Not writing 'King Lear'? Cut yourself some slack

Have you been making constructive use of your time at home?

Did you learn a new language, teach yourself how to make the perfect omelette or figure out how to play the 12-string guitar?

Did you know that William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during quarantine? What are you doing with your quarantine time?


If you haven’t learned Spanish, German or one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages; if you haven’t turned into Gordon Ramsay or Bobby Flay; if you haven’t become the next Steve Vai or Tom Morello; or if you haven’t written an entire play in iambic pentameter, that’s okay. 

It’s been approximately a month since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced our way of life to change. Yet, almost immediately, the internet and social media were abuzz with memes and think pieces telling people they should “make the most” of their time in quarantine and learn a new skill. This was likely inspired by countless celebrities who are living their best quarantine life right now, singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” or realizing that parenting is, in fact, a 24-hour job while sequestered in Montana.

The problem is, this pandemic productivity inspiration doesn’t really help anything. Not when 22 million people have filed for unemployment, the largest loss of jobs since the Great Depression. Not when minimum wage employees are putting themselves at risk and, in some cases, dying from exposure to COVID-19. Not when parents across the country are balancing their new work-at-home schedules with that of keeping their children on task with new educational techniques.

So, why are we so obsessed with trying to optimize every minute of this pandemic for productivity? Well, in his article in The New Republic, “Against Productivity in a Pandemic”, Nick Martin writes “This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture—the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.”

That idea seems to be more prevalent within the Millennial Generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, according to a piece in The New York Times by Taylor Lorenz. In her April 1 article, Lorenz quotes journalist and author Anne Helen Petersen who says “We’re so used to making every moment of ours productive in some capacity. Like, I’m on a walk, I should listen to this information podcast that makes me more informed or a better person.” 

Many Millennials are those trying to balance work and childcare at home in light of this pandemic. With a number of stressors already in place, what is the use of putting even more stress on ourselves to somehow show that we are “making use” of our free time? Especially when, right now, we’re all struggling to be productive as it is. In an article in Vox, “Working From Home Can Make People More Productive. Just Not During a Pandemic”, Roni Molla interviewed economic professor Nicholas Bloom. 

Bloom has written about working from home quite a bit and has his doubts about this new trend of working from home in the United States, especially as many employees were thrust into combining work and home life with little choice due to COVID-19 and were ill-prepared.

While, normally, working from home could lead to more productivity that’s not something that should be expected now.

“Productivity now will be down dramatically,” said Bloom in the article. “As a personal example, I have four kids and they’re at home, and I’m struggling to get anything done. And it’s not just that, it’s also that motivation and creativity come from being around other people. So I find it hard to be creative and, honestly, find it hard to self-motivate myself if I’m stuck in, you know, one room at home day in and day out.”

In that same article, Bloom said that it should be expected to see both mental health and physical health issues as a result of working from home. Isolation from social interactions can lead to bouts with depression which, in turn, can lead to poor physical health. When struggling with issues like this, it’s even harder to be productive.

As a personal example of my own, my inner voice is often very critical of how I am spending my time through all of this. Never mind that, on a weekly basis, I’m churning out articles on everything from regular meetings to human interest stories to businesses responding to changes in our economy. At the end of the day, that inner voice will remind me of the things I could have done with just a few minutes here or there and what I should have done instead of doing the thing I did.

This feeling not only spans generations but across different job sectors, including that of academia. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure”, Aisha S. Ahmad, an assistant professor of political science at University of Toronto, writes that she has seen a number of colleagues and friends fight for some sense of normalcy amidst the pandemic.

“It is perfectly normal and appropriate to feel bad and lost during this initial transition. Consider it a good thing that you are not in denial, and that you are allowing yourself to work through the anxiety,” writes Ahmad. “No sane person feels good during a global disaster, so be grateful for the discomfort of your sanity.”

Ahmad also writes that there will be a mental shift from how we used to do things to how things are being done now.

“Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic. Our essential mental shifts require humility and patience. Focus on internal change. These human transformations will be honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful and divine,” Ahmad writes.

While much of this advice is geared toward those in the academic community, it can also be applied to other areas.

One of the largest takeaways, from our current experience is that we as a society struggle with what to do when there is nothing to do. Though it has been years since the United States has been a production leader of the world, there has still been a constant idea of daily grind instilled into us. 

When the constant noise of that grinding disappears, we’re not sure what to do with the silence that follows.


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