You’ve Been More Productive Than You Think

If the last six months seem like wasted time, you can change the narrative

Illustration: María Medem

Write a novel. Learn French, Learn to French braid. Back in the early pandemic days, many people pledged to use the time freed up by not having to commute or shuttle kids to activities to finally tackle big projects that had been on the back burner for years.

Six months in, I’m guessing you, like me, haven’t accomplished many BIG THINGS. And so, your pandemic narrative may seem unsatisfying.

So change the narrative.

By consciously celebrating the successes you’ve had in the last few months — however small — you can change the way you recount this time for years to come. It’s a move that won’t both reframes the past and sets a path toward a more positive future.

Look for small wins

A lack of time gets blamed for many things, but time is seldom the sole culprit. If someone had, back in March, offered to pay you $100,000 to write a 50,000-word novel draft by September 1, there’s a good chance you would have done it. It’s not that there wasn’t time, it just wasn’t a priority. How could it be? Mustering creative energy is hard, especially when it’s in the service of an uncertain reward. And in this new pandemic-era world, you’ve probably had plenty of other things demanding your energy: navigating health issues, working with constant kid distractions, financial trouble.

But a novel or another completed creative endeavor need not be the yardstick of success. Chances are, plenty of other things have gone right, mostly because of your actions.

For instance, maybe you’re running your business or doing your job at about the same level of output as before, despite widespread economic disruption.

Maybe your family has been eating dinner together more nights than not. Maybe you mastered a new recipe that gets rave reviews from your normally picky eaters.

Maybe you orchestrated a fun summer vacation — not the one you originally planned, but one that created great memories nonetheless.

Maybe you’re talking by phone and videoconference with friends and relatives more frequently than you actually met in person in the past. Maybe you’re writing in a journal more frequently so you can tell future relatives about this time.

Maybe your family has survived a substantial cut in income and forged forward with the necessary changes.

Maybe being in your house 24/7 has spurred you to make some updates: a new garden, a new coat of paint, a functional home office.

Pick three things

In the midst of big problems, it can be hard to see these small wins, but doing so changes the narrative. To construct a story, we piece together points of evidence — usually three or so, a small enough number to be easily called to mind, but a big enough number to suggest a pattern. It’s the old five-paragraph essay format you learned in school: state an argument, come up with three supporting statements, and then you draw your conclusion. Listing three successes can convince the brain that the trend is good.

So take some time to look back over your calendar for the past few months and note what successes resulted from your actions: a new client that replaced lost income; a virtual meetup; or that beautiful hike on a new trail. These may not always look like resume-style victories, but “success” means the accomplishment or an aim or purpose. When you do what you set out to do, you win — and that’s worth acknowledging. If you come up short, consciously look for some wins going forward. You’ll probably find some, and then, when you’re sitting over Thanksgiving dinner some far year in the future, you can talk about these.

We can construct narratives from whatever we want, so rather than focus on what didn’t happen, focus on the ways in which we’ve thrived.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at

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