Now Is Not the Time to Obsess About Productivity

Slowing down might feel uncomfortable right now. That’s exactly why it’s necessary.

One woman with her head in her hands, sitting alone at home, working on laptop.
One woman with her head in her hands, sitting alone at home, working on laptop.
Photo: South_agency/E+/Getty Images

InIn case you haven’t already gathered from recent viral tweets, Shakespeare apparently wrote King Lear while quarantined. Nearly a century later, according to said tweets, Isaac Newton allegedly used his time in quarantine to develop calculus.

The quarantine angle may be new, but at their core, these statements are just versions of a message we’ve already heard a thousand different ways, in a thousand different motivational tweets and Pinteresty quotes: “You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé. Rise and grind.”

That’s where I found myself a few days ago, churning out emails at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. As people around the country were transitioning to full-time work from home as a means of social distancing, I was anxiously continuing the grind in spite of current events. And then, midway through yet another email, I got a text from my mom that my younger sister was sick. Not what you want to hear when #Covid-19 is trending on Twitter and the world is shutting down.

I didn’t finish that email. Suddenly, productivity felt superficial. All I wanted to do in that moment — all I’ve wanted to do since — was slow down.

It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to snap me out of my hustle tunnel vision, but here we are. With the way productivity obsession has knit itself into our cultural fabric, it’s unsurprising that the spread of the coronavirus has been punctuated with tweets, articles, and well-meaning listicles about how everyone can “optimize” working from home or use this period of social isolation to work on some self-improvement project. Right now, they tell us, is the time to take our lives back — to finally get around to all the projects we have outstanding, recipes we want to make, side hustles to launch, and exercise regimens to kick-start.

For some of us, tackling various projects can provide the sense of structure we may need to feel sane in this uncertain time. But ultimately, this is not the time to pressure ourselves to undertake any of those self-improvement missions. It’s the time to take a breath. And, when that’s done, to take another one.

Slowing down might feel uncomfortable right now. That’s exactly why it’s necessary.

Productivity is not inherently a virtue

At least some of our always-do-more instinct can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, according to Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter and Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. “This belief in the inherent value of work, that it’s work that makes you a good person, that it’s work that gives you value and worth, just became stronger and stronger with each ensuing generation until: Here we are,” she tells me. “It’s so bad that people feel guilty if they’re not working.” Even, apparently, during an international health crisis.

When productivity is all we know — when it’s treated as an unqualified virtue — it’s easy to see why we’d feel the urge to double down on it in times of uncertainty, economic and otherwise. We think productivity can save us. That if we do more and pursue more and are more, we’ll have value. We’ll be, the logic goes, safe.

Again, it’s easy to see where this thinking comes from — and that it’s profoundly misguided. More than half of American jobs are at risk because of coronavirus, meaning that millions could lose their jobs in a COVID-19 recession. It’s a risk entirely divorced from your personal output. The economy doesn’t care how much you’re optimizing your time. Working to exhaustion toward a sense of control won’t give you what you’re looking for.

Productivity is not the same as usefulness

Of course, for millions of people right now — the doctors and nurses tending to patients, the grocery store cashier restocking the toilet paper after each wave of panic shoppers — hyperproductivity is not a choice. For people who have recently been laid off, it’s a distant luxury. For everyone else: At this moment, rejecting it is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

“Right now, more than ever, you need your rest,” Headlee says. “If you’re going to keep your immune system up, you need rest. And being in this constant state of stress and anxiety, where you’re never giving your brain and body any time to refresh, that’s really dangerous.”

Yes, rest can be boring sometimes, especially when you’re stuck in your own home with no end in sight. That’s okay. It’s even good. “We’ve sort of engineered boredom out of our lives,” Headlee says. But boredom isn’t simply an absence of productivity; it’s a feeling with its own inherent value. It can lead you to new ideas, even something as simple as remembering to call an old friend.

And when you need more stimulation, work isn’t the only solution. “You’ve got to start finding some hobbies,” Headlee says — meaning things you do not because they teach something, or better you in some way, or move you closer to some career goal, but purely for the pleasure they bring. Pleasure is a way of nourishing your mind, too.

Productivity is not a panacea

It’s hard not to feel personally called out by Headlee’s advice. Even taking a moment to bake a batch of cookies a few days ago made me feel guilty, like I was stealing time away for a small, frivolous luxury. The world is in chaos; who am I not to churn along with it?

“There will be so much confusion and anxiety and pent-up energy that I can see us taking our busyness-as-a-badge-of-honor, always looking for measurable metrics to prove we’re being an uber-productive society in strange directions,” says Brigid Schulte, director of New America’s Better Life Lab and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

But instead of trying to channel our nervous energy, Schulte tells me, we can engage with it enough to let it dissipate, even just a little bit. “Perhaps what we all need to be doing right now is just taking a moment,” she says, “and understanding how strange and scary this place is.” We’re in it. We can’t grind our way out. And we need that pause, Schulte says, “to realize that so much of our busyness is also driven by the fear of what we’re seeing in the Italian obituary pages, that our time here on earth is short.”

Listening to her, I can feel the statement strike a chord. So much of our productivity culture is built on fear. Fear of who we are without work as an identifier. Fear of pausing long enough to realize we’re unhappy. Fear that if we stop, we’ll never start again.

“Sit with this fear and confusion,” Schulte says. “And realize that this unknowing is sort of the state of being alive, that we’re always trying to control or avoid with our busyness.” In some ways, the world is new right now: Suddenly, nothing is certain. In other ways, it’s exactly the same: Nothing has ever been certain.

And in times of uncertainty, there’s productivity in pausing — in setting work aside to check in with your friends, your family, yourself. In tending to your feelings instead of your output. In remembering that you’re human, and that being human still matters. And, perhaps, that the world really doesn’t need another King Lear.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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