The Empty Semester of My Masters – The Other Side

Back in June, I made a post about what had been my plans for the empty semester of my Masters and how I’d adjusted those plans according to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. I was still hopeful that I could get a lot done in the time before my next semester started but the pandemic had a massive effect on my mental health and therefore my productivity so it took me a long time to gather myself enough to do anything even vaguely productive. So while, in pre-pandemic times, this list of completed goals probably would’ve felt disappointing, I’m trying to shed those expectations and be proud of what I’ve achieved considering the current circumstances.


MANAGED TO DO:

  • Sort through my clothes – I actually did this twice because I know that I get decision fatigue and end up keeping things that I don’t want because that’s the easier option. So I did a second sort through, reducing my wardrobe further. There’s still more than I’d like to get rid of but I feel like I made a serious dent in what felt like a pretty overwhelming situation.
  • Watched some of the things on my To Watch list – For a while, I only felt able to watch familiar things because it didn’t feel like there was the space in my brain for new stories or characters but eventually a few things started to catch my eye and it turned into a really good method of escaping all my anxiety about the current situation. I’ve also been watching quite different things, which has been fun. Plus, it’s a great source of inspiration while not much is happening in my personal life.
  • Improve my piano skills – I’ve spent a lot of time playing piano during this unstructured time and not only has it been really fun, I have actually improved. For a long time, I couldn’t hear or see any improvement but recently, I’ve been able to do things or pick up things much quicker and much more easily and that’s really exciting, even if there is still so much more to learn. To be fair, it’s not like that isn’t a universal fact.
  • Music Theory lessons – These didn’t even up happening the way I thought they would but I’ve spent some solid time working on my theory in the hope that it will make the upcoming Musical Language module less stressful and more fun.
  • Shot a music video – Despite the current circumstances, somehow Richard Sanderson and I managed to come up with a safe way to make a music video for ‘Back To Life‘ (from concept, to planning, to execution). It was actually fun, despite the high levels of anxiety I was experiencing. I hadn’t thought we’d be able to do it but somehow we did and I’m really proud of the result.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – Despite the death of my computer, setting up a new one, reorganising my entire photo library, setting up the albums on the computer, and choosing photos for the eighteen months I was behind by, I somehow managed to get my photo albums up to date. It was a massive job, a much bigger one than I’d anticipated, so to have done it feels like a really big achievement, especially given how long I’ve been wanting to do it.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – As I said in the original post, the project isn’t for several months still but I wanted time to find a concept I could really engage with. I’ve jotted down a list of potential ideas (which I do have to find as it’s apparently wandered off…) and spoken to one of my tutors about it. He was really enthusiastic about the ones I mentioned so I feel like I’m off to a good start.
  • See a meteor shower – Me and my Mum drove out of the city and lay in a field to watch the Perseids meteor shower in August. It wasn’t the best meteor shower I’ve ever seen but we saw a handful of fairly decent shooting stars and it was a really clear night so just looking up at all the stars was a beautiful, pretty profound experience.
  • Catch up with my friends – Obviously when I set this goal, I’d imagined hanging out at people’s houses, movies nights, going to the beach, and so on. But then the pandemic happened (or more specifically, began…) and none of that was possible. Considering the amount of anxiety I’ve been dealing with, I think I’ve done an okay job of staying in touch with my friends, doing video calls and Netflix parties. Since the restrictions have eased a bit, I’ve seen a couple of friends too (socially distanced, of course), which has been really nice since I do find the constant communicating via screens exhausting.
  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I haven’t been as productive as I would’ve liked to be during this period but then my creativity is always negatively affected when I’m struggling with my mental health. But I’m trying to remember that I’ve done the best I can. At no point did I give up (beyond taking a break to avoid unnecessary distress) and when I couldn’t directly write songs, I worked on surrounding areas, like production or chord progressions and so on.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I’d planned to do as many cowrites as possible, with as many people as possible, and while writing sessions have been possible via platforms like Zoom, I must admit I find it much more difficult to be creative and collaborative when I’m not in the same room as my cowriter. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible and I’m pleased with what I have managed to do but doing it this way has meant that I haven’t done nearly as many sessions as I’d hoped, especially as I have found Zoom sessions with less than familiar people harder to do than spending time with less than familiar people. If that makes sense.

