Pandemic - Self-discipline 1-0

The state of emergency reveals that the requirements for maintaining good self-discipline are skewed.

Publisert Sist oppdatert

My self-discipline reached rock bottom when a mutant virus gone rogue ensured closed study halls. With the deadline for my master's four long months away, and with fewer and fewer study dates to get me out of bed, my panic level increased in the tempo of the speed I scroll the online news channels with.

An ocean of time, rolled out like a red carpet, was in front of me every single morning. But, instead of getting through all of the things on my to-do list, I ended up with many detours in the direction of Netflix and VGs corona statistics.

The irony was complete when I reinstalled twitter for the third time in a week, and got the BI-professor Anne Britt Grans judgment slapped in my face: «What I’m wondering, is why the students didn’t spend more of the corona-isolation period in 2020 reading curriculum. They have never had more time alone […]]», she said.

I was storming at the thought of how she probably tweeted this sitting in an ergonomic chair, on a screen that was adjusted to her height. After a while, it hit me that Gran and I had turned our attention to the same problem: self-discipline seems to have disappeared as the virus entered our lives.

The new study barometer confirms that I was not alone with my struggles: two out of three students say that they struggle with structuring their daily schedule during the pandemic. But can I blame the coronavirus for the fact that I unlock my phone three times more now than before the pandemic hit?

After having stared my calendar to death for weeks, I decided to refreshen my knowledge about the phenomenon «self-discipline», and was reminded that the conditions to nurture it are out of balance.

Self-discipline as an ability seems to have disappeared as the virus entered our lives

In «Operation self-discipline», the journalist and author Agnes Ravatn, compiled a great amount of research and literature about impulse control and procrastination, also known as chronic postponement behaviour. In addition to giving concrete tips, she discusses possible reasons that some people become world champions in structured work, whilst others nearly quit before the notebook is placed on the desk. Both conditions during childhood and material welfare can impact our ability to prioritise long-term goals, such as good exam results, over, for example, short-term rewards.

A basic point she makes in the book is how the brain gets tired from taking active choices. Every time we use brain capacity to choose to not scroll, we are less able to resist the next blinking push-notification. This insight can illustrate how our self-discipline was impacted when we were ordered to stay at home: the loss of physical routines and the structures that we are used to, necessitate us choosing, hour by hour, how to spend our time.

The student life was, from before, already characterised by a loose structure and few obligatory assignments. I’m still surprised when I think of how many choices I didn’t have to make, in a different time where social interactions weren’t regulated down to the number of people or to the centimetre.

Take the Friday beer, the morning coffee with the study group, weekly meeting points in the program that I didn’t spend time choosing which simultaneously motivated me to work effectively in advance. By eliminating plans like these from the calendar, the corona crisis has given me an ocean of time, but also the requirement that I always have to decide for myself how to fill it. I have never felt like easier prey to the technology corporations' attempts at stealing my attention.

I’m still surprised when I think of how many choices I didn’t have to make, in a different time where social interactions weren’t regulated down to the amount of people or to the centimetre.

Ravatn also writes how poverty can impact the ability to self-regulate. With a tight economy, there are a variety of smaller and larger active choices that have to be made in order to solve the most fundamental puzzle. This shows how the loss of a part-time job and thus more study time ironically enough can diminish the ability to work effectively. Both a lack of money and a loss of routines can impact one’s ability to structure the working day.

Several of the practical advice given in «Operation self-discipline» revolve around the ability to create physical distance between oneself and distractions. This can be putting the mobile phone in another room or creating a physical working environment with the least amount of tempting things. Such advice is obviously easier to follow in a large villa than in a small studio that is supposed to encompass spare time activities and sleep.

The need to duck into the smartphone's endless digital room can become larger when the physical space one is allowed in is reduced, as has happened for the majority of Oslo’s students. This makes it twice as hard to keep the attention away from the screen’s distractions.

The unbalanced distribution of material goods amongst students and the professors, for example, doesn’t just revolve around differential access to physical working facilities. The size and decor of the rooms we have access to, also impact our prerequisites to nurture our self-discipline. Amongst the students, the differences are large. Those who can emigrate home to spacious houses and their parents’ routines have an easier time following Ravatn’s good advice than those who have to deal with the working environment in a ten square meter room that’s enclosed by four thin walls.

Are we heading towards new class distinctions based on those who are systematically worse than others in attention span?

As this text comes to an end, the study halls are opening again. It is a blessing to write without the eyes and brain shifting traitorously towards the refrigerator or the couch. But the phone is with me on the desk and lights up far more often than is good. Hopefully, the pandemics' tight grip will soon be history, but will our attention remain captured by the iron fist of the smartphone?

This experience with the lockdown and reading self-help literature has taught me a great deal about my own working habits, but also made me more concerned. A whole generation of young adults risks being worse off economically than before the corona crisis. At the same time, technology is creating more and more short-term temptations, and new research suggests that the ability for self-regulation can be a criterion that is as important as intelligence in order to succeed academically.

Are we heading towards new class distinctions based on those who are systematically worse than others in attention span? Today’s students don’t only have worse prerequisites to create a distraction-free working environment. We have also grown up in a time period where our identities and social relations were shaped in a digital environment, which is difficult to renounce completely despite the distractions.

The pandemic’s attack on self-discipline can be a wake-up call, however. When searching for better impulse control, lonely self-punishment is not the way to the goal. We have perhaps never felt more lonely or isolated. For this reason, it is important to remember that since the prerequisite to maintaining and increasing self-discipline is out of balance, the weight of the solution does not lie on the individual alone.

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