Life During Quarantine: The Pressure To Be Productive

April 15, 2020

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Suzanne Paulinski, and is the latest in our ongoing Life During Quarantine series.]

By now we’ve all come across those memes on social media that “inspire” with tales of a mathematician who solved some crazy math problem during a plague in the 1400s; or an artist who created one of the world’s most celebrated works during a pandemic in the 1600s; and an inventor who, during the Great Depression, created a tool that completely changed the way we live life.

In fact, I’m sure we’ll soon find out Steve Jobs created the iPhone while he was locked in his basement home-schooling his children and social distancing himself from his team of technicians.

These highly-exaggerated stories, while intended to light a fire of motivation inside of us, often leave us feeling behind on our tasks, judged for not doing enough, and a pressure to be even more productive than we expected ourselves to be when the world felt right-side up.

The two biggest productivity myths out there right now are that (1) there’s a certain way we should be using this time and (2) we suddenly have more time now that we’re stuck at home.

First of all, there’s no wrong way to use this time – there’s only your way. We are all fighting different battles on the home front – from mental illness, to sick loved ones, to home-schooling children, to finding new routines, to losing jobs, to shortages on food/medical care/social interaction and more.

Some of us are thrilled to be at home more but are struggling to pay the bills, while others are able to make ends meet but are struggling without travel and the freedom to go where they want with who they want.

Some of us had our entire plan turned upside down and inside out and are being forced to learn entirely new skill sets, while others had to put their plans on hold to help loved ones whose plans were shot to hell.

Any way you slice it, we’re all dealing with a reality we’ve not known before this.

Secondly, while many would think, “Now’s the perfect time for me to do that thing I always said I would do if I had the time,” that only holds up when the world we once knew wasn’t completely unrecognizable.

We don’t have more time – we have less of it now as more of our time is spent managing our stress and adapting to unexpected and unpredictable changes we are now facing on a daily basis.

Those promises we make ourselves, those commitments we swear we’ll keep when we “have the time” don’t apply here so there’s no need to judge ourselves for breaking those promises – we haven’t broken them because we haven’t had the time.

As music-preneurs we face what they call Decision Fatigue – exhaustion from constantly having to make every decision and carrying the weight of needing those decisions to be successful ones – and that’s on a good day.

In this “new normal” we’re all facing, there’s the added pressure of Moral Fatigue. As this Rolling Stone article explains, “As a culture that was all but burned out before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the past few weeks of seismic societal shifts have made us readjust in ways most of us never imagined.”

Every decision down to whether or not to step outside, now carries with it the weight of knowing there’s the possibility that we could be putting our health at risk and/or putting others’ health at risk with our decision.

And while we are all sharing in this added stress, how we each react to it is different. It’s much like its own flight or flight response – we’re either going to push harder or ease up and slow down.

Neither is particularly wrong and both require self-awareness so that we don’t do either to too much of an extreme. ‘Motivational marathoning’, as I call it, can lead to burnout and forgoing your passion too much can lead to larger bouts of depression.

Here are five tips for finding the middle ground between hustling and hiding:

1. Redefine what productivity/success means to you. This doesn’t mean settle, but it does mean be more aware of what is going on with your mind/body. Acknowledge that certain things that were once realistic goals may right now be unrealistic in the context of what you’re going through so adjust accordingly. When you’d normally choose three things to focus on in a given day, choose 1 instead.

2. Get rid of the word “should” and examine when you’re using it. As explained above, there’s no right way to handle all of this. When the word “should” pops up it’s a good time to hit pause and question why you’re feeling the pressure to take certain action or complete certain tasks. Then, go back to listening to what your body needs at the moment and do your best to address it.

3. Treat every day separately. You may have a productive day today, but that doesn’t ensure it will be productive tomorrow. Take it one day at a time and give yourself looser/larger deadlines. Hit pause on planning too far in advance and focus on the present.

4. Know what recharges you and double the time you would usually commit to doing it. Again, you have less time these days, not more. You are also under more pressure, so up that self-care time. If you normally don’t focus on self-care make it top priority. If you normally set aside an hour for “me-time,” try for two. Building a career is important but you can’t pour from an empty vessel, so fill ‘er up!

5. Don’t do it alone. Social distancing has made us all feel more isolated, even if we’re introverts who love alone time. Accountability always helps when working towards a goal and now, more than ever, connecting with others is crucial for getting through uncertain times.

Most importantly, remember that you can’t mess this time up. You can’t waste it and you can’t outsmart it. There’s no blueprint for this so make your own. You’ve got this. We all do.

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