IN PROCESS:

  • Catch up with my diary – I’d really hoped to have caught up with the diary I was behind on and then aborted when lockdown began, wanting to document this surreal experience in real time. I’ve been trying to catch up alongside everything else but I’m still behind and with everything going on at the moment, I’m behind in the current diary too. So when I start university again, I’m going to be trying to write three diaries at once, which feels very stressful. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that but I’m going to have to figure it out because, if I haven’t said it before, OCD’s a bitch.
  • Update my songwriting book – Initially I made quite a lot of progress, writing up a decent amount of my more recent songs, but then I realised that I’d somehow left out a significant number of songs. That was very frustrating. And since then, I haven’t been quite sure what to do. I hate the idea of having them out of order but I’m also reluctant to add to my workload by making the decision
  • Sort out my bedroom – I’ve made a lot of progress over the last several months and it looks and feels so much better but I’ve been waiting for a couple of sets of shelves to arrive to help me better organise all the ‘loose ends’ of my stuff, if that makes sense. There’s just still a lot of bits and pieces around that don’t have their own space. I think that, once that happens and once all those things are a bit more organised, I’ll feel like most of the work is done. I’m looking forward to that.
  • Create my studio space – Again, I’ve made a start. I don’t have all the equipment I’d ideally want. For example, I wish I had some better speakers. But I’ve set up the equipment I do have, although it’s still a bit trial and error when it comes to the most effective set up. I’m still not super confident when it comes to all of this but I’m learning all the time. So we’re getting there, step by step.

COULDN’T DO:

  • Mental Health Awareness assemblies – Obviously these didn’t happen as the schools were closed when Mental Health Awareness Week was happening.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – This wasn’t possible as the show’s run closed during lockdown. I think it’s so sad that they didn’t get the finish. The show closed after Sara Bareilles’ last show so she and Gavin Creel (who played the male lead) had their closure but I’m sure Lucie Jones and David Hunter were really looking forward to coming back. Plus the rest of the cast must’ve been sad to see the show end with so little warning. They’d earned the chance to celebrate the incredible show they put on and the amazing run they had and it’s heartbreaking that they haven’t been able to do that.
  • Concerts – Concerts are only continuing to be rescheduled and even though some socially distanced shows are happening, I’m not at all convinced that it’s safe yet. I miss them so much but I can’t imagine feeling safe in that sort of environment for a really long time.
  • London gigs – Again, I’ve had a couple of booked gigs rescheduled multiple times but then it’s so hard to make concrete plans when we have no idea what the even near future holds. So I’m just trying to take things as they come, make responsible decisions, and not worry too much.
  • Get back to swimming regularly – Obviously for a long time the gyms were closed. When they opened up again, I went to see what their precautions were like but I really didn’t feel safe. The gym have been great about trying to make it easier for me to access their facilities as a disabled person but I’m still not completely convinced. We’re continuing to try to make swimming a possibility and maybe now that so many people are back in school, there will be more periods with less people. We’ll keep trying. I really miss it.
  • Improve my guitar skills – As I’ve already said, it took a long time for me to manage anything beyond staring at the TV in a perpetual state of panic and then, just as I started to feel capable of doing things, I developed awful pain in my arms, from my shoulders to my fingertips. Sometimes it was sharp, shooting pains, sometimes it was a deep ache, and sometimes I’d wake up to find my fingers completely numb. That’s been going on for most of this ‘semester,’ although it has started to improve recently. I still have a specialist doctors appointment at some point to assess the problem so hopefully I’ll be back to playing guitar soon.
  • Read some books from my To Read List – My ongoing anxiety has done a number on my concentration, particularly when it comes to reading. I’ll try to read a book, only to realise that I’ve read several pages and have no memory of what they said. I miss it and I am worried about what will happen when I get back to uni work but that’s the situation as it is at the moment. I’m talking to my Psychiatrist about it at my next appointment.
  • EP Gig – Since my timeline for the Honest EP has been pretty flexible, I wasn’t sure when the last single would be released and when therefore when we’d have the gig to celebrate the EP’s completion. As it’s turned out, the final single isn’t out yet so that’s not something I would’ve had to worry about, even if we had been able to put on events.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – Just as I’d managed to wrestle my motivation towards the Kalimba, I discovered that there was a problem with the one I’d bought and so won’t be able to start learning it before university starts again but I do still really want to learn. So I’m just going to have to reschedule that to a later date.

