Category: PhD Life

How I stayed productive and upbeat during Week 1 of coronavirus lockdown

When the UK coronavirus lockdown was first announced, I thought life was going to become a nightmare. I panicked inside at the thought of being confined to my apartment all day, every day. I didn’t know how I could stay productive and maintain a good mood when forced into my own company around the clock. Although under normal circumstances I often work from home, I like the ability to switch things up by working from cafes and co-working spaces.

As an avid gym goer and outdoor runner, I also worried about losing the mental boost of exercise. I was nervous about maintaining my healthy eating patterns, due to the effects of panic buying and shopping restrictions at my local supermarkets. I feared every day would just blend into one big mass of nothingness and that I’d end up staying in bed all day feeling sorry for myself.

One week later, I’m happy to report that none of this actually happened. In fact, I had one of my most productive weeks ever. I tried out a new way of working, one that I was initially sceptical of. But it was superb. I also adopted some new habits and reinforced some old ones that I’d let fall by the wayside.

In sum, this resulted in a working week during which I kept on track with my goals, stayed healthy, and maintained a positive attitude; all while discovering some new things that revolutionised my working life and which I plan to keep using far into the future. I’d like to share them here in the hope that others will find them useful.

Lockdown Work Routine

Video Co-working 

The idea of this freaked me out a bit at first. An entire day on video with other people, some of them strangers. Wouldn’t it be awkward? What if I looked weird or accidentally did something weird while on the video? But video co-working was where pushing myself out of my comfort zone really paid off. 

It worked like this. A group of friends, all digital nomads based in the same time zone (either the UK or Portugal), invited me to join their daily video co-working sessions. We used Discord, because it works well with multiple screens and gives a smooth experience without dropping or delays. Zoom would be a good alternative.

Every day at 8:50 am, we each went to our desks, fired up Discord and our webcams, and interacted just as we would in a physical office. After having coffee and a little small talk, we launched into the working day at 9 am sharp. We followed the work cycle pattern of 8 x 50 minute focused work sessions with 10 minute breaks after each one. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

I underestimated the value of having colleagues working alongside me, even by video. They gave me a huge amount of motivation and kept me accountable. For anyone who feels awkward about being on screen, you can do what I did and shut down your microphone and camera while you do each 50 minute work cycle. In the end, most of our team did it this way.

Work Cycles

Created by the team at Ultraworking, work cycles are similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which you may have heard of before. The basic idea is having a set time period to do focused work, followed by a short break. You then repeat these cycles until the end of the working day. We used cycles of 50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break, but you can adjust the parameters however you like. We found that 50 minutes was a good amount of time to get into a flow state.

Work cycles have one particular feature that makes a huge difference: each cycle gets recorded on a spreadsheet. For me, this is the driving force behind the whole concept. It allows you to set objectives (both for the week and for each cycle) track your progress and reflect on any distractions. You can also define areas for improvement, and track your energy and morale levels for each cycle.

It’s very satisfying to look back on your workday and see how you progressed. You can spot distraction patterns and figure out how to tackle them. Social media is a massive one for me. During each 50 minute cycle, I keep my phone on airplane mode and use the Freedom app to block browser distractions on my laptop.

Seven Minute Workout

We decided to bring in a mid morning energy boost, where we worked out together in front of our webcams. We wanted something short but energetic, so this seven minute workout was a perfect choice. It’s all bodyweight exercises with no equipment necessary, although you might want to use a mat for the sit ups and push ups.

Many apps do the same job as the video. I loved doing this workout. Not only did it really help with boosting energy after the effects of the morning coffee had worn off, but it also brought a deeper sense of camaraderie to our team. You could extend the concept to other forms of exercise, particularly yoga.


Lockdown Lifestyle Habits

I also adopted a couple of new habits that helped reinforce the benefits of work cycles. There’s nothing new here; they’re all things I’ve been trying (and failing) to maintain for years. But the lockdown has given me an extra incentive to lock in good habits, just to stay afloat.

