A chance to change the way we live and work?

Lockdown, with its sudden imposition of more free time for many of us, has spawned much frenzied advice on how to cope. Keep things the same at all costs, is the gist. “Develop a routine”, “Get up at the same time, get dressed, go for a run”, “Organise your homeschool timetable…” The accepted narrative is that routine is good and without it, we will metamorphose into depressive lumps who do nothing and forget to wash.

Frankly, this is rubbish. People are different. Some do need rigid routine, but a quiet, desperate, hidden group of us have been battling with our mental wellbeing for years because the regimented pattern of modern life doesn’t work for us. Depression can be triggered by loss of routine, yes. It can also be triggered by being trapped in an unchanging system that doesn’t allow scope for imagination, creativity, variation, novelty – all the things that psychology also knows are vital for health and happiness.

We all need balance between structure and lack of it, but that balance varies enormously between people. For the last few years I have craved unstructured time, fewer things on the to-do list, just freedom. And – to a certain extent, and in a very unwelcome way – here it is. Don’t get me wrong, I hate being cooped up, I am tearful with loneliness at times, I am frightened about money, the future of my business and the possible impact of all this on my family. But I am starting to see the opportunities and wondering if the benefits could be far-reaching.

The regimented timetabling of daily life is a relatively modern invention. Prior to the industrial revolution, many people worked at home in family groups. Adherence to working hours was dictated more by the sun than by richer and more powerful employers. Of course, there was a feudal system in place then too – I’m not suggesting we ever had an egalitarian society – but there is a political and class element to our modern-day obsession with structure and routine; the mass synchronised timetabling of the population is a post-industrial, capitalist phenomenon that maybe it’s time to question.

It gives us a chance to redraw our lives in ways that work for us as individuals

Now we have been thrown back in time. Schools are closed and parents are finding themselves falling into two camps: the formal home schoolers, and those, like me, who guiltily rejoice in the fact that we don’t have a fixed timetable any more. Watching my children self-organise has been a revelation and as ‘staring at a screen’ becomes the new normal for all of us, judgements are being revised. Whilst ‘staring at a screen’ this week, my eight-year old has written a novel, become a stop frame animator and social WhatsApp secretary for her friendship group. My 12-year old has teamed up with a friend from the football team he dearly misses training with, to smash the daily Fortnite tournaments. Using strategy, teamwork, communication, psychology and physical dexterity, their single-minded competitiveness has found another outlet. 

‘Unschooling’ – the informal, child-led home educating approach – has never been more appealing and makes me yearn for an adult version – ‘unworking’, perhaps? Routine shrinks me, crushes my creativity and robs life of all fun, while in lockdown I feel liberated. Speaking to counselling clients recently, it seems I am not alone. Contrary to my expectations, many with anxiety feel a weight has lifted. Partly, the pandemic means they are no longer alone in feeling anxious – in fact they feel vindicated! But also they are free from the social stress and rigid expectations of the workplace. Working alone, undistracted is simply healthier for them.

For some, being left alone is key. For me, it’s flexibility. There are many permutations of what a healthy working environment is, and the opportunity this crisis throws up to recognise these critical differences in people is enormous. It gives us a chance to redraw our lives in ways that work for us as individuals. One size fits all never fits all. Our psychological shapes are way too varied for that.

Of course, if you know you need to create a strict time-table for yourself, do. But if your motivation, creativity and inspiration grow best in an unstructured environment, own that, cultivate it, and hang onto it somehow when the world returns. If the previously unquestioned life of timetables and mass synchronisation is not the life we want, this is our chance to remake it.

Dinah Purton is a locally-based counsellor and psychotherapist 

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