VYSHNAVI: I am in my dorm room, sitting in a chair, in front of a table that is filled with papers and notebooks, but barely any space for my laptop. I’m typing my manuscript outline on the laptop, while also juggling between reading through a book and scribbling some equations on a piece of paper.

My workflow is interrupted occasionally when I stretch my neck back to get some relief from the searing neck pain, thanks to the world’s most uncomfortable chair. I’m trying to do too many things at once amidst the annoying construction noise outside, and a continuously-beeping microwave that someone clearly forgot about.

Adding to this is the constant hum of the heater in my room, which I finally decide to turn off despite the chilly weather outside, even at 3:00 in the afternoon, not wanting to add more to the already-chaotic environment.

The chaos outside makes me feel chaotic on the inside, where I’m struggling to stay focused on doing one thing at a time, but failing miserably at it. After a while, I just feel upset. No, what actually happens is that the bubbling frustration beneath the surface finally makes its way to the surface, and drowns me in those angry and distressed feelings.

I stop doing whatever I’m trying to do, and let out a sigh of tiredness. I have been at it since morning. It is already 3:00 PM, and I barely made any progress. Enough. Enough is enough. I cannot do this anymore.

I sit back in the chair with my eyes closed. And my only thought in that moment is, I am doing my best. I’m doing everything I can. But it is still not good enough.

My smooth-sailing work life has been thrown into turbulent waters ever since the pandemic started. Or, to be more specific, ever since the work-from-home situation arose. Every day I have these feelings and thoughts. I go to bed setting a few goals that I want to accomplish the next day.

The morning is not great. Not much gets done. I still stay motivated and hope to accomplish more in the afternoon. Tough luck. And then there I go, trotting along the path of feeling stressed out.

It is like a slippery slope. Once you move along the path, it feels like there’s no coming back. But somehow, I manage to tell myself that there is tomorrow, and tomorrow could be better.

Then, there comes tomorrow. I’ve heard the saying, tomorrow never comes. I’ve heard it a lot in my childhood. But that feels wrong because, well, tomorrow is here. It’s just that the brighter tomorrow never gets here. It is a tomorrow that is more like yesterday and less like what I hoped it to be.

After the demotivating thoughts conquer my mind, I just stop working for the day. Not because I’m done working, but because there are too many things to do. And honestly, I do not know how to complete even one of them successfully.

I’ve decided to take a break and think about the problem. I make myself a cup of hot chocolate while relishing its smell. I need the drink to keep me refreshed. I then sink back into my thoughts while sipping the hot chocolate.

I come to terms with reality that the work-from-home situation, that is not going to go anywhere anytime soon. I start making a list of things that I need to do, ordering them from the most urgent to the least.

The list, it never seems to end. There are too many things to do, and I feel exhausted already to start with something, let alone complete it. My phone buzzes with a text message. And when I look at my phone, my attention instead goes to the tiny clock symbol that tells the time. I realize that it is already 5:00 PM.

I have not eaten anything after the brunch in the morning and a cup of hot chocolate. Given the mood I am in, I do not feel like eating anything either. However, skipping meals is doing me no good. In the past weeks, it has only affected my health, and that, in turn, reduced my productivity.

I have a thought. All I need is a sense of accomplishment. It can be a small one, or a big one, but all that matters is that I feel like I have accomplished something. Like I’ve completed a task.

That is it. That is my eureka moment. I go to the top of the list that I just made, and add “have snacks” to the list. After all, having a meal feels like a task to me at this point, so why not just add to the list of things to do?

I then put the laptop to sleep and start scouring through the packages I received from my home. After a bit of shuffling things around, I finally dig out some chocolate biscuits and spicy chips. Ah, the delicious smell. I can feel my appetite slowly building up thanks to the snacks that remind me of home.

I spread out the biscuits and chips on my plate and start having the snacks, relishing every bit of it. And for the time being, not thinking about anything else that I need to do in this world.

After a few minutes, I’m done eating. I feel better. I then come back to the chair and bring my laptop to life. I check the task “have snacks” off of my list. I look at the white tick on the green background for a while. It makes me feel good.

One task is off of my million-task list. OK, not a million, but a big number. Some big number. The point is, I did it. I know that I did not make a scientific accomplishment in any way whatsoever, but I spent some time and took care of myself.

Of course, me taking care of myself would definitely only add positively to my productivity, right? I did something and that feels good. So to give my morale a boost, I tweak the list by bringing some of the less-time-consuming tasks to the start of the list.

The one at the top is, respond to email from collaborators. I open my mailbox and fish out the email. I spent around 10 minutes reading through the email and sending a response. And that is it, the task is done.

This gives me the confidence that I can complete my tasks, if only I make a plan, and have some patience and understanding that things will take time. The realization that things are not going to run at the same pace they did before the pandemic started dawns on me.

I sit in silence and ponder. And finally come to terms with it. I tell myself to not be too hard on myself. I convince myself that I must lower the bar of expectations that I have for my productivity during the pandemic, while not giving up on it entirely.

I do not get started on my research, not yet, but I go to bed knowing that tomorrow would definitely be more of a brighter tomorrow, and less of a tomorrow causing deja vu.
It has been more than a year now. Of course, miracles did not happen the very next day after the realization dawned on me. This is not a fairy tale with a happy ending, per se, although I would love for things to be as smooth as they are in most Disney movies.

But that is never how things work for me. It definitely took a lot of time. At the end of the day, what matters is that I made progress.

My dad once told me a famous saying of George Washington, many a mickle make a muckle. I felt it come true during the span of a month. There, I made significant progress in my research, as well as a related journal article.

With time, my productivity only increased. And I think I definitely have a better understanding, after more than a year into the pandemic, that things will happen. I will make progress. The rate at which I make progress while adapting to a completely new situation should not and will not bother me anymore.

The fact that I’m able to get up from bed every day with an excitement to get to work and find something new, while staying thousands of miles away from my family, amidst a pandemic, that in itself is an achievement.