Meditation, Yoga, Coffee

I began waking up at 6 am and starting my day with a short meditation followed by a short yoga practice. Combined, these take just 15 minutes. I use this guided breathing meditation by Jack Kornfield, on the Insight Timer app, and the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene. Here are the specific videos I’ve been using (but she has loads more): 

I follow these up with a cup of bullet-proof coffee and pen-to-paper journalling. I write about my intentions for the day, or just random reflections on how I’m feeling under lockdown. Sometimes I try a gratitude list. I go for bullet-proof coffee (with cacao butter and coconut oil) because I’m normally quite caffeine sensitive. In fact, I’ve been off coffee for many months. But the extra fats seem to reduce the effects of caffeine so I don’t get that immediate spike. I enjoy the coffee routine and I’m going to maintain it at least during lockdown (after which I might go caffeine-free again). NB, I don’t add all the fancy ingredients used in the above video. I just make normal coffee with my Aeropress, then add a little oat milk, a teaspoon of cacao butter and a teaspoon of coconut oil. Then I blitz them up in my blender.

Diet, Exercise, Sleep

After the coffee, I make a large dark green smoothie. It normally includes a banana, oat milk, kale and spinach, spirulina, blueberries, frozen avocado, a kiwifruit, pumpkin seeds or walnuts, and two scoops of hemp protein powder. I drink it at my desk as I start each day of video co-working.

Under the lockdown we’re allowed to take one form of outdoor exercise per day. I normally go out in the evening when it’s dark so that I’m less likely to encounter people. I do either a 5km run or a similar length walk around the city. In normal life, I do strength training with barbells three times a week. The closing down of gyms was one of my biggest concerns, but I’ve managed to replace the weights with a resistance band routine. If you like strength training, I highly recommend getting some of these bands. You can do practically any weight-based exercise using bands of varying strengths in different permutations. Here’s a video from Barbarian Body, with lots of good substitutes for things like squat and overheard press.

Sleep is important for maintaining immunity, so I try to get to bed relatively early each evening. 10.30 is my usual target time. I switch off my phone and computer an hour beforehand. I only use my old Kindle, which doesn’t have a back light and is more or less like a physical book. I wear industrial strength ear plugs and a blackout eye mask, to keep all possible disruptions at bay.


These are the habits and routines that have kept me afloat during the first week of lockdown. Of course, everyone has different life patterns and responsibilities. Many of us have kids, pets, or sick relatives to take care of, or jobs that don’t easily convert to being done online.

What’s more, we all cope with the huge change in vastly different ways. It’s ok to have off days or not to be productive at all. I had a couple of bad days at the beginning, when I descended into a spiral of panic-checking social media, or spent hours mindlessly staring at YouTube. Even now, the urge to do this still appears from time to time.

I hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others. I’d love to hear what sort of routines and habits other people are using. Most importantly, I wish everyone continued good health during these challenging times. 


Tweeting my way into academia

On Twitter not long ago, someone suggested that academics should avoid using social media. He cited reasons such as distractions, narcissism, and ‘the risk of getting trolled’.

I’m studying social media for my PhD and so I’m well aware of its flaws. But, like any tool, when used in the right way it can open up many new opportunities. Here, I’ll speak out in defence of Twitter’s usefulness, and explain how I used it to find an unadvertised, fully-funded PhD opportunity.

My professional life has revolved around Twitter for over six years, ever since 2012 when I started blogging about nation branding. It helped me gain traction networking in the field, which led to media interview requests, conference and keynote speaking invitation in far-flung destinations (Jamaica, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia…) and assorted consulting gigs.

That blog also played a central role in my eventually securing a competitive job at a London software startup. All because of a blog and Twitter.

It wasn’t that complicated. I simply wrote posts, stuck them up on my website and then publicised them on social media along with the requisite hashtags. I interacted with people who replied, and took the conversation in interesting directions.

But the contacts I made were invaluable, and, perhaps more importantly, Twitter was central in enabling me to join conversations around the topic of nation branding, get my thoughts out into the world, and in the process build up my expertise and credibility.

