.

In case you missed it, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—and none of us really knows what we’re doing or how to cope. At least, I don’t. I’m taking it day-by-day, trying to balance working from home and parenting three kids while also wondering if this is the end of the world as we know it. And I’m taking you, dear reader, with me. This is Quarantine Diaries. Come back next week to see how it’s going; this series will last at least as long as your toilet paper supply.

Chapter Three: Are you working hard, or hardly working?

This week has been mostly child-free, and I’d conceptualized this stretch of days as a time to buckle down and bust out a lot of work: I’ve got things in the pipeline for Supermaker; I’m hosting a virtual trivia for Throughline, NPR’s wonderfully nerdy history podcast; I need to be sure we’ve done all we need for Kelsey’s unemployment application and both our stimulus checks.

Plus I’ve been meaning to update my CV for forever, so this seems like as good a time as any.

Task: Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, just like Rihanna.

(Yes, I know Anti came out in 2016 and maybe that’s a dated reference. But I don’t care, it’s a bop. And Rihanna is always relevant.)

I started my work week by looking at what I needed to get done and prioritizing tasks to make a schedule. There are some tasks I like more than others, and some tasks take more brain power; I try to make it so I have something easy and enjoyable to warm-up with before moving on to drudge work.

This time, I made my list of tasks, but I just couldn’t organize them. I knew there was some order of urgency, but I couldn’t find it. So many of the things that usually help me decide what’s important have fallen away because of the disruption of COVID-19. What’s the point of updating a CV when the economy as we know it might completely implode? Why should I write material for campus trivia tournaments for fall when we don’t even know if campuses will be open? Why am I making a work schedule for the week when I’m not even sure what day it is?

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m feeling especially alienated from my labor. (That was a deepcut for you, Marxist buds.)

And I’m also a little bit resentful. Maybe even angry. Not to go all Karen or anything, but I feel like we were told by Apple Care that if we did what we were supposed to do—if we put in the hours, if we put in the time, if we did the work—we’d be, maybe not rich, but at least… fine? Or, at least… stable? And now it just feels silly to keep putting in the hours, to keep putting in the time, to keep doing the work, when the world hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain.

It seems like lots of us are just kind of refusing to prioritize productivity in this pandemic. And, honestly, it feels justified. Like one of my friends said, “I’m working two days a week and on those days doing the absolute least. I guarantee nobody was working this hard during the bubonic plague.” And as a Black person, I can’t help but feel some type of way about how 40 acres and a mule couldn’t happen, but a stimulus package could.

It feels like the people of the world are holding our collective breath, awaiting some kind of massive reprogramming, to help us cope with—or, if we’re feeling optimistic, thrive in—the new reality that’s building itself around us.

Still, I’ve got bills. And a family. And responsibilities. And no survival skills or knowledge about subsistence farming. So I can’t just tap out. What I can do, though, is try to recharge.

So, this week, instead of productivity, I decided to focus on things that make me happy.

Task: Logging off and logging out.

Except I didn’t actually decide to not focus on work this week. It just happened.

One of the major drawbacks to working from home is that you can’t leave work at work when you leave the office; home is the office. That can be a big problem if you’re not meeting your productivity goals, because any negative feelings you have seep from your work space into your home space, and from your work time into your off time. That happened to me this week, and it was rough.

Not only was I not productive, I was also a nightmare to be around. I was irritable and antsy, but I couldn’t decide on how to blow off steam. More accurately, I struggled with letting myself take the time to blow off steam, because I felt like I should have been devoting my time to being productive (except I couldn’t be productive because I needed to blow off steam; I was like some kind of WFH Sisyphus).

"And now it just feels silly to keep putting in the hours, to keep putting in the time, to keep doing the work, when the world hasn’t kept up its end of the bargain."

Then a miracle happened: the database we use for my full-time job needed to be updated, so the entire editorial staff had to log out early. I hadn’t noticed how anxious I was until I felt the relief of logging out. And I wanted to chase that feeling.

So I logged out of my personal email. I turned my phone on Do Not Disturb. Unplugging felt wonderful. The next morning, I did it again.

Protip: When your brain tells you to take a break, listen to it.

Tasks: Do Whatcha Wanna.

Much of the week has been a kind of free-association cascade of favorites, as everytime I do something I enjoy, I’m reminded of some other enjoyable thing I’d like to do.

I walked over 60 miles (at a safe distance from others, of course), which reminded me how much I love repetitive physical activity. That, in turn, reminded me how much I love hula hooping, so Kelsey and I hula hooped while reading Perfume aloud to each other for a few hours (a great novel, if you’re looking for something to dive into yourself). Revisiting a fascinating (albeit terrifying) piece about a luxury ferry sinking reminded me how much I love “The Open Boat,” so I read that, which reminded me of Roald Dahl’s stories about eccentric, murderous landladies and housewives who finally break. It’d been too long since I took the time to be amazed by Toni Morrison’s trickiness when she writes about race, or how beautifully she writes about unrequited love, be it aimed at men or mothers, so I reread all that stuff too.

“I’m working two days a week and on those days doing the absolute least. I guarantee nobody was working this hard during the bubonic plague.”

I learned how to play “If I Never Knew You” and “Just Around the Riverbend” on the piano. And yes, I do know that’s also dated and that Pocahontas is one of the more problematic and historically inaccurate Disney animated features, and she definitely should’ve chosen Kocoum over John Smith, but the soundtrack slaps just as hard as that Rihanna album.

Point is: I haven’t been especially productive. And I feel like I’ve really done some good work. I’m not only talking about the piano, either. I fit some “real” work in as well, and I did a much better job with it after goofing around for a couple days. It’s like that dad joke in reverse: hardly working let me actually work hard.

Protip: Letting yourself feel like you’re doing good work can help you actually do good work.

Of course, I’ll still have to tackle those less enjoyable to-dos next. Come back next week to see how it goes.

Terri is a writer, researcher, and program coordinator for the US's first academic trivia league for HBCUs. She lives and works in New Orleans, with her partner, their 3 kids, and an ever-growing book collection.

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