DIDN’T MANAGE TO DO:

  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This wasn’t hugely high on my list of priorities so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s one of the things to fall by the wayside. Plus, I haven’t completely finished the practical elements of my room so I think it’s something I can pursue without too much difficulty once that’s done.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I’ve struggled with my concentration throughout lockdown but most especially when trying to do things that involve absorbing new material so I didn’t manage to do much extra curricular learning. I managed a few TED Talks and read articles but I haven’t managed any in depth study like taking classes on Skillshare.

So, as I said at the beginning of the post, I’ve been trying to realign my expectations as to what has been possible during this time, based on the lockdown restrictions and my fluctuating mental state. With everything so uncertain, it was impossible to know what I’d achieve. Looking at this list now, I’m proud of myself. For the most part. And in the moments when I feel frustrated or disappointed, I acknowledge those feelings, let them have their space, and then try and let them go. I don’t always succeed but I try. Because, given everything going on, I think what I managed to do – especially looking back at how I was (or wasn’t) functioning at the beginning of lockdown – is something to be proud of. And when I can’t feel proud, I practice proud.

Now, on to the next semester.

Plans For My Empty Semester

Because of the way my course is organised for part time students, I now have a semester without classes while the full time students do their third semester. I’ve been looking forward to this, not just to take a bit of a break but to work on new music with the skills I’ve learned, return to hobbies I haven’t had the time or energy for while doing the course, and to just generally catch up with things, be productive, and get some long awaited projects done. Of course, everything changed with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

So my list is different now, depending on what is possible and what isn’t. I’d started collating this list – this post – before lockdown was announced and I’ve been reluctant to simply scrap it all just because it no longer fits with the future I’d expected. So I thought I’d post it anyway, just divided into different categories, for posterities sake if nothing else. I guess I just want to remember what I’d thought this summer would be like versus what it ends up being like.

Impossible:

  • Get back to swimming regularly – That’s obviously not possible as all the gyms are closed.
  • Mental Health Awareness Week Assemblies – For Mental Health Awareness Week, I was supposed to go back to my old secondary school and do a series of assemblies, talking about mental health, my experiences with it, and play some songs. I was really looking forward to it but then we went into lockdown and schools had closed long before Mental Health Awareness Week.
  • London gigs – I was scheduled to play a couple of shows in London but they were cancelled due to lockdown. Hopefully they’ll happen when it’s safe again.
  • Concerts – I was due to see several shows over the summer including Taylor Swift at Hyde Park and The Shires in London and Brighton but they’ve all been rescheduled or cancelled. I understand it, of course, but I’m still gutted because I was really looking forward to those shows.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – I was hoping to see Waitress at least one more time before it closed but it’s run ended during lockdown and they’ve announced that it will not be returning. I’m so, so sad that I’ll never get to see it again. But I’m grateful that I got to see it as many times as I did and that the last time was Sara Bareilles’ last show. That made it extra special.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – I’ve wanted to get my photo albums up to date for months but there’s a problem with the external drive that holds my Photos library and since all the shops are closed, including the computer repair shop I go to, I can’t get it fixed until they reopen and it’s safe to go there. And therefore I can’t catch up with my albums yet.

Difficult or Different:

  • Music Theory lessons – I had a plan to improve my knowledge and understanding of music theory during this time, to prepare myself for the next semester but now, my teacher and I can’t meet or even travel to meet for lesson. In theory (pun intended), we can still have lessons using Zoom or FaceTime but it’s definitely more difficult when we can’t sit side by side at the piano, when I can’t lean over to watch his hands, and when he can’t adjust my hands on the keys, and so on. I’m sure we can find a way but it’s definitely more complicated than it was before.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I really wanted to spend as much time as possible writing with my friends and course mates. They’re all so amazing and unique. Of course, we can still write using Zoom and FaceTime but it’s not a creative process that I’m super comfortable or productive in. I’ve been doing some but I find them exhausting and just not as much fun as I usually find collaborating.
  • Catch up with my friends – To be fair, I have been catching up with friends but it’s obviously always over Zoom or FaceTime. We can talk and I’m grateful for that but we can’t hang out or hang out in groups and I miss that. I miss just chilling out together, doing things companionably, and my god, I miss hugging them.
  • Sort out my bedroom – This is another project I’ve wanted to do for so long and while there are still aspects I can do (and still plan to do), there are a lot I can’t, which is very frustrating.
  • Create my studio space – Again, this requires changes that aren’t possible right now because having aesthetic building work done obviously doesn’t come under the lockdown advice but there are things I can do and have started to do. Despite the difficulties, I’m creating a space to work – some of which will be permanent and some which are makeshift and I’ll change later when it’s possible – so it’s a start.
  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This project I have yet to figure out and I’m not sure if it’s even possible without certain changes in my room, changes that won’t be possible until life is more normal again. But I’m still turning it over in my head, how and where to create an aesthetically pleasing space to make videos from. So we’ll just have to wait and say when it comes to this one.