This PhD may be the biggest victory to date for my Twitter use. It all started back in early 2017, when I was working in London. It was a good experience at an exceptional company. I learned a lot about how tech startups work, and I enjoyed the time spent with my colleagues.

But I just wasn’t passionate enough about the subject matter and I yearned for something more. For a long time, ever since my time in Istanbul, I’d been deeply intrigued by politics, international relations and media, often with dashes of technology around the edges.

At around the same time, the unfolding saga of Brexit, Trump and online radicalisation captured my attention in a big way. Social media played a key role in the story. There was much talk about ISIS using social media platforms to brainwash vulnerable young people and entice them to Syria.

As 2017 slipped by, the primary narrative around social media and politics shifted. It began to focus less on radicalisation and more on how various foreign influences (and perhaps homegrown ones too…) had used social media to foment dissent against the status quo. Some even argued that our democracy itself was being subverted, hijacked by bad actors.

It was propaganda for the digital age and it fascinated me. I wanted to study it in more depth. Academia offered the perfect platform to do that.

Having no desire to take out loans or decimate my savings, I knew I had to find a PhD that offered full funding. I applied to an advertised position at the University of Sheffield, to research the role of visual social media in fake news.

After reaching the interview stage, they told me I hadn’t been selected for the role. Nevertheless it was a useful experience, because now I had a whole PhD proposal ready to go. It just needed to find a home.

One day in the aftermath of that minor setback, I was browsing Twitter, looking through hashtags relevant to my interests, seeing if any opportunities might pop up. Those hashtags led me to a professor at the University of Bath, who was researching cybersecurity and online trust.

I pinged him a DM, explaining that I had a proposal that could be relevant to his research interests, and asked if he’d be keen to take a look. He was, so we Skyped and exchanged emails in which he advised me on how best to fine-tune the proposal.

I got up at 5am every day that week to get it ready for submission. The university accepted it and miraculously there was full funding available.

I quit my startup job, and the rest is history. I’m now happily immersed in a research topic that I find meaningful, while also developing new skills in Python, network analysis, machine learning and statistics.

I’m eventually planning to go back into industry rather than continue in academia, but these skills will be invaluable whichever route I choose to take.

Why I’m taking a ‘data-driven science’ approach to research

In the age of big data, many new debates have emerged about the ‘best’ approach to research.

Some scholars argue there’s no longer any real need for theory, and claim that we should allow the ‘data to speak for themselves’. Others argue that all data carries inherent bias. That means we need knowledge of existing theory to provide the context necessary for meaningful understanding.

This is especially important in the social and political sciences, where big data researchers seek to understand complex human phenomena such as wars, genocide or racism, using massive computational datasets. It’s not easy for quantitative big data models to shed new insights on areas like these without drawing on existing knowledge, which may still be relevant even when dating back decades.

Boyd and Crawford (2012) support this view in their claim of an ‘arrogant undercurrent’ in the field of big data research that’s all too hasty to sideline older forms of research. For example, the process of cleaning a large social media dataset, e.g. from Twitter, is ‘inherently subjective’, as the researcher decides which attributes to include and which to ignore.

With these debates in mind, I’ve decided to use a ‘data-driven science’ approach in my PhD research. That means using existing behavioural science theory as a foundation to help me interpret findings in large-scale social media datasets, and blending qualitative methods with big data approaches based in computational social science.

It means I’ll need to get better at programming (Python is my language of choice), and venture into the exciting new world of machine learning. At the same time, I won’t abandon older forms of research methods (such as interviews), if they seem the right fit for the job.

In this blog, I’ll discuss the code I’m using in my research as it evolves (yes, there will be code snippets!) I’m relatively new to programming, so it’ll be a learning journey of sorts, probably with its fair share of mishaps and zig-zags.

I’m also fascinated by the many areas of social and political life that technology has affected, so expect a smattering of posts with musings about AI, ethics, life and so on. I’m looking forward to interacting with the community and having some interesting conversations.

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References

Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information Communication and Society, 15(5), 662–679. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Kitchin, R. (2014). Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society, 1(1), 205395171452848. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951714528481