The COVID-19 Productivity Trap

Dealing with a global pandemic is difficult enough without the added pressures of being as productive as possible at home.

Helen Wajda, Deputy Opinion Editor

Since I started social distancing a few weeks ago, I’ve found myself surrounded by tips for how I can maximize this time all over Twitter and Instagram — from people posting quarantine schedules meant to increase productivity to those pledging to start new hobbies, fitness programs and diets. While scrolling through Twitter last week, I saw tweets about Shakespeare writing King Lear while in quarantine four separate times. 

But anxiety about COVID-19 and the ways the virus has disrupted my life have made it difficult for me to to keep up with schoolwork and bare minimum tasks like checking emails and keeping my room clean, let alone taking on tasks that aren’t essential to my survival right now. While trying to stay busy during this time might be helpful for some, the widespread narrative around maximizing quarantine productivity ultimately adds more anxiety to an already emotionally challenging situation. 

It makes sense for people to want to keep busy right now. Between Donald Trump’s mishandling of the response and new reports on the virus’s rapid spread, as well as the nationwide orders to stay inside, it can feel impossible not to constantly ruminate on COVID-19 and its impact. Throwing ourselves into work and hobbies can provide distraction and a sense of normalcy during a time when both seem difficult to come by. 

I also understand why productivity is important from a logistical standpoint. While having a job — not to mention one that can be done remotely — is a privilege right now, for those who are still employed, work has not stopped because of COVID-19. At my own jobs, I’m expected to work remotely at a pace consistent with what I was doing in-person just a month ago, when my life was relatively unaffected by the pandemic. As much as I might feel overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted in quarantine, I have to keep some sort of schedule. 

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But pressuring myself into productivity has never worked. During my first year at NYU, I gave into the pressure to constantly hustle and take on as much as possible in all areas of my life. Whenever I had free time, I felt extremely guilty about the time I was supposedly wasting on relaxation. My relationships and mental health suffered dramatically. Eventually, my productivity did too. I found myself spending hours fighting exhaustion and trying to work up the brainpower to type a single sentence. The only time I felt truly peaceful was right before I went to bed at night because I knew that for a few hours, the only task on my to-do list was to sleep. 

I knew going into my sophomore year that I couldn’t live that way again. This year, I’ve set boundaries for the amount of time I can spend working. In doing so, I’ve found that, while not being productive might cause a lot of anxiety in the moment, in the long run, it has actually helped to decrease my anxiety. When I take the pressure off of myself to constantly work, I am able to actually rest and connect with the people in my life –– which in turn makes it easier for me to focus when I do need to complete tasks. 

Admittedly, these work boundaries have been a lot more difficult to maintain while in quarantine. Being forced to spend my days at home and constantly hearing people ––  including several of my professors –– emphasize everything I can accomplish with my extra time has made old habits start to creep in. More days than not in the past few weeks have been marked by all-too-familiar anxiety about not doing enough. 

Giving myself grace for being exhausted and overwhelmed has helped to ease this struggle a bit. It also helps to focus on what I am doing: taking care of myself without judgment about what self-care looks like for me right now. 

During this time of increased anxiety brought on by the crisis, it is especially important to remember that you don’t need to earn rest and that your worth is not rooted in your productivity, despite the contrary messaging. Even in relatively normal times, putting pressure on ourselves to be as productive is likely to lead to burnout and increased anxiety. As we try to handle a pandemic, more anxiety is the last thing any of us needs. 

Everyone’s responses to stress are different. It is fine –– and even normal –– to find basic tasks exhausting and focusing difficult in the midst of this crisis. If staying busy is your coping method of choice, then continue using it to help you get through this time. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or guilty for not being productive, remember that resting and giving yourself grace is also a completely valid way of coping. Getting through each day is more than enough, whatever that looks like for you right now. Let’s stop telling ourselves that it isn’t. 

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]

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