Still Possible:

I feel like it’s important to add an extra note to this one because, while all of these plans and activities are physically possible, they’re not necessarily possible. I’ve been seriously struggling with my mental health, especially with my anxiety and depression, and my creativity has taken a serious hit too. So, while I do want to do these things and they are within the rules of what’s allowed and technically possible, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to achieve them, or achieve as many of them as I would like.

  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I’ve been trying so hard at this and I’ve managed some but with my creative and concentration struggles, it takes a lot of hard work and is really emotionally draining. It’s amazing when I can break through the fog though.
  • Sort through my clothes – This is something I’ve started to do but it’s tricky because there’s nowhere to take the clothes I want to pass on. It feels good to be clearing out some of my stuff and creating some space though.
  • Catch up with my diary – I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of ‘catching up with my diary’ but I’d hoped to use this time with limited distractions to really get caught up. But with my concentration in such shambles, it seems to be taking even longer than usual, which is endlessly frustrating. I have to keep going though. My OCD doesn’t take a break just because there’s a pandemic.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – I bought a Kalimba and it was going to be a present to myself for finishing my second semester assessment. I love the sound and I really want to learn how to play but, as I’ve already said, my concentration and motivation haven’t been great so I’m struggling to apply myself to it.
  • See a meteor shower – I have technically done this one already but it wasn’t a very impressive show so I’m looking forward to the big one, the Perseids meteor shower, in August.
  • Update my songwriting book – My songs are all over the place (in various notebooks, my laptop, different hard drives, and random pieces of paper) so I’d really love to compile them all into one book, something I’ve just started to do.
  • Watch some of the things on my To Watch list – I’ve been trying with this one but I’m finding it quite difficult to watch new things. It’s like there isn’t enough space in my brain and I don’t have enough spare emotion to invest in new characters and a new world, etc. Does that makes sense? I’m going to keep trying though. I think it’s going to be a case of just hoping that the trying and a moment of feeling okay will coincide.
  • Improve my guitar skills – I feel like my guitar skills have come to a bit of a halt recently and I really want to get out of that rut and get better. I don’t feel the need to be the best guitarist in the world but I’d love to be proud of what I’m playing when I play solo, rather than feeling like I’m playing a really simple part just to accompany myself.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – It’s not for a while yet but I want to have some potential ideas for my final project so that I have time to think them over and make sure I choose something that’s a good fit, for the exam criteria but also for me as an artist. It will just make me feel more prepared and more inspired when the time to start arrives.
  • Improve my piano skills – Just as with my guitar playing, I want to get better at playing the piano. I love playing the piano but I still feel like a really basic player. I want to be able to play more interesting chords and progressions, with more interesting and unique rhythms and melodies.
  • Read some books from my To Read list – During my course, I don’t tend to have time to read anything other than course related material so I was really excited to read some different stuff, especially fiction. But as with watching new films and TV shows, it just feels too hard to learn a new world and new characters and concentrate enough to get through a book.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I love learning. I remember being a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to do when I left education and I was completely mystified by the idea that you’d ever want to leave education, ever want to stop learning (obviously you don’t stop learning things when you leave education but I was very little and that’s what I understood it to mean). I never want to stop learning things and I was excited about having a solid chunk of time where I could focus on learning things outside the sphere of my Masters, as much as I love my course. Having said that, it’s hard to take in new information when I’m struggling with my concentration.

Uncertain:

  • Shooting a music video – It was during this time that Richard and I had planned to shoot a music video and now we don’t know when we’re going to be able to do it, given how far apart we are and the infection risk of travelling there. In theory, we’d be able to do it socially distanced so if we can figure out how to get the two of us there, then we might still be able to create the video I’d always imagined for this song.
  • EP gig – I really wanted to throw an event (a gig and a party rolled into one, I guess) to celebrate the EP and all we achieved with it but I don’t know when gigs are going to be allowed again or, more accurately, when they’re going to be safe again so I’m not whether this plan is possible. I don’t want to do it until it’s completely safe but I also don’t want to wait until months after the EP is complete to have this event. So I’m not sure where we stand with this plan.

