Blurred Mental Spaces During COVID-19

One of the most inconvenient outcomes of an extended work from home situation for most of us during this phase of lockdowns due to the novel coronavirus has been the interspersed fragments of time that we used to know as boundaries. In the normal way of life, these boundaries used to be distinctly defined for most of us by the spaces that we would inhabit during various hours of the day. At morning, we would head to work, and we would return in the evening at either a fixed time, or deal with overtime at work. But one thing was more or less certain, work at home would constitute only as emergency. Otherwise, the office space was dedicated to work and the home space to personal work, relaxation, and recuperation. The lockdown for the past two months, in some countries, longer, has not only blurred these boundaries, but has in essence, dissolved that in-built concept of space for us.

In India, it began leading into the week before the 23rd of March 2020, when most work places had begun to switch to work from home for majority of the employees while an official lockdown was under discussion by the government. Till then, we had only seen vlogs and blogs from folks in countries such as Italy and Korea, where the situation was dire and people had been in self-containment. One of the common themes was boredom and a need for entertainment. When it hit us, we had assumed likewise, and many of us began the lockdown with some or the other personal endeavour recorded in our diaries. I had expected work to slow down and indeed, for half of the first week after the 23rd announcement, it seemed that way. But then, work picked up and very soon I was missing my breakfast entirely, or not having lunch until the evening. There have been quite a many days where I have worked from morning till late at night, and I have not been alone in this tryst. My colleagues and friends have all experienced this, and the toll on our mental health was soon evident in the schedules that we were following. It got me thinking: the extent of chaos in a space where I am in maximum control of myself seemed contradictory to comprehension.

The concept of space is often overlooked in our vocabulary. We exhibit space as an entity around us, that needs validation to be intruded, or we refer to a mental space wherein, we assign tasks to ourselves and gauge our ability to focus in a certain atmosphere. Physical space is very closely related to this thought, but instead of the individual, we will consider space to be the physical confinement where we are at any given time. The surroundings of our homes that we generally use to live out our personal lives can be called the home space, the office where we go to work can be called the work space, and the various places that we go out to recreate can be called as the variable space. Through the activities that we perform in each of these spaces, our minds are tuned to switch the majority of our focus accordingly whenever we are in these respective spaces. That has one major consequence of benefit: we identify our mindset subconsciously through our presence in these spaces and that helps us stay attentive to the task of prominence. Despite that, we often faced anxious days but it was these spaces that would help us break the loop whenever we were caught up in it. Through my phases of depression, there have been times when I have left the work space in knee-jerk reactions and back at home, immersed myself in video games that provided me alternative spaces for escapism, or visited a book cafe to unwind. In short, we had these alternative spaces to break free from the loop.

It has become a theoretical suggestion to be productive during the lockdown in order to keep the mind occupied. While they work theoretically, in practice, the struggle to balance life in one single space has been a challenge for many of us. While some of us are having to deal with this by living all by ourselves, some are stuck in environments with people where they would rather not be, while others have the loving companionship of human beings or pets. I will be excluding all bias from this when I say that at some point, we are all struggling to exist physically and mentally through all hours of the day, performing all our activities in one single space.

Let’s put that into perspective with my own example. I have my morning meeting at 8.45 am and that is followed by a plethora of fixed as well as impromptu meetings. Partly due to my own inability to wake up on time regularly before work and partly due to the unpredictable timings of work related activities, my timings for meals are scattered all over. There have been days when I have not had breakfast or even lunch. Sometimes, working till late, puts several chores on hold, like cleaning up the kitchen, cooking balanced meals, cleaning the house, exercising, or spending time on personal expression to unwind. As I have discussed this subject with friends who are living alone, I have found that this is a quite common phenomenon. This leads to a pile up in household work, which during normal routine was minimized by factors such as mandatory timings of work, having house helps, and eating two meals out of three at work. A pile beyond a certain point leads to a looping ennui that needs to be broken by actually doing all these chores. Ennui is a precursor to depression and without a strong coping mechanism it leads to errant behaviours such as living in unclean rooms, and more harmfully, not eating properly, which can have serious health impact. While it is easy to dismiss this by “just have a schedule”, but let’s face a reality, shall we? How long does it take to actually turn off from work and switch to a personal frame of mind? On some days it may be instantaneous but picture this. I am making my tea and catching up with the news, when suddenly there is a work call and an urgent modification in the report/presentation is required. It cannot wait till the next day, so we once again switch back while setting up, let’s say, dinner. By the time we have our meal and have switched mind spaces, it is almost 10 pm. Time to sleep soon. Or it so happens that during the work hours, there is lesser demand of tasks, but when it’s time to switch, that increases due to a sudden notice of a project review or a client requirement. Now all of this is happening in that same room. Add to this a nonsensical argument with a loved one, or the worries of a loved one. In normal times, we would think, I will deal with this when I am home. Right now, everything is in this home. Multiply this by weeks, and the stress work deadlines, stress of planning the next meal, stress of a health issue back home (for us who live far from home), all of this is happening in that same room.

We are configured to react to our five senses, primarily among them being vision. The sight of the office cubicle tells us to let our personal issues behind and focus on work. The sight of our room tells us to drop worrying about that work stress and focus on home. With our sight fixed on one room, we are now limited to sound. On work days, we hear points being spoken in meetings, and in holidays, it’s loved ones. Without a change of space relative to the change of tasks that we perform throughout the day, soon the problem becomes evident. The boundary between work life and personal life is now blurred. It takes an active effort to draw these boundaries consciously, as subconsciously, the hands type on the search bar “Office 365 login” and before we know it, we are reading our emails.

This blurring of boundaries is not a trivial issue. For all us, about thirty to forty percent of the week becomes far more weary than it used to be earlier. Compound this with the fact that not only have our variable spaces been erased completely, but also those activities have been minimized to cooking gourmet dishes by ourselves, and occasional Duo or Whatsapp group video calls, we are in a situation where we are living our three circles of life in once space. Therefore, I actively commend those people who instead of sticking to the incomplete theoretical portrayal of productivity are encouraging the acceptance of our newly imposed challenges and suddenly exposed frailties. All of this is part of being human and accepting these helps us to deal with this time as well as be compassionate towards others who might be having it worse.

I wish all of you the very best of health and be true to yourself. It is an effort, but let us try to draw our boundaries once more so that we stay happy and healthy. A few things that personally help me relax are listening to music, writing on weekends, and playing video games. It is perfectly okay to not do any of these and just sleep. But do remember to eat well and eat healthy. You do deserve to cook fancy dishes for yourself as it suits your mood. Social ideals and theories are irrelevant. Once more, stay healthy and stay happy.

Originally published at on May 17, 2020.

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Kaustav Ganguly

Kaustav Ganguly

Enjoy the ability to create. Appreciate and respect the chance to learn.

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