I truly have no idea what the next few months will look like (especially with the government making a mess of everything, especially the lockdown) so I don’t know how many of these things I’ll be able to accomplish. Each day is unknown and that’s both terrifying and exhausting. I think that, whether you’re a person with mental health problems or not, just getting through this period of time (and managing your health – physical, mental, and emotional) is achievement enough. So I guess, when the next semester starts, I’ll look back at this post and see what I managed to do while keeping that in mind.

A First Attempt at Bullet Journalling

As you guys have probably guessed, I’m a stationary enthusiast and over the years, I’ve gone through many, many notebooks and diaries and planners. I’m pretty picky about the kind of books I like and that’s probably why I’ve never found a planner that really works for me. The layout didn’t work or the writing spaces weren’t big enough and so on. So I was always on the lookout for the right one.

I started looking into bullet journaling after seeing photos and videos of bullet journal ‘spreads’ on social media: pages to track spending, sleep, mood… As well as monthly and weekly logs to keep track of what they were doing. It seemed to be a way of creating a very personal, tailored planner and that appealed to me, although I’m definitely not artistic enough to compete with the ones I’ve seen on Instagram and YouTube. But since it seemed to work for so many people, I thought I’d give it a try.

A lot of thought went into the bullet journal format (the official website is very informative) but in short, it’s a flexible system to “track the past, organise the present, and plan for the future.” Most people seem to use dotted notebooks (like the ones that Leuchtturm make) and dedicate pages to calendars (future log, monthly log, daily log) and trackers (habits, sleep patterns). I’ve found this incredibly helpful so I thought I’d share how I use it. Maybe this would be more easily done in video format but here we are.

At the beginning of the year, I bought a Leuchtturm notebook (dotted, navy blue, A5 – available here) and got to work. I looked at photos on Instagram and watched a tonne of videos on YouTube (AmandaRachLee is my favourite) and that really helped me to figure out what bullet journalling could be for me. I set up the index at the front and created several general spreads, including my new years resolutions, all the birthdays in the year, books to read, and things to watch. Carrying all of this around is so helpful and it has definitely made me more organised. And motivated.

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One of my favourite spreads is the one for blog post ideas (and it actually spilled over into a second spread because I ran out of space). I find it so inspiring and motivating to look at. I’ve always been a list maker and I LOVE being able to tick things off a list; I’m always more motivated and productive when I’m working from a list. Having all of these ideas in one place has made blog writing much more efficient.

Many people do a monthly mood tracker but I did one for the whole year because I thought it would be easier to detect any trends in my mood and compare month to month. If I could do it again, there would be less categories. It took a while to figure out how broad each emotion had to be and as someone who feels emotions (and their subtleties) very strongly, it was very easy to create more categories than I necessarily needed. And I think a smaller spectrum of colours would make the whole thing clearer.

I found this particularly helpful when trying to judge my reaction to a medication: I could literally track my mood through each dose increase and assess how helpful it was. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in one side effect or judge it based on the most recent feelings rather than the overall experience. So it was really helpful in regards to that.

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Now to the month-to-month, week-to-week stuff.

It’s pretty standard to do a monthly log: a month at a glance of sorts so that you can see everything you’re doing during that period of time.

One thing that I love about bullet journalling is that you can refine your style and system as you go, to make it more useful to you. I went through several different layouts before I found the one that really works for me, at the moment at least. And you can be as creative as you want or feel capable of being. I’m not very artistic – in the drawing/painting sense of the word – but it’s been fun (and oddly empowering) to try my hand at something I don’t usually do.

Again, it took me a while to find a weekly set up that I liked. But I really like the one I’m using at the moment. It’s simple and quick to fill out and not overwhelming to look at.

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The official bullet journalling style involves a system of categorising all the information (tasks, events, appointments, etc), checking off tasks, ‘migrating’ them to a later date… Personally I found it overcomplicated and just not necessary. I know that there are people who like it, people who don’t, and people who have either simplified the official key or created their own version. But this is what’s great about this whole format: you can tailor it to what you need.

And lastly, I’ve recently started using trackers as part of my monthly set up. I kept the list of tracked things short so that it was actually doable and I ended up finding it really useful. Having that list of things written down made it easier to remember to do them and to build the habit. And as I said, I love ticking things off a list so the idea of filling in the boxes at the end of the day was really motivating.

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So I hope this was interesting. If any of you guys use bullet journalling or any other system for organising your life, let me know